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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.