Vespasian Psalter

Vespasian Psalter

Probably Canterbury (United Kingdom) — 725–750

This magnificent mid-8th century Anglo-Saxon Psalter contains the oldest biblical text written in the English language

  1. English glosses were added to the Latin text of the Book of Psalms during the mid-9th century

  2. Almost 200 initials, including several historiated initials of King David, adorn the manuscript

  3. It has been the coveted possession of bibliophiles like Sir Robert Cotton (1570/1-1631)

Vespasian Psalter

  1. Description
  2. Facsimile Editions (1)
Vespasian Psalter

The Vespasian Psalter is a precious specimen of Anglo-Saxon manuscript culture that that was originally created in the mid-8th century and appended with Old English glosses a century later, making it the oldest surviving biblical text in the English language. After receiving further revisions in Canterbury during the 11th century, the manuscript passed through the hands of various famous bibliophiles before becoming a precious part of the British Library in 1753. Nearly 200 colorful initials, including some historiated initials, adorn the manuscript in addition to a full-page miniature of King David that also serves as an author portrait. This is truly one of the oldest and most historically significant manuscripts in the British Isles today.

Vespasian Psalter

The Vespasian Psalter is an early copy of a Latin revision of the Psalms associated with Saint Jerome (d. 420). The Psalter is highly decorated and includes several historiated initials depicting David and his friend Jonathan, including a David as a shepherd rescuing a lamb from a lion, as well as nearly two hundred colored initials. The manuscript also contains a richly colored full-page miniature of King David as the author of the Psalms, accompanied by a group of musicians, dancers, and scribes. Originating from southern England during the mid-8th century, the text was appended during the 9th and 11th centuries. The Psalter is likely the oldest of a group of manuscripts from Southern England known as the Tiberius group.

Evolution of the Manuscript

This manuscript was made in southern England in the second quarter or third of the 8th century, and the main scribe appears to also have served as the illuminator. Although based on models from the Mediterranean, the artist works in the Insular style. During the mid-9th century, an Old English translation was added between the lines of the Latin text of the Psalms, making it the earliest surviving biblical text in the English language. By the 11th century, the manuscript was in the archiepiscopal city of Canterbury, where a scribe known as Eadwig Basan added some more elements to the book.

Connection to Vespasian

The Psalter remained in Canterbury until 1553, when it was acquired by Sir William Cecil (1520-198) who lent it in 1556 to the famous bibliophile and Archbishop of Canterbury Matthew Parker (1504-75). The manuscript found itself in the possession of another famous bibliophile in 1599, Sir Robert Cotton (1570/1-1631), who signed his name on folio 12r. During this time in the Cotton Library, the codex was rebound and a table of contents was added. It was also during this time that the Vespasian Psalter received its name: Sir Robert Cotton organized his library by classifying the manuscript according to its case, shelf, and position. Each bookcase was crowned by a bust of a famous historical figure, and the Psalter had the privileged first position on the first shelf in the case ruled over by a bust of the Roman Emperor Vespasian (AD 9-79). In 1702, Cotton’s grandson gifted the manuscript, along with the rest of the Cotton Library, to the United Kingdom and it thus became state property. The collection was transferred to the newly created British Museum in 1753.


Alternative Titles
Size / Format
160 folios / 24.0 × 19.0 cm
Insular Uncial
1 full-page miniature; 9 large decorative initials; over 180 smaller, colored initials; partially gold and silver lettering
Roman Psalms and Hymns of St. Ambrose
Previous Owners
Robert Bruce Cotton
Thomas Cotton
John Cotton

Available facsimile editions:
The Vespasian Psalter
Rosenkilde and Bagger – Copenhagen, 1967
Facsimile Editions

#1 The Vespasian Psalter

Rosenkilde and Bagger – Copenhagen, 1967

Publisher: Rosenkilde and Bagger – Copenhagen, 1967
Commentary: 1 volume by David H. Wright and Alistair Campbell
Language: English
1 volume: Exact reproduction of the original document (extent, color and size) Reproduction of the entire original document as detailed as possible (scope, format, colors). The binding may not correspond to the original or current document binding.
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