The manuscript


The Utrecht Psalter gets its name from the fact that it has been housed in Utrecht University Library since 1716. There is still some doubt about when and where it was made. However, that it dates back to the second quarter of the ninth century and that it was made in Reims or in the nearby monastery of Hautvilliers is by now accepted by most experts. The Utrecht Psalter is regarded as the masterpiece of the so-called Reims school of manuscript illumination which also dates back to this period.

The Utrecht Psalter is no typical Carolingian manuscript. Even though all characteristics of the Utrecht Psalter occur separately in other manuscripts, there is no other existing manuscript in which they are all found together. These characteristics can be divided in physical qualities (material, dimensions, composition), the layout, the handwriting (script) and the decorations (illustrations).


The 92 folios of the Utrecht Psalter are made from prepared calfskin, vellum in English and in French vélin, from the Latin vitulinum (from vitula, ‘calf’). The term parchment is also used for animal skin prepared as writing material, but strictly speaking it applies to sheepskin only. The preparation process to make vellum was quite laborious: graining, moistening, stretching and scouring. The vellum of the Utrecht Psalter is of excellent quality. This can be seen with the naked eye – even though the colour of the vellum has turned from creamy white to light brown over the past 1000 years - and was established by means of three samples which were taken in September 2013 without damaging the vellum itself. Research by Sarah Fiddyment (University of York) into the collagen molecules showed that the damages made by bad manufacture are so small that the job could hardly have been done better. The skill of the vellum makers is also proved by the fact that the difference between the hair side and the flesh side is hardly visible. This is very characteristic for Insular manuscripts from this period. This does not mean that the psalter was made by people from the British Isles but it does show that the highest standards of those days can be applied to the vellum of the Utrecht Psalter.


The leaves of the Utrecht Psalter measure 328-332 by 254-259 mm. The differences in length and width are due to the fact that the manuscript was rebound and trimmed when it was owned by Robert Cotton in the beginning of the seventeenth century. Cotton had twelve leaves of a slightly smaller eighth-century Gospel bound together with the psalter, and afterwards the binder trimmed the three outer margins of the leaves of the psalter. Koert van der Horst (1996, 25) estimated that the binder trimmed off 23 mm of both the upper and lower margins, and 50 mm off the outer margin. As a result, the now even edges could be gilt, after the fashion of those days.

Unfortunately, due to the trimming some letters and illustrations were cut off as well. Examples are Cotton’s signature on fol. 1r, the capital M on 27v, C on 83v and Q on 90v; the pruned trees on 23r and 24r; and the quire numbers put in by the binder himself, such as the ‘3’ at the bottom of 10r. The original dimensions of a leaf must have been approximately 38.5 by 31 cm. This makes the Utrecht Psalter one of the larger manuscripts from the early Carolingian period, even though it is not in the same league as for instance the Vivian Bible (Tours, 845-6) with its 49.5 by 34.5 cm.


23 calfskins were needed for the 92 folios of the Utrecht Psalter, assuming that four leaves could be made out of each skin. This was done by folding the prepared thin and supple skin once in the length and once in the width. Another skin, folded in the same way, was inserted. After the margins were trimmed and the folds cut open, a collection of four bifolios was left, in which each bifolio consists of two leaves which are attached to each other in the middle. This is called a quire (Latin quaternio, French cahier).

The Utrecht Psalter consists of eleven of such quires of eight leaves (sixteen pages), the part beginning with fol. 2 and ending with 89. Folio 1 is a separate leaf which has the illustration of Psalm 1 on the verso side and which is folded around the first quire for firmness. Fol. 90-91 are made from one bifolio, and folded around it is the blank leaf fol. 92. By the formula: IV (f. 2-9)+1 (f. 1), 10IV (f. 10-89), I+1 (f. 90-92). The leaves were foliated in pencil before 1873 in the lower left corner of each recto. The slightly older foliation at the lower right corner of each recto has therefore become useless.


As said before, in the Utrecht Psalter the difference between the hair side and the flesh side is barely visible. On vellum of a somewhat inferior quality the hair side is often dotted due to the hair implantations of the animal, which are of a slighter darker colour. In the Carolingian empire quires were usually folded in such a way that when opening the book, the verso, the page on the left, showed the same side of the vellum as the following recto, the page on the right, resulting in a uniform type page. Each quire was folded in such a way that it started and ended with a flesh side. In the Western Roman empire and later in the Insular tradition however, each quire started with a hair side, even though the Irish were so skilled in producing vellum that they put the hair side next to the flesh side because they had reduced the difference to a minimum.

The Utrecht Psalter shows both production methods. The first loose leaf starts with a flesh side and ends with a hair side. Then twelve quires follow, starting and ending with:FHFHHHFFFFFF; the last leaf, fol. 92, starts with H. All in all you might say that the first part of the manuscript follows the Insular tradition, the second part the Carolingian one. Those who arranged the leaves probably were not aware of such a distinction, but it may suggest that several persons were involved. In any case, two scribes worked on writing the psalm texts, and no less than eight illustrators. This suggests that the Utrecht Psalter comes from a scriptorium where manuscripts were regularly produced in teams.


Before the bifolia were folded to make up for the quires, prickings were made with compasses or a sharp knife to define the writing space. The prickings were made through several bifolios at a time in order to make the writing space as uniform as possible. In the Utrecht Psalter there are no prickings to be seen, these were probably made in the outer margins and disappeared while producing the manuscript or they fell prey to the binder’s knife in the days of Robert Cotton (see ch. 11). There are no prickings in the inner margins because on an unfolded bifolio all necessary horizontal lines were drawn in one go, which was normal for that period.


Defining the writing space was done by a small metal pen with a round end, resulting in blind lines which were concave (creating a small furrow) on one side of the vellum and convex (creating a small ridge) on the other side. Three columns were drawn, each measuring 64 by 244 mm, with intervals of 15 mm between them. Every 3.8 mm horizontal lines were drawn within the colums, resulting in 64 lines to write on. Initial letters of the psalms were written outside the columns. The writing lines were also drawn where, preceding each psalm and canticle, an illustration was drawn. The only exception is fol. 1 where the illustration covers the whole verso side. The rule stating that the illustration must precede the psalm verse can result in the illustration being drawn at the bottom of a recto side whereas the text only starts on the verso side (fol. 8r, 9r, 11r, 12r, etc.). This occurs twenty times in total. On a few occasions this results in a somewhat odd-looking transition with large blank spaces, for instance on fol. 41r, 44v and 47v. The size of the illustrations may differ considerably as well. On average they measure between 70 and 120 mm, and where only a space of 55 to 60 mm was available (as is the case at psalms 122-127, fol. 72v-73v) we see that the illustrations partly overrun the text fields at the top and the bottom. The largest illustration (apart from the one of psalm 1 on 1r) is approximately 155 mm (psalm 12, 7r). The complicated calculations for dividing the space between writing and illustrations were made for each quire separately. In spite of this, several deviations and faults can be found, implicating that the draughtsmen did not work with an already existing layout.


The original binding of the Utrecht Psalter has been lost, and the manuscript was rebound in Canterbury (see chapter 10) and later by Robert Cotton (see ch. 11) In 1977 the manuscript was restored by sister Lucie M. Gimbrère of the Onze Lieve Vrouwe Abdij in Oosterhout. She restored the binding and the vellum (some leaves were folded or torn) and cleaned the manuscript. Her restoration report and photos show that the binding in particular was in quite a poor condition. At the restoration she also made notes of the sewing holes which originate from the period before Cotton had the psalter rebound together with a fragment from a Northumbrian gospel, at which the text block was sewn to five single leather bands. The complete manuscript now weighs a little over 2.5 kilos.

Further reading

This chapter is for a large part based on Koert van der Horst, ‘The Utrecht Psalter: picturing the psalms of David’, in The Utrecht Psalter in medieval art: picturing the psalms of David, eds. K. van der Horst, W. Noel & W. C. M. Wüstefeld (’t Goy 1996), p. 22-84, especially p. 25-27 en 40-43.