A psalter is a volume containing the Book of Psalms, often with other devotional material bound in as well, such as a liturgical calendar and litany of the Saints. Until the later medieval emergence of the book of hours, psalters were the books most widely owned by wealthy lay persons and were commonly used for learning to read. Many Psalters were richly illuminated and they include some of the most spectacular surviving examples of medieval book art.

The English term (Old English psaltere, saltere) is from Church Latin psalterium, which is simply the name of the Book of Psalms (in secular Latin, it is the term for a stringed instrument, from Greek ψαλτήριον psalterion). The Book of Psalms contains the bulk of the Divine Office of the Roman Catholic Church. The other books associated with it were the Lectionary, the Antiphonary, and Responsoriale, and the Hymnary.[1] In Late Modern English, psalter has mostly ceased to refer to the Book of Psalms (as the text of a book of the Bible) and mostly refers to the dedicated physical volumes containing this text.

Carolingian Psalter (facsimile)
Utrecht 15v 2
Folio 15b of the Utrecht Psalter illustrates Psalm 27

Western Christianity

Dedicated psalters, as distinct from copies of the Psalms in other formats, e.g. as part of a full edition of the Old Testament, were first developed in the Latin West in the 6th century in Ireland and from about 700 on the continent.

The extensively illustrated Utrecht Psalter is one of the most important surviving Carolingian manuscripts and exercised a major influence on the later development of Anglo-Saxon art.[2] In the Middle Ages psalters were among the most popular types of illuminated manuscripts, rivaled only by the Gospel Books, from which they gradually took over as the type of manuscript chosen for lavish illumination. From the late 11th century onwards they became particularly widespread - Psalms were recited by the clergy at various points in the liturgy, so psalters were a key part of the liturgical equipment in major churches.

Various different schemes existed for the arrangement of the Psalms into groups (see Latin Psalters). As well as the 150 Psalms, medieval psalters often included a calendar, a litany of saints, canticles from the Old and New Testaments, and other devotional texts. The selection of saints mentioned in the calendar and litany varied greatly and can often give clues as to the original ownership of the manuscript, since monasteries and private patrons alike would choose those saints that had particular significance for them.

Many psalters were lavishly illuminated with full-page miniatures as well as decorated initials. Of the initials the most important is normally the so-called "Beatus initial", based on the "B" of the words Beatus vir... ("Blessed is the man...") at the start of Psalm 1. This was usually given the most elaborate decoration in an illuminated psalter, often taking a whole page for the initial letter or first two words. Historiated initials or full-page illuminations were also used to mark the beginnings of the three major divisions of the Psalms, or the various daily readings, and may have helped users navigate to the relevant part of the text (medieval books almost never had page numbers). Many psalters, particularly from the 12th century onwards, included a richly decorated "prefatory cycle" – a series of full-page illuminations preceding the Psalms, usually illustrating the Passion story, though some also featuring Old Testament narratives. Such images helped to enhance the book's status, and also served as aids to contemplation in the practice of personal devotions.

The psalter is also a part of either the Horologion or the breviary, used to say the Liturgy of the Hours in the Eastern and Western Christian worlds respectively.

Eastern Christianity

Mudil Psalter
The Mudil Psalter, the oldest complete psalter in the Coptic language (Coptic Museum, Egypt, Coptic Cairo).

Non-illuminated psalters written in Coptic include some of the earliest surviving codices (bound books) altogether; the earliest Coptic psalter predates the earliest Western (Irish) one by more than a century. The Mudil Psalter, the oldest complete Coptic psalter, dates to the 5th century. It was found in the Al-Mudil Coptic cemetery in a small town near Beni Suef, Egypt. The codex was in the grave of a young girl, open, with her head resting on it.[3] Scholar John Gee has argued that this represents a cultural continuation of the ancient Egyptian tradition of placing the Book of the Dead in tombs and sarcophagi.[4]

The Pahlavi Psalter is a fragment of a Middle Persian translation of a Syriac version of the Book of Psalms, dated to the 6th or 7th century. In Eastern Christianity (Eastern Orthodox, and in modern times also Byzantine Catholic), the Book of Psalms for liturgical purposes is divided into 20 kathismata or "sittings", for reading at Vespers and Matins. Kathisma means sitting, since the people normally sit during the reading of the psalms. Each kathisma is divided into three stases, from stasis, to stand, because each stasis ends with Glory to the Father…, at which everyone stands. The reading of the kathismata are so arranged that the entire psalter is read through in the course of a week (during Great Lent it is read through twice in a week). During Bright Week (Easter Week) there is no reading from the Psalms. Orthodox psalters usually also contain the Biblical canticles, which are read at the canon of Matins during Great Lent.

The established Orthodox tradition of Christian burial has included reading the Psalms in the church throughout the vigil, where the deceased remains the night before the funeral (a reflection of the vigil of Holy Friday). Some Orthodox psalters also contain special prayers for the departed for this purpose. While the full tradition is showing signs of diminishing in practice, the psalter is still sometimes used during a wake.[5]

Significant psalters

Albani-Psalter Initialen
Initials from the beginning of psalms in the St. Albans Psalter.
Clasm Chludov
Page from the Chludov Psalter (9th century).
Sofia Psalter 1337
The Sofia Psalter (1337).


See also Category:Illuminated psalters

Early Medieval

High Medieval

Late Medieval

Early modern / Tudor period

Printed editions

See also Category:Psalters


Early modern editions

Modern editions

See also


  1. ^ Wikisource-logo.svg Herbermann, Charles, ed. (1913). "Psalterium" . Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.
  2. ^ Francis Wormald, The Utrecht Psalter, Utrecht, 1953
  3. ^ Mat Immerzeel; Jacques Van Der Vliet (2004). Coptic Studies on the Threshold of a New Millennium: Proceedings of the Seventh International Congress of Coptic Studies, Leiden, August 27-September 2, 2000. Peeters Publishers. ISBN 978-90-429-1409-4. Archived from the original on 4 May 2018. Retrieved 25 May 2012.
  4. ^ "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived (PDF) from the original on 2018-04-09. Retrieved 2017-06-15.CS1 maint: Archived copy as title (link)
  5. ^ The Psalter According to the Seventy Archived 2011-07-16 at the Wayback Machine
  6. ^ "Psalter of Saint Germain of Paris". 4 May 2018. Archived from the original on 27 December 2017. Retrieved 4 May 2018.
  7. ^ , Northumbria, first half of eighth century, now Berlin.Introduction to facsimile edition Archived 2017-02-08 at the Wayback Machine
  8. ^ "Digitised Manuscripts". Retrieved 4 May 2018.
  9. ^ "Psalter (known as the 'Ormesby Psalter')". Digital Bodleian. Archived from the original on 21 August 2016. Retrieved 17 October 2018.
  10. ^ "The Crucifixion (a Leaf from the Potocki Psalter)". 4 April 2018. Archived from the original on 20 December 2016. Retrieved 4 May 2018.
  11. ^ Margaret Stillwell, The Beginning of the World of Books: 1450 to 1470, New York, 1972, no. 18.
  12. ^ Margaret Stillwell, The Beginning of the World of Books: 1450 to 1470, New York, 1972, no. 27.
  13. ^ The Bay Psalm Book From the Collections at the Library of Congress

Further reading

Becker Psalter

The Becker Psalter is a German metrical psalter authored by the Leipzig theologian Cornelius Becker and first published by Jakob Apel in Leipzig in 1602 under the title Der Psalter Davids Gesangweis. Several composers set the psalms contained in the volume, notably Heinrich Schütz, whose four-part chorales were published in 1628 and revised and expanded in 1661.

Chludov Psalter

Chludov Psalter (Russian: Хлудовская псалтырь; Moscow, Hist. Mus. MS. D.129) is an illuminated marginal Psalter made in the middle of the 9th Century. It is a unique monument of Byzantine art at the time of the Iconoclasm, one of only three illuminated Byzantine Psalters to survive from the 9th century.

According to one tradition, the miniatures are supposed to have been created clandestinely, and many of them are directed against Iconoclasts. Many contain explanations of the drawings written next to them, and little arrows point out from the main text to the illustration, to show which line the picture refers to. The polemical style of the whole ensemble is highly unusual, and a demonstration of the furious passions the Iconoclast dispute generated.

The psalter measures 195 mm by 150 mm and contains only 169 folios. The outer edges of the pages are normally left blank in order to be covered with illustrations. The text and captions were written in a diminutive uncial script, but many of these were rewritten in crude minuscule about three centuries later. The book contains the Psalms in the arrangement of the Septuagint, and the responses to be chanted during their recitation, which follow the Liturgy of Hagia Sophia, the Imperial church in Constantinople.

In the illustration to the right, the miniaturist illustrated the line "They gave me gall to eat; and when I was thirsty they gave me vinegar to drink" with a picture of a soldier offering Christ vinegar on a sponge attached to a pole. Below is a picture of the last Iconoclast Patriarch of Constantinople, John the Grammarian rubbing out a painting of Christ with a similar sponge attached to a pole. John is caricatured, here as on other pages, with untidy straight hair sticking out in all directions, which was considered ridiculous by the elegant Byzantines.

Nikodim Kondakov hypothesized that the psalter was created in the famous monastery of St John the Studite in Constantinople. Other scholars believe that the liturgical responses it contains were only used in Hagia Sophia, and that it was therefore a product of the Imperial workshops in Constantinople, soon after the return of the Iconophiles to power in 843.

It was kept at Mount Athos until 1847, when a Russian scholar brought it to Moscow. The psalter was then acquired by Aleksey Khludov, whose name it bears today. It passed as part of the Khludov bequest to the Nikolsky Old Believer Monastery and then to the State Historical Museum.

Faddan More Psalter

The Faddan More Psalter (Irish: Saltair an Fheadáin Mhóir) (also Irish Bog Psalter or "Faddan Mor Psalter") is an early medieval Christian psalter or text of the book of Psalms, discovered in a peat bog in July 2006, in the townland of Faddan More (Irish: Feadán Mór) in north County Tipperary, Ireland. The manuscript was probably written in about 800 in one of a number of monasteries in the area. A unique feature is that the inside of the leather cover is lined with papyrus, probably as a stiffening, an indication of the links between the Irish and Coptic churches at the time. After several years of conservation work, the psalter went on display at the National Museum of Ireland in Kildare St, Dublin in June 2011.This discovery was hailed by the National Museum of Ireland as one of the most significant Irish archaeological finds in decades. Bernard Meehan of the Trinity College Library, who was called in to advise on the discovery, said that he believed the psalter was the first discovery of an Irish early medieval manuscript in two centuries. During the conservation process, in the period 2006–2010, the lining of the binding was found to have elements of papyrus, adding further evidence to the known links between Irish Celtic Christianity and the Egyptian Coptic Church.The psalter joins the very small number of very early Western books that have survived fully intact with their original bookbindings. These mostly have their origins in the monastic Insular art of Britain and Ireland, and the Celtic and Anglo-Saxon missions to Europe. The earliest is the St Cuthbert Gospel of about 700 (British Library), and other examples probably of the mid-8th century are at Fulda on the continent. However the wallet-like style of the Faddan More binding, and the fact that it does not seem to have been physically attached to the sewn-together pages, make it unique among surviving covers.

Genevan Psalter

The Genevan Psalter, also known as The Huguenot Psalter, is a metrical psalter in French created under the supervision of John Calvin for liturgical use by the Reformed churches of the city of Geneva in the sixteenth century.


A grindstone is a round sharpening stone used for grinding or sharpening ferrous tools. Grindstones are usually made from sandstone. Grindstone machines usually have pedals for speeding up and slowing down the stone to control the sharpening process. The earliest known representation of a rotary grindstone, operated by a crank handle, is found in the Carolingian manuscript Utrecht Psalter. This pen drawing from about 830 goes back to a late antique original. The Luttrell Psalter, dating to around 1340, describes a grindstone rotated by two cranks, one at each end of its axle. Around 1480, the early medieval rotary grindstone was improved with a treadle and crank mechanism.

Hymn tune

A hymn tune is the melody of a musical composition to which a hymn text is sung. Musically speaking, a hymn is generally understood to have four-part (or more) harmony, a fast harmonic rhythm (chords change frequently), and no refrain or chorus.

From the late sixteenth century in England and Scotland, when most people were not musically literate and learned melodies by rote, it was a common practice to sing a new text to a hymn tune the singers already knew which had a suitable meter and character.

There are many hymn tunes which might fit a particular hymn: a hymn in Long Metre might be sung to any hymn tune in Long Metre, but the tunes might be as different as those tunes that have been used for centuries with hymns such as Te lucis ante terminum, on one hand, and an arrangement of the calypso tune used with Jamaica Farewell, on the other.

Hymnbooks of the Church of Scotland

Decisions concerning the conduct of public worship in the Church of Scotland are entirely at the discretion of the parish minister. As a result, a wide variety of musical resources are used. However, at various times in its history, the General Assembly has commissioned volumes of psalms and hymns for use by congregations.

Latin Psalters

The Latin Psalters are the translations of the Book of Psalms into the Latin language. They are the premier liturgical resource used in the Liturgy of the Hours of the Latin Rites of the Roman Catholic Church. These translations are typically placed in a separate volume or a section of the breviary called the psalter, in which the psalms are arranged to be prayed at the canonical hours of the day. In the Middle Ages, psalters were often lavish illuminated manuscripts, and in the Romanesque and early Gothic period were the type of book most often chosen to be richly illuminated.

Luttrell Psalter

The Luttrell Psalter (British Library, Additional Manuscript 42130) is an illuminated psalter commissioned by Sir Geoffrey Luttrell (1276–1345), lord of the manor of Irnham in Lincolnshire, written and illustrated on parchment circa 1320–1340 in England by anonymous scribes and artists.

Along with the psalms (beginning on folio 13 r.), the Luttrell Psalter contains a calendar (1 r.), canticles (259 v.), the Mass (283 v.) and an antiphon for the dead (295 r.). The pages vary in their degree of illumination, but many are richly covered with both decorated text and marginal pictures of saints and Bible stories, and scenes of rural life. It is considered one of the richest sources for visual depictions of everyday rural life in medieval England, even though the last folio is now lost.The Psalter was acquired by the British Museum in 1929 for £31,500 from Mary Angela Noyes, wife of the poet Alfred Noyes, with the assistance of an interest-free loan from the American millionaire and art collector J. P. Morgan. It is now in the collection of the British Library in London, since the separation of the Library from the British Museum.

Metrical psalter

A metrical psalter is a kind of Bible translation: a book containing a metrical translation of all or part of the Book of Psalms in vernacular poetry, meant to be sung as hymns in a church. Some metrical psalters include melodies or even harmonizations. The composition of metrical psalters was a large enterprise of the Protestant Reformation, especially in its Calvinist manifestation.

Old 100th

"Old 100th" or "Old Hundredth" (also commonly called "Old Hundred") is a hymn tune in Long Metre from Pseaumes Octante Trois de David (1551) (the second edition of the Genevan Psalter) and is one of the best known melodies in all Christian musical traditions. The tune is usually attributed to the French composer Louis Bourgeois (c. 1510 – c.1560).

Although the tune was first associated with Psalm 134 in the Genevan Psalter, the melody receives its current name from an association with the 100th Psalm, in a translation by William Kethe entitled All People that on Earth do Dwell. The melody is commonly sung with diverse other lyrics as well.

Pahlavi scripts

Pahlavi or Pahlevi is a particular, exclusively written form of various Middle Iranian languages. The essential characteristics of Pahlavi are

the use of a specific Aramaic-derived script;

the high incidence of Aramaic words used as heterograms (called hozwārishn, "archaisms").Pahlavi compositions have been found for the dialects/ethnolects of Parthia, Persis, Sogdiana, Scythia, and Khotan. Independent of the variant for which the Pahlavi system was used, the written form of that language only qualifies as Pahlavi when it has the characteristics noted above.

Pahlavi is then an admixture of

written Imperial Aramaic, from which Pahlavi derives its script, logograms, and some of its vocabulary.

spoken Middle Iranian, from which Pahlavi derives its terminations, symbol rules, and most of its vocabulary.Pahlavi may thus be defined as a system of writing applied to (but not unique for) a specific language group, but with critical features alien to that language group. It has the characteristics of a distinct language, but is not one. It is an exclusively written system, but much Pahlavi literature remains essentially an oral literature committed to writing and so retains many of the characteristics of oral composition.

Paris Psalter

For the third copy of the Utrecht Psalter. produced in England in the late 12th century, see Great Canterbury Psalter.

Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale

The Paris Psalter (Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, MS. gr. 139), designated by siglum 1133 (Rahlfs), is a Byzantine illuminated manuscript containing 449 folios and 14 full-page miniatures with a grand size of approximately 37 x 26.5 cm. "In a grand, almost classical style", as the Encyclopædia Britannica puts it, together with Basil I's Homilies of St Gregory Nazianzus, the Paris Psalter is considered a key monument of the so-called Macedonian Renaissance in Byzantine art during the 10th century.

The miniatures include one of the battle between David and Goliath.


The Book of Psalms ( or SAW(L)MZ; Hebrew: תְּהִלִּים, Tehillim, "praises"), commonly referred to simply as Psalms or "the Psalms", is the first book of the Ketuvim ("Writings"), the third section of the Hebrew Bible, and thus a book of the Christian Old Testament. The title is derived from the Greek translation, ψαλμοί, psalmoi, meaning "instrumental music" and, by extension, "the words accompanying the music". The book is an anthology of individual psalms, with 150 in the Jewish and Western Christian tradition and more in the Eastern Christian churches. Many are linked to the name of David, but his authorship is not accepted by modern scholars.

Psalter Pahlavi

Psalter Pahlavi is a cursive abjad which was used for writing Middle Persian on paper, it is thus described as one of the Pahlavi scripts. It was written right to left, usually with spaces between words.It takes its name from the Pahlavi Psalter, part of the Psalms translated from Syriac to Middle Persian and found in what is now western China.

Psalter of Saint Louis

Two lavishly illustrated illuminated manuscript psalters are known as the Psalter of Saint Louis (and variants) as they belonged to the canonized King Louis IX of France. They are now in Paris and Leiden, and are respectively good examples of French Gothic and English Romanesque illumination.

Ramsey Psalter

The Psalter of Oswald also called the Ramsey Psalter (British Library, Harley MS 2904) is an Anglo-Saxon illuminated psalter of the last quarter of the tenth century. Its script and decoration suggest that it was made at Winchester, but certain liturgical features have suggested that it was intended for use at the Benedictine monastery of Ramsey Abbey, or for the personal use of Ramsey's founder St Oswald.

The litany includes a gold-lettered triple invocation of St Benedict of Nursia, and at the time of writing, probably before Oswald's death in 992, Ramsey was the only English monastery dedicated to this saint. A "Psalter of St Oswald" was listed in a 14th-century catalogue of the library at Ramsey. This manuscript is not to be confused with another Ramsey Psalter in the Pierpont Morgan Library, New York (MS M. 302), made between 1286 and 1316.

The text is a Latin psalter using the Gallican version. The "elegant English caroline minuscule" of the script inspired the influential "foundational hand" developed by the 20th-century calligrapher Edward Johnston.The two most famous illuminated pages are at the start of the manuscript and are illustrated here and discussed below. Apart from another very large illuminated initial at the start of Psalm 101, the rest of the illumination consists of smaller decorated initials with colour at the start of each psalm, and gold initials for each verse.

Tomić Psalter

The Tomić Psalter (Bulgarian: Томичов псалтир, Tomichov psaltir) is a 14th-century Bulgarian illuminated psalter. Produced around 1360, during the reign of Tsar Ivan Alexander, it is regarded as one of the masterpieces of the Tarnovo literary and art school of the time. It contains 109 valuable miniatures.

Discovered in 1901 in Macedonia by the Serbian research-worker and collector Simon Tomić, whose name it bears, it is exhibited in the State Historical Museum in Moscow, Russia.

Utrecht Psalter

The Utrecht Psalter (Utrecht, Universiteitsbibliotheek, MS Bibl. Rhenotraiectinae I Nr 32.) is a ninth-century illuminated psalter which is a key masterpiece of Carolingian art; it is probably the most valuable manuscript in the Netherlands. It is famous for its 166 lively pen illustrations, with one accompanying each psalm and the other texts in the manuscript (Chazelle, 1055). The precise purpose of these illustrations, and the extent of their dependence on earlier models, have been matters of art historical controversy. The psalter spent the period between about 1000 to 1640 in England, where it had a profound influence on Anglo-Saxon art, giving rise to what is known as the "Utrecht style". It was copied at least three times in the Middle Ages. A complete facsimile edition of the psalter was made in 1875 (Lowe, 237), and another in 1984 (Graz).

The other texts in the book include some canticles and hymns used in the office of the hours, including various canticles, the Te Deum and Athanasian Creed. The latter text was the subject of intense study by Thomas Duffus Hardy and others after scholarly interest in the psalter grew in the 19th century.

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