The Smithfield Decretals: A Medieval Masterpiece of Canon Law and Illumination
The Smithfield Decretals is a remarkable manuscript that contains a copy of the glossed Decretals of Pope Gregory IX (r. 1227â1241), a collection of papal letters and legal decisions that was an essential work for the study of canon law in the Middle Ages. The manuscript is named after the Augustine priory of St Bartholomew at Smithfield, located just outside Londonâs medieval walls, where it was kept in the 15th century. It is now part of the British Libraryâs Royal collection.
What makes this manuscript stand out among the hundreds of surviving copies of the Decretals is its extraordinary programme of marginal illumination. The manuscript was copied in the south of France, probably in or near Toulouse, at the turn of the 14th century. There it was decorated with illustrations that mark the beginning of each of the textâs five books. By 1340, the manuscript was in London, where its owner commissioned a group of local artists to add an illuminated list of the topics covered in the Decretals to the beginning of the text and to fill its wide margins with narrative images and decorative motifs.
The London illuminators painted two sets of borders on each page, one around the main text and another around the gloss (or commentary) and placed monsters, grotesques, and other scenes in the gaps between the columns of text. They also filled the lower margins with scenes, most of which recount stories that unfold over many pages. These narrative sequences relate tales from a variety of sources, including the Bible, saintsâ lives and miracles, romances, moral fables, and parodies. A series of images, which marks the beginning of the text, shows the promulgation, distribution, and study of the Decretals.
The Smithfield Decretals is a fascinating example of how a legal text could be transformed into a richly illustrated book that reflects the interests and tastes of its medieval owners and readers. The manuscript is also a valuable source for the history of art, literature, and culture in 14th-century England and France.
If you are interested in learning more about this manuscript, you can view it online on the British Libraryâs website[^1^]. You can also download a PDF version of it from this link[^2^].
One of the most intriguing aspects of the Smithfield Decretals is the marginalia, or the images and texts that appear in the margins of the manuscript. Marginalia was a common feature of medieval manuscripts, especially in legal and theological works, where it served various functions, such as commenting on, explaining, or criticizing the main text; providing cross-references or glosses; indicating important passages or keywords; or simply decorating and enlivening the page. Marginalia could also express the personal opinions, emotions, or humor of the scribes, artists, patrons, or readers of the manuscript.
The marginalia of the Smithfield Decretals is particularly rich and diverse, reflecting the creativity and imagination of the London artists who added it to the manuscript. The images range from realistic to fantastical, from religious to secular, from serious to playful. Some of them illustrate scenes from the Bible, such as Noah's ark, the Nativity, or the Crucifixion; others depict stories from saints' lives and miracles, such as St George slaying the dragon, St Margaret escaping from a dragon's belly, or St Nicholas saving three boys from a murderous innkeeper. Some of them show scenes from romances and fables, such as Tristan and Isolde, Reynard the Fox, or Aesop's tales; others show scenes from daily life and culture, such as hunting, farming, music-making, or courtship. Some of them portray animals and hybrids, such as rabbits, dogs, monkeys, lions, dragons, mermaids, or centaurs; others portray human figures and activities, such as knights, monks, nuns, kings, queens, jesters, beggars, thieves, or lovers.
The marginalia of the Smithfield Decretals often contrasts with or subverts the main text of the manuscript. For example, while the text deals with serious matters of law and morality, the images often show scenes of folly and vice. While the text asserts the authority and hierarchy of the Church and society, the images often show a world turned upside down. For example, one image shows rabbits hunting humans; another shows a dog preaching to geese; another shows a woman beating a man. The marginalia also plays with visual and verbal puns and jokes. For example, one image shows a man holding a pair of bellows next to a woman holding a pair of scissors; another shows a man holding a fish next to a woman holding a loaf of bread; another shows a man holding a key next to a woman holding a lock. These images suggest sexual innuendos or double entendres that mock or challenge the norms and values of medieval society.
The marginalia of the Smithfield Decretals is not only entertaining but also informative. It reveals aspects of medieval life and culture that are not always evident in other sources. It also reflects the interests and tastes of its medieval owners and readers who commissioned or enjoyed these images. The marginalia invites us to look beyond the text and to appreciate the visual creativity and diversity of medieval manuscripts. aa16f39245