A Window on Medieval Society: Books of Hours in Worcester Cathedral Library

The last time this blog discussed our collection of medieval manuscripts we looked at the Worcester Antiphoner – the only book of its kind remaining in England. Today we shall look at a Book of Hours, a form of illuminated manuscript which is the most common to have survived into our own day, but which is by no means the least spectacular and interesting. Indeed, they can tell us an awful lot about the relationship between religious life, wealth, and book production in late medieval Europe. As a case study, we shall look at Q.102, a 122 folio (or 244 page) book produced probably in France or England around 1400.

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King David with harp (not in a man trap, as one of our earlier catalogues claims). Biblical scenes were a very common feature of Books of Hours. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

Books of Hours were Christian devotional texts, typically containing a calendar of Church festivals, excerpts from the gospels, and psalms and prayers. Essentially, they were instructions for how and when to carry out religious activities in daily life. In the late Middle Ages, they were popular amongst lay people to whom the devotional aspects of monks’ lives appealed (the long periods of time each day set aside for prayer and contemplation), but who weren’t quite willing to forgo the home comforts that committing to monastic life entailed.

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John the Baptist with eagle. Not the floral border. From MS Q.102. The painting, illumination and script would very likely have been produced by more than one hand. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK).

Home comforts were a rare thing indeed in the middle ages, which says a lot about the sort of people who would acquire Books of Hours. They were very wealthy. Books had been typically the reserve of monasteries, produced by and for monastic scriptoria (writing rooms). However, in the 14th Century, an industry and trade in private book production began to flourish in parallel to the general economic growth seen in the Renaissance. Yet books wouldn’t become widely affordable until well after the development of printing. For the well-to-do medieval noble or merchant, a Book of Hours would be an investment in their financial life as well as their spiritual one. They were often treated as heirlooms, kept within families and passed from generation to generation. Perhaps this explains why so many survive; certainly it explains why Books of Hours are so often sumptuously decorated with gold illumination and intense colouration. Both materials and labour for that would have been extremely expensive – but a great family would want the luxury of their personal property to reflect their wealth and influence.

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Death. He carries a coffin on his shoulder, but the perspective doesn’t seem to be quite correct. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK).

Q.102 in Worcester Cathedral Library is a fairly typical example. Written in Latin, it is heavily illuminated, with gold capitals on most of the pages. It contains a series of illustrations of religious scenes, surrounded by floral borders. Although probably produced in England, there is, sadly, no known connection to Worcester until it was presented to the library in the 1920s. However, it fits in well with our other manuscripts which collectively tell the fascinating story of the history of books, and with our facilities and expertise on conservation we are excellently placed to ensure such a fragile and beautiful object will remain in good condition for future generations to enjoy.

Tom Hopkins

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