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Sweetheart Abbey Breviary acquired by National Library of Scotland

A monastic treasure written in Scotland 700 years ago has been acquired by the National Library of Scotland.

The early 14th century Breviary, from Sweetheart Abbey near Dumfries, is the Library’s most important medieval manuscript acquisition for 30 years. It is an extremely rare example of a medieval religious manuscript which was both written and used in Scotland.

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Unlike many remaining Scottish liturgical manuscripts, which exist as fragments only, the Sweetheart Breviary is an entire volume in a remarkably good condition. It consists of 200 vellum leaves, and contains the text for many of the monastic prayers used each year in medieval Scotland.

Sweetheart Abbey was the last Cistercian monastery to be established in Scotland. It was founded in 1273 by Dervorgilla de Balliol, mother of the Scottish king John Balliol, in memory of her husband John de Balliol. On her death in 1290, she was laid to rest next to her husband’s embalmed heart and the abbey was named in her memory. The Breviary was written between 1300 and 1350.

The first leaf of the manuscript bears a large inscription in a medieval hand: ‘Liber sanctae Mariae de dulci corde [a book of St. Mary of Sweetheart]’. Only four other manuscripts survive from the library of this abbey, bearing similar inscriptions, but none of these volumes was apparently written in Scotland.

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The Breviary is remarkably compact and, although comparatively modest in decoration, is a very attractive volume. It includes a calendar, featuring a number of Scottish saints, which further confirms its strong Scottish connections. The Cistercian elements in the liturgy are also in keeping with its origins and use at Sweetheart Abbey.

Its whereabouts were unknown for some 300 years until it recently came on the open market in an auction in Vienna. Prior to that, the last known trace was in 1715, when it was described in the printed library catalogue of the English antiquarian Ralph Thoresby (1658-1725).

‘We are delighted to have made this significant addition to the national collection. It is a rare survival that will shed new light on our collective past,’ said National Librarian Dr John Scally.

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The manuscript was purchased last year at auction for $56,500 (US). The National Library of Scotland had assistance and contributions from The Friends of the National Libraries, The Soutar Trust, The National Library of Scotland Foundation, and the B H Breslauer Foundation in the purchase of this manuscript.

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