Matthew Paris's 13th-Century 'Book of St Albans'

A masterpiece of medieval art


Most medieval scribes remain anonymous; their identities lost to history. But Matthew Paris (1200-1259) is a notable exception. He was a pre-eminent scribe, artist and historian who lived as a monk within the Benedictine community in St Albans in Hertfordshire, England.

Matthew Paris The Book of St Albans TCD MS 177 f59v - f60r by Matthew Paris (1200-1259)The Library of Trinity College Dublin

Created between 1230-1259, the manuscript is an example of how often the greatest pictorial art of the medieval period can be found within the pages of its manuscript books. It is made up of seventy-seven leaves containing fifty-four illustrations, each a unique work of art.

The manuscript now commonly known as ‘the Book of St Albans’ (TCD MS 177) contains Paris’ version of The Life of St Alban (La vie de Seint Auban) along with other texts. It is acknowledged as one of his finest manuscripts and a masterpiece of medieval art.

St Alban led to his martyrdom TCD MS 177 f36r by Matthew Paris (1200-1259)The Library of Trinity College Dublin

The manuscript contains copies of texts and documents relating to the history of St Albans Abbey, and the life of its patron saint. It also includes material relating to other saints and the eighth-century Anglo-Saxon King Offa of Mercia (d. 796).

St Alban lived in the fourth century, during the Roman occupation of Britain, in the town in Hertfordshire that now bears his name (then called Verulamium). 

He is recognised as the first English Christian martyr, and the monastery at St Albans, which was said to have been founded in his honour by King Offa, became one of the most important in the country. 

It was a major site of pilgrimage in the Middle Ages, receiving pilgrims from across Europe, among them royalty and other high-status visitors.

Interior of St Alban's CathedralThe Library of Trinity College Dublin

In addition to its importance as a site of pilgrimage, because it was only a day’s journey from London, St Albans Abbey was a convenient stopping point for distinguished visitors travelling north. 

The monks at the Abbey made sure their visitors received both spiritual and physical comfort, and constructed chambers dedicated to such hospitality. St Albans was also probably the only monastic house in England to offer accommodation specifically for royal women.

There are still remnants of rare wall paintings in the Abbey. The earliest of these dates from 1215 and they offer a glimpse of the visually extravagant character of the building as encountered by a young Matthew Paris himself when he entered the community at St Albans in 1217.

St Genevieve before St Germanus TCD MS 177 f52r by Matthew Paris (1200-1250)The Library of Trinity College Dublin

As an illustrator, Matthew Paris highlighted his drawings with coloured washes. His palette was limited, but the colours have been brilliantly preserved within the pages of the manuscript. 

The framed narrative images take up a third of any given page and run left to right, illustrating the text as they might in a modern graphic novel. There are many scenes of violent conflict, which may be read in the context of the contemporary thirteenth-century crusades.

The manuscript contains texts in Latin and Anglo-Norman French so that it could be read by both the clergy and the upper classes, amongst whom Anglo-Norman French was cultivated. The images were also designed to resonate with those unable to read the text. 

The martyrdom of St Alban TCD MS 177 f38r by Matthew Paris (1200-1259)The Library of Trinity College Dublin

St Alban's execution - by beheading

The martyrdom of St Alban and the fate of his executioner. 

Sts Germanus and Lupus embarking on a boat for Britain TCD MS 177 f53r by Matthew Paris (1200-1259)The Library of Trinity College Dublin

Matthew Paris excelled in the portrayal of figures and animals. His human characters derive from a wide social spectrum, from saints and kings, soldiers and holy men, sailors, labourers, bell ringers and grooms.

Out of a shallow picture plane, sometimes feet, hats, spears or hooves break out of their frames, from their world into ours, creating a sense of hectic activity.

Craftsmen at work building St Alban's church TCD MS177 f60r by Matthew Paris (1200-1259)The Library of Trinity College Dublin

Folio 60r depicts the eighth-century King Offa directing the building of the first Anglo-Saxon church at St Albans. These scenes are important in recording details of medieval building materials, techniques and tools.

St Germanus hangs a medal around St Genevieve's neck TCD MS177 f52v by Matthew Paris (1200-1259)The Library of Trinity College Dublin

Various pigments were used in the manuscript’s production as well as metallic decoration, most commonly gold. The gold was used on hats, necklines and cuffs as well as the medal shown being presented to St Genevieve by St Germanus.

The silver used for the spearhead in this image has oxidised and discoloured, leading to significant ‘show though’ on the opposite side of the folio.

St Alban observes St Amphibalus kneeling before the cross TCD MS 177 f31r by Matthew Paris (1200-1259)The Library of Trinity College Dublin

The intention behind the production of this manuscript as an anthology of texts could have been to encourage the commissioning of further copies in order to disseminate the cult of St Alban further afield. 

The manuscript was made from calfskin vellum, and the quality of the skins varies greatly; some leaves have very smooth surfaces, while others are rougher and patched up.

This is the case with the leaf shown here: a hole was originally repaired and written over - an indication of the value of vellum and the need to be economical in its use. The patch was, however, later removed, damaged or went missing, leaving a hole and a loss of text (lacuna).

It is possible that the manuscript was compiled as an exemplar or maquette to be copied for later versions. The volume is small enough (244mm x 165mm) to have been easily handled and transported and was almost certainly borrowed by potential patrons.

Notes in a 13th-century hand, Matthew Paris The Life of St Alban TCD MS 177 f2r by Matthew Paris (1200-1259)The Library of Trinity College Dublin

Evidence for the lending of this and similar manuscripts to various individuals, particularly women, does exist. Folio 2r indicates a loan to the Countess of Cornwall, Sanchia of Provence (d.1261), sister to the Queen Eleanor of Provence (1223-1291). The note refers to her keeping the book until Whitsuntide.

Despite the likelihood that it was was loaned and borrowed, for three hundred years the manuscript was usually held in St Albans Abbey until its dissolution in 1539. Inscriptions in the manuscript indicate that it was held at one point in ‘The small book chest A’. 

The manuscript was also sometimes displayed on the altar of the main church, or in the abbot’s study where it was shown to distinguished guests.

It was viewed by Henry III (1207-1272), a frequent visitor to St Albans, who knew Matthew Paris personally. There is also a note in a fifteenth-century hand on f1v stating that the book was shown to Henry VI (1421-1471) who saw action in St Albans during the Wars of the Roses.

Annotations recording that the book was shown to Henry VI TCD MS 177 f1v by Matthew Paris (1200-1259)The Library of Trinity College Dublin

The manuscript  survived the chaos and turmoil of the dissolution of the monasteries and after this point it was owned by the royal adviser, astronomer and antiquarian, John Dee (1527-1608/09). At one point his triple Jupiter symbol appears as a marginal annotation.

On his death in 1656 Ussher left the manuscript along with his entire library to Trinity College. However, it was only in 1661 that the bequest reached Trinity on the orders of King Charles II. 

John Dee’s manuscripts were sold in 1626 and the Book of St Albans was acquired by James Ussher, Archbishop of Armagh (1581-1656). The shelfmark of Ussher III 32 appears on f 1v.

The manuscript has remained in the Library for over 350 years. It was catalogued by the manuscript expert (and celebrated writer of ghost stories) M R James in 1924. Until now, his black-and-white facsimile edition was the only way to study all of the illustrations.

King Offa of Mercia setting out on expedition TCD MS 177 55v by Matthew Paris (1200-1259)The Library of Trinity College Dublin

Matthew Paris's 'Book of St Albans' has been digitised through the Manuscripts for Medieval Studies project, part of the Virtual Trinity Library programme. 

See it here

We gratefully acknowledge the support of Carnegie Corporation of New York. 

Credits: Story

Text and curation: Estelle Gittins
Images: Caroline Harding
Technical support: Greg Sheaf

Contributors: Mark Faulkner, Alison Ray

Thanks to Barry Lynch, John Gillis, Susie Bioletti, Laura O’Farrell, Felicity O’Mahony, Laura Shanahan, Helen Shenton, Ellen O'Flaherty, Evan Pridmore, Jane Maxwell,  Caoimhe Ní Ghormáin, Bernard Meehan, James Clark and Caoimhe Ní Lochlainn

Credits: All media
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