Michelle Brown, Public Lecture: ‘The Luttrell Psalter: Imaging England on the Eve of the Black Death’



On the evening of Thursday November 28th, after an intensive day and a half of inspiring around thirty postgraduates and early career researchers in the Postgraduate Advanced Training Seminar, ‘Understanding and Using Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts’, Professor Michelle Brown opened the CMEMS/PMRG conference with an informative and thoroughly entertaining public lecture: ‘The Luttrell Psalter: Imaging England on the Eve of the Black Death’.

The centrepiece of this lecture was the Luttrell Psalter, an exquisite manuscript that immortalises the name and history of Geoffrey Luttrell and his family, who were members of the rural gentry in Lincolnshire during the fourteenth century. This psalter was initially commissioned by Geoffrey in the 1330s, but most of the final third of the book remains incomplete, apart from a couple of pages ostensibly illuminated by Geoffrey’s heir, Andrew, who was overall not particularly interested in having the manuscript completed after the death of his predecessor in 1345. Indeed, it is estimated that the Luttrell Psalter would have costed about 22 pounds to commission – about half of Geoffrey’s annual turnover from his inherited estates!

Over the course of the lecture, Professor Brown provided an extensive tour of this remarkable object, the margins of which revealed many amusing and occasionally shocking anecdotes about scandals which would have otherwise been long-forgotten. For a time, we were able to gain some insight into the life and world-views of Geoffrey Luttrell, a devoutly religious old soldier, who was profoundly anxious about the future of his soul after death. There were also references to contemporary political events, such as the image of a saint being beheaded by a sword labelled ‘Lancaster’, an allusion to the gruesome beheading of Thomas of Lancaster, the cousin of Edward II, whom Geoffrey helped to establish as a sanctified figure.

The central third of the manuscript, possibly illustrated by a close advisor of Geoffrey’s, uses a quirky Italianate style to give a closer insight into the fortunes of the Luttrell family. One such example refers to the story of the young heiress, Elizabeth, who, upon being dispatched to the Duke of Worcester’s household for betrothal, elopes. In a scenario reminiscent of a certain Jane Austen novel, Elizabeth is retrieved, at no small cost to her family, and the marriage goes ahead. The rest of Elizabeth’s life is hinted at throughout subsequent margins, including her widowhood, where her promiscuity and agency are implied through the surrounding iconography.

By the end of the lecture, we had only explored a small portion of the Luttrell Psalter, but had a far richer understanding of the lives, fortunes, and worldviews of this one family that lived during a politically and socially turbulent time. Although various records of the Luttrell family survive, it is through the survival of this remarkable manuscript that we can still access these more nuanced details and anecdotes that often do not survive more than a generation or two. Perhaps the most profound point that can be taken from this lecture is that through being able to understand these marginal images, at least to some extent, the name of Geoffrey Luttrell, and that of his family, will survive in perpetuity.

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