Anna Adamska

A BOOK IN ALL ROYAL HANDS. HOW MEDIEVAL RULERS READ THE PSALTER

The extraordinary place of the so-called Florian Psalter1 in the cultural history of late medieval Poland2 is the inspiration for a broader reflexion on the importance of the Psalter, both as a text and as a type of manuscript, within medieval Latinitas. From late Antiquity onwards, the Psalter was an important tool for the spiritual formation of lay elites, and it subsequently became royal reading matter. Some uses of the Psalter have been analysed in the scholarly literature on many occasions, especially in discussions of the omnipresence of the Bible in medieval culture, or of the development of so-called political theology.3 The history of the Psalter in medieval times is also highly interesting for scholars dealing with attitudes towards the written word and with the development of literate mentalities.

The dynamic growth of research in the field of literacy and social communication over the last twenty years has resulted in the refinement of the criteria we use to judge literacy and illiteracy. It becomes ever more clear that medieval communication was not a bipolar, static structure, but rather a tripartite dynamic phenomenon of orality, literacy and aurality in permanent interaction. Scholars become ever more determined to go beyond the comfort zone of certitudes based on the either/or distinctions between orality and literacy, being literate and being illiterate, possessing or not possessing basic literacy skills, knowing or not knowing Latin, etc.4 Today the realities of contact with the written word seem much more complex than we used to think until quite recently. They could go far beyond the act of reading in its modern sense, that is of an individual in silent activity performed by the human eye alone. From the perspective of the uses of the written word by medieval royalty, not only the possession of manuscripts of the Psalter by monarchs should be investigated, but also the ways in which these manuscripts were approached by their owners. In this way the study of the royal reading of the Psalter can bring us to the study of the nature of royal literacy, and of the ideas and myths surrounding it. However, to do this, other kinds of evidence will be needed besides the manuscripts of the Psalter or of the (later) libri precum themselves. Quite often narrative sources offer the possibility to take a look at the daily life of the book that was getting into all royal hands.5

I. The Reading of the Psalter from the Perspective of pietas regia

There is no doubt that from the early Middle Ages onwards, piety was perceived as one of the most important royal virtues. It was the foundation of a successful reign and also a necessary condition of God’s favour towards the realm. Royal devoutness to God could be expressed in many different ways, but first of all it had to be expressed in public. Pious foundations as well as protection of the Church, participation of the monarch in religious ceremonies, and his personal devotional practices (e.g. showing penitence), had to be seen by his subjects.6 In a sense, these activities expressed royal power and were a tool of communication between the ruler and his people. Maybe this is the main reason why in many cases modern historians cannot easily distinguish between official, ‘State’ monarchic piety, and private piety, although it seems that in the later Middle Ages a considerable personalization of the pietas regia took place.7



1 In the scholarly literature the manuscript is known as “Florian Psalter”, “Saint Florian Psalter” or “Sankt Florian Psalter”. The last name refers to the Austrain monastery Sankt Florian where it was kept in early modern times.

2 See also the other contributions in this volume, and A. Adamska, Latin and vernacular - Reading and meditation: Two Polish queens and their books, in: Cultures of Religious Reading in the Late Middle Ages. Instructing the Soul, Feeding the Spirit, and Awakening the Passion, ed. S. Corbellini, Turnhout 2013, Utrecht Studies in Medieval Literacy, 25, p. 219-246.

3 The opinion, formulated fifty years ago by Walter Ullmann, that in all sorts of written texts and pieces of art, “in one form or another there was a biblical theme, a biblical quotation, a biblical reference, a biblical allegory,” remains valid today (W. Ullmann, The Bible and principles of government in the Middle Ages, in: La Bibbia nell’alto medioevo, Settimane di Studio del Centro Italiano di Studi sull’Alto Medioevo 10, Spoleto 1963, p. 181). Among the many publications on the history of the Psalter, see: Der Psalter in Judentum and Christentum, ed. E. Zenger, Freiburg-Basel 1998; Meditations of the Heart: The Psalms in Early Christian Thought and Practice, ed. A. Andreopoulos et al., Turnhout 2011. For Poland, see a.o.: E. Potkowski, Kobiety a książka w średniowieczu – Wybrane problemy, in: Idem, Książka i pismo w średniowieczu. Studia z dziejów kultury pismiennej i komunikacji społecznej, Warszawa-Pułtusk 2006, p. 320 ff. The abundant literature concerning medieval political theology is systematically registered by the International Medieval Bibliography 1- (Leeds 1968-), accessible online.

4 The history and achievements in this domain of medieval studies were recently presented by M. Mostert, Introduction, in: Idem, A Bibliography of Works on Medieval Communication, Turnhout 2012, Utrecht Studies in Medieval Literacy 2, p. 1-27.

5 The present article is accompanied by a small florilegium of accounts concerning the ways in which medieval monarchs approached the Psalter. It forms a part of a larger database under construction.

6 See a.o.: M. Bloch, Les Rois thaumaturges, Strasbourg 1924; U. Borkowska, Pietas regia. Formy królewskiej pobożności w średniowiecznej Polsce, in: Król w Polsce XIV i XV wieku, ed. A. Marzec, M. Wilamowski, Kraków 2006, p. 39; Z. Dalewski, Ritual and Politics. Writing a History of a Dynastic Conflict in Medieval Poland, Leiden 2008, esp. p. 85-134; M. de Jong, The Penitential State. Authority and Atonement in the Age of Louis the Pious, 814-840, Cambridge 2009.

7 See: F. Mahilek, Privatfrömmigkeit und Staatsfrömmigkeit, in: Kaiser Karl IV. Staatsmann und Mäzen, ed. F. Seibt, München 1978, p. 87-94. The forms of devotional practice of the Polish kings and their families in the late Middle Ages were studied by U. Borkowska, Pietas regia ..., see above; Ead., Polskie pielgrzymki Jagiellonów, in: Peregrinationes. Pielgrzymki w kulturze dawnej Europy, ed. H. Manikowska, H. Zaremska, Warszawa 1995, p. 185-203; Ead., Królewskie modlitewniki. Studium z kultury religijnej epoki Jagiellonów, Lublin 1999; Ead. Theatrum Ceremoniale at the Polish court as a system of social and political communication, in: The Development of Literate Mentalities in East Central Europe, ed. A. Adamska, M. Mostert, Turnhout 2004, Utrecht Studies in Medieval Literacy 9, p. 431-450.