Thursday, November 30, 2023

Medieval Books of Hours in the Public Library of Bruges

Another win for the YouTube suggestion algorithm, which usually has such bizarrely counter-intuitive ideas about what I might be interested in watching. In the 15th century, the Low Countries were an important center of production of beautifully illuminated books and manuscripts, including Books of Hours. A public library in Bruges which holds a collection of 21 very fine examples of them, produced this video several years, which gives an excellent explanation of their contents and illustrations, demonstrated with some period reenacting.

There are just a couple of quibbles I would make with this video. One is the explanation of the Hours of the Divine Office as taking place every 3 hours on the clock, with Matins at midnight, Lauds at 3am etc. Before the invention of precise time-keeping devices, these hours were always an approximation, and in practice, the even spacing-out of the 8 canonical Hours was always more of an ideal than a reality. By the period this video is discussing, the 15th century, the liturgical duties of cathedral chapters, monasteries etc. had expanded considerably, relative to the customs of very early Middle Ages, and the Hours were generally said in choir in two blocks: Prime through None in the morning, with Mass after the apposite Hour, and Vespers, Compline, Matins and Lauds in the evening, with various other things (e.g. the Litany of the Saints) added to one block or the other, according to occasion and custom.

The other would be the reference to the prayers of the Office of the Dead as “sinister texts”, which is simply untrue, and would have been met with derision from those who created and used these books. The reality of death was of course far more present to medieval people than it is to us, and so also the urgent importance of praying for the dead. But the traditional Office of the Dead strikes a very healthy balance between contemplation of the reality of sin and death on the one hand, and God’s infinite mercy on the other. Vespers of the Dead was often called the “Placebo”, from the words of its first antiphon, “Placebo Domino in terra viventium. - I will please the Lord in the land of the living”, and Matins was called the “Dirge” in English, likewise from the first antiphon, “Dirige, Domine Deus, in conspectu tuo viam meam. - Guide, o Lord God, my way in Thy sight.” Surely there is nothing sinister about either of these, or texts such as “In a place a place of pasture, there He hath set me”, or “I believe I shall see the Lord in the land of the living”, etc.
The suggestion came, by the way, from my watching this video posted two days ago by Peter’s son Julian of his visit to a private library collection, in which he inspects inter alia two Roman Breviaries, one of the 14th century, and another of 15th.

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