The Sweetheart Abbey Breviary

Item date: Early 14th century
Grant Value: £10,000
Item cost: $100,000
Item date acquired: 2015
Item institution: National Library of Scotland
Town/City: Edinburgh

This medieval manuscripwritten in Scotland and used by the monastic community of Sweetheart Abbey, a few miles south of Dumfries, in the later Middle Ages.  Sweetheart Abbey was a Cistercian monastery founded in circa 1273 by Dervorgilla de Balliol, mother of the Scottish king John Balliol.  The first leaf of the manuscript bears a large inscription in a medieval hand: 'Liber sanctae Mariae de dulci corde [a book of St. Mary of Sweetheart]'.  Only four other manuscripts survive from the library of this monastery, bearing similar inscriptions, but none of these volumes was apparently written in Scotland.

The Sweetheart Abbey Breviary is in small format and, although comparatively modest in decoration, is a very attractive volume. It was written in a clear textualis hand with rubrication, decorated initials and large flourishes in blue and red.  The pages are in uncommonly good, clean condition, and although it was re-bound in the 18th century, there is minimal evidence of cropping.  It includes a calendar whose considerable proportion of Scottish saints confirms its Scottish locality; a rubric in the vernacular adds to its interest. The Cistercian elements in the liturgy are also in keeping with its origins and use at Sweetheart Abbey. 

The Breviary's significance and its value for research can hardly be overestimated.  It is argued that about one per cent of all Scottish medieval liturgical manuscripts survived the Reformation. This is based on the overall number of texts which the clergy and monastic order of medieval Scotland would have needed to celebrate Mass and to recite and sing the liturgical hours. Many of these exist as fragments only.  The Sweetheart Breviary, a substantial work of 200 vellum leaves, contains the text for around half of the liturgical year.

The existence of the Breviary was known to researchers (see S. M. Holmes, 'Catalogue of Liturgical Books and Fragments in Scotland before 1560', Innes Review  62:2 [2011], p. 147).  However, it was last traced in 1715, when it was described in the printed library catalogue of the English antiquary, Ralph Thoresby.  For 300 years its whereabouts were unknown, and there was no certainty even of its survival. Inscriptions within the volume ('Fairfax') now raise the possibility that it spent some time in the library of General Thomas Fairfax, 3rd Lord Fairfax of Cameron (1612-1671), the contents of which were partly acquired by his uncle, the English antiquary, Charles Fairfax (1597-1673).