A Folio Society limited edition
The vitality and humour of these illuminations, depicting the minutiae of medieval life from farming to fashion, have made this one of the most popular of all manuscripts. A few copies remain.
Numerous medieval manuscripts can boast glorious illuminations and lavish decorations, but nowhere else is the reality of medieval life depicted with such vitality as in The Luttrell Psalter. With over 600 richly adorned pages the sheer number of illustrations is awesome, their quality breathtaking. Truly one of the foremost cultural treasure-troves of Western Europe, The Luttrell Psalter has been plundered for almost every book, documentary and film on the Middle Ages.
In medieval times, the creation of magnificent illuminated manuscripts was both a demonstration of piety and a symbol of the great wealth and power of the kings or lords who commissioned them. Sir Geoffrey Luttrell (1276–1345) was a knight and baron whose wealth, dynastic alliances and military record placed him firmly among the English elite. His family psalter, begun in the year 1332 and the work of over ten years, became a priceless legacy.
'Let them that detract me be clothed with shame,' reads the opening line of the 108th Psalm, 'I will give thanks to the Lord with my mouth: and in the midst of many I will thank him.'
Sir Geoffrey Luttrell had much to thank God for. Part of the new nobility, his family had prospered under King John, played their cards cleverly during the troubled reign of Edward II and cemented lands and alliances under Edward III. By the time of his death, Sir Geoffrey owned estates in Yorkshire, Leicestershire, Lincolnshire and Nottinghamshire, and the emphasis of the manuscript on rural scenes reflects this great land-holding. Indeed, the illustrations may even commemorate actual events, like Sir Geoffrey's building of a watermill at Bridgeford.
A masterpiece of Gothic art, The Luttrell Psalter opens a window onto the Middle Ages, providing intimate portraits of the family of a nobleman, rarely seen in Psalters (Sir Geoffrey's daughter-in-law wears fashionable sleeves, his wife does not); and exquisitely detailed images of everyday life - even the pegs that hold tension on a plough are depicted. There is a sense of delight and humour in the pictures which is unparalleled - two men sling a hammock from the very text of the Psalms, while decorative borders are formed by acrobats and stilt walkers. Admired equally is the menagerie of grotesque creatures that stalk the margins. Bizarre hybrids of man and beast, body parts rearranged to parody or praise Creation, which plunge us into the deepest recesses of the medieval imagination. Much of our knowledge of medieval games, festivities and farming practices comes directly from this work – making it one of the most important of historical resources.
Professor Michelle P. Brown, former curator of Illuminated Manuscripts at the British Library, has written an impressive commentary to accompany the Psalter. Her exposition of the history surrounding the Psalter and the Luttrell family, and her discussion of the cultural significance of the illuminations, will fascinate both the lay and expert reader.
The delicate task of recreating this unique masterpiece has been a source of great pride and delight to The Folio Society. Every stage of the process has been subjected to the most intense scrutiny. The result is a facsimile of unmatched accuracy and magnificence. The colour reproduction is exact – a variety of inks were tested, for example, to reproduce the subtle effect of the worked gold and silver that decorate the pages of the manuscript.
From the finest goatskin leather binding to the hand-made endpapers, this is an edition of which Sir Geoffrey himself would have been proud. The dedication of the craftsmen creating it today is testament to the enduring skill of those original artists.
Even with the most advanced technology and the dedication of a team of experts, this facsimile has been a year in the making. Each page is photographed under strict conditions and then digitally manipulated by hand to ensure absolute accuracy. This takes up to four hours per page, and there are 618 pages in the complete manuscript.
‘In a bindery like ours, you only see exceptional books, but this is exceptional amongst the exceptions. A work of art such as this you handle only once or twice in a lifetime.’
Under the personal supervision of The Folio Society's limited editions director, the printers together with British Library experts check every proof page against the original to ensure exact colour accuracy.
The work is printed in small sections - just four pages at a time - to allow for greater fidelity of colour. The sheets are then individually gilded, before folding. This complex process gives the pleasing irregularity of the pages on the bottom and side edges. The craft bindery of Smith Settle is entrusted with the task of sewing the pages together and attaching the hand-made endpaper from the prestigious Fabriano mill. When the sections have been sewn, the top edge is gilded.
The leather binding is created from finest-grade Nigerian goatskin, which is the perfect weight and thickness to protect and encase the book. Traditional raised leather bands complete the binding, and the book is then cased in by hand.
‘The Luttrell Psalter is an unparalleled mirror of its age, and yet it is no static reflection, but a multi-faceted prism’
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