October 2016 | Nate Pedersen

Found: Thomas Becket's Personal Psalter

Thomas-becket-window.jpgIn case you missed it, the big news in the rare book world that surfaced last weekend was the discovery of Thomas Becket's personal book of psalms in the Cambridge Library. The Guardian provided initial coverage of the discovery, which was announced by Cambridge historian Dr. Christopher de Hamel.

Dr. de Hamel, after an intriguing conversation with a fellow historian, consulted an entry from the Sacrists' Roll of Canterbury Cathedral that described in detail a book of psalms in a jewelled binding preserved as a relic of Thomas Becket at the saint's shrine in the Cathedral. The entry, dated from 1321, implied that Becket's personal Psalter had been preserved after his death at the hands of four knights in the same cathedral in 1170. ("Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?")  After reading the entry, Dr. de Hamel realized he had seen a book of psalms that exactly fit that description in the holdings of Cambridge's Parker Library.

Dr. de Hamel also cited as evidence the fact that Becket's stained glass window in Canterbury Cathedral shows the saint holding a similar Psalter. 

Becket's shrine in Canterbury was eventually destroyed, but Dr. de Hamel believes the Psalter was saved from the destruction and, one way or another, eventually absorbed into the collections of the Parker Library at Cambridge. A 16th century note included with the Psalter indicates the book belonged to Becket, but previous historians have dismissed the claim as false as the Psalter was not included on a period inventory of Becket's books.

Dr. de Hamel argues, however, that a link had not been previously established between the Sacrists' Roll entry from 1321 and the Cambridge copy of the book of psalms.

Image Courtesy of Wikipedia