In this week’s blog Mary McClure, a final year Art History and Medieval History student, discusses the Book of Hours that formed the basis of her Art History dissertation, entitled ‘MS38988: a Life History’.
This late medieval Book of Hours (ms38988) is a physical record of all those who participated in its construction and use. Unlike modern books, standardized through mechanization, this manuscript was the result of myriad individual decisions. Each prayer chosen, letter written, and initial painted was the product of human choices, edits and mistakes.
Made in the final quarter of the 15th century, probably in the Thérouanne region of France for sale to a Dutch-speaking patron, it was written out by approximately four different scribes in sets of quires divisible both by prayer and language. The more accomplished of these scribes worked on the Latin quires, while the lesser were relegated to the vernacular Dutch sections. These were then passed to illuminators. At least three kinds of pattern preferences appear in the illumination. While one of the illuminators was quite skilled, on the whole these illuminators were less attentive than the scribes, sometimes forgetting the gold in the flowers center, the color alternation, or even the shape of the flowers.
This Book of Hours was produced quickly to meet rising demand in a culture moving toward increased literacy and lay devotion. Without any figurative miniatures at all, save for a tiny rabbit head, the decoration was non-narrative. This was, therefore, a standard-use Book of Hours, verging on the cheap side. It has some odd textual features, most notably two different litanies of the saints, one in Latin, one in Dutch. Its rhyming vernacular prayers would have resonated with Dutch people of means accustomed to the rhyming poems then popular at court. The exempla text for the Dutch Litany in particular would have hit home emotionally with the inclusion of saints venerated in churches near Thérouanne.
The early owner did not care for the Hours of the Virgin, though grime on the corners of the pages indicates that they read the central five hours (Prime, Terce, Sext, None and Vespers), the most frequently – apparently often falling asleep before they reached Compline! However, they preferred the introductory prayers, the Obsecro te, and all the more lyrical prayers which followed it best. They read and re-read the Penitential Psalms in Latin, but preferred the saints from the Dutch Litany rather than the Latin one. All of this makes us visualise quite an impatient reader, one interested in the beautiful pages, excited most about the rhyming song-like prayers, and seeking prayers in their native language. The book probably had different owners over time. The final folio at the back shows the endearing efforts of a child, overconfident in their own calligraphy skills, who lost their nerve halfway through adding a prayer.
At some point, someone removed the images and perhaps displayed them as artworks on the wall, or sold them separately. In the 1680s, the book found its way into the hands of William Latton, Librarian of Wadham College, Oxford. This marks the shift for this Book of Hours from a piece of the present, to a relic of the past. The manuscript travelled to England with Latton, where within his lifetime its pages were trimmed, it was rebound with the Latton crest, and fabulous marbled endpapers added. Thus, at not yet half its current age, this Dutch Book of Hours received its final major change and began its retirement and preservation, passing from collection to collection for another 284 years until its purchase by the University of St Andrews in 2016.
Candidate for MA Honours in Art History and Medieval History 2017
The purchase of this Book of Hours (ms38988) was made possible through the support of the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the School of Art History’s O.E. Saunders Fund.