About 200 years ago, a London book-dealer split in two a liturgical handbook from the late 13thcentury. While the Percy Psalter ended up in the British Library, the Percy Hours remained in a private collection. Now reunited, the beautiful manuscript will be displayed later this year.
Made in the late 13thcentury in York, the Percy prayer-book consisting of a psalter and book of hours were split in two by an enterprising book dealer in the 18thcentury. While The British Library eventually acquired one part in 1990, the second part – the Book of Hours – was bought by the late Stephen Keynes in 1960. Finally, in 2019 The British Library got hold of the missing part. Although undergoing conservation, it has already been digitized and may thus be studied at leisure. Later this year, it will be displayed in the library.
Exactly which Percy – or wife of a Percy – was patron of the manuscript has not been decided, but the page of the Beatus shows a fine couple, she demurely offering up her heraldic shield and family connections to her husband while he is clothed in chainmail with a surcoat and carrying his family standard and heraldic device. In between a noble hunt is taking place with dogs, a hare and a deer.
The book is an early forerunner of the prayer books of the Later Middle Ages. At first, noble and wealthy patrons adopted a monastic prayer style with the psalter as the main part. As the 13thcentury progressed, the psalter would be supplemented with calendars, the Hours of the Virgin, the Office for the Dead, and sometimes more private prayers. Finally, the books of hours would take on their own life as the preferred previate devotional of the Later Middle Ages.
Until then, deluxe and combined prayer books were the privilege of the few and well-healed. The Percy Psalter-Hours is a rare and early example of this class of devotional book from northern England. As such it displays some unique features of northern devotion.
The manuscript has obviously been produced by a group of skilled artists, and the art work offers a number of images depicting narrative scenes as well as a number of small creatures performing as musicians, knights, or simply wandering by.
Percy Psalter, BL Add MS 70000, fol 16 r. © British Library