The religious education of the Foundress of Pembroke College, Marie de St. Pol

ITS HuotYou can learn a lot about a person by looking at their books. In the case of Marie de St. Pol, Foundress of Pembroke College, those books may be almost all you have to go on.

Professor Sylvia Huot wowed her audience at the November 4th meeting of the Ivory Tower Society with images and translations from various late-medieval French illuminated manuscripts either belonging to the 14th century nobility at the court of St. Pol or belonging to the Foundress herself.

Gallant knights, gleaming angels and fearsome demons stood rigidly against intensely colourful cross-hatched pages, with swirling gilt and silver ivy, family crests and miniature grotesques filling the margins; thick Gothic script warned against vulgar singing, advised generosity towards the poor, and exalted literacy and learning.

A lively discussion followed the talk, in which it was noted that the Foundress not only was likely to have visited her young college, but that also a circular viewing window had been originally built into a small room next to the back wall of the first college chapel, now the old library, possibly for the private use of the Foundress for observing chapel services.

Another entertaining bit of information from Prof Huot was that the Foundress and her older friend Elizabeth de Clare, benefactor of Clare College, had at one point commissioned matching dresses to be made for each other.

Between the shining manuscripts and the few but vivid details of life passed down about Marie, an image was painted of her devotion to religion, learning, and financial independence that made possible her foundation of Pembroke College in the still-new university in the market town of Cambridge.

Mark Nelson (2012), President of the Ivory Tower Society