Podium; A precious voice from the middle ages

Michelle Brown From a speech about the Sherborne Missal given by the curator of Illuminated Manuscripts at the British Library

IN JULY 1998 the Sherborne Missal was acquired for the nation after negotiations in which the British Library, government offices, granting bodies and the book trade collaborated to ensure that this medieval masterpiece remained in the country and passed into public ownership. The British Library is currently mounting an appeal to raise the funds to meet the remaining payments of approximately pounds 1.5m to complete this arrangement. Why should such forces have been marshalled? What is so special about this particular survivor of the Middle Ages?

The Missal was the most precious English illuminated manuscript still in private hands. Made at St Mary's Abbey in Sherborne, Dorset, around 1400-1407, the manuscript was still in England during the Reformation, when images of the Pope and St Thomas Becket were defaced in compliance with certain edicts issued by Henry VIII during the 1530s.

What does this treasure-house consist of? The hefty tome weighs more than 3st, measures around 53 x 380mm and contains 694 parchment pages of elaborate Gothic script, musical notation and a whole art gallery of illuminated images. It is the biggest, most lavish late medieval service- book to have survived the Reformation intact - a remarkable survival in the face of perils which began some 20 years after it was made when the townspeople of Sherborne burned the Abbey in a dispute over ecclesiastical authority, the parish priest allegedly firing the first flaming arrow at its roof. The world which the Sherborne Missal opens up to us in one of colourful personalities with ambitious agendas for this world and the next, who reflect not only the devotional fervour of the age but also its political and social realities.

Sherborne had important royal connections, including its role as last resting place of the brothers of Alfred the Great. And the images in the Missal promote continued royal interest.

Its relationship with Salisbury was also important. It was the source of Salisbury's authority, counting Aldhelm and Asser among its bishops before the see was transferred to Salisbury in 1075.

The iconographic scheme is at pains to emphasise that the see of Salisbury owed its origins to Sherborne, one of the most ancient Anglo-Saxon bishoprics, founded in 705 and with an even earlier history extending back into the British Church, with early saints such as Alban, and Celts such as Juthwara receiving commemoration. Tellingly, the text of the Missal does not correspond to Sarum or Salisbury use, as might be expected, but preserves the Old Gregorian form allegedly introduced to England by St Augustine, thereby preserving aspects of the oldest liturgies of the English Church.

Couple this with the programme of decoration of the Ordinary of the Mass - which, in effect, includes a potted history of the Church, of Sherborne's role in its history and a summary of its property holdings and a record of its benefactors - and any informed, interested party can have no doubt of the firm foundations upon which any claims of the house, and its authority, rested.

The Sherborne Missal remains a largely unexplored treasure-trove of information on the world in which it was made. A masterpiece of the "International Gothic" style (its monumental Crucifixion page owing much to Italian panel and fresco painting), it celebrates Britain's contribution to European culture and is electrifyingly inventive in its imagery. Local details also abound, both from the West Country and from elsewhere in Britain. The volume features a remarkable marginal series of naturalistic bird depictions, many labelled with their Middle English names, possibly based upon sketches made in the North of England (perhaps contained in something like the Pepys sketchbook in Magdalene College, Cambridge), although most of the species remain native to the West Country too.

The names are another particular focus of interest, echoes from a world which was producing vernacular masterpieces such as the Canterbury Tales and Piers Plowman. Other of the exemplars available to the team devising the Missal included an heraldic roll of arms, known as the Seger armorial, originally compiled in the 13th century, and the 12th century Sherborne Cartulary, which is one of the few other surviving relics of the Sherborne library, and a volume of administrative material relating to Sherborne. A lot of research and planning went into composing the scheme of the Missal - as well as money and artistry.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Dunne, played by Ben Affleck, finds himself at the centre of a media storm when his wife is reported missing and assumed dead

film
Arts and Entertainment
Lindsay Lohan made her West End debut earlier this week in 'Speed-the-Plow'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Artist Nathan Sawaya stands with his sculpture 'Yellow' at the Art of Brick Exhibition

art
Arts and Entertainment
'Strictly Come Dancing' attracted 6.53 million viewers on Friday
tv
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant plays Detective Emmett Carver in the US version on Broadchurch

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor goes undercover at Coal Hill School in 'The Caretaker'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Ni , Rock of Rah, Vanuatu: The Ni live on one of the smallest islands of Vanuatu; Nelson flew five hours from Sydney to capture the 'isolation forged by their remoteness'
photographyJimmy Nelson travelled the world to photograph 35 threatened tribes in an unashamedly glamorous style
Arts and Entertainment
David Byrne
musicDavid Byrne describes how the notorious First Lady's high life dazzled him out of a career low
Arts and Entertainment
Sergeant pfeffer: Beatles in 1963
booksA song-by-song survey of the Beatles’ lyrics
Arts and Entertainment
music'I didn't even know who I was'
Arts and Entertainment
Cheryl was left in a conundrum with too much talent and too few seats during the six-chair challenge stage
tvReview: It was tension central at boot camp as the ex-Girls Aloud singer whittled down the hopefuls
Arts and Entertainment
Kalen Hollomon's Anna Wintour collage

art
Arts and Entertainment

TV Grace Dent on TV
Arts and Entertainment

Music
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

music
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer is believed to be playing a zombie wife in Patient Zero

film
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Gatiss says Benedict Cumberbatch oozes sex appeal with his 'Byronic looks' and Sherlock coat
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Clothing items bearing the badge have become popular among music aficionados
musicAuthorities rule 'clenched fist' logo cannot be copyrighted
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson will star in Seth MacFarlane's highly-anticipated Ted 2

film
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike in 'Gone Girl'

film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

    The children orphaned by Ebola...

    ... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
    Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
    The magic of roundabouts

    Lords of the rings

    Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?
    Why do we like making lists?

    Notes to self: Why do we like making lists?

    Well it was good enough for Ancient Egyptians and Picasso...
    Hong Kong protests: A good time to open a new restaurant?

    A good time to open a new restaurant in Hong Kong?

    As pro-democracy demonstrators hold firm, chef Rowley Leigh, who's in the city to open a new restaurant, says you couldn't hope to meet a nicer bunch
    Paris Fashion Week: Karl Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'

    Paris Fashion Week

    Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'
    Bruce Chatwin's Wales: One of the finest one-day walks in Britain

    Simon Calder discovers Bruce Chatwin's Wales

    One of the finest one-day walks you could hope for - in Britain
    10 best children's nightwear

    10 best children's nightwear

    Make sure the kids stay cosy on cooler autumn nights in this selection of pjs, onesies and nighties
    Manchester City vs Roma: Five things we learnt from City’s draw at the Etihad

    Manchester City vs Roma

    Five things we learnt from City’s Champions League draw at the Etihad
    Martin Hardy: Mike Ashley must act now and end the Alan Pardew reign

    Trouble on the Tyne

    Ashley must act now and end Pardew's reign at Newcastle, says Martin Hardy
    Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

    Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

    and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
    Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

    Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

    The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
    Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

    Last chance to see...

    The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
    So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

    Truth behind teens' grumpiness

    Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
    Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

    Hacked photos: the third wave

    Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?