Medieval Domesticity: Home, Housing and Household
25th Annual Medieval Studies Conference
Saturday March 12-Sunday March 13, 2005
Abstracts
Divining the Luttrell Household:
Manual and Spiritual Labor in the Luttrell Psalter

Ellen Rice Ketels, Columbia University

The Luttrell Psalter has long been prized as an index of everyday medieval life, from farm tools to fashions, and its famous plowman is now somewhat of an icon: featured on the cover of the current Penguin translation of Piers Plowman, this Luttrell laborer, with his minutely detailed plow, has come to signify the medieval plowman. Curiously, this image has been cropped, severing the plowman from his four oxen. Out of context, plowman and plow have come to symbolize Piers and the everyday medieval laborer. But within the context of the Luttrell Psalter, this plowman is nothing without his four oxen, whose deliberately spiritual number endows their master with devotional richness. While admirers of the Luttrell Psalter have been content to crop and distort its images for their own use, the widely-recognized marginalia remain an enigma in their own, highly ideological manuscript context.

In this paper, I will explore the images of labor in the Luttrell Psalter as part of a wider devotional program. While it has been suggested that the Luttrell Psalter farmhands are depicted in multi-colored clothing for “a certain richness of effect and brightness of illumination,” I argue that these well-dressed peasants represent part of a larger effort to equate manual and spiritual labor, and to parallel plowing with psalm-reading. The images of labor in the Luttrell Psalter are crucial to the projection of a productive devotional economy onto the Luttrell household itself; the fruits of labor not only feed the Luttrell family, but also produce the surplus that subsidizes the making of the Psalter. As I hope to show, when read alongside the image of Sir Geoffrey Luttrell, dressed moderately and seated for an austere meal with his family, the representations of agricultural work in the Psalter become part of an endeavor to portray the Luttrell manor as a devotional community in which hard labor yields spiritual dividends.

 

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