Mar 7, 2015

10 best from the Macclesfield Psalter

And now a post from Medieval Codes team member Courtney Tuck:

The Macclesfield Psalter is a manuscript with very unusual marginal illustration. The manuscript was created around 1330 in the region of East Anglia, Britain. It is currently housed in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. The absurdity, grotesques, anthropomorphized animals and scatological humour in this manuscript’s marginalia are all as surprising as they are enjoyable. It is an interesting look at what was funny and amusing to the medieval reader of this region. The role of marginal illustration has been identified by scholars as being a mnemonic device, which was especially helpful before pagination was developed. Odd and memorable images, often having nothing to do with the actual text on the page, help one differentiate and remember the location of pages and passages.

For your enjoyment, I have compiled my personal top 10 most memorable marginal illustrations from the Macclesfield Psalter. Some of the more rude images were left out of the list, though they are still worth finding and giggling to oneself over….

10 – This owl has no idea what’s about to hit him. Or perhaps he does….? This scene seems almost cartoonish. The owl’s expression reminds me of a Warner Brothers cartoon. That moment when Wiley E. Coyote has gone off the cliff, but not fallen, he looks at the audience and gives a knowing look or perhaps a small wave before he falls. Poor owl!

9 – What is perhaps more surprising than seeing a knight fighting a snail, is the fact that images like this are relatively common among manuscripts of this type. This is also a case of animals being depicted much larger than their actual size. We will see other examples of this in more items on this list.
8 - This man riding a large duck is absolutely ridiculous. This image does, however, raise the question, if ducks were larger, would we ride them?
7 - While apparently a courtship or betrothal scene, to the modern viewer (or to me at least) this seems to be a 14th-century example of “talk to the hand!” So sassy!

6 – Here we have a demon roasting a poor little human on a spit.  This is but one of the marginal details I had found in this manuscript which reminds me of the work of artist Hieronymus Bosch, though the Macclesfield Psalter pre-dates the artist’s work by more than one hundred years.
5 – While hounds chasing rabbits is a common decoration in many medieval manuscripts, I have never seen the two species take their rivalry to such heights as it is demonstrated here. The poor rabbit is pierced by the spear of the hound and is about to be felled from his horse. Again this is another example of animals being depicted larger than life (or could it be that the horses are small?).  The rabbit’s fate is elucidated on the next page.

4 - The rabbit who had lost his jousting match to the hound is given a funeral by his rabbit comrades. It is an fascinating little bit of anthropomorphized subject-matter, as well as an interesting source for what funerary processions may have looked like in this time period and geographic location.
3 - This illustration had me wondering why would this person allow a monkey to give them such an intimate examination. Surely he can’t be qualified to do such things. . . .
2 - . . . Until we see this image, when we realize that the monkey is a physician. *Whew!* Somehow this is a mildly comforting plot development after seeing the previous image.

1 - This image has it all! Inter-species love, animals dressed as humans, expressing affection as humans do. You know I’m pretty jaded about love and all, but I think these two crazy kids are gonna make it. *tear*

Courtney Tuck

References and Further Reading

All these images and many more, along with a great deal of interesting background information, can be found in the facsimile edited by Stella Panayotova, The Macclesfield Psalter (London: Thames and Hudson, 2008).


  1. Most interesting, though perhaps you don't realise that some of the images have an anti-Semitic reference, as the Owl represented Jews blind to Christ and the Monkey Doctor was another sometime anti-Semitic trope (empty religion).

  2. That is an interesting point. That owls could be used as anti-Semitic symbols can be supported by reference to bestiaries: see Mariko Miyazaki, 'Misericord Owls and Medieval Anti-semitism,' in Debra Hassig, ed., The Mark of the Beast: The Medieval Bestiary in Art, Life, and Literature (New York: Routledge, 1999), 23-43. Apes were also associated, negatively, with owls in medieval iconography, although I think the 'ape as physician' may be more generally parodic than specifically anti-Semitic. See David A. Sprunger, 'Parodic Animal Physicians from the Margins of Medieval Manuscripts,' in Nona C. Flores, ed., Animals in the Middle Ages (London: Routledge, 1996), 67-81.