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J is for Jester

Medieval Psalters, comprising 150 Psalms, were often divided into ten sections for daily recitation, with historiated initials and additional decorative treatment marking the main divisions at Psalms 1, 26, 38, 51, 52, 68, 80, 97, 101 and 109. This is exactly the case with the Bury St Edmunds Psalter, and the Jester we are focussing on today, illustrates Psalm 52, Dixit insipiens ‘The fool hath said in his heart: there is no God’. The illustrations in the Bury Psalter mainly depict events from the life of King David and this is one, splendid example of that.

Psalm 52 taken from the Bury Psalter, (E5/9/608/7/folio 38)

The medieval court entertainers, minstrels and musicians we recognise as ‘jesters’ are commonly depicted in illustrated Psalters, inspired by the story of King David and the fool. The tale appears in the book of Samuel and describes the mistakes of a ‘foolish’ rich man, who refused to assist David and his men and was later struck down by the Lord for his folly.

Psalm 52 has a beautiful decorated initial letter with a red flourished ground. David is seated in a deep blue mantle whilst the jester, dressed in red and yellow, dances before him holding a flail. The tip of his cap ends in a serpent’s head.

The Bury Psalter comprises a Calender, the Psalms of David, Canticles, Litany and Preces, Placebo and Direge (Offices of the Dead), Canticles for Christmas and other festivals and a Hymnarium with musical notation. The texts are framed by partial bar borders on flourished grounds of various rich colours contrasted with lavish gold.

The Bury Psalter was written at the Benedictine Abbey of St Edmund, probably between 1398 and 1415, and is a wonderful example of an English monastic service book. The Psalter was presented to the King Edward VI School by James Hervey in 1706, having once belonged to his grandfather, James Cobbs, who owned a number of manuscripts from the Abbey of St Edmunds in his private collection.