Text selection is a major element of course design, so I’m dedicating several blog posts to discussing which sample Books of Hours I have assigned in this class. I want to make sure that the students view a wide array of horae — mundane as well as de luxe — but I also know that they will need substantial apparatus to help them navigate these highly variable books. I had four criteria for selecting manuscript texts for this class: the manuscripts needed to be fully facsimiled (not only the “pretty” pages); they needed to have substantive data in the finding aids or other descriptions for the students to lean on; they needed to be whole (no confusingly absent or rearranged quires); and as a set they need to provide diversity in country of use, level of decoration, and contents. I’m mostly happy with my selections, but I also know that there are many, many fully digitized horae that I haven’t examined. So please make suggestions in the comments below!
The central Book of Hours for the middle unit of class is the Hours of Catherine of Cleves (New York, Pierpont Morgan Library, MS 945 and 917). It’s one of the most glorious Books of Hours (I adore the peapods on fol. 11r), and the Morgan has built a fabulous website that tidily describes the different sections of the Book, offers a concise biography of Catherine, and provides a nice collection of supporting multimedia files. The textual contents themselves are standard, which a boon. But it’s the illuminations that make this horae such a wonderful first taste. The miniatures for the Hours of the Virgin are fetchingly idiosyncratic — the extended biography of the Virgin Mary’s life that they depict is a good way to introduce my students to that story — and the interplay between miniatures and borders or bas-en-page scenes is rich, if not always obvious. (Personal favorite? The infant Jesus and baby John the Baptist trapping birds below the miniature of the Visitation on MS 945 fol. 32r. Doesn’t seem terribly holy to me, so I’m probably missing a critical allegorical meaning.) The miniatures for the Hours of the Passion also offer a good walk-through of those events from the medieval perspective. However, it also breaks my first criteria: the website does not provide a full facsimile. One of my pet peeves is libraries and scholars who treat Books of Hours as solely objects d’art, because that decision glosses over the sticky yet persistent question of lay literacy and performance of the prayers/psalms themselves. The Morgan website does discuss textual content in useful ways, but one could have wished for more. Nevertheless, it is one of the better “let’s introduce people to how a Book of Hours works” websites that I’ve found, so I’m content for this to be one — but certainly not the only — text for this course.