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Lost and Found: Margaret Paston’s Piety Revisited

Down the Rabbit Hole

Like Alice down the Rabbit Hole, my research took so many twists and turns, I had no idea where I would end up. What began as an intense study on the many forms of medieval literacy and their relationship to medieval women, both lay and religious, turned into a case study of Margaret Mautby Paston. Margaret, a middle-class laywoman in fifteenth-century Norfolk, stood apart as the most prolific contributor to the Paston family epistolary collection; she wrote a whopping 104 letters over thirty years. I was soon struck, however, by the inherent flaw in my research: a study of Margaret’s literacy in a vernacular language, such as colloquial Middle English, would always be limited. In order to better grasp the extent of Margaret’s literacy, I would need to assess her ability to engage with sacred texts. Latin liturgical texts were such a huge influence on literacy that ignoring their impact would be foolish. The only problem: Margaret’s Book of Hours had supposedly been destroyed.

Margaret would have had ample opportunity to interact with Books of Hours; in fact, the laity was expected to “direct their minds in faithful service to the worship of God in private prayer during the course of their daily lives” (Scott-Stokes 1). Joel Rosenthal, author of Margaret Paston’s Piety, acknowledges that while Margaret may have been remarkable for her contribution to literary culture, her piety is decidedly ordinary. His evidence, however, was limited to the contents of her letters, as he definitively announced that any devotional text Margaret would have used “had not been preserved” (4). The stubborn part of me asked the one question that completely changed my research: what if her Book of Hours did survive?

After a whirlwind of footnote hunting and dead ends, I uncovered the elusive Book of Hours in the form of Saint Benedict, OR, Mount Angel Abbey, MS 27 (referred to in my research as the Paston Hours). This Book of Hours entered the Paston family contemporaneously with Margaret. Its approximate date of production, references to Margaret and her maternal family in the calendar, and the alignment between her ecclesiastical dating methods and the book’s calendar imply her use of this Book of Hours, though it is admittedly impossible to know for certain. It seems likely, however, that whether or not she commissioned the book herself, she would have had access to it during her life.

Here, I found myself at a crossroads. I searched for this book so I could examine its impact on Margaret’s literacy, but was now faced with the opportunity to validate or negate Rosenthal’s conclusions about Margaret’s unremarkable piety. So, I waded into the unknown prayerbook, on a quest for definitive clues of Margaret’s piety.

What I found mostly confirmed Rosenthal’s belief that Margaret had a very limited piety. The Paston Hours clearly did not belong to an individual heavily invested in the content of the scriptures. The book contains very minimal decoration and does not have any illuminations to help its readers navigate the text. This manuscript would have been extremely challenging to navigate if the reader was not intimately familiar with its contents and organization, meaning someone who used this book would need to spend a lot of time flipping through its folios simply to learn how the text is structured.

There are two seemingly conflicting portions which confuse a clear view of Margaret’s piety: a condensed Hours of the Virgin and an additional prayer O bone Jesu. I was not sure how to reconcile a seeming disregard for the religious text in the condensing of the Hours of the Virgin, and the apparent interest in including additional prayers.

Curiouser and Curiouser

Books of Hours provide modern scholars, such as myself, with rare physical manifestations of an individual’s devotion and potential piety. Rosenthal laments the limited window into her piety that Margaret’s letters provide, as she never mentions anything about her spiritual life; he takes this as a determining factor that she embodies “the religious convictions and practices of an unexceptional woman in the century before the coming of the reformation” (Rosenthal 5). The Paston Hours complicates this belief, making the path to understanding Margaret’s piety curiouser and curiouser.  

Saint Benedict, OR, Mount Angel Abbey, MS 27: fol. 34v beginning of the Hours of the Virgin
Saint Benedict, OR, Mount Angel Abbey, MS 27: fol. 34v beginning of the Hours of the Virgin 

The Hours of the Virgin, the central text found in Books of Hours, was strangely condensed. The only indications of the Hours of the Virgin’s beginning are the foliate borders which extend from each illuminated initial at the beginning of each hour; the Prime prayer begins is the rubric “ad vi.” The book completely omits Matins, Lauds, Terce, and Sext, depicting only the Prime, None, Vespers and Compline prayers. This raises an interesting question: does an abridged Hours of the Virgin suggest that the average layperson would care more about going through the motions of a pious life, rather than concerning themselves with the details of liturgical texts?

The way in which the prayers are abridged in the Paston Hours is not typical. If there are omissions to the Hours of the Virgin, Matins and Vespers, the most sizeable of the hours, are the ones which usually remain; Matins even includes “extensive readings from scripture, patristics … saints lives, homilies, or sermons,” adding to the material available to the lay reader (Scott-Stokes 6). Seeing this abridgement, I began to wonder whether the limited account of the prayers lead to a stunted growth in Margaret’s religious life? The reduction of the prayers from eight per day to four minimizes the time she would have spent meditating on religious content, illustrating the lack of emphasis that she would give to the devotion. This suggests that Margaret may have been more interested in the other social aspects of her life, but still wanted the appearance that she maintained her spiritual life through her interactions with the Paston Hours.

Saint Benedict, OR, Mount Angel Abbey, MS 27: fol. 118r beginning of the prayer, O Bone Jesu
Saint Benedict, OR, Mount Angel Abbey, MS 27: fol. 118r beginning of the prayer, O Bone Jesu

After reviewing the Paston Hours’ Hours of the Virgin section, I immediately wanted to concur with Rosenthal and admit that Margaret had a simple understanding of religious texts — but doubt settled in as I realized that on folios 118r-119r, a copy of O bone Jesu has been added. This prayer was certainly added within a decade after the original manuscript was compiled in the 1440s. The decorations are slightly different: it begins with a three-line pen-flourished initial instead of the two line initials which appear in the rest of book, and the ink lacks the blue color seen in the other initials. The hand in which it is written, however, is nearly identical to the rest of the book, suggesting the same person who wrote the core text also wrote this additional prayer.

The addition of this prayer indicates a larger knowledge of religious culture by the owner of the Paston Hours. O Bone Jesu, attributed to St. Bernardino of Siena, was frequently included in Books of Hours during the later portion of the fifteenth century; St. Bernardino’s preaching during his lifetime was also specifically for women, emphasizing the role of the Virgin Mary as an example for women’s actions (Tinagli 158). His preaching and prayers thus naturally lend themselves towards the Marian themes inherently present in Books of Hours. Even if Margaret was not overtly expressive of her religious life and the technical process of devotion, she was aware of the religious trends during her lifetime and was willing to spend money to amend her Book of Hours to reflect these trends.

It’s no use going back to yesterday, because this was a different project then

I approached the Paston Hours expecting either a complete confirmation of Rosenthal’s belief in Margaret’s unexceptional spiritual life, or some clue that would clearly indicate the opposite. What I found seemed to complicate the discussion of Margaret’s piety in the best way. The evidence found in the Paston Hours points to Margaret’s tendency to value the cultural associations of living a pious life and the expectations placed on her prayer life, rather than stressing her actual relationship with Christ and other religious figures. A short eight weeks ago, all I knew about Margaret Paston was that she wrote letters, but she has become a complex and engaging figure in female literary culture who provides surprising insights into lay piety. It is hard to think back to my simple view of Margaret. In the discovery of the Paston Hours, she has become a mad, tangled web to unravel, but that’s par for the course– after all, we’re all a bit mad.

Works Cited

Rosenthal, Joel. Margaret Paston’s Piety. Palgrave MacMillan, 2010.

Scott-Stokes, Charity. Womens Books of Hours in Medieval England: Selected Texts Translated from Latin, Anglo-Norman French and Middle English with Introduction and Interpretive Essay. Brewer, 2012.

Tinagli, Paola. Women in Italian Renaissance Art: Gender, Representation and Identity. Manchester United Press, Manchester, 1997.

*inspiration for this post came from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.