“Saint Paul says that all that’s written well / Is written down some useful truth to tell.” So says Geoffrey Chaucer in The Canterbury Tales, in which he used the stories of pilgrims to paint a wry, critical portrait of medieval English society. Not nearly as famous but just as colorful is the Benefactors’ Book of St Alban’s Abbey. Recently digitized, the illuminated manuscript offers viewers the chance to discover the real-life contemporaries of Chaucer’s pilgrims, including a leprous abbot and a soldier with a weakness for both alcohol and beautiful princesses. Approximately 234 benefactors of the church, from all walks of life and organized into a social hierarchy, are recorded here—names, portraits, details of their gifts, and humorous, gossipy tidbits. —J.V.
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