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St John’s College digitises 13th-century Robert de Lindsay manuscript




A 13th-century illuminated manuscript that has been in St John’s College for nearly 400 years has been digitised to reach a new audience.

t John's College, Cambridge MS D.6 folio 28v. By permission of the Master and Fellows of St John's College, Cambridge (34420311)
t John's College, Cambridge MS D.6 folio 28v. By permission of the Master and Fellows of St John's College, Cambridge (34420311)

The 377-page manuscript is a psalter - the most common medieval religious text known as devotionals - that belonged to Robert de Lindsay, the Abbot of Peterborough from 1214 to 1222.

The manuscript was given to St John’s College in 1635 by Thomas Wriothesley, the Earl of Southampton from the library of his friend, William Crashaw, and is one of two psalters that were once owned by de Lindsay.

Detailed images from the religious text have now been published for the first time in the University of Cambridge digital library.

Kathryn McKee, sub-librarian and special collections librarian at St John’s, said: “This manuscript is a finely written and beautifully illustrated example of early 13th century work.

St John's College, Cambridge MS D.6 folio 31v – the frontispiece featuring the magnificent B with King David seen playing his harp in the top right roundel. By permission of the Master and Fellows of St John's College, Cambridge (34420397)
St John's College, Cambridge MS D.6 folio 31v – the frontispiece featuring the magnificent B with King David seen playing his harp in the top right roundel. By permission of the Master and Fellows of St John's College, Cambridge (34420397)

“Any manuscript that is digitised gives greater potential for research because it means that scholars who are working remotely from Cambridge have the chance to study it in great detail.”

The St John’s manuscript - ‘Manuscript (MS) D.6’ - is glossed, which means it is annotated in the margins and between the lines to aid the reader in understanding the text, providing commentaries and translations The second, unglossed psalter is in the care of the Society of Antiquaries (MS 59).

The original manuscript is housed in The Old Library at St John’s, which dates back to 1624 and houses the college’s special collections.

It begins with an ecclesiastical ‘Kalendar’ in red, blue and black, illustrated with colourful medallions containing the signs of the Zodiac for each month - it does not feature any Peterborough saints, which suggests it was the personal copy of de Lindsay rather than a working manuscript of the abbey.

St John's College, Cambridge MS D.6 folio 44r, which shows some of the annotations. By permission of the Master and Fellows of St John's College, Cambridge (34420425)
St John's College, Cambridge MS D.6 folio 44r, which shows some of the annotations. By permission of the Master and Fellows of St John's College, Cambridge (34420425)

The Kalendar is followed by the Prologue to the Psalms, then the Hours of the Virgin. Four pages of paintings depict scenes from the Gospels, while the frontispiece is a magnificent initial B in gold, pink and green, which fills the entire page. In the initial is a small picture of King David with his harp. The text concludes with Cantica, Litany and the Office of the Dead.

It was digitised after an alumnus of St John’s financially supported the project.

The manuscript was photographed on site by Maciej Pawlikowski, head of the University Library’s digital content unit.

St John's College, Cambridge MS D.6 folio 51v. By permission of the Master and Fellows of St John's College, Cambridge (34420435)
St John's College, Cambridge MS D.6 folio 51v. By permission of the Master and Fellows of St John's College, Cambridge (34420435)

Kathryn said: “You can start to see how the manuscript was originally made; whether the text written first or whether the ornate initials were illustrated first and what order the different colours were added.

“You can see the individual strokes of a pen or brush, which makes it far more real. If you are looking at the physical object, unless you have very good eyesight and a magnifier, you can’t see that level of detail.

“It’s only with the high quality photography that you can appreciate some of the techniques used. It is fascinating.”

The college’s primary focus has been on cataloguing its collection of historic manuscripts, rare books and personal papers, rather than large-scale digitisation projects.

St John's College, Cambridge MS D.6 folio 87r. By permission of the Master and Fellows of St John's College, Cambridge (34420449)
St John's College, Cambridge MS D.6 folio 87r. By permission of the Master and Fellows of St John's College, Cambridge (34420449)

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