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Playing with Manuscripts in England: The Percy Hours

Thanks to support from the Willson Center, I’m spending the second half of June in London and environs, looking at a whole range of medieval manuscripts. Most are manuscripts used in English nunneries, but I’m also examining a number of Books of Hours, extending Katie and Madison’s research into the Long Hours of the Passion and the auxiliary prayers in the Hargrett Hours. So I’ll keep y’all updated on what I find in that research.

I’ve examined two Books of Hours so far – one was a total bust (it contained bits from the Short Hours of the Cross, not the Long Hours of the Passion) – but the other was a real winner. (Sorry, no pictures of the manuscript itself – it’s a “no photography” item at the British Library.)

This jackpot manuscript is British Library, Harley MS 1260, a Book of Hours produced 1325-1350 that had a number of prayers and medical charms added to it in later years. One of its fun features are numerous prayers in French and Middle English – not something you get in many English Books of Hours. I’m calling it the Percy Hours because its calendar contains numerous notations about important births and deaths in the House of Percy in the mid fourteenth century. The Percy family was one of the most powerful families in Northern England throughout the later Middle Ages; they were the Earls, later Dukes of Northumberland. (You English majors will remember Hotspur, Hal’s rival in Shakespeare’s Henry IV Pt I – he was a Percy, and his birth notice is listed on 20 May in the calendar.)

I didn’t pull this manuscript up looking for Hargrett Hours texts; I pulled it because I’m starting another project on northern English saints in Books of Hours, and this looked a likely candidate. But lo, it contained not only the Long Hours of the Passion, but also three of the Passion prayers within a grouping of 5 Passion/Crucifixion prayers.

The Percy Long Hours of the Passion (starting fol. 65r) corroborates Madison’s findings about the standardization, or not, of the Long Hours of the Passion: it contains the standard set of hymns that she identified, but its Psalms are all over the place, not lining up with any of her hits. So once again, we see standard hymns and ad hoc Psalms. That may not be surprising, given its relatively early date (if it’s not our earliest instance of the Long Hours of the Passion, it’s gotta be close), but it is interesting that the set of standard hymns was set by 1325-50.

Finding the passion prayers was even more exciting. The Percy Hours contain a massive set of auxiliary prayers, well over a hundred folios of them. That mass of prayers is subdivided into topical clusters, and many of them are given detailed (often French) rubrics explaining how they were to be used or where the prayers originated, and whether there was an indulgence attached to them. Folios 157r-160r contain a group of five prayers for the Cross and/or the Passion: “O crux ave spes vinca salve arbor sanctissima”; the three Hargrett Hours prayers “Deus qui voluisti,” “O anima christi sanctifica me,” and “Domine ihesu christe qui hanc sacratissimam carnem”; then the prayer “In presencia corporis et sanguinis.”

It’s gratifying to find some of our Passion prayers in this manuscript, of course, but it’s even more interesting to look at their context. A couple of points:

  • The Passion cluster is not marked as such in the manuscript; the prayer “O crux ave” only has the short rubric “Oro de cruce,” no initial, miniature, or major rubric to set off this group of prayers apart from the others. This lack of paratextual markers is standard for this manuscript.
  • The second two Hargrett Hours prayers do have extensive rubrics that differ substantially from the versions in the Hargrett Hours that Katie discussed.  Both are attributed to popes, however, are indulgenced, and specify when during mass the layperson is supposed to utter them.
  • The first prayer, “O crux ave,” is actually a poem (and you can read it as such here), but in the manuscript it’s written out as prose. This is of course not an uncommon treatment of poetry in medieval manuscripts (most famously, Beowulf and other Old English poetry is written out as prose), but it is a good reminder to watch for poetic Latin in Books of Hours.
  • The final prayer, “In presencia corporis et sanguinis,” seems to be pretty common too, at least from a quick Google search.

The larger context of this prayer cluster is important as well. It’s followed by a group of prayers to Mary, then a group of prayers for angels, and is preceded by psalms to be uttered as prayers. My point here is that, unlike the Hargrett Hours, this manuscript doesn’t have an exclusive investment in the Passion: it seems to be interested in as many different devotional approaches as it can pack into its binding.

Bottom line. The textual tradition of Passion devotion that the Hargrett Hours is participating in is, perhaps, a little more widespread than we initially thought in 2016. Nevertheless, its intensive focus on the Passion is still not equaled in any other manuscript we’ve found. What may make the Hargrett Hours most interesting is not what it includes, but what it chooses to exclude.

But there are more Books of Hours to see in my summer, so who knows what I’ll think in two weeks?