Tucked away in one of the locked bays in the Wren Library is Trin MS B.5.3, a huge and “exceptionally splendid”* 13th century manuscript produced at the Benedictine abbey in St. Albans, Hertfordshire. The St. Albans scriptorium was a hub of illuminated manuscript production, perhaps best known for the St. Albans Psalter and for Matthew Paris, a monk, artist and chronicler at the abbey from 1217 until his death in 1259.
This book is an Evangelia, the Biblical Gospels, written in Latin and produced c.1200 in the early Gothic style. This version is glossed, meaning that the text is accompanied by interpretations and commentary from religious scholars. At this time, the entire Bible had been commented upon in this way, but the glossed material was usually broken up into different parts, separated for example into the narrative histories, books of praise and sections referring to future events. According to Morgan and Stocks, “a complete library of glossed books [from the Bible] would be approximately twenty-one volumes.” (2008, p.22)
Morgan and Stocks observe that this manuscript was likely “derived from textual exemplars imported from Paris, probably from the schools of St. Victor, which had intimate links with St. Albans.” The manuscript opens with Canon tables, reference tables comparing the contents of the four Gospels (shown below), which is unusual in glossed versions.
The illumination and painting in B.5.3 are particularly fine. To the left you will see the letter “I” for “Incipio” inhabited by the evangelist symbols. This is one of the few inhabited initials in the manuscript, though there are beautifully illuminated initials throughout featuring geometric and floral design motifs. Though the script and illustration are in the early Gothic style, Romanesque influences may still be seen, particularly in the rendering of faces.
This manuscript was given to the library by Thomas Nevile, Master of Trinity College from 1593 until his death in 1615. As a clergyman and Dean of Peterborough (1591–1597) and Canterbury (1597–1615), Nevile had the opportunity to acquire a substantial collection of medieval manuscripts, the greater part of which were produced at Christchurch, Canterbury, another of medieval England’s great producers of manuscripts.
* Morgan, N and B. Stocks, ed. (2008) The Medieval Imagination : Illuminated Manuscripts from Cambridge, Australia and New Zealand. South Yarra, Victoria: Macmillan Art Publishing.