Precious medieval manuscript on view to public for the first time

One of the world’s finest medieval manuscripts, the Book of St Albans is digitised for the first time. Photo: Paul Sharp

Sarah Mac Donald

A precious 13th century manuscript, considered a masterpiece of medieval art, can be viewed by the public for the first time, following its digitisation by the library at Trinity College Dublin.

At the click of a mouse, researchers and the general public can see the exquisite illustrations in the Book of St Albans which was produced between 1230 and 1259AD by one of the world’s most famous medieval artists and chroniclers, Matthew Paris.

The Benedictine monk, scribe, historian and artist was based at St Albans monastery in England, once one of the most important abbeys in the country and a major site of pilgrimage for medieval Irish pilgrims.

The manuscript chronicles the life of St Alban, the first Christian martyr in England. It also outlines the construction of St Albans cathedral. It has fascinated readers across the centuries, from royalty to renaissance scholars.

The newly digitised manuscript has been launched online to coincide with the feast day of St Alban, tomorrow, June 22.

TCD manuscripts curator, Estelle Gittins, said that while the Library of Trinity College is synonymous with the Book of Kells, it is also home to over 600 other medieval manuscripts dating from the 5th to the 15th centuries.

Expressing delight that the Book of St Albans is “perfectly preserved with gorgeous colours”, she explained that “most medieval scribes remain anonymous, but we know that this book was created by Matthew Paris”.

Paying tribute to Paris’ beautiful artistry, she explained: “This astonishing manuscript contains some of the most incredible medieval art, it is a window into an elaborate world of saints, kings and knights, but also sailors, builders and bell ringers.

“It is an example of how often the greatest pictorial art of the medieval period can be found within the pages of its manuscript books. It is made up of 77 leaves containing 54 illustrations, each a unique work of art.”

The manuscript contains Paris’ version of The Life of St Alban along with other texts.

St Alban lived in the fourth century, during the Roman occupation of Britain, in the town in Hertfordshire that now bears his name. He is recognised as the first English Christian martyr.

Before now the only way to study all of the images in the manuscript was to consult the rare, black and white, 1924 facsimile edition.

The Book of St Albans was a high-status book, viewed by King Henry VI. Written in Latin it also contains Anglo-Norman French which made it accessible to a wider secular audience including educated noble women.

The book was held in St Albans Abbey for 300 years until the dissolution of the Abbey in 1539 under Henry VIII. It came to Trinity College Dublin in 1661 after Elizabethan royal adviser and astronomer, John Dee, sold it to James Ussher, Archbishop of Armagh, whose library was subsequently given to the college.

All other precious manuscripts by Paris are held in the British Library, and the Universities of Cambridge, Oxford and Chetham's Library Manchester.

Trinity’s Virtual Library Medieval Manuscripts project was supported by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York.