Image and Imagination from the Middle Ages: Illuminated Manuscripts in the Loras College Rare Books Collection

The French Book of Hours and the Lives of Laymen By Ray Werner

        The Books of Hours have their roots in the religious orders of Early and Medieval Christendom. It was a devotional prayer guide for monks and nuns, whose way of life usually required recitation as a certain portion of their daily routines. Among other prayers, it would minimally have included a certain rotation of Psalms (the Psalter), the Litany of the Saints, and Gospel readings. As religious reform migrated from monasteries to cities in the twelfth century, into innovative religious organizations in the thirteenth century, and into workshops, homes, and castles in the fourteenth and especially fifteenth centuries, laypeople began to take an interest in pursuing higher spiritual expression by praying the hours as well. Material culture has provided scholars with a glimpse into this phenomenon, through the preservation of Books of Hours that have quite obviously been produced for private use in homes of ordinary people. This is apparent for two reasons: A) the Books of Hours have been produced in a wide variety of qualities and sizes, showing that they were produced for an elite with a range of prosperity (and eventually for people of lesser means, with the advent of the Gutenberg printing press); monastic and church-owned Books of Hours were generally very large in order that many from the community could read from the same manuscript simultaneously; and B) the pictures within marginalia and illuminations began to depict scenes from daily lives, glimpses of cottage industry, snapshots of agricultural practices, and scenarios of romance.

            As can be seen in the French Book of Hours, the first twenty-four pages are unique from all the rest. First of all, there are no full-page illustrations. Second, the side-marginalia contains a picture box in its middle third, which is unique to this section of the manuscript. More specifically, the marginalia is contained to the outside edge of the text, in a 2.5” wide band. Of this band, the top and bottom thirds are floral patterns and the middle third are the picture boxes (one per page). All but one of these depict a scene from daily medieval life (the last of these pictures depicts a satyr with a bow). There are some interesting recurrences and patterns in these twenty-four little pictures, some of which will be discussed in further detail.

1.    Man at table (pos. breaking the bread for the sacrament of communion)
2.    Man in Stream (pos. Baptism)
3.    Man by a fireplace
4.    Two fish on a shore
5.    Man picking grain, with a sad face
6.    A goat
7.    A man and woman in a flower garden
8.    Steer or cow (pos. Gospel reference)
9.    A knight and lady on horseback; another man, at whom the lady is actually looking, is following them
10.  Naked couple, outside
11.  Man in a field, sad face
 12.  A crustacean on a shore
13.  Man picking grain
14.  Lion (pos. Gospel reference)
15.  Man bundling sheaths of grain in a field
16.  A Noblewoman writing
17.  Man crushing grapes for wine
18.  Noblewoman with a scale
19.  Man spreading seeds, with a prominent castle in the background
20.  A hound
21.  A Man slaughtering hogs
22.  Another goat
23.  Man is letting blood from the hogs
24.  A Satyr

        Several interesting things can be inferred from these cultural snapshots. The first is an understanding of daily life in medieval Europe, which despite growing urbanization at the time was primarily agrarian. Scenes of agricultural practices can show how much these daily routines meant to the people and the entire communities. A great number of Books of Hours contain calendars as well, which would have helped the lay people gauge growing periods and seasons, as well as religious feasts and days of obligation. The fact that these daily functions were so closely associated with daily prayer certainly displays their significance. The production of crops and domesticated animals as a part of daily life must have certainly been important, in order for it to be included in this devotional.

            Perhaps the most interesting details in this group of images come from those that display romance. This would include images 7, 9 and 10. The seventh image shows a man and a woman in a flower garden; they are extending their arms out to each other as if they are about to embrace. She appears to be of a higher social status than he, which would coincide with the popular images of courtly love. It was a common theme, especially in literature and story-telling, to depict a male protagonist who must prove his honor and devotion in order to attain the love of a lady of a higher social status. In number nine, there is a naked man and naked woman staring at each other and leaning on a fence. It is interesting to notice her pale, fair complexion in comparison to his dark tan (this is evidential to the outdoor labors he must have had to endure to find her favor, again part of the notion of courtly love). Here, it would appear that they had to hide outside the estate’s fence in order to share their carnal passions. And finally, in number ten, there is a noble man and noble lady riding a horse. The lady however, is looking back towards a man that appears to be sad. These images are interesting in that their topics affiliate love and romance with holy devotions.

            Assuming for a minute that the characters depicted here are consistent from page to page, a short story may even be detectable in these pages. Let it be known, however, that the pictures do not show enough clues to be able to deduce this for certain; it is difficult to decipher weather they are indeed the same person or not, because they share a lot of similar traits while at the same time being slightly different. If it does depict a running story, though, the narrative may go something like this: in pages one through three a man is preparing himself for something. This would have been done through taking communion, cleansing oneself or renewing the baptismal covenant, and sitting in reflection or prayer by a fire. Next, in images four through six, the protagonist is working, perhaps in order to prove his worth, devotion, humility, and value to the community. In nine, he approaches his courtly desire and speaks with her in the flower garden, possibly leading to an embrace. In nine, they are on horseback, but the fair maiden has her thoughts set on another man. In ten, she is seen behind the courtyard fence with one of these men. And afterwards he must return to his laborious duties. But, by the eighteenth picture, she is seen with a scale, weighing her options and trying to decide which way her passions will taking her. More of the man’s daily work is shown until page twenty-four, which shows a satyr—a creature of classical myth commonly associated with fertility.

            In the end, it is difficult to induce that such a tale is meant to be portrayed in this particular marginalia, but it is not out of the question. And nonetheless this section of the French Book of Hours can certainly create, for the viewer, an intriguing glimpse of medieval life in relation to daily devotion and the heightened spirituality within the labors of ordinary life.

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