By Irene O’Daly
The popular depiction of a medieval manuscript is of a volume richly coloured, glistening with gold and impressive in its intricate presentation. As we know all too well from our delvings into medieval manuscript collections, the reality is often less elaborate, if no less interesting. One type of manuscripts where the reality seems to match up with the image is collections of Books of Hours. These devotional texts containing regular offices for prayer throughout the day were popular in the Middle Ages and were frequently lavishly illustrated with pictures from the life of Christ.
Julie and I recently attended a lecture on Books of Hours, given at the Koninklijke Bibliotheek Den Haag by the KB fellow, Eberhard König, entitled “Devotion from Dawn to Dusk”. Konig pointed out that not all Books of Hours are decorated to the same degree. He speculated that Italian Books of Hours contained fewer images, as the reader was able to comprehend Latin more easily, due to its similarity to the spoken native tongue, whereas French and German Books of Hours tend to be more elaborate. He noted that Books of Hours translated into Dutch share this tendency to be sparsely illustrated (with some notable exceptions, such as the Zweder Book of Hours). He argued that the pictures supplemented and, in some cases, explained the text (serving a meditative function, even if their content was sometimes irrelevant to the readings presented). However, if the text was easily comprehensible, as it was to the Italian Latin readers, or the readers of the Dutch vernacular, then the pictures became irrelevant, and were dispensed with.
As König commented, cost does not seem to have been of issue in dictating the inclusion or exclusion of images in these Books of Hours. This prompted some thought, on my part, on the role played by “fashion” in the design of medieval manuscripts. While it is clear that certain trends, like the diminishing in size of medieval Bibles in the thirteenth century, were products of necessity (their use in preaching by the medieval friars and the subsequent need for portable books), others are clearly products of fashion – such as the widespread use of purple ink in penwork initials from the late thirteenth century, reflecting purple’s status as a ‘royal colour’. Users of medieval manuscripts must have been conscious of this dialogue between fashion and necessity, which must have been moderated by the supply of materials and the cost factor. Thinking of the medieval manuscript industry from the prospective of the consumer may go some way towards explaining why some manuscript design features became ubiquitous, and others did not.
The lecture concluded with an opportunity to see the KB’s current exhibition, a highlight of which is the Zweder Book of Hours (1430-35) – which can now be viewed online. Professor König’s lecture is also available to listen to online on the KB website.