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Book of the Month

December 2003

Book of Hours

  France: c.1460   
Sp Coll MS Euing 4

Our festive book of the month for 2003 is an illuminated manuscript Book of Hours. Known as the 'Glasgow Hours', this personal prayer book was made in North-East France in about 1460. Its twelve miniatures include a series of charming pictures that illustrate the Christmas story.

detail from folio 40v: the Nativity

Books of Hours are compendiums of devotional texts designed for the laity to use in private prayer. At their centre is a series of prayers and psalms known as 'The Hours of the Virgin'. Directed to Mary, the Mother of God, these prayers were intended to be recited daily at set 'hours' in the day. By placing Mary in the key role as intercessor between man and God in this way, it was believed that salvation could be reached. Books of Hours were extremely popular throughout the Middle Ages. Indeed, from the mid-thirteenth century to the mid-sixteenth century, more were produced, both in print and manuscript, than any other type of book. As Christopher du Hamel comments, their cultural impact was wide and deep: 'to the great majority of the medieval population of Europe, the first book they knew, and often the only one, must have been the Book of Hours'. They were even used to teach children how to read, the term 'Primer' coming from the Hour of Prime, recited early in the morning.

Although comprising a basic set of standard texts, a Book of Hours could be designed and decorated according to the requirements and budget of the purchaser. They are therefore found in copies ranging from the luxuriously illuminated to the more mundane and workaday. Our copy is a modest mid-range fifteenth century production. Although not of the highest grade, it is prettily decorated by miniatures and illuminated with gold leaf initials throughout; it most likely belonged to a well-to-do middle class family. It contains all the usual elements: a full Calendar in French in red and black (folios 2r-13v); the  Hours of the Cross (14r-16v); the Hours of the Holy Spirit  (17r-19v); the sequentiae of the Gospels, John and Luke only (20r-21v); the Hours of the Virgin (22r-64v); the prayers to the Virgin 'Obsecro te' and 'O intemerata' (65r-70v; the 'Salve regina' (71r-v); the Penitential psalms and litany of the saints (74r-88r); the Office of the dead (89r-122r); and two prayers in French, the 'Joys of the Virgin' and the 'Seven requests of our Lord' (123r-130v). While there is a little French, such as these final prayers, most of the text is in Latin, the language in which all Church business was conducted.

The manuscript opens with a Calendar. Each month has a listing of saints for every day, with special feasts being marked out in red ink -  the origin of the term 'red letter days'. Amongst the notable feasts for December, as shown here, are Saint Nicholas (December 6), the Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary (December 8) and Saint Nicasius (December 14). To the left of the named saints' days are a series of letters running from A to G: these are the Dominical letters that help to locate the Sundays in each year. The Roman numerals found at the far left are the Golden Numbers: these indicate appearances of new moons and full moons throughout the year. The other column of numerals represents the ancient Roman calendrical system of dating. The initials 'KL', picked out in glorious gold leaf at the top of the page, stand for 'Kalends', the first day of the month. The other fixed points in the month were the 'nones' and 'ides', found here in abbreviated forms. In the Roman system, all days were located by counting backwards from these fixed points: thus, the 'iiii' next to the entry for Saint Severin near the top of the page stands for 'four days before the nones of December'.

Identifying feasts of local interest from the saints names found in a calendar is one way in which the place where a manuscript was originally made or used can be determined. Such evidence must be treated with caution, however, as a Book of Hours might well be made in one place but meant for use in another. The most recent research undertaken on our manuscript by Susie Nash describes its calendar as a 'veritable hotchpotch'. There are feasts from Noyon and Tours, as well as from several Netherlandish and Dutch dioceses such as Utrecht and Cambrai. Some important saints from Thérouanne (the ancient diocese bordering that of Amiens) are singled out in gold, and several ordinary feasts specific to Thérouanne also occur, but these are occasionally cited on the wrong date; meanwhile, a greater number of feasts from Amiens appear, all at their correct dates. To make the issue even more confusing, many unidentifiable feasts are also found: these could be fabrications or mistakes, and suggest that the scribe may well have been attempting to formulate a calendar for a region outside his normal experience. In the face of this conflicting evidence, Susie Nash concludes that the three gold feasts specific to Thérouanne suggest that the manuscript was made for use there, although very possibly written elsewhere.

folio 13r: calendar page for December

folio 22r: the Annunciation

folio 31v: the Visitation

The core text of the volume is the Hours of the Virgin, consisting of eight sections or 'hours'. Each hour includes a short hymn, psalms, a brief reading and a prayer. Ideally, the owner of a Book of Hours would stop at eight specified points throughout the day to read the appropriate section, as follows:
     Matins and Lauds: these were prayed together, during the night or upon rising.
     Prime: the first hour of the day (around 6am).
     Terce: the third hour (9am).
     Sext: the sixth hour (noon).
     None: the ninth hour (3pm).
     Vespers: evensong (at early evening).
     Compline: said before retiring.
Books of Hours were made for ordinary people and were simple to use in that they remained the same every day, with only a few variations, such as the three Psalms said at Matins changing according to the day of the week. Designed to be a constant companion throughout the day and easily held in the hand, copies are often small and eminently portable. Although our manuscript is by no means a vast folio volume, at 23 x 17 cm nor can it be described as pocket sized. Its generally clean appearance makes it difficult to imagine it being used on a daily basis as it was intended.

folio 40v: the Nativity

folio 45v: Annunciation to the shepherds

The Eight Hours are usually illustrated by depictions of the major events in the Virgin's life surrounding the infancy of Christ. Thus, as seen here, we find an illustration of the Annunciation accompanying Matins (folio 22r), the Visitation is placed at Lauds (31v), the Nativity is located at Prime (40v), and the Annunciation to the Shepherds at Terce (45v). Further down below, Sext is illustrated by the Adoration of the Magi (49r), and the Flight into Egypt at Vespers (55r). Two miniatures not displayed here complete the cycle for the Hours of the Virgin in this manuscript: the Presentation in the Temple for None (52r), and the Coronation of the Virgin for Compline (61r). While the inclusion of pictures undeniably aided the popularity of Books of Hours, they also perform a functional role in acting as visual aids to the text. Like bookmarks, they flag up major sections of the work and also provide themes upon which to meditate - or, as Roger S. Wieck describes it, they are themselves 'painted prayers'.

detail from folio 45v

There are twelve twelve-line miniatures found in this manuscript in all, the work of two artists. The miniatures of the Annunciation and King David are by an artist identified by Susie Nash as the  'Waddesdon Master', named after the Waddesdon Hours. A prolific artist, his work has been found in several other Books of Hours, and his style closely mimics that of another artist, the influential d'Ailly Master, whose workshop was active in Amiens from c.1425-1450. The remaining ten miniatures are in a later style developed by Simon Marmion, the most famous manuscript illuminator working in the Burgundian territories in the second half of the fifteenth century. The landscapes are sharply detailed, often with extensive buildings in the middle distance, while the poses of the characters are dramatic, and the painting fluid. This artist has been dubbed 'the Glasgow Master' by Susie Nash, who suggests that the variable quality of some of his work is consistent with a painter experimenting with new styles early in his career.

folio 49r: adoration of the magi

detail from folio 49r: adoration of the magi

The miniature pages are all fully decorated by stylized rinceaux and acanthus leaves that form entwined or curling patterns to surround the text. These pages are further enhanced by large four-line initials that mark the start of each Hour's text. Although similar in form, these initials are in two different styles: those below the Waddesdon Master miniatures are straight edged and the leaves of the foliate decoration are smaller; those miniatures painted by the Glasgow Master are cusped to follow the shape of the letter and have larger foliate decoration.
The decoration is not confined to these pages alone, however. The text pages throughout are broken up into manageable sections by one and two-line gold initials on red and blue backgrounds; even the line fillers are coloured and touched with gold, as seen below.

folios 49v-50r

The text of the manuscript is written out in a formal display script called Textura (or Textualis) semi-quadrata. This grade of script was typically used for the less luxurious devotional later medieval manuscripts.

folio 55r: flight into Egypt

folio 74r: King David

The miniature of King David shown here introduces the Penitential Psalms, recited to help resist the temptation to commit any one of the seven deadly sins. The psalms were supposedly composed by David as a penance for his sins. This stock illustration depicts the elderly king as a sinner seeking forgiveness on his knees in prayer, his harp laid by side. David certainly needed plenty of forgiveness since his sins included adultery with Bathsheba and the murder of her husband Uriah. Other miniatures found in this volume but not displayed here are found on folio 14r: the Crucifixion (at the start of the Hours of the Cross - a shorter sequence of Hours from that of the Virgin); on 17r: the Pentecost (at the beginning of the Hours of the Holy Spirit); and on 89r: a burial in a cemetery (at the beginning of the Office of the Dead - the prayers said at funerals and generally for the dead to lessen time spent in purgatory).

While many Books of Hours are personalized by their early owners and obviously cherished, there are no marks of ownership or clues to early provenance in this volume. It was presumably made speculatively for the open market rather than being commissioned: the space left for the addition of a coat of arms on the Annunciation on folio 22 has never been filled in, for example. That this was a fairly routine workshop production is also suggested by its basic programme of formulaic miniatures. The 'Waddesdon Master' miniatures were probably created from pattern sheets. It is likely that there were model sheets available for all the standard scenes and these could be used to copy out miniatures at great speed; as a result, images can be remarkably similar from one manuscript to the next. The consistent appearance of contents, page layouts, initial sizes, and border forms also suggest that workshop templates must have existed and been followed for the general layout and structure of many books. By the fifteenth century, such resourceful methods of mass production were necessary to satisfy market demand, and many manuscript workshops were highly organised in co-ordinating teams of scribes and illuminators to collaborate in producing books quickly and efficiently. Everything is relative, however, and by today's standards, this manuscript is nonetheless a unique and beautifully idiosyncratic object.




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Julie Gardham December 2003