A precious medieval manuscript exhibited to the public for the first time

A precious 13th-century manuscript, considered a masterpiece of medieval art, can be seen by the public for the first time, after it was digitized by the library of Trinity College Dublin.

With the click of a mouse, researchers and the general public can see the superb illustrations of the Book of St Albans which was produced between 1230 and 1259 AD by one of the world’s most famous medieval artists and chroniclers, Matthew Paris.

The Benedictine monk, scribe, historian and artist was based at St Albans Monastery in England, once one of the most important abbeys in the country and an important place of pilgrimage for medieval Irish pilgrims.

The manuscript chronicles the life of St Alban, the first Christian martyr in England. It also describes the construction of St Albans Cathedral. It has fascinated readers throughout the centuries, from royalty to Renaissance scholars.

The newly digitized manuscript has been launched online to coincide with St Alban’s Day tomorrow, June 22.

TCD Manuscripts Curator Estelle Gittins said that while the Trinity College Library is synonymous with Book of Kellsit also houses over 600 other medieval manuscripts dating from the 5th to the 15th century.

Expressing his joy that the Book of St Albans is “perfectly preserved with wonderful colors”, she explained that “most medieval scribes remain anonymous, but we know that this book was created by Matthew Paris”.

Paying homage to the artistic beauty of Paris, she explained: “This amazing manuscript contains some of the most incredible medieval art, it is a window into an elaborate world of saints, kings and knights, but also of sailors, builders and bell ringers.

“It is an example of how often the greatest pictorial art of the medieval period is found in the pages of his manuscript books. It is made up of 77 sheets containing 54 illustrations, each a unique work of art.

The manuscript contains the Paris version of The life of St Alban as well as other texts.

St Alban lived in the 4th century, during the Roman occupation of Britain, in the Hertfordshire town that now bears his name. He is recognized as the first English Christian martyr.

Until now, the only way to study all the images in the manuscript was to consult the rare black and white facsimile edition from 1924.

The Book of St Albans was a high status book, seen by King Henry VI. Written in Latin, it also contains Anglo-Norman French which made it accessible to a wider secular audience, including educated noble women.

The book was kept at St Albans Abbey for 300 years until the Abbey was dissolved in 1539 under Henry VIII. It came to Trinity College, Dublin in 1661 after royal counselor and Elizabethan astronomer John Dee sold it to James Ussher, Archbishop of Armagh, whose library was later donated to the college.

All the other precious Paris manuscripts are kept in the British Library and at the universities of Cambridge, Oxford and Chetham’s Library Manchester.

The Trinity Virtual Library Medieval Manuscripts Project was supported by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

About Cody E. Vaughn

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