Freshmen Work Hands-On with Medieval Illuminated Manuscripts: Meld Histories of Art, Reading, Prayer into Houghton Exhibition

An Annunciation scene from a book of hours (MS Typ 578 f. 26r) made in Rouen (Normandy) circa 1440. Image courtesy of Printing & Graphic Arts, Houghton Library.

February 16, 2006 - Harvard students who signed up for last semester’s Freshman Seminar 39g—titled "The Book of Hours: Picturing Prayer in the Middle Ages," after a type of handmade medieval prayer book—bypassed some common research barriers for such young scholars. During their study of medieval art history, the ten freshmen received unlimited access to rare 15th and 16th century manuscripts, became published scholars, and mounted a six-week exhibition at Houghton Library. Not bad for first-semester college students.

The faculty member behind the first offering of this seminar is Jeffrey F. Hamburger, Professor of History of Art and Architecture, who wanted to expose the freshmen to primary source materials at Houghton Library early in their academic careers. "The rare book library is as much their library as is Lamont Library, or as is Widener," said Hamburger. "They should take advantage of it."

Students spent many hours in Houghton Library, Harvard’s primary repository for rare books and manuscripts, studying illuminated manuscripts firsthand—learning both how to handle the fragile, priceless texts and how to interpret them.

Hamburger didn’t make it easy for them. Ultimately, each student had to choose, from a selection the professor had approved, a type of manuscript known as a book of hours to analyze and study for a final project. "I deliberately chose manuscripts that were less well known because I didn't want students, even freshmen, to be able to fall back on a large body of previous publications," explained Hamburger.

"There's really no more direct way of coming into contact with the past than, with all proper care and precautions, to take a book or any ancient artifact in your hands and puzzle it out and to see just how intractable they are," said Hamburger. "It's very, very different from seeing one reproduced in a textbook where it's ostensibly explained and given a label."

The original research produced by the students, and the manuscripts they used, became the basis for an exhibition in Houghton Library called "The Book of Hours."  The initial suggestion and encouragement for the exhibit came from William Stoneman, Florence Fearrington Librarian at Houghton, who helped make the rare texts available to the students.

"Harvard librarians collect, preserve, and provide access to all kinds of special collections so that they can be used by Harvard students and faculty, and by the scholarly community outside Harvard," said Stoneman. "My colleagues and I are pleased that Houghton Library has played such an integral role in this core function of the University."

This liturgical calendar from a French book of hours (MS Lat 257 f. 2v) circa 1490 lists the saints' days to be observed for the month of April. Image courtesy of Houghton Library.

The Book of Hours
Books of hours are medieval prayer books that pre-date printing technology and fall into the category of illuminated manuscripts, usually intricately wrought with hand-lettering and artistic imagery. The most lavish ones are works of art that took years to create. "It’s often said that books of hours are the proverbial bestsellers of the late Middle Ages," explained Hamburger. "And indeed, if anyone in the late Middle Ages was likely to own a single book then—at least if you lived in France, the Netherlands, or England—the book of hours was most likely to be the one."

"But that said, unlike bestsellers today, which all look alike and are made for a mass market," said Hamburger, "you see that there’s extraordinary variety." Medieval books of hours vary widely in size, length, content, decoration, and illumination. They tended to belong to the well-to-do, and artists and scribes customized each to suit its owner’s desires and level of piety. They’re eye-catching, and the often-detailed images are not necessarily what one might expect to adorn prayers. For instance, a page might have a serious, religious image in the center, and a picture of a snail, dragon, or monkey in the margin of the same page.

"The Middle Ages were in some ways far less reverent and decorous than we imagine," explained Hamburger. "Perhaps because certain truths were hardly ever questioned, it was easier to mock them in the spirit of carnival. Very often in medieval manuscripts, one finds grotesque, playful imagery in the margins."

Ultimately the course, ostensibly a class in medieval art history, was also a course in the history of reading, the history of prayer, the history of religion, and study of the cultural context in which these books were used. All of which only increased the challenge presented the students, to write a ten- to twelve-page analytical paper, beginning with the full technical description of the manuscript.

The technical description alone proved a challenge, especially for a first-timer. The first task entailed the painstaking job of collating, or verifying the order of, the pages to determine if any were missing or out of order. This task isn’t as straightforward as it sounds, since every handmade book has its irregularities.

Then students prepared an essay on an aspect of their choosing, each of which was distilled into a much shorter summary piece for the exhibition catalog. Nicole Bass '09, for instance, contributed the first catalog summary on "Marking Time," analyzing the meaning of illustrations, both religious and secular, in a French book of hours illustrated partly with the signs of the zodiac and seasonal tasks like flower-picking and harvesting. 

Kate Patrick '09 studied a French book of hours and wrote the entry "Shades of Meaning," which discusses the symbolism behind grisaille, or images painted entirely in gray.   

Jane Cheng '09 composed "Manuscripts for the Market," analyzing a book of hours produced in the early 16th century when illuminated manuscripts were in their later days. "I talked about the way that the illuminations were done late in the flourishing of books of hours," said Cheng. "You can tell a lot of things about the ways that they tried to speed up production—something that was not in the end good for illuminations, and not feasible for art, especially when printing came along."

A fourth student, Julia Renaud '09, took on the challenge of working with fragment from a mid-15th century book of hours. After a great deal of digging, she used saints’ names in the fragment to trace it to a region in west central France. This process might sound logical, but variants on saints’ names were common, making it that much more difficult.

These were just a few of the challenges and topics undertaken by the freshmen.  
A Conversion Experience
"Obviously books like this have to be protected," said Hamburger of the texts. "And that's why they’re kept here at the Houghton. On the other hand, it's very, very important that we allow our students to come into contact with these books. By that I mean not only to see them, but to turn the pages and to experience them for what they are, namely, books."

"To have this exhibit, as a project that I could work on was really amazing," said Cheng, who has a personal interest in book binding and preservation and works in Harvard's Weissman Preservation Center. Cheng also deserves extra credit for helping pull together the exhibition: in addition to her catalog summary, she designed the catalog, contributed three of the four appendices (including a technical description and a description of medieval binding), and built the cradles which hold the manuscripts in the display case.

Cheng added, "During the class I also felt that when you have something like this—that was so important to somebody who used it—you start to understand the little glimpses of a time and a people that's really in many ways pretty unfamiliar. That's been amazing and something that I hope to continue." 

Hamburger, who plans to add the course to his regular rotation of classes, beginning this summer, hopes the course had a significant impact on his first-year students. "I'm convinced that it will have been, you might say, a conversion experience for them. That's in a sense what you hope for—whether someone's going to go on or not, whether they discover something entirely new and find a lasting enthusiasm. That's really what you live for as a teacher."

"The Book of Hours: Picturing Prayer in the Middle Ages" is on exhibit through March 11 in the Houghton Library. Hours: Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday 9 am-5 pm; Tuesday 9 am-8 pm, Saturday 9 am-1 pm. For details, call 617-495-2411.

Page Last Reviewed: May 12, 2009