Saturday, 4 May 2019

The Nationality of the Sées Missal

A month ago I blogged about a Missal at Sées, datable to c.1332 (plus or minus 5 years) which I claimed to be English. Since then I have spoken to two specialists of English illumination, who both agreed that the script is English, but expressed scepticism about whether the decoration is English as well. So before posting a blog about the contents of the Missal, which has been sitting in my "Drafts" folder for some weeks, I feel I ought to address this issue.

First, a word about definitions. Whenever I refer to illumination as "English" (or "French", or whatever), I mean that it is English in style -- I am not saying that it was necessarily produced on English soil. I would argue that the work of the Fastolf Master was still "French", even when he was geographically working in England, and the work of the Master of the Brussels Initials was still fundamentally "Italian", even when he was working in Paris and beginning to assimilate influences from his French colleagues.

In the introduction to the first volume of Pächt & Alexander's catalogues of illuminated manuscripts in the Bodleian Library, they explain that:
"We have tried to place manuscripts according to the context and stylistic origin of the illumination. ... Thus the Anglo-Norman manuscripts ['made by Norman monks on either side of the Channel'] are included in the French lists in Vol. I, whilst the eighth- and ninth-century manuscripts, even though made in Germany ['by Anglo-Saxon monks'] will appear in Vol. III in the English lists."
This seems to me to be an eminently sensible approach, even if some people think it sounds old-fashioned to have titles like Illuminated Manuscripts ... Italian School.

What, then, makes me think that the Sées Missal is English?

First, I see no reason to doubt that the scribe Roger, working for Ralph, Prior of Lancaster, was "English": even if he were French by birth, or physically located in France while writing, he writes a typically English script.

Second, I am confident that the minor decoration is English. Manuscripts from other northern European countries usually have minor initials that are alternately red or blue, often with pen-flourishing in the other colour. In England, by contrast, it was very common by the 14th century for all the initials to be blue, embellished with red penwork. Patricia Stirnemann traces this back to the second quarter of the 13th century, and suggests that it may have been due to the fact that it was easier to execute penwork with red ink than with blue (Avril and Stirnemann, Manuscrits enluminés d’origine insulaire VIIe-XXe siècle, Paris, 1987, p. 49). 

A typical opening of the Sées Missal looks like this:
The 1-line initials do not alternate between red and blue:
Likewise, the 2-line initials are all blue, filled with dense red penwork:
I first learned that this is a characteristically English feature from Destrez's La pecia (Paris, 1935, p.53):
"A Paris les lettrines sont toujors, sauf de très rares exceptions, alternativement rouges et bleues, ou plus exactement azur et vermillion. A Oxford, les manuscrits ne pourant très souvent, d'un bout l'autre, que des lettrines bleues et pas de tout de lettrines rouges; c'est là un usage spécifiquement anglais."
Destrez's comments were based on his examination of many thousands of 13th- and 14th-century manuscripts of university texts, as a result of which he was able to confidently isolate features characteristic of Paris, Oxford, Bologna, and Naples.

Often the 2-line initials of the Sées Missal exemplify another characteristically English feature: the use of the red penwork to create leafy (or other) designs reserved as plain parchment:
About this type of initial, Destrez writes (p.54):
"Les lettrines des manuscrits anglais portent des filigranes tout à fait charactéristiques ... Quelqefois, mais pas toujours, ces filigranes dessinent, à l'interieur des lettrines, des feuilles d'arbres, des fleurs stylisées et même, le plus souvent, une fleur de lis stylisée ... Ce genre d'ornementation ne se rencontre que dans les manuscrits anglais."
This approach to decoration (reserved designs defined by the surrounding penwork), is also used in the major decoration of the Sées Missal; here is just one example:

Here are a few examples of the same technique being used in other English manuscripts (chosen more-or-less at random, by searching the BL catalogue of illuminated manuscripts, for manuscripts attributed to England, the 14th century, and with "penwork"):
Arundel MS 18
Egerton MS 751
Harley MS 655
Harley MS 1120
Royal MS 13

Sometimes the penwork is in red and purple inks, as in this example from Waltham Abbey:
Harley MS 3766 [Source]
Red and purple are sometimes used together in the Sées Missal, as in this one:

The example from Waltham Abbey also shows the technique being used to create a historiated initial, in this case a Tree of Jesse (unfortunately the BL website does not provide a higher resolution image, but one can just about discern Jesse at the bottom, various prophets and kings to the sides, and the Virgin and Child at the top). This is conceptually comparable to several initials in Sées Missal, such as the one, for the Christmas mass "Puer natus est", depicting the infant Jesus in the manger:

I repeated the search of the BL illuminated manuscripts database, but for manuscripts attributed to France instead of England, and I got results like these:
Harley MS 5286
Royal MS 19 C.x
Yates Thompson MS 34
None of the search results have reserved designs, except for one; it is attributed to "England or France":
Harley MS 178
Based on the initial I would suggest that it is English (and it was certainly in England by the early 16th century).

So, I end with an appeal to readers: can closely comparable decoration be found in French manuscripts, or are there other good reasons to suggest that the Sées Missal is not "English"?


  1. I agree that the Sees Missal is English. But pen-flourished initials in reserve are also found in French manuscripts c. 1300, notably in mss from Arras and occasionally Cambrai. Some examples are reproduced in my contributions to Les Manuscrits de Chrétien de Troyes (Amsterdam, 1993), vol. 1, figs. 90-92 (BnF lat. 15377), 93 (Arras BM 729/639), 94 (BnF fr. 350), 99 (Cambridge Fitz. Add. 290), 101, 102, 104 (BnF fr. 12603)and to Le Roman de la Manekine, ed. B. Sargent-Baur (Amsterdam 1999), figs. 56 (BnF fr. 350), 57 (BnF lat. 15377), 58 (Cambrai MM 93), with thanks to F. Avril for lat. 15377. It's an area that invites more work ! I have a bit of it in the Oxford Handbook of Latin Palaeography ed. F. Coulson and R. Babcock (imminent, we hope !).

  2. Many thanks Alison!

    I should perhaps clarify that I do not treat any feature as *exclusively* English (as Destrez seems to), but in this case several features cumulatively point in that direction.

    I should perhaps also clarify that I used the phrase "northern European" very deliberately when mentioning all-blue initials: the same feature is found in Bolognese law-books of the 13th century, and I suspect that it may have been from these that Oxford book-makers took inspiration.


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