Medieval Books of Hours were far more than devotional aids; as beautiful, cherished objects they were a way for their creators and owners to experiment with miniature art and ideas, often carrying hidden messages. And, being made for private use, they had a special significance for women, the bestselling author Elizabeth Buchan explains. Two miniature paintings are at the centre of the mystery that drives her new novel, Two Women in Rome.
This boke is myne, Eleanor Worcester
An I yt lose, and yow yt fynd
I pray yow hartely to be so kynd
That yow well take a letil payne
To se my boke is brothe home agayne
(Inscription in a Book of Hours belonging to the Duchess of Worcester, c1440)
The figure of a naked woman bathing confronts the viewer full on. Her skin is pearly white, the hair streaming down her back is a golden abundance, the water shimmers silver. This is Bathsheba Bathing, one of the miniatures from Jean Bourdichon’s The Hours of Louis XII.
At first glance this appears to be a serene and pleasant scene by one of the masters of Books of Hours – until you peer at the background where a man wearing a crown leers down at her. In a flash, enjoying the sight of a woman bathing changes into something darker and disturbing.
Among the most lavish and beautiful of artefacts, and the bestsellers of their day, these books, which contained miniature paintings and decorative borders, were not only a way for the artist to express their religiosity and a delight in beauty but also to showcase new ideas, techniques and psychological insight.
There are references to Books of Hours as early as the 13th century. They grew in numbers and popularity, weathering religious schism and shifts in attitudes and, after the advent of printing, they began to appear in their hundreds to suit all tastes and pockets.
In the early days, they were relatively modest but by the 15th century the taste had developed for lavishly decorated and luxurious volumes some of which are acknowledged masterpieces.
Originally hand-written in Latin on vellum, their highly decorative miniatures and marginalia and rich bindings indicated a patron’s wealth and status and the prime artists of the day could command fabulous sums and travelled all over Europe at the behest of kings, princes and nobility. Notable examples included the Limbourg brothers, who created Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, Jean Fouquet, and the Bedford Master.
With the aim of regularizing, and aiding, popular devotion for lay people, they offered a simplified version of the eight periods of prayers observed by monks and nuns which were to be recited throughout the day. As the books developed and modified, other texts and devotions crept in including a Psalter, extracts from the gospels and popular prayers and accounts of saints’ lives. One intriguing legacy is the phrase ‘a red-letter day’ which refers to the habit of recording the saints’ days in red ink.
In their heyday, a miniature typically marked the divisions of the text and there are some recognizable conventions – for example, those chosen to illustrate the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary often depicted the Christmas story. The borders were illustrated less prescriptively and depended on the taste and finances of the patron and artist.
These marginalia ranged from flowers and animals, insects and mythical beasts to meticulously observed snapshots of quotidian life – a woman with raised skirts warming herself in front of the fire, a drunk monk in a ditch, harvesting, hunting, treading grapes – all of which can make one laugh and marvel in the same breath.
As their role was to direct worship and meditation, it can be argued that Books of Hours were powerful instruments which helped to control domestic and religious behaviour of the individual. However, their sumptuous presentation was also a useful tool when advancing political and family interests and in signalling the status of their owners.
For us, and quite apart from their beauty, they offer an intimate glimpse into fashion, interiors, architecture but also the preoccupations of the time, including attitudes to sex and morality. It cannot go unnoticed that French ruling households in the 15th century were very keen on illustrations of the story of David and Bathsheba – particularly if she was naked.
It is particularly pleasing to know that many women owned and read Books of Hours. They also commissioned them and were frequently depicted in the illustrations. A ravishing example is the miniature of Mary of Burgundy in The Hours of Mary of Burgundy. Mary is reading at the window of a Gothic church which overlooks a tableau of the Virgin and Child inside the church.
Apart from its religious resonance and the artist’s clever device of an image within an image, its careful naturalistic touches are tenderly done – Mary’s exquisite dress and hennin, the way she cradles her book in a protective cloth.
Other details are pregnant with meaning. In the then European culture, where the allegorical and the symbol were second nature, the lapdog is there to symbolise fidelity; the blues irises predict the Virgin’s future sorrow.
In her monograph, Medieval Women Book Owners: Arbiters of Lay Piety and Ambassadors of Culture, Susan Groag Bell argues that “medieval women’s book ownership reveals a linear transmission of Christian culture and the development of a mother-daughter or matrilineal literary tradition.”
It is known that daughters of richer households who were sent away to be married were often given a Book of Hours by their mothers. Ostensibly, this would be to direct a daughter’s thoughts and her religious practices and to keep her safe from sin. Yet is it fanciful to assume that these books were more than religious directives but a source of comfort in alien territory?
Mothers have not changed much over the centuries and I like to think that, if they commissioned a book, their choice of texts or prayers, or a particular image, would be significant and would have given comfort to a homesick young bride. Or even, as the Reformation took a grip on Catholic Christendom, a subversive homily on the true faith.
If my daughter had been sent away, I certainly would have ensured there were plenty to remind her of her home in her Book of Hours. Loving pointers which would help her to flourish and to reassure her that God would look after her and, above all, that I was thinking of her. But I would also ensure that these private communications were not obvious to everyone.
This was the idea lying behind the discovery of two miniature paintings in my latest novel, Two Women in Rome. Do they contain a message? If so, what?
The mystery is wrapped around politics, a fraught love affair and untimely deaths. It is set in Rome, the Eternal City, where varied pasts are layered up on each other like fabulous patisserie, influencing culture and behaviour throughout the centuries.
The story of the paintings, their provenance, and the women who tangle with them, pays homage to those fabulous medieval Books of Hours.
Read more about Two Women in Rome.
Elizabeth Buchan’s short stories are broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and published in magazines. She’s been a reviewer for the Sunday Times and the Daily Mail, and has chaired the Betty Trask and Desmond Elliot literary prizes. She was a judge for the Whitbread First Novel Award and for the 2014 Costa Book Awards. Her previous novels include Consider the Lily and The New Mrs Clifton.
Further reading: Backhouse, Janet, A Masterpiece Reconstructed: The Hours of Louis XII, (Eds Thomas Kren, Mark L. Evans), 2005, Getty Publications, ISBN 0892368292, 9780892368297.
Bathsheba Bathing, leaf from the Hours of Louis XII by Jean Bourdichon, 1498–9: J Paul Getty Museum via the Getty Open Content Program
Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary from French Book of Hours, c1460: Walters Art Museum via Wikimedia
The Virgin in a church with Mary of Burgundy at her devotions, from The Hours of Mary of Burgundy, c1477: via Wikimedia
Detail from the marginalia in the Trivulzio Book of Hours: Koninklijke Bibliotheek via Wikimedia