13th century illuminated manuscript digitised

A 13th century illuminated manuscript that has been in St John’s College, University of Cambridge, for nearly 400 years has been digitised so it can reach a new audience.

The 377-page manuscript is a psalter that belonged to Robert de Lindsay who was Abbot of Peterborough from 1214 to 1222. Psalters were some of the most common medieval religious texts known as devotionals. They typically contained the Old Testament Book of Psalms, together with other liturgical and devotional material such as a calendar, canticles, litany and prayers.


‘Manuscript (MS) D.6’ 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. The St John’s manuscript is ‘glossed’, meaning 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.

“This manuscript is a finely written and beautifully illustrated example of early 13th century work,” explains Kathryn McKee, Sub-Librarian and Special Collections Librarian at St John’s. “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.”

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

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


The Kalendar is followed by the Prologue to the Psalms, then the Hours of the Virgin, which opens with a historiated initial on gold ground. 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. Readers can zoom in incredibly closely to each digitised page – showcasing the manuscript in much finer detail than possible with the naked eye.

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.

“You can start to see how the manuscript was originally made;” Kathryn adds, “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 manuscript was digitised after an alumnus of St John’s financially supported the project. It was photographed on-site by Maciej Pawlikowski, Head of the University Library’s Digital Content Unit. The high resolution images can be viewed in glorious detail on Cambridge Digital Library alongside metadata provided by St John’s.


Cambridge Digital Library also provides the facility the manuscript to be embedded in other institutions’ websites. The full digitised manuscript is also due to made available on the Library & Archives section of St John’s College website.

Click here to view this manuscript

Top Image: St John’s College, Cambridge MS D.6 folio 28v. By permission of the Master and Fellows of St John’s College, Cambridge.


Sign up for our weekly email newsletter!