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An Englishwoman's life

The St Albans Psalter, with over 200 illuminations, is one of the key works of English 12th-century art – and now it can be seen online as well as in person thanks to an AHRC-funded project.

The project, led by Professor Jane Geddes of the University of Aberdeen, began back in 2001, with the aim to digitise the manuscript, and place it on the web accompanied by full transcription, translation and commentary, for use in teaching and research but also for personal religious devotions.

Since then it has snowballed, creating some completely unexpected impacts – including a travelling exhibition that has so far visited continental Europe as well as the United States.

“If you’re just digitising an extremely rare manuscript, you can’t possibly envisage what’s going to happen,” admits Professor Geddes.

The Psalter was illustrated by the so-called Alexis Master, and thus exemplifies some of the finest examples of English Romanesque painting. It was created for an Anglo-Saxon hermitess Christina of Markyate, by her admirer Abbot Geoffrey at St Albans Abbey, and probably kept at her little priory of Markyate, Hertfordshire, until the Reformation. After this, a fugitive English Catholic brought the manuscript to the Benedictine monastery of Lamspringe, founded in 1643, in Lower Saxony, and it was subsequently moved to St Godehard’s church, Hildesheim, when the monastery was suppressed in 1803.

Christina’s story is chronicled in her Vita, or ‘Life’, which she dictated, making her the first Englishwoman to create her own life story. She had wanted to live a religious life since her childhood, but her parents had different ideas, forcing her to marry. Eventually she managed to run away from her husband, seeking protection from a series of Anglo-Saxon hermits who protected her for a number of years, finally reaching Roger the Hermit, a monk from St Albans, at his cell at Markyate. When he died, she took over the cell and was subsequently protected by Geoffrey.

“Before Christina, saintly women’s lives were written down by men, but Christina provides her personal point of view. She was determined to be in charge of her destiny but after Geoffrey’s death she slipped into poverty and obscurity. That’s really so poignant,” says Geddes.

Despite some obstacles at the outset – with parishioners objecting to their treasure being displayed online, and a limited budget – twelve years on, the project has proved to be a launch pad for research and collaboration.

During the research period, it emerged that another team, of historians at Oxford, was researching the Life of Christina, and the two groups decided to share efforts at a conference held at St Albans Abbey, by the site of the original scriptorium.

“They were historians doing the legal histories, the social history, the religious history of Christina herself, and they hadn’t engaged much with the Psalter,” recalls Geddes. “I said, ‘Well, we have to have a combined conference, because I’ve got all the pictures, and you’ve got all the facts!’ We all got on fantastically well. I think that’s been another nice thing about the project: everybody who’s been involved has been very cooperative, so we reached deadlines and everybody chipped in at the right moment, and we all had this feeling that we were doing it partly for Christina, re-establishing her, reclaiming her.”

The team posits that the Psalter and Christina’s Life are intimately intertwined, but that does not mean that people interested in the project and the text have to accept the arguments they have put forward. Geddes explains that the digitisation allows people simply to look at the pictures and read the text without reading any additional commentary – meaning they can develop their own stories around the evidence presented.

“Each page on the website has an illustration from the book, then a transcription and a translation, and then you have to click again to get a commentary from me, and if you just want to leave that out you don’t have to read that section, you could just start working it out for yourself,” explains Geddes.

As the binding of the book was deteriorating slightly, it was unbound, allowing publisher Müller und Schindler to create a new master set of digital images and thus print facsimile copies with commentaries in several languages. The manuscript now resides safely in conservation conditions within Hildesheim Cathedral library, with a new and healthier binding paid for by the publisher — but because the book is also available as a facsimile and digitally, anyone who wants to see it for themselves can do so.

The conservation imperative of separating the pages led to the exciting development of an exhibition, which opened in Hildesheim Cathedral Library in 2009, and ran alongside a conference, sponsored by national train company Deutsche Bahn and attended by students, historians, religious people, artists, and scholars from all around the world.

“That was very moving,” recalls Geddes. “It was held in November, December, and when I went over there for the conference, it was deep snow, and pitch dark, and there was a queue the whole way round the cathedral. It choked me to see this humble, intimate treasure revered by so many people. The crowds went round as though they were going to a shrine. They shuffled past each picture in silence, desperately solemn and serious. The German show didn’t have a lot of textual explanation, so people were just peering at the beauty and strangeness of the pictures.”

Since then, the book has continued its travels in its disbound state, with the Getty Museum in Los Angeles launching its own exhibition in September 2013, running until February 2014 – not bad for an obscure little script intended for personal worship, and a project that initially only intended to digitise the pages so they were available online.

Curator Kristen Collins says: “Normally only a small number of specialists have access to the contents and images of a whole manuscript. Having the book's images and texts accessible online meant that the large team of professionals who contribute to a museum exhibition - exhibition and interactive kiosk designers, registrars, and educators - had a very comprehensive knowledge of the object they would be presenting.” Another result is that the manuscript is now ideally presented for class teaching, so it has become a popular site on many types of university syllabus, from studies in religion to feminism, law, art, codicology and literature. Its engaging human story draws readers in and then the bright, inventive pictures begin to speak for themselves.

After its stay in California, Geddes hopes it will return to England.

“If it comes to England, there will be a major jamboree,” she predicts. “In England there are other books from St Albans and other books by the Alexis Master, who did all the painting, and for the first time these can all be reassembled. That would be incredibly exciting.”

For further information, please go to the St Albans Psalter website.

Article by Carrie Dunn

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