Devotional Psalters and the Study of Beguine Spirituality

by Judith Oliver

Colgate University

Hamilton NY 13346




The beguine movement has been the subject of intense scholarly interest in recent years.1 Our knowledge of the development of this women’s movement in individual towns and of its spiritual content has been aided by the survival of many sorts of written documents. A record of the beguines’ devotional life has been preserved in a series of vitae.2 A few beguines – notably Hadewijch, Marguerite de Porete and Mechthild of Magdeburg – have left behind a wealth of vernacular mystical literature.3 Statutes and regulations for indi­vidual convents drawn up by super­vising clerics add further information about the or­gan­isation of everyday life.4 Archival sources, including wills and property transactions, have been fruitfully mined for information on the beguines’ social and economic status.5 One additional written source which contributes appreciably to a deeper knowledge of beguine piety is the group of devotional manuscripts made for, and sometimes by, beguines in the diocese of Liège in the thirteenth century.

These devotional books are psalters, the universally popular text for private devotions used by the laity in the Gothic period. The psalter was the book from which children were taught the fundamentals of Latin vocabulary and grammar, and it was the one book a layperson was most apt to own.6 This is particularly true for women, whose Latin literacy would rarely extend beyond an ability to read the psalter.7 A substantial number of the thirteenth–century psalters made for use in the Liège diocese were owned by women. Petitions to God for the female sex (pro devoto femineo sexu), for a penitent female sinner (peccatrix), or petitioner (ancilla tua) occur repeatedly, as do images of female patrons kneeling in prayer.

What sets the Liège psalters apart from those made else­where in Europe is the unusual richness of their subsidiary texts, which indicates that their owners were not ordinary laypersons.8 They include several long offices of the Virgin and the office of the dead borrowed from the breviary. Prayers to say at mass are extracted from the missal. Easter Tables to aid in calculating the dates of movable feasts, a calendar of dietary rules, and a profusion of religious poetry in Latin and French all serve to expand the simple lay devotional psalter into a veritable lay breviary. All these texts are illustrated, the subjects chosen providing a visual exegesis on the written word and, thus, yet another text of meditations to be read by the books’ owners.

Although the texts do not conform to the usages of any specific monastic order, they do follow dio­cesan liturgical usage. The calendars and litanies include the feasts of numerous local saints. Saint Lambert, patron saint of the diocese, is especially venerated, and an Easter Table often found in these psalters has as its key a Latin verse addressing this saint. His martyrdom is also frequently depicted. Petitions following the litany include one for the clergy and people of the Liège cathedral. Hours of the Virgin and the office of the dead both conform to standard Liège diocesan usage. The textual complexity of these books, coupled with evidence of female ownership for many of them, leads one to conclude that numerous extant psalters were made for beguines who were technically laity and so adhered to diocesan liturgical practices in their parishes.

Historical evidence in saints’ lives and wills provides external confirmation of the use of psalters by beguines. Marie d’Oignies, the first beguine known to us by name (d. 1213), read her psalter incessantly.9 The biography of Odilia, a Liège beguine who died in 1220, also comments on such intensive use of the psalter.10 Ida of Nivelles (d. 1231) went to live with beguines at the age of nine, bringing with her the psalter she was memorising.11 Margaret of Ypres (d. 1237) also owned one.12 Beatrice of Stavelot, a beguine of the parish of Saint Christophe in Liège who died in 1307, left a psalter in her will to another beguine named Barbelete.13 Evidence for beguine ownership of individual books can be established with greater or lesser certainty from internal textual and visual clues.

One psalter in particular, British Library Additional Manuscript 21114, has long been assigned to beguine ownership because it contains the only known mediæval portrait of Lambert le Bègue, pastor of the parish church of Liège in the late twelfth century (fig. 1). The scroll he holds proclaims in French that he is Lambert who founded Saint Christophe and that readers should not consider this claim a fable. He also says he wrote – literally, “inscribed” – a table, i.e. the Easter Table just discussed. The caption above his head asserts that this righteous man first founded the order of the béguinage and put the epistles of Saint Paul into our language (i.e., French).14 Liturgical evidence, however, dates the manuscript to the mid–thirteenth cen­tury, not to the late twelfth. This was the time when the large beguine parish of Saint Christophe built the present church and was first granted tax exemption by the bishop, and so was eager to prove that it deserved this privilege as an ancient, traditional monastic religious institution with a venerable founder. This was indeed a fable. The London Psalter is an important historical document in the de­vel­op­­ment of the tradition that Lambert le Bègue founded the beguine movement. He was certainly active as an advisor and protector of pious women in his parish, but it is improbable that the movement can be attributed to any one founder,15 and it was not a monastic order. In his letters, Lambert says that he translated the Book of Acts and a life of Saint Agnes for pious virgins, and that he was familiar with a glossed psalter translated into the vernacular by a Flemish master.l6 None of the extant psalters for lay use discussed here dates to the twelfth century; none is in the vernacular; and none is a glossed psalter, so there seems no reason to assume that they copy a textual exemplar he owned.17

The style of this psalter is distinctly retardataire for its period; it has a folk art character consistent with amateur craftsmanship, comparable in this regard to the nonnenbücher so common in German nunneries.18 A bequest in the will of a beguine at Saint Christophe dating to 1266 leaves money to other women for the making of psalters (ad opus psalteriorum), archival corroboration of the visual evidence of the London Psalter that beguines made at least some of their own devotional books.19 The London Psalter can be dated c.1255–1265 on stylistic and textual grounds and its Easter Table is marked above the column for 1252–1279. It is one of a group of stylistically comp­arable psalters which can be attributed to this Saint Christophe atelier.20 Stylistic differences among Liège psalters reflect a clientele of varying economic status, for some manuscripts are of very fine quality, clearly the work of professional artists making books on commission. As will be discussed shortly, we know that many beguines came from the bourgeoisie and landed gentry and a few were aristocrats, hence they were able to afford books.

Manuscript production flourished in the diocese during the second half of the thirteenth century. The single largest group of extant manuscripts are these small portable psalters for lay patrons, a category of book notably lacking in Liège in the earlier mediæval period. Psalters made in the diocese gradually decrease in size and increase in decorative elaboration between 1260 and the early fourteenth century. Psalters of the London, British Library Add. MS. 21114 group measure up to 20 by 14 cm. while fourteenth–century books may be only 11 by 7.5 cm. Their script is necessarily more compact and elegantly angular. Simple penwork decoration has become denser, multi–coloured, and is accompanied by gold details. Foliate extensions grow from initials and are inhabited by a profusion of painted marginal drolleries. Historiated initials occupy a large portion of the page and are capped by architectural canopies. Smaller initials are also figural. All these developments indicate a response to a clientele interested in increasingly lavish and increasingly expensive books. This is not inconsistent with beguine patronage. Throughout the thirteenth century, many beguines came from patrician families and extant wills indicate that some, indeed, were quite well–to–do. Beatrice of Stavelot, the beguine at Saint Christophe who died in 1307, may even have owned more than one manuscript. Moreover, a recent socio–economic study of beguines in Cologne has shown that the percentage of beguines coming from the patrician class rose by the late thirteenth century, as admission to overcrowded regular nunneries became more difficult.21

As one moves into the fourteenth century, the number of psalters dwindles and institutional patronage of book production gradually comes to predominate again. One hesitates to ascribe this decline in psalter production to the 1317 papal decree condemning heterodox beguines since, throughout the Liège diocese, beguines were specifically exempted and placed under papal and local episcopal protection. For the beguines of Saint Christophe, the four­teenth century was their most flourishing period. The imposition of guild regulations in the second quarter of the fourteenth century (if not earlier) would have affected neither the purchase of manuscripts by beguines nor their production for their own use. Perhaps production tapered off because a sufficient number of devotional manuscripts had been produced in the thirteenth century: this certainly was the case for small portable bibles made in Paris and, indeed, extant manuscripts were used for centuries.

To judge by the surviving manuscripts, the production of these lay devotional books in the Liège diocese coincides with the arrival of the mendicant orders in the second quarter of the thirteenth century. The friars settled in towns all over Europe within a few years of their foundation. The Franciscans arrived in Liège in 1229 and the Dominicans in 1232. Both orders were urban mission­aries, concerned with combating heresy and ministering to the laity through preaching and the hearing of confessions. Among their major concerns was the supervision of beguines.22 Coincidentally, most beguine associations in the Liège diocese were established between 1240 and 1260, and the earliest extant psalters also date no earlier than the second quarter of the century. In Liège, at least some beguines lived near the Dominican convent.23 Many had relatives who were friars, and their wills often leave bequests to the Franciscans and Dominicans. Mendicant saints are invoked and frequently depicted in extant psalters. A visual expression of their spiritual influence is found in their presence on the opening pages of the psalter. The Psalm 1 initial often includes images of Saints Francis and Elizabeth of Hungary who had been a Franciscan tertiary. Pilgrimage to her shrine in Marburg was very popular in the Liège diocese, and a hospital dedicated to her was established in the city of Liège in 1249. On the facing page, the initial for Psalm 2 is illustrated in a number of psalters with a joint portrait of Saints Francis and Dominic, possibly a depiction of their historic meeting in Rome in 1216.

In their texts and images, the extant psalters illustrate many aspects of beguine spirituality which are known to us from other sources. The psalter – which beguines often knew by heart – was recited weekly, the psalms divided into eight groups to be said at daily matins and at Sunday vespers. These are illustrated by historiated initials, as are the non–liturgical divisions of the psalter into thirds at Psalms 51 and 101. Liège psalters are unique in adding an illuminated initial at Psalm 2 to these ten common subdivisions of the text. Equally distinctive to the region is the selection of subjects illustrating these psalms which are scenes of Christ’s infancy and miracles taken from the gospels. According to Christian exegesis, Christ is the subject of the entire book, for He is the Blessed Man of Psalm 1.24

While Christ’s infancy and miracles dominate the psalm illustrations, His passion occupies the initials of the hours of the Virgin which follow. The traditional association of the events of the passion with particular hours of the day was established in part by the gospel narrative, and codified liturgically in the stations of the cross, as early as the twelfth century. The subjects of the hours initials in the Liège psalters adhere to this tradition.

Marian devotion played a central role in beguine piety, a role which recent scholarship on the beguines has downplayed.25 The Liège diocese claimed the Virgin as well as Saint Lambert as its patron saint, and hence she was the especial protector of the entire population. Daily recitation of her hours is mandated by some statutes for beguines.26 The frequency of this devotion among beguines was ridiculed as excessive by laymen in Huy.27 The office most often found in Liège psalters is that for the feast of the Nativity of the Virgin. This is joined by abbreviated offices for the feasts of the Annunciation, Purification and Assumption, forming a Marian breviary. Indeed, the Virgin dominates the entire book, for her death and coronation often illustrate the first psalm, and these manuscripts end with a Latin or French poem of one hundred and fifty quatrains, a psalter of the Virgin called the Aves. Daily recitation of such a Marian psalter was a required devotional exercise for beguines, cited in statutes for beguines in Ghent.28

The Latin Aves are of twelfth–century Cistercian origin and were recited daily by Cistercian nuns in the Liège diocese in the thirteenth century.29 Each stanza paraphrases a verse from one of the psalms and sings praises of the Virgin. In contrast, the vernacular French Aves focus on specific gospel events and are filled with a concern for penitence and salvation. Poems in either language are illustrated most frequently with the penitent cleric Theophilus who had sold his soul to the devil. He kneels in prayer before the Virgin who has seized the devil by his horn and reclaimed the compact Theophilus had signed, hence rescuing his soul from damnation. The Virgin’s role as intercessor for penitent sinners was thus a focus of beguine devotion. In one early Huy Psalter of the 1250s, Brussels, Bibliothèque Royale, MS. IV–36, a veiled woman stretches out her hands in supplication as she kneels before an altar on which is located a statue of the seated Virgin and Child enthroned (fig. 2). Such statues of the Sedes sapientiæ or Throne of Wisdom were common devotional objects in mediæval churches. Made of wood, they were cult statues which served as mediators between human petitioners and the divine.30 Presumably it was a statue to which Jacques de Vitry was referring in the vita of Marie d’Oignies, when he stated that she frequently prayed to an image of the Virgin.31

In the words of the author of the vita of Juliana of Mont Cornillon, beguines and other religious women revered the Virgin “as the Mother of God, the parent of her bridegroom, the bearer of her only beloved.”32 The texts of the offices of the Virgin found in the Liège psalters are permeated with bridal imagery. Excerpts from the first two chapters of the Song of Songs are used for the nine lessons of matins. They are verses of intense physical longing and sensual delight. Beguines and nuns, especially in Belgium and the Rhineland, desired a mystical marriage with Christ, a physical union experienced in receipt of the Eucharist.33 The beguine Hadewijch of Antwerp received the wafer and chalice at Mass, experiencing at the same time a visionary fusion with Christ.34

According to statutes from a number of towns, beguines were required to attend Mass daily, although with few exceptions they received it less frequently.35 They were to give their confession once a month and they recited the confessional prayer, the Confiteor, from the missal in preparation for attending Mass. The Confiteor and other prefatory prayers are included in a number of Liège psalters. They find their fullest development in The Hague, Koninklijke Bibliotheek MS. 76.G.17, an early fourteenth–century psalter from the béguinage of Saint Agnes in Maeseyck. Here they form an abbreviated ordinary of the Mass for the use of communicants. They are intermingled with long French rubrics which explain the priest’s actions and dictate the appropriate prayers to recite before communion, at the elevation of the Host, and after Mass.36 Only one psalter, Cambridge, Fitzwilliam Museum MS. 288, illustrates these prayers. Its initials show veiled women confessing, attending Mass, and receiving the host (fig. 3).

The intensity of eucharistic fervour among religious women in the Liège diocese led to the establishment of the feast of Corpus Christi in the years 1246 to 1264. Its chief proponent was the Augustinian Juliana of Mont–Cornillon who was supported by the recluse Eve of Saint Martin and sheltered by Cistercian nuns and beguines elsewhere in the diocese.37

In addition to daily attendance at Mass, beguines were required to perform fasts and vigils and to offer prayers for the living and the dead.38 A major social function per­formed by the beguines was nursing the sick and dying and they were often attached to hospitals. In Liège, beguines in the parish, of Saint Christophe ran a hospital and hospice.39 Beguines also participated in funerary rites, lighting candles and praying until the candles burned out,40 prayers which included the recitation of the psalter.41 Beguines fasted and went without sleep in order to redeem souls from purgatory through the merit gained by their own suffering.42

Following the hours, most psalters have the office of the dead according to the liturgical use of the Liège diocese. This text consists of vespers, matins and lauds for the vigils before the funeral mass. It is this Requiem Mass which is often depicted in the single historiated initial introducing the office of the dead. A crowd of laymen – or, in one instance, clerics in white choir robes – stands behind the bier. All turn towards the priest who is usually depicted saying Mass at an altar, although most often he is shown in the act of elevating the Host, while another clergyman tolls the church bell. Large candles often stand in front of the bier and veiled women huddle in the foreground reading their psalters (fig. 4).

Throughout these books, Latin texts are interspersed with others in the French vernacular. Explanatory rubrics introduce the hours of the Virgin and indicate what passion event transpired at that hour. Mass prayers in Latin are coupled with French translations or replace­ments. The Latin Marian Psalter is often replaced by French poems of similar format and length.

The first extra–liturgical vernacular texts encountered by readers of these psalters are short lyric poems, one to eight of them placed before the psalms of David. Each poem concentrates on one episode from the life of Christ, paraphrasing the gospel, meditating on the meaning of the event, repenting one’s sins, and petitioning for salvation. Thematically the poems focus either on Christ’s infancy or on His passion and resurrection, although it is the passion meditations which predominate. Taken together, the poems form a cycle, celebrating major feast days of the liturgical year and each one dwells on Christ’s humanity and immediate empathetic identification with it. Marie d’Oignies meditated in a similar way on the emotional reality of each feast: "… The various feasts took on a new interest accord­ing to how [Christ] manifested Himself and each caused a different [emotional] state.”43

Throughout Europe such devotional texts for a female audience became a major element of vernacular literature after the mid–thirteenth century, much of it inspired by the mendicants.44

Each poem is illustrated by a full–page miniature on the facing verso, forming a devotional diptych of image and text. Instead of referring to the miniatures as illustrations of the texts they accompany, it would be more accurate to stress the primacy of the image as an aid to meditation and the medium through which worshippers achieved visionary experiences.45 In one Liège psalter, New York, Pierpont Morgan Library MS. 440 (fol.13v), a female worshipper kneels in prayer in the margin outside a framed miniature of the crucifixion (fig. 5). Her position mirrors that of beguines who routinely addressed their prayers to God through an image and experienced physical identification with Christ through meditation on physical objects. One or two poems (including the one in Morgan 440) refer explicitly to the image of the crucifixion depicted on the facing page, addressing it before petitioning Christ for salvation. The beguine Odilia focused on an image of the crucifixion in her psalter and experienced the pain of Christ’s wounds.46 In Liège the recluse Eve of Saint Martin uncovered her Veronica – an image of Christ as Saviour – for Juliana of Mont–Cornillon.47 Juliana’s response to seeing this image was to feel the pain of Christ’s passion and to faint. Weeping at the sight of a carved crucifix, Marie d’Oignies embraced its feet48 and, on another occasion, rays of light emerged from the cross to pierce her heart.49 This crucifix may have been a life–sized carving hung above an altar.50 The poetic texts may thus have outlined the episode from Christ’s life upon which the meditation was to focus, but the accompanying image was the vehicle for attaining a visionary experience.

Several poems petition God for his handmaiden (ton ancelle), which gives them a specifically feminine voice and strongly suggests that the poems in these Liège psalters were written for or by beguines. Marie d’Oignies sang rhymed verses in French – regrettably, not transcribed by her biographer – some concerning the humanity of Christ or the Virgin and some, significantly, inspired by the Magnificat and Nunc dimittis canticles, like several of the poems in the Liège psalters.51 Other beguines and nuns of the diocese were famous for writing in the vernacular. The beguine Hadewijch and the Cistercian nun Beatrijs van Nazareth both wrote highly sophisticated mystical treatises in Flemish on the nature of heavenly love.52 Ida of Léau also wrote verses in Flemish but they unfortunately have not survived.53 It is surprising to note that although a number of the extant psalters were made for use in Brabant and a tradition of vernacular religious literature existed in the Flemish–speaking region of the Liège diocese, none of the surviving psalters contain any texts in that vernacular.

This survey of the contents of surviving devotional psalters from the diocese of Liège has found that many of them are not only textually complex but filled with elements used in beguine spiritual exercises. Texts and images are permeated with the affective piety characteristic not only of mendicant and beguine spirituality but also by that of contemporary Cistercian nuns, an influence clearly seen in many vitae and made manifest by the explicit inclusion of the Cistercian Latin Aves poem in many psalters. That beguines contributed additional texts to the common devotional psalter would not be surprising, nor is the possibility that some of these manuscripts were written and illuminated by the beguines themselves. The psalters thus supplement and complement what we can learn from studying vitae, statutes, wills, and literature, and enrich our knowledge with a wealth of visual imagery.