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  • Chapter 3 Prayer, Seduction, and Agency in a Thirteenth-Century Psalter
  • Maeve Doyle

A prominent opening in a psalter of circa 1290 from the region of Amiens juxtaposes two kneeling figures (Bibliothèque nationale, MS lat. 10435, fol. 137r; Figure 1).1 In the margin to the right of the Trinity initial opening Psalm 109, a woman kneels in prayer on a vine tendril next to a minuscule shield bearing the arms of the seigneur or lord of Clary (argent a fess azure [silver with a blue horizontal bar]) in dark blue and now-tarnished metallic silver pigments. The kneeling figure’s conspicuous marginal placement, her devotional posture, and her heraldic identifier align her firmly with the characteristic owner portrait type. In contrast, a courtly couple echoes and inverts the kneeling woman’s devotional gestures in the area beneath the text known as the bas-de-page. In this marginal composition, a man kneels to profess his romantic devotion before a standing woman, whom an inscription identifies as “me demisele ditre” [my lady d’Ytres]. She, in turn, readies a dart of love to strike at her kneeling suitor. The juxtaposition of these two compositions on the psalter’s Trinity page exemplifies themes of gender, agency, and devotion that run throughout the illuminated book. The Trinity page contrasts two types of portraits, which embody two types of female behavior. Furthermore, between the Clary woman and the unidentified man, the composition of the page also contrasts two types of kneeling; the genuflecting figures’ identical blue-gray garments underscore this parallel. Here, as throughout the manuscript, erotic kneeling is emphatically masculine, and the juxtaposition on the Trinity page calls into question the gendered valences of devotional genuflection. The courtly vignettes of men wooing women, which appear on a total of forty folios, pose an interpretive challenge to the reader, who must parse distinctions between religious and carnal love and, by extension, between feminine and masculine devotion. Portraiture, meanwhile, forms the medium for this visual meditation on the gesture of kneeling. The juxtaposition of portrait types in this psalter establishes courtship [End Page 37]

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Figure 1.

Psalter. Bibliothèque nationale, MS lat. 10435, fol. 137r.

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and seduction as a metaphor for devotion such that they position the reader as performing elements of both in tandem.

The psalter in which these illuminations appear is sometimes called the “Amiens Psalter” or the “Psalter of Marote de Hamel,” but I call it the “Clary Psalter” for reasons that I will explain in this article. The Clary Psalter is distinctive among personal prayer books of the late thirteenth century in a number of ways. First, it is one of a small group of fully illustrated psalters to survive from the thirteenth century. In these psalters, each of the 150 psalms, including the twenty-two sections of Psalm 118, and each of the canticles opens with a historiated initial that draws its content from the text that follows.2 Initials in the Clary Psalter are accompanied by marginal legends in a Picard dialect of French, which were written in red ink after the completion of the illumination but as part of the psalter’s original decorative program.3 The psalter also contains an unprecedented variety of portraits beyond the typical devotee type: inscriptions throughout the book identical to the psalm legends identify women and men engaged in romantic or other courtly behaviors as portraits of specific, contemporary people. The psalter’s use of inscriptions to indicate portraiture is just as surprising as the often erotic or parodic content of the illuminations. The fifty inscriptions in the manuscript’s margins name at least forty-eight different people, often by family name or toponym, but sometimes also by Christian name. The Clary Psalter is the only devotional manuscript I know from the period around 1300 to identify portrait subjects by inscription.4 Significantly, inscriptions identify only participants in courtly compositions and not devotional owner portraits, although heraldry may be attached to figures in both categories. In addition to the illustrations of psalms, the illuminations contain a remarkable amount of heraldry; like the names inscribed in the margins, much of the...