The Early History of the Lewis Psalter

Fifty-two discoveries from the BiblioPhilly project, No. 17/52

Gallican Psalter with Canticles, Litany, and Prayers (he Lewis Psalter), Philadelphia, Free Library of Philadelphia, Lewis E 85, fols. 1v–2r (historiated initial B with King David Playing the Harp and King David Slaying Goliath; blank page with later prayer to Saint Martial)

One of the glorious treasures of Philadelphia is the so-called Lewis Psalter (Free Library of Philadelphia, Lewis E 185), produced in Paris in the first half of the thirteenth century, likely between around 1225 and 1230. Digitizing and cataloguing this sumptuous book anew was a real thrill, made much easier by the existence of Elizabeth A. Peterson’s excellent Ph.D. dissertation which describes the content all 150 of the manuscript’s historiated Psalm initials (the manuscript is in fact one of only eight surviving French manuscripts from the period to include illustrations for every psalm).1 

Unlike some of its better-documented sister manuscripts, however, very little is known about the original user(s) and subsequent owners of the Lewis Psalter. Some later inscriptions within the book might help provide a clue as to where the book was prior to its reappearance in the nineteenth century in the collection of Henry Gee Barnard of Yorkshire (1789–1858). To begin with, an inscription on folio 2r, previously described as a prayer to Saint Martial, written in a what looks like a late-sixteenth-century cursive hand, reads:

Sanctus Martialis discipulus Chri[sti] virgo.

Crux enim domini armatura v[est]ra invicta contra satanam galea / custodiens caput. Lorica protegens pectus, clipeus tela maligni / repellens; gladius iniquitatem et angelicas insidias p[ervers]sae potestat[is] / sibi propinquare sinens nullo modo. Hoc solo signa celestis victoria / data est nobis et per crucem baptisma sanctificatum est

or, translated roughly into English:

Saint Martial, virgin disciple of Christ

The Cross of our Lord is the invincible armor against Satan: a helmet protecting the head, chainmail protecting the chest, a shield repelling evil darts, a sword warding off all approach of iniquity and of the perverse power of evil angels. This, the only sign of celestial victory, is given to us and is blessed by the baptism of the Cross.

This is an image of fol. 2r from Free Library of Philadelphia Lewis E 185, Lewis Psalter (Paris, France, 1220 - 1245).
Lewis E 85, fol. 2r (with detail of inscription of prayer to Saint Martial)

This unusual text is not in fact a prayer to Saint Martial, the venerated third-century Bishop of Limoges known as the “Apostle of Aquitaine,” but instead an excerpt from Saint Martial’s apocryphal letter to the people of Bordeaux. The text of this letter is preserved in a twelfth-century manuscript from Limoges now at the Bibliothèque nationale de France (ms. lat. 5296A), with the passage discussing the cross appearing on folio 38v. Of course, our early anotator might have been familiar with this passage through another source. The text was widely available in print by the early seventeenth century at the latest.

Vita sancti Martialis, discipuli Christi: authore Aureliano, successore illius atque discipulo. Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, ms. lat. 5296A, fol. 38v (Saint Martial’s letter to the people of Bordeaux, with detail of excerpt concerning the Cross)

Another note, on folio 32r of the psalter, is written in the same hand: “Psalmodia, carmen est celeste: et eos a quibus colitur sedulo, ex hominibus in angelos transfigurat,” or, “the recitation of the Psalms is a heavenly song, and transforms those who carefully recite them from men into angels.” The author of the short fragment of text is Louis de Blois (1506–1566), an influential sixteenth-century Flemish Benedictine mystic. The rather lofty phrase stems from one of de Blois’ best known works, the Sacellum animae fidelis or Sanctuary of the Faithful Soul (Louis of Blois, Sacellum animae fidelis, 1575, p. 333).

Perhaps the presence of this quote alongside the excerpt from Saint Martial will one day help clarify this great manuscript’s obscure early history. In any event, it would seem to confirm the manuscript’s presence in a Benedictine institution in the sixteenth century. Given these two pieces of evidence, might we imagine that the book was among the possessions of the Benedictine Monastery of Saint Martial in Limoges, dissolved in the wake of the French Revolution? Raymond Gaucelm, whose abbacy lasted from 1225 to 1245, was known to have been responsible for enriching the foundation’s treasury considerably2 as well as embarking on ambitious renovation campaigns, and his dates would accord perfectly with those assigned to the Lewis Psalter. Could he have been responsible for commissioning the Psalter, or at least bringing it from Paris to the Limousin? Given the fragility of the evidence, this remains merely a hypothetical, though tantalizing, suggestion. More research into Saint Martial’s early library inventories, which do survive, might provide more information.

This is an image of fol. 32r from Free Library of Philadelphia Lewis E 185, Lewis Psalter (Paris, France, 1220 - 1245).

Lewis E 85, fol. 32r (with detail of inscription with extract from Louis de Blois)

Finally, there is additional evidence to suggest that the Lewis Psalter was used liturgically early in its life, a finding that makes it more likely to have been housed within a monastic institution, rather than having been owned by a high-ranking aristocrat. Written in a different fifteenth- or sixteenth-century hand, a prayer simply entitled “Oratio” on fol. 191v, not previously identified, in fact consists of the Collects for the fifth and seventh Sundays after Trinity. The final word, misinterpreted as the proper name “J. Credor,” is simply the incipit of the Credo:

This is an image of fol. 191v from Free Library of Philadelphia Lewis E 185, Lewis Psalter (Paris, France, 1220 - 1245).
Lewis E 85, fol. 191v (with detail of inscription with Collects for the fifth and seventh Sundays after Trinity)

While by no means conclusive, we can hope that the identification and transcription of these later additions might help shed light on the history of this wonderful book.


  1. Peterson, Elizabeth A., “Iconography of the Historiated Psalm Initials in the Thirteenth Century French Fully-Illustrated Psalter Group” Ph.D. Dissertation., University of Pittsburgh, 1991. See also Peterson, “Accidents and Adaptations in Transmission among Fully-Illustrated French Psalters in the Thirteenth Century,” Zeitschrift für Kunstgeschichte 50 (1987), pp. 375-84; and Peterson, “The Textual Basis for Visual Errors in French Gothic Psalter Illustration,” in The Early Medieval Bible: Its Production, Decoration, and Use, ed. Richard Gameson, Cambridge Studies in Palaeography and Codicology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 177-204.
  2. Duplès-Agier, Henri, “Le trésor de Saint-Martial de Limoges au treizième siècle,” Bibliothèque de l’école des chartes 16 (1855): 28-35.