Books of Hours

The seminar is over, I’ve had my celebratory glass of beer with some new friends, and I’m back to my room for the evening. I’m going to read another chapter or two of Possession: A Romance, find some food, and write a couple more posts for today’s Day of DH.

This afternoon, the seminar focused on Books of Hours. Now, BofHs are not things that I have cared much about. For one thing, there are bunches of them. Some are really nice, some aren’t, some are only remaining in fragments, some are complete, but really, how can something so ubiquitous possibly be interesting? Well, Tim Graham found a way to make them interesting. We talked through the “typical” organization of texts in a BofH, which looks like this:

  • Calendar
  • Gospel Sequences: four gospel texts, one from each: beginning of St. John’s Gospel; Annunciation from Luke; Matthew birth of Christ and Wise Men; Mark’s narration of the last appearance of the resurrected Christ to disciples, and his ascension. Typically include illustrations of each evangelist.
  • Two prayers addressed to Mary: Obsecro te; O intemerata
  • Hours of the Virgin
  • Hours of the Cross – no text for Lauds
  • Hours of the Holy Spirit – no text for Lauds
  • Seven Penitential Psalms – all said to have been composed by David after he sinned. Included to invoke forgiveness for your own sins.
  • Litany – list of names of saints, name of each saint followed by “pray for us” Order of saints included in a litany is not random. Begins with Trinity, then Mary, then archangels and angels, then apostles, then continues to go down hierarchy (martyrs, confessors, virgins)
  • Office of the Dead – prayers for Vespers, Matins, and Lauds the day before/morning a body is to be interred
  • Suffrages of the saints – prayers addressed to individual saints requesting assistance.

The order, apparently, isn’t fixed, but this is a common order. As Dr. Graham was talking through the details of each section and showing examples in slides, I searched MESA to find some examples and compared them to his examples. We actually have some nice Books of Hours at Penn, and I settled on Ms. Codex 1056 since, from a quick look at the contents, it seemed to include most of the sections listed by Dr. Graham.

There is nothing, I think, like seeing something you’ve seen before but finally feeling as though you understand it. I had a similar experience yesterday, when we were looking at pocket Bibles (and during the lecture I was comparing Dr. Graham’s notes with Penn’s own Ms. Codex 236, which I’ve seen presented, and in my own hand, in a few different contexts). But I finally feel as though I have some understanding of what Books of Hours were for, how they functioned, what the different parts of the books mean, and (perhaps most importantly) what they meant for the people who owned them. Particularly those Books of Hours that were owned by women (and we can tell those books that were written for women, as they use feminine endings in the prayers). And so when I say that “Dr. Graham made Books of Hours interesting”, what I really mean is that he explained them in simple enough terms for me to understand something about them, and I discovered that they were interesting after all.

And now I’m curious and I want to know more. How was it decided for any individual BofH what sections were to be included and in what order? Is there relevance to those decisions? And within the texts themselves, how much variance is there from one text to another? And – does it matter? I note that one of Penn’s Books of Hours (Ms. Codex 1566) is wee tiny and only appears to include the Hours of the Virgin, the Penitential Psalms, the Litany, and the Office of the Dead. Is it because it’s so small? Would these be the most basic-of-basic for BofH? Ms. Codex 1056 (referenced above) includes two additional texts in French. How common are these texts, and why include them?

And I’m reminded (again) of a few things. One, that often my lack of interest in things is due, not to those things not being interesting, but to my own lack of knowledge. Once I know a little, I begin to see how much more there is possible to know. And two, that every manuscript is different. All these Books of Hours, these dang Books of Hours, with (approximately) the same texts and (approximately) the same series of illustrations in (approximately) the same order, just one might be dull, two might be slightly interesting, but taken as a whole, seeing how each individual copy, and the variances among all the copies, add up to a whole that might, just might, add up to something larger than the sum of its parts. (I have a similar feeling about the Kalendarium project mentioned in an earlier post today – a single calendar might tell us something about that calendar, and possibly about the manuscript it’s attached to, but many hundreds of calendars together might inform Calendars as a whole)

And maybe this brings us back around to the theme of today – the Day of Digital Humanities. Scholarly work in manuscript studies – in calendars, and Books of Hours, and physical collation (my own current research focus, about which I’ll be presenting at Kalamazoo and DH2014) – is absolutely nothing new. Scholarship has been done on all this, and books written. But digital technologies enable us to access data, the same information we’ve been studying for generations, but more of it and in new ways. Just remember why – what is this for, this work I’m doing? I’m doing it because I want to know about manuscripts, and I want to help other people know about manuscripts, too. And although I believe that computers have so much to offer – compiling data, crunching it, visualizing it – the past couple of days has been a refreshing reminder that without a strong and serious understanding of manuscripts (whatever aspect of manuscripts or a manuscript I’m focused on), the technical stuff just doesn’t matter that much.