- The Life of Saint Alban by Matthew Paris
Six scholars have combined to produce an important work on the life of St Alban, the patron saint of the present city of St Albans. The book’s contents are summed up in the preface, and Paris’s version appears with scholarly comments, followed by a version of his life, on pp. 1–131. The Passion of Saint Alban covers pages 133–65, and the Dublin manuscript is assessed on pp. 169–207, followed by an appendix with collation maps, on pages 209–12, and sample passages in the original French, on pp. 213–20, each section having a short index.
The book is well bound, with fine quality paper, and an attractive frontispiece. The illumination on it was a good choice, depicting Alban’s martyrdom, painted by Matthew Paris. The bleeding head of Alban rises up from his body as he prays, and a stream of blood pours down from his severed neck. A long sword crosses centre-stage; its owner, the executioner, is blinded. Alban’s soul flies up as a dove, plus halo. A Saracen grasps the bloody cross falling from Alban’s hands. The unusual amount of blood in Paris’s life is noted on pp. 36–39, as shown by Paris in this gory illumination. The comment on p. 27 that Paris had interviewed the physician of Richard Coeur de Lion was of interest; the King had somehow found time in 1190 to establish a Cistercian monastery at Notre-Dame de Bonport, and equip it with an excellent library. [End Page 256]
The translation from the French by Jocelyn Wogan-Browne is accurate, and as lively as the original, presenting a dramatic picture of the conversion, the Saracen spy, the angry tyrant, the exchange of ermine and clerical cloaks, the beating of Alban, his six months in prison, the deep river, the converted executioner, and his replacement beheading Alban, surrounded by incongruous Saracen knights. The metamorphosis of these pagans into fierce Saracens, described on pp. 8 and 27–28, is seen as due to Saladin and the bloodthirsty Crusades. The different versions of the basic story of the martyrdoms are well assessed, and the section on the verse form, the syllables, and neat enjambment was well worth including.
Thirteen of the illuminated pages painted by Paris are included. These provide his interesting visualization of the characters, their clothing and ambience, starting with Alban, watching the Christian Amphibalus at prayer, the last ending the manuscript, showing King Offa laying his charter on the left, as bells ring in a bell-tower, although he did not found the Benedictine monastery of St Alban (see p. 130). What is surprising is that Paris first painted his scenes, and then wrote all or most of the script, although the authors suggested quite the opposite on the bottom of Plate 1. The script runs over the picture’s frame near its bottom, and the rubric on Plate 11 avoids the lance-head and two trumpets, and the small roof on Plate 12. It was in fact normal for a scribe to draw the areas needed by him, or by a more artistic monk.
A different version of Alban’s death, to which Matthew Paris was considerably indebted, appears on pages 139–60. The perceptive introduction by Thomas O’Donnell and Margaret Lamont provides basic information about William (a young monk), the work’s date (about 1178), and the revival then of interest in Alban and Amphibalus, mainly due to the translation of their holy remains. Dedicated to Abbot Simon, the work was based on versions in Bede and Geoffrey of Monmouth, and on...