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Passion Devotion in Books of Hours

The central research project for this semester’s Hargrett Hours course has been the Passion material in the manuscript. Most centrally, we’re interested in how the six prayers and the Passion account from the Gospel of John fit into the broader landscape of late medieval devotion to the Passion of Christ. Yes, it seems that every devout person was way into the events of Holy Thursday and Good Friday. Still, that ubiquity isn’t really an explanation for how these texts in this Book of Hours may have functioned. Additionally, most scholarship on Passion devotion focuses on vernacular, narrative, affective retellings that elaborate on the Gospel stories and often tell the reader what to feel about Jesus’s torments and death. The Latin prayers and Gospel passages in Books of Hours are structurally and linguistically different. While some do include rubrics that guide the reader’s spiritual reaction to the prayers, the ones in the Hargrett Hours don’t. Were these prayers read through the same lens of emotional investment Christ’s death, or are they engaging the reader differently?

One way we are approaching this question is through specific examples in Books of Hours. I selected six fully digitized horae that have an extraordinary array of Passion-related texts, and each student “adopted” one of them for a series of assignments. Out of those assignments they developed a research question about some aspect of their adopted horae that piqued their interest. Who wanted that skeletal portrayal of Death in his manuscript? What do we call Books of Hours when they don’t include the Hours of the Virgin? What are those bizarre hybrid creatures doing in the margins of this prayer? Those research questions then led to blog posts that strive to answer them, or at least to investigate the importance of the question itself to our understandings of these Books of Hours.

Whether they are diagnosing the contents of the Psalter of the Passion, asking questions about the affective (or not) potential of Gospels accounts of the Passion, or trying to identify how this or that prayer came into existence, most of these blog posts pursue some narrow aspect of Passion devotion in Books of Hours. In so doing, they also offer sophisticated lenses through which to interpret their texts – and others like them. They’re asking questions that haven’t been asked before (at least not in print!), and they’re developing thoughtful, persuasive answers. Together they provide a great foundation for better understanding how the Hargrett Hours, and its Passion materials, interact with similar forms of medieval piety.

[Image: British Library, Harley MS 2985 (Use of Sarum, c. 145-1475), fol. 71v. The Deposition from the Cross, opening Vespers of the Hours of the Virgin. Note how Christ’s face and body have been partially effaced – perhaps from the kisses of this manuscript’s users?]