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Manuscript Selection: Hours of Anne Boleyn

British Library, King's MS 9 (Hours of Anne Boleyn), fol. 55v. Mary Magdalene.
British Library, King’s MS 9 (Hours of Anne Boleyn), fol. 55v. Mary Magdalene looking very fancy for her Commemoration.

What’s in a name? Well, quite a lot when that name has the cachet Anne Boleyn’s has today. And I admit that the name is one of the reasons that I chose British Library, King’s MS 9 — the c. 1500 Book of Hours (Use of Sarum) associated with Anne Boleyn — as one of my core texts for this class. Some students still getting into the swing of medieval manuscripts may take comfort in a familiar name, even if they barely know that she was one of Henry VIII’s wives. But the manuscript has a lot to recommend it beyond its star power.

First, and most importantly for my pedagogical goals, it’s fairly easy to navigate. Its lovely scatter borders and full page miniatures open the major sections of the horae, and although there are a few variations from the norm (why is there a second Commemoration of the Saints following Lauds of the Virgin?), the rubrics are clearly enough written to guide the attentive student through these hiccups. The miniatures themselves are lavish, of high but variable quality, and several of them capture the penitential and redemptive focus on Christ’s blood that Carolyn Walker Bynum has so lucidly explored.[1] It does contain some sets of devotions that we may not encounter elsewhere, such as the Psalter of the Passion and a series of six prayers to Christ’s six wounds.

The manuscript also contains a lengthy addition: fols. 256-303 were produced in a different (English) campaign of copying, although they are roughly contemporary with the main part of the book. The British Library catalogue entry calls these a “devotional miscellany,” but I believe that these are prayers often found in other Books of Hours. That is, these devotions are similar in kind to those already in the Book of Hours. This is something I need to look into further, but if I’m correct, the additional prayers may suggest that the volume was indeed used as a prayerbook, that its original contents weren’t sufficient for its owner’s needs.

Also importantly, the manuscript includes several inscriptions — a sixteenth-century owner’s inscription on fol. 1r, some extra saints added to the calendar by a seventeenth-century hand, and a passionate yet formal exchange between Anne herself (fol. 66v) and Henry VIII (fol. 231v). (The British Library’s manuscript blog has a little more on these.) I looked long and hard at many digitized Books of Hours for an example of a well-loved and long-used horae, something with family memorials written in the calendar, charms or cures added to the flyleaves, owners inscriptions in the margins. I would love to give my students an example of a Book of Hours used as a livre de raison, a family history record of births, deaths, marriages, godparents common in Renaissance France.[2] I know they are out there, but in my searches through digitized collections, these few marks in Anne Boleyn’s Hours was the best I could find. They certainly help make the point that Books of Hours were used as personal or familial memory-banks as well as devotional guides, but for all the famous intensity of Henry and Anne’s liason, these lines strike me as less personal, certainly less poignant than the death-date of a loved child or a recipe for curing croup. So, dear reader, if you know of a well-inscribed digitized Book of Hours, however plain or messy, please let me know.

And these little variations invite a pile of questions that, even if we can’t answer them in this class, are certainly worth asking. Why are Thomas Becket’s face and name not effaced? Why are there two sets (largely redundant) of Commemorations of Saints? Who added the “devotional miscellany” at the end, and was it actually used as an extended library of popular prayers? Who was the audience for Anne and Henry’s marginal verses — and was the manuscript use for more than passing notes between the king and his paramour? In a slightly different version of the course, this manuscript could become an entrance into religious change and continuity at Henry VIII’s court; the role that the handwritten, illustrated word still played in early Tudor England, post-printing press; and/or the continued movement of artists and books across the channel. For us, it will be one specimen of the genre among many, a specimen that happened to be preserved and digitized because some lovestruck royals wrote in it.

[1] Carolyn Walker Bynum, Wonderful Blood: Theology and Practice in Late Medieval Northern Germany and Beyond (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007).

[2] Virginia Reinburg, French Books of Hours: Making an Archive of Prayer, c. 1400-1600 (Cambridge: University Press, 2012), esp. pp. 62-71.