Anna Adamska A Book in All Royal Hands. How Medieval Rulers Read the Psalter

A good example of this ambiguity is the phenomenon of royal prayer. The sight of the king praying in public meant much to his subjects, and not only as a good example which should be followed. It was perceived as a dialogue between the ruler and God, who was the source of his power – as the preambles of royal charters used to emphasise so often.1 The aim of conversation with the sacrum was, of course, the well-being of the community entrusted by God to the monarch. Nevertheless, as a consequence of evolutions of the model of kingship from the thirteenth century onwards, royal prayer started to move ever more into the area of personal devotional practices, and into the intimacy of the private royal chamber or the chapel.2

The special importance of monarchic prayer was emphasised in the Hungarian Libellus de institutione morum from the eleventh century. This was in fact the oldest prince’s mirror in East Central Europe whose authorship was attributed to a royal author, Saint Stephen:

Observatio orationis maxima acquisitio est regalis salutis, et idoneo tonum in nonaria regie dignitatis canit regula. Contigua oratio is peccatorum ablutio et remissio. Tu autem fili mi, quotienscumque ad templum dei curris, ut deum adores cum Salomone, filio regis et ipse semper rex dicas: “Emitte domine sapientiam de sede magnitudinis tue, ut mecum sit et mecum laboret, ut sciam, quid acceptum sit coram te omni tempore (...)”. Hac quidem oratione antiqui utebatur reges, tu quoque hac eadem utere, ut deus cuncta vitia a te auferre dignaretur, ut invictissimus rex a cunctis nomineris. Ora etiam, ut desideriam et ebetudinem a te depellat, et sublevamentum omnium tibi tribuat virtutum, quibus visibiles et invisibiles vincas inimicos. Ut securus et expeditus ab omni incursione adversariorum cum omnibus tibi subiectis cursum etatis tue vite cum pace possis finire.3

This text shows clearly the crucial role of Holy Scripture as an instrument in the formation of the moral and political attitudes of medieval rulers. From the Merovingian period onwards, it formed a frame of reference and was the ultimate prince’s mirror, in which the prince could have a look at himself, and compare himself with the Old Testament kings of Israel. Even more, medieval rulers could imitate biblical rulers by praying in the ways Solomon and David had done.4 The Bible provided not only models of behaviour, but also the language and the style of royal discourse. Already in the Carolingian period, crucial polemics were developed in the form of biblical commentaries.5

From this perspective, the extraordinary importance of the Psalter does not surprise us. The advice, directed to clergymen and lay people alike, to consider the Psalter as the basis for personal prayer, was taken so seriously that some scholars call early medieval spiritual culture “psalmodic culture.”6 Its prominent status was reinforced in the programme of the renewal of spiritual life and pastoral care in the eighth and ninth centuries. Recent research has shown clearly that at its core the Carolingian Renaissance was a programme aimed at the correction (correctio) of religious practices through the uniformity of the liturgy. It was meant to be facilitated by liturgical books – stripped of ‘corrupted’ Latin and copied with the use of a new, standardised and readable form of script, i.e. the so-called Carolingian minuscule.7 The engagement of lay elites, including Charlemagne himself, in this programme has been emphasised in the scholarly literature. That in this period the Psalter could definitively become “the textbook” of monarchic spirituality8 was brought about by many factors, but especially by the custom of comparing contemporary rulers to the Old Testament kings. It was understandable that a monarch called “a new David” would pray using the words of the biblical David, to whom the authorship of the Psalms was attributed. In this way he could express his own problems and dilemmas, and recognise them by meditating on the fortunes and misfortunes of his biblical ‘predecessor.’9



1 See a.o.: A. Adamska, Słowo władzy i władza słowa. Język polskich dokumentów monarszych doby średniowiecza, in: Król w Polsce ..., p. 68.

2 Jacques Le Goff’s study of the prayer strategies of Saint Louis, King of France, makes this change quite clear (J. Le Goff, Saint Louis et la prière, in: Horizons marins, itinéraires spirituels (Ve-XVIIIe siècles), vol. 1, Paris 1987, p. 85-94). See also: Ph. Buc, L’Ambiguïté du Livre. Prince, pouvoir et peuple dans les commentaires de la Bible au Moyen Âge, Paris 1994; J. Krynen, Idéal du prince et pouvoir royal en France à la fin du Moyen Âge (1380-1440), Paris 1981.

3 “Observing prayer is the greatest way of acquiring royal salvation. ... Contiguous prayer is the washing away and remission of sins. And you, my son, whenever you run to the temple of God, to adore God, you ought to say with Solomon, the son of the king who himself is always king: ‘Bring forth o Lord the wisdom from the seat of your greatness, that it be with me and work with me, so that I know what is acceptable before you at all times ...’. This prayer the kings of old used, and you, too, ought to use it, so that God may deign to take away all vices from you, so that you will be called an invincible king by all. Pray also, that He may chase away desire and inebriety from you, and may grant you the support of all virtues, by which you may conquer all visible and invisible enemies. So that you may safely and quickly from all inroads of your adversaries finish the course of your life in peace with all your subjects.” (Libellus de institutione morum, ed. J. Balogh, in: Scriptores Rerum Hungaricarum, vol. 2, Budapest 1938, cap. IX, p. 626-627).

4 On the early origin of comparing medieval rulers to king David, see Y. Hen, The uses of the Bible and the perception of kingship in Merovingian Gaul, in: Early Medieval Europe 7, 1998, p. 277-289.

5 See especially: M. de Jong, The Empire as Ecclesia: Hrabanus Maurus and biblical Historia for rulers, in: The Uses of the Past in the Early Middle Ages, ed. Y. Hen, M. Innes, Cambridge 2000, p. 191-226. About the use of biblical parables to ‘picture’ the history of young nations in early medieval East Central Europe and Scandinavia, see: Cz. Deptuła, Galla Anonima mit genezy Polski. Studium z historiografii i hermeneutyki symboli dziejopisarstwa średniowiecznego, Lublin 1990; Historical Narratives and Christian Identity on a European Periphery. Early History Writing in Northern, East-Central and Eastern Europe (c. 1070- 1200), ed. I. Garipzanov, Turnhout 2011, see above.

6 See especially: M. de Jong, The Empire as Ecclesia: Hrabanus Maurus and biblical Historia for rulers, in: The Uses of the Past in the Early Middle Ages, ed. Y. Hen, M. Innes, Cambridge 2000, p. 191-226. About the use of biblical parables to ‘picture’ the history of young nations in early medieval East Central Europe and Scandinavia, see: Cz. Deptuła, Galla Anonima mit genezy Polski. Studium z historiografii i hermeneutyki symboli dziejopisarstwa średniowiecznego, Lublin 1990; Historical Narratives and Christian Identity on a European Periphery. Early History Writing in Northern, East-Central and Eastern Europe (c. 1070- 1200), ed. I. Garipzanov, Turnhout 2011, see above.

7 For the detailed presentation of the state of research and an abundant bibliography, see: R. McKitterick, Charlemagne, Cambridge 2008.

8 J.L. Nelson, Kingship and empire in the Carolingian world, in: Carolingian Culture: Emulation and Innovation, ed. R. McKitterick, Cambridge 1994, p. 61.

9 From the rich scholarly literature concerning the vivacity of the model of king David in medieval culture, and of a kind of rivalry with the model of Solomon, see a.o.: H. Steger, David rex et propheta. König David als vorbildliche Verkörperung des Herrschers und Dichters im Mittelalter, Nürnberg 1961; G. Klaniczay, The ambivalent model of Solomon for royal sainthood and royal wisdom, in: The Biblical Models of Power and Law – Les modèles biblioques du pouvoir et du droit, ed. I. Bibliarsky, R.G. Păun, Frankfurt a/M.-Berlin 2008, p. 75-92; E. Bakalova, King David as a model for the Christian ruler. Some visual sources, Ibidem, p. 93-125. An extraordinary example of presenting the early medieval ruler as the ‘new David’ is the full-page miniature in the Vivian Bible, one of the most splendid manuscripts of the Carolingian period (Paris, BnF, MS lat. 1), which was elaborated in Tours for Charles the Bald in 846. It represents the emperor as David, with ‘ancient’ garments, playing the harp somewhere between the earth and Heaven (see: G. Henderson, Emulation and invention in Carolingian art, in: Carolingian Culture..., p. 269).