The Vespasian Psalter is an Anglo-Saxon book written, it is thought, in the second quarter of the eighth century. The style suggests the south-east of England, possibly St Augustine’s or Christ Church, both in Canterbury, or Minster-in-Thanet.
The large full-page illustration on the right shows an intriguing mix of Insular interlace, La Tène spirals, and Roman motifs. David is painted as the psalmist with scribes recording his words on a scroll (which could represent the Old testament) and a codex (the New Testament). Musicians play musical instruments and a couple of young men look almost as if they are break dancing!
The prefatory material contains pages written in small elegant Rustic letter-forms.
The main text is written in delightful Flat Pen Uncials, held with the pen almost horizontal. The fine serifs at the top and bottom of many of the letters give the impression of the script being written between tramlines.
The huge advantage of viewing this manuscript on the British Library’s website (view here) is that the pages can be enlarged so that the formation of each letter can be seen. The large triangular ends to the downstrokes on the letters N and T are clearly shown here, and it is possible to enlarge the pages even more. And the change in nib angle from the flat pen used for the fine hairline serifs and the diagonal stroke to about 45° for the bowl of the letter A is also obvious. The very fine curved stroke leading off to the left from the bowl of the letter A is made by the left-hand corner of the pen. How this is done is shown in writing the letter t in this Calligraphy Clip for Gothic Black Letter here, about 2.30 minutes in. The dancing Insular Minuscule Gloss (word-by-word translation) was written about a hundred years after the main text and is the earliest extant translation of biblical text into English.
But it is the decorated letters which are so inventive. Here is a little gold bird in the letter D with rather unusually-shaped lumpy companions either side. The gold is flat, but it does look like leaf gold rather than shell gold here.
And on this page, there is a line of decorated letters with a huge initial S. This letter is an intriguing mix again of patterns and decorations from different cultures.
And when enlarged, the sad little bird, who looks most perplexed, can be seen clearly. Note, too the many red dots indicating the line markings and surrounding the letters; these are typically insular. There is more about this page in my book ‘The Art and History of Calligraphy’, published May 2017 by the British Library.
The book has another first and that is that it contains the earliest known historiated initials, and the one shown here is of David and Jonathan. An historiated initial is one that tells a story as opposed to a decorated initial.
The book was owned by Sir Robert Cotton, and his was one of the three major collections which made the British Library. Here is his signature in the book.