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Telling Time

Temperance in Morgan Library MS M.359, fol. 117v
The virtue Temperance, with a clock on her head, appears in the margin of the Hours of the Holy Spirit in an early fifteenth-century Book of Hours, Morgan Library MS M.359, fol. 117v.

Books of Hours are time regulation devices. This ought to be an obvious statement — they open with a calendar, and they are called horae — but somehow that had never clicked for me until I heard a wonderful, exploratory paper given by Jessica Brantley last October at the Provocative Fifteenth Century conference at the Huntington Library in California. Dr Brantley’s paper covered much ground concerning how medieval people termed and talked about their Books of Hours, including how devotional “how-to” texts encouraged laypeople to govern their time through these books.

Most fascinating to me is the way Books of Hours regulate both mundane and eternal life. At a basic level, Books of Hours are meant to give a spiritual shape to everyday life. The calendar at the front organizes linear time not in terms of dates but via spiritual helpers. The seasonal and/or astrological symbols that often appear on these calendar pages point to the cyclical shape of the year. The ability to write loved ones’ death-dates into the calendar assimilates personal or familial history to the yearly devotional round.

And, most importantly, the Hours of the Virgin Mary echo the shape of the monastic Divine Office. The very labeling of each hour — matins, lauds, terce, etc. — governs the layperson’s use of time in a day, even if he or she didn’t say each Hour at exactly the prescribed monastic moment. A printed 1538 Book of Hours [2] opens with a self-help text called “The Preface and Maner to Lyve Well” that describes how a devout person ought to organize her time. After waking and saying some preliminary prayers, the devotee is encouraged to “say in your chambre or lodgyng matyns, pryme & houres yf ye may” before hearing Mass and heading to his everyday work (sig. Those occupations and household tasks should be done prayerfully, and the rest of the Hours are said later in the day: “As touchyn your servyce [i.e., the performance of the Hours] say unto tiers [terce] afore dyner. And make an ende of all [i.e., say the rest of the Hours] before souper. And whan ye may, say dyryge [the Office of the Dead]. And commendacyons for all chrysten soules at the leest way on the holy dayes & yf ye have leaser say them on other dayes at the leest with thre lessons” (sig. B.viii.r). Imagine governing your day with prayers as regularly as you organize it through meals.

Importing this cycle of psalms and prayers into the layperson’s life is one way of sacralizing lay time: those prayerful minutes that the brewer, the lawyer, or the merchant take away from running their business or governing their households are removed from the temporal economy of money-making and bestowed upon the divine.[1] This donation of time was also a temporal investment in their eternal well-being — getting through purgatory faster (although, interestingly, the “Maner to Lyve Well” does not emphasize this benefit). Something my students have already been noting is the way that time is commodity, in that those medieval individuals who have the most time to devote to saying their Hours are the wealthy (who are also able to own these lovely items). Time, that is, is also a class issue.

The way that a Book of Hours can regulate an individual’s eschatological time, not only her earthly time, is even more visible in the Office of the Dead. First, the Office of the Dead is a “real” office, identical to the services found in brevaries that would have been prayed over the deceased’s remains. More critically, however, it offers the devout a way to intercede for those no longer bound by earthly time, whose souls are suffering in Purgatory, itself subject to a different conception of time than earthly time. Given the number of stories in which a soul returns from Purgatory to chastise its family for not saying prayers, or to thank the family for sending them succor in Purgatory through those prayers, I’m tempted to think of the Office of the Dead like an intertemporal telegraph: it’s a way to send relief to a loved one suffering on a different temporal plane. Beyond that somewhat whimsical image, however, the Office also performs another kind of temporal collapse. When the speaker (whether a priest or a lay person) voices the words of the Office, he is performing several different identities simultaneously. The Office is drawn primarily from the Psalms and the Book of Job, so when the speaker prays those words, he is reiterating the (historical, Old Testament) laments of the psalmist and Job, expressing his own abjection before God, and ventriloquizing the sorrow of the souls in Purgatory. That is, the Office of the Dead enables a temporal collapse of past, present, and eternal into a single utterance.

And that eschatological time gets folded into mundane lay time, too. Remember that the “Maner to Lyve Well” encourages its reader to say the Office of the Dead only when time allows. But that same reader is supposed to be mindful of Christ’s passion every hour in the day: “Consydre often eyther by day or night whan ye do awake what our lorde dyde at that houre of the day of his blyssed passyon & where the [sic] was at that houre” (sig. B.viii.v). This hourly re-living of the Passion, while purely memorial in the “Maner to Lyve Well,” could have had a visual, bookish element for some: many fifteenth-century English Books of Hours used miniatures depicting the Passion, alongside the traditional images of the Mary’s life, to open each of the Hours of the Virgin. [3] In those horae, to say the Hours was also to relive the events of Good Friday, and to mentally “consydre” the unfolding of the passion story was also to be mindful of the temporal cycle of the Hours.

There’s yet one more way that Books of Hours (and other medieval books) govern time: through the additions that the book’s users would make, the names written into the calendar or the bonus devotions scribbled on flyleaves. A student put this beautifully in her journal a few  weeks ago, about a palimpsested Gradual that we viewed in the Special Collections Library:

…when I pick up a modern book, I think of it as a finished product. As soon as it leaves the authors hand, it becomes fixed in time. The [Gradual], however, moved through time as a much more personal and practical object that could be edited by those who used it instead of just the author.

These Books of Hours also moved through time in their owner-generated additions, while the additions themselves — especially the death-days of family members — would have folded the personal-memorial into the devotional-eschatological: the loved ones are inscribed into the liturgical cycle and, ideally, out of the pains of Purgatory.

[1] My ideas here are informed by Jacques Le Goff’s conception of “merchant time.” Although his historical narrative about how “merchant time” comes about is flawed and his sharp dichotomy between “merchant time” and “church time” is overly simplistic, I do agree that we can see the commodification of time in the later medieval world, coming especially out of mercantile culture. Jacques Le Goff, “Merchant’s Time and Church’s Time in the Middle Ages,” in Time, Work, and Culture in the Middle Ages (1977), trans. Arthur Goldhammer  (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980), 29-42.

[2] Thys prymer in Englyshe and in Laten is newly translatyd after the Laten texte… Rouen: N. le Roux for F. Regnault, Paris, 1538. STC 16008.5.

[3] Michael T. Orr, “Tradition and Innovation in the Cycles of Minatures Accompanying the Hours of the Virgin in Early Fifteenth-Century Books of Hours,” in Manuscripts in Transition: Recycling Manuscripts, Texts and Images, ed. Brigitte Dekeyzer and Jan Van der Stock (Leuven: Uitgeverij Peeters, 2005), 263-70.