Category Archives: Books of Hours

Fragmentology in the COVID-era Classroom

The Flight into Egypt, Walters Art Museum, MS W.188, f.112r

It’s been a rough few years, friends. We have all been through so much during the pandemic, and for students and teachers the pivots and policies have been particularly difficult and frustrating. Trying to stay safe, learning to teach online, dealing with trauma and loss, getting used to social-distanced and masked pedagogy, in addition to the usual pressures of teaching and learning. It was a particular delight, then, to see my extraordinary Simmons University School of Library Science students here in Boston make their way through this semester’s course “The Medieval Manuscript from Charlemagne to Gutenberg” not only with resilience and steadfastness, but with enthusiasm, intellectual curiosity, and the joy of discovery.

Stony Brook University, “Fifty Original Leaves from Medieval Manuscripts,” no. 31

As always, the final project for my class this semester was a digital reconstruction of one of the Books of Hours dismembered by Otto Ege in the first half of the twentieth century. This year, we chose the lovely ca. 1430 Book of Hours from France whose leaves became no. 31 in the Ege portfolio, “Fifty Original Leaves from Medieval Manuscripts.” Each of my fourteen students was assigned one leaf from one of the known portfolios (such as the leaf at Stony Brook University, shown at right) to research and catalogue. They had to use online resources such as the Hypertext Book of Hours to identify the text on their leaf, and then catalogue the leaf using the Fragmentarium database. Some of the students were so enthusiastic about the project that they catalogued more than the one leaf originally assigned to them. I did some as well, so that we could work with as many leaves as possible.

One of my students took extraordinary initiative and spent hours searching the internet to try to find more leaves. She found several, including a calendar page at Dartmouth College and a miniature that was recently sold by the Manhattan Rare Book Company. Both of these are rare and important finds for an Ege manuscript. Generally, it is very difficult to definitively identify miniatures from the Ege manuscripts, since they were sold separately from the text leaves that are found in portfolios and often are framed so that the text side is not visible, making it quite difficult to determine if the miniature came from the target manuscript. In this case, however, the bookseller had reproduced the text side as well, so we could tell for sure that this miniature was from our manuscript. The miniature (below) was a depiction of King David at prayer, the opening of the Penitential Psalms section of the Book of Hours. The gold ring surrounding the vines in the lower margin is a motif that appears in other leaves, and may suggest that the book was commissioned to commemorate a marriage.

I wrote to the bookseller to ask for more information, and he informed me that the miniature had just been sold to a private collector in New York City. He contacted the owner on my behalf, and the new owner emailed me directly to let me know that he in fact owned THREE miniatures from this manuscript! In addition to David at Prayer, he had acquired miniatures of the Annunciation (Matins, Hours of the Virgin) and the Nativity (Prime, Hours of the Virgin).

In the meantime, following the trail left by Scott Gwara in his entry for this manuscript from his monograph, Otto Ege’s Manuscripts ((Cayce, SC : De Brailes Publishing, 2013), pp. 128-129), the same student tracked down a copy of Judith Oliver’s catalogue of a now-defunct collection formerly belonging to the Boston University School of Theology, where four miniatures, including the Annunciation and the Nativity, were illustrated.

Judith Oliver, Manuscripts Sacred and Secular (Boston: Endowment for Biblical Research, 1985), pp. 58-59 (no. 97, figs. 20-23).
Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, Acc. 56.27

Gwara recorded a miniature as well, this burial scene belonging to the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art that was purchased from Ege’s widow Louise in 1956. Now we had SIX miniatures to work with, two of which are untraced (the Annunciation to the Shepherds and the Adoration of the Magi, shown at right above). There are almost certainly several more miniatures that have not been located, completing the series for the Hours of the Virgin (the Visitation, the Presentation, the Flight into Egypt, and the Coronation of Virgin). There may also have been one or more miniatures illustrating the Gospel Readings that would have followed the calendar. With so much evidence, an art-historical analysis was possible. A group of students worked together to craft this stylistic description:

“Marginal rinceaux and painted line fillers, smallish acanthus leaves on miniature pages only. Margins also include gold trefoil and red, blue, and green flowers growing on the rinceaux. Rinceaux often seems to “sprout” out of the text, usually from a single gold initial or line-filler. Borders on recto and verso are mirrored for efficiency. Some leaves show a gold ring motif among the rinceaux. Miniatures with gold U-borders with flowers/ leaves in red and blue. Continental color palette: Blues, purples, jewel tone & continental design: botanical, leafy, organic. Miniature composition similar to Bedford Master Workshop (see Oliver, pp. 58-59), Dunois Master Workshop, and occasionally elements of Boucicaut Master Workshop (as suggested by Sotheby’s).”

[it is important to note that of the five other non-portfolio leaves identified by Gwara as coming from this manuscript, upon inspection only the Memphis leaf could be affiliated with Ege 31; the other four are from a different manuscript entirely]

In the end, we identified a total of thirty-seven leaves of this manuscript. After each student had catalogued their leaf/leaves in Fragmentarium, we then worked together in class to use Fragmentarium’s IIIF-sequencing functionality to digitally recreate the manuscript:

While some students were scouring the internet for additional leaves, others were conducting codicological research. One student selected two leaves at random to catalogue – from Massey College at the University of Toronto and the Wadsworth Athenaeum in Hartford, Connecticut – that turned out to be consecutive. Several other students identified formerly-consecutive leaves, and we even found eight leaves in a row. These consecutive runs, combined with evidence such as surviving catchwords on several leaves, allowed us to partially reconstruct several quires (using an innovative and intuitive resource called VisColl). In those three quires, we identified four pairs of formerly-conjoint bifolia, highlighted in green above. Yale University’s Beinecke Library preserves a still-conjoint consecutive bifolium from the manuscript in its portfolio. Other pairs were reconstructed using textual and codicological evidence. The catchword on the verso of the leaf at Harvard University’s Houghton Library, for example (below left), indicates that this bifolium was the outermost of its quire (L9/L16 in the diagram above). In other words, each of these pairs of leaves were once attached to one another at the gutter as a single sheet of parchment, folded in half and sewn into the quire. When Ege dismembered the manuscript, he disbound the quires and split the conjoints. These pairs of leaves haven’t seen each other in nearly a century. Below, the leaf at Harvard University’s Houghton Library is virtually reunited with its former conjoint, now at the University of Saskatchewan, nearly 2,300 miles away.

We have analyzed art historical evidence and codicological evidence. What about the contents? The surviving leaves preserve portions of several sections of the manuscript: the Calendar, Hours of the Virgin, Hours of the Cross, Penitential Psalms, and the Office of the Dead. While we did not recover the critical pieces of liturgy that are usually used to determine Use (the antiphon and chapter reading for Prime and None of the Hours of the Virgin, as well as the Matins Responsories of the Office of the Dead), independent research by several students helped identify the origins of the manuscript. One student determined that the particular hymn used on the page she had been assigned seemed to indicate that the manuscript was for the Use of Paris. Another found that an atypical Psalm used at Vespers for the Office of Dead was also suggestive of Use of Paris. The few Matins responsories recovered for the Office of the Dead were consistent with Paris Use and, after a careful in-class analysis of the saints named on the calendar page, we felt we could confidently identify this manuscript as made for the Use of Paris.

That’s as far as we’ve gone so far. We spent several hours conducting provenance research in the Schoenberg Database of Manuscripts, trying to identify any pre-Ege sales of this manuscript (with help from provenance-researcher-extraordinaire Laura Cleaver and the always-helpful reference librarians at The Grolier Club Library), but we haven’t found it yet. The dimensions of the manuscript (190 x 160 (107 x 68) mm) are fairly typical, as is the number of lines (15), making it difficult to definitively identify this manuscript in an early sales record.

The semester is over, but the work continues. The linked-open data model and interoperable image sequencing reflect best digital practices. This means that if more leaves are identified, they can easily be added to the reconstruction, and if I ever do manage to find a sales record that seems to represent this manuscript when it was whole, I can update the Fragmentarium record accordingly.

This annual project accomplishes many of my goals for my students, all of whom are pursuing a Masters of Library Science: craft clean, consistent, linked data; work with digital images in a IIIF environment; analyze paleographical, art historical, and codicological evidence to determine the date and place of origin of a medieval manuscript; understand how to research and work with Books of Hours, which are among the most common genres of medieval manuscripts in North American collections; and work collaboratively. Each student’s record has its own persistent and citable URL, as does the reconstruction. The work of previous years can be found here, and for more information about other scholars who are doing reconstructions and studies of other Ege manuscripts, see this blogpost.

I hope to take on another reconstruction with Simmons students next fall, hopefully in a post-pandemic world. In the meantime, I wish you a very Merry Christmas and a Happy, and Healthy, New Year.

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Filed under Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Books of Hours, Codicology, Fragmentology, Houghton Library, Medieval Manuscripts, Otto F. Ege, Paleography, Uncategorized

Manuscript Road Trip: You Can’t Argue with Science!

The Flight into Egypt, Walters Art Museum, MS W.188, f.112r

The Flight into Egypt, Walters Art Museum, MS W.188, f.112r

This is a story about how science and forensics can help translate a question of subjective connoisseurship into one of objective certainty. In other words, you can’t argue with science.

Back in 2001, I was hired by the Department of Special Collections at Wellesley College (in Wellesley, Mass.) to catalogue their very fine collection of pre-1600 manuscripts. I spent several years working my way through the collection, researching contents, origin, provenance, and physical characteristics of the codices, cuttings, and single leaves, eventually producing a 91-page document that became the source for the library’s MARC records. Some of manuscripts have been digitized and are online here. Five were included in the Beyond Words exhibition in 2016; those records are here.


Wellesley College, MS 29, f. 14v (St. Christopher)

Today, I want to focus on one manuscript in particular, Wellesley MS 29. MS 29 is a late-fifteenth/early-sixteenth-century Book of Hours for the Use of Utrecht, written and decorated in the Northern Netherlands. The full-page miniatures in the manuscript have recently been attributed by James Marrow to the “Masters of the Dark Eyes” (see Hamburger, et al., Beyond Words: Illuminated Manuscripts in Boston Collections (Chestnut Hill: McMullen Museum of Art, 2016), Cat. 128 (p. 163) – you can download Marrow’s entry and description of the manuscript from the Beyond Words website). Artistic attribution is a tricky and often somewhat subjective business. This is particularly true when dealing with medieval manuscripts, whose artists are rarely named and may instead be identified as the Master of This or the School of That. That kind of connoisseurship is beyond the scope of my training and expertise – I can tell that MS 29 is Netherlandish from the general style, but I leave such specific attributions to expert art historians like James Marrow.

Another such expert with an impressive visual memory and a long track record of artistic attribution is Peter Kidd, a British manuscript consultant whom I have mentioned before. Several months ago, he wrote to Ruth Rogers, the Curator of Special Collections at Wellesley, with some questions about MS 29. In particular, he thought that while the full-page miniatures seemed appropriately dated and attributed, something seemed “wrong” about the small historiated initials, a selection of which are seen below.


A trio of suspicious miniatures…

Kidd wrote about his suspicions on his blog, Medieval Manuscripts Provenance, in May 2019 (he also had concerns about Wellesley MS 27, but I’m going to focus on MS 29 today). By “wrong,” he meant that he suspected the historiated initials may have been later additions, nineteenth-century forgeries added to increase the value of the manuscript. Kidd argued that the initials may even have been produced by the Spanish Forger (about whom more here). They seemed all right to me when I catalogued the manuscript in 2001, but as I’ve said, I’m no art historian. Previous studies hadn’t expressed suspicion about the initials, but Kidd thought they might be forged. It’s a classic art historian standoff, one opinion vs. another. Fortunately, science can help turn opinion into fact. In this case, the question was settled by the application of X-Ray Fluorescence (XRF).

X-Ray Fluorescence uses an x-ray beam to produce a chemical signature, identifying the elements that make up the sample being tested. In the case of a medieval manuscript, XRF testing can determine the chemical composition of mineral-based pigments. Because some chemical signatures can be identified as artificial man-made pigments, as opposed to the simple mineral pigments used in the Middle Ages, XRF testing can help determine whether pigments are authentic or are later additions. For example, the “Paris Green” that gave the Spanish Forger away, also known as “Scheele’s Green,” is a man-made pigment first synthesized in 1775 whose chemical signature shows a distinctive arsenic spike in addition to the expected, and perfectly normal, copper signature.

After hearing from Peter Kidd, Ruth Rogers decided to investigate further. She invited me to join her and Wellesley book conservator Emily Bell on a field trip to the Boston Museum of Fine Art’s digital lab to observe as they conducted XRF testing on MS 29. Testing was conducted by Michele Derrick and Richard Newman using a Bruker Artax open architecture spectrometer for 120 seconds at 40 kV and 700 microamps. I am very grateful to both of these skilled technicians for their careful testing and thorough reporting. It was a fascinating and truly educational afternoon.


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Together, Ruth and I selected pages and specific targets, focusing on reds, blues, and greens. Miniatures that were likely original were scanned as a baseline and those that were suspect were scanned for comparison. The results could not have been more clear.

The green pigment in the full-page miniatures that were tested (St. Christopher (see above) and The Man of Sorrows, f. 78v) was defined by a spike in copper only, no arsenic. So nothing suspicious there.


Screenshot (830)

Chemical signature of the green pigment on the king’s robe in the upper right corner of f. 78v: the combination of chemical elements (with a spike in [Cu], copper) suggests that the pigment was ground from malachite, perfectly normal for a medieval green.

But the historiated initials that felt “wrong” to Peter Kidd? His “wrong” instincts turned out to be absolutely right. The green in the three historiated initials that were tested (ff. 21, 40, and 79) showed a clear and dramatic spike in the arsenic [As] signature in addition to copper. The pigment was copper-acetoarsenite, also known as Paris Green. As Kidd suspected, they were all nineteenth-century forgeries. You can’t argue with science.

Screenshot (827)

Chemical signatures for the green pigment in three of the suspect historiated initials (top to bottom, ff. 79r, 21r, and 40r). The arsenic spike is outlined in black.

The evidence suggests that the spaces for these initials were originally left blank, that is, they were planned but never painted. In other words, there was no evidence of scraping or overpainting. Our forger, whoever s/he was, added the historiated initials to the blank spaces in the nineteenth century, probably to add value to the manuscript. There are certainly many other manuscripts out there that have been supplemented in this way but haven’t yet been studied carefully enough to arouse suspicion. Unfortunately, not everyone has access to an XRF lab, and so such suspicions usually must go untested. But there are professional labs that can do this work along with other kinds of material testing, and the results are almost always worthwhile, adding scientific evidence to artistic judgement. Even the Voynich Manuscript (you knew I’d bring that up, didn’t you?) has been subjected to material testing, to determine whether it might be a modern forgery. The results of testing on Voynich ink and pigments showed nothing to indicate that the manuscript ISN’T medieval, and carbon-14 testing dated the manuscript’s parchment to the early fifteenth century.


“Paris Green” can’t hide from XRF

Given the clear results of the XRF testing, Wellesley will need to update the manuscript’s digital records to indicate that some of the initials are nineteenth-century forgeries, adding a fascinating additional chapter to the history of this already-intriguing manuscript. The story of Wellesley MS 29 shows how manuscript studies can benefit from the combination of modern forensics and knowledgeable connoisseurship. There is always room for new understanding of old books.

Also, trust your gut.

And never argue with science.


Filed under Books of Hours, Medieval Manuscripts, Uncategorized

Manuscript Road Trip: Miami University (the one in Ohio, not the one in Florida!)

The Flight into Egypt, Walters Art Museum, MS W.188, f.112r

The Flight into Egypt, Walters Art Museum, MS W.188, f.112r

When my son decided to matriculate at Miami University of Ohio back in 2015, he had no idea that he would spend the rest of his life explaining that he attended “Miami University (the one in Ohio, not the one in Florida!).” The distinction is important – the University of Miami (the one in Florida) vs. Miami University (the one in Oxford, Ohio).  He’s been there for several years already and I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I had not visited Miami’s Special Collections until I went to see my son last week. Given what we all know about medieval manuscripts in Ohio (this is my third post devoted to the state), I should not have been surprised to find an excellent assortment of leaves and several very fine codices on the third floor of King Library. My thanks to curator Bill Modrow for facilitating the visit and to Miami Professor Anna Klosowska for exploring the collection with me.

Oxford map

MUO Terence

Terence, Comedies (PA6755.H4/H43/1480 verso) (250 x 175 mm)

Miami University of Ohio (MUO) has acquired several loose leaves over the years, including a previously unknown leaf from a beautiful humanistic manuscript of Terence’s Comedies that was a victim of Otto Ege’s biblioclastic practices; it is also known as Ege Handlist (HL) no. 78 (see Gwara, Otto Ege’s Manuscripts, pp. 145-146; all references to Handlist numbers below come from Gwara as well). I’ve mentioned this manuscript before (here, citing the leaf at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, and here, at the University of Vermont), and Barbara Shailor reproduced the Rutgers University Library leaf as Fig. I.2 in her 2003 article, “Otto Ege: His Manuscript Fragment Collection and the Opportunities Presented by Electronic Technology.” According to the great paleographer Albinia de la Mare, this manuscript was written by the humanistic scribe Giuliano di Antonio of Prato, Florence in the mid-fifteenth century (Shailor, p. 12 and note 6). By 1937, it was no. 65 in Ege’s personal collection as recorded in the de Ricci Census of Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts in the United States and Canada (II:1947). According to the de Ricci description, the manuscript originally comprised 103 leaves and – in 1937 – was still bound in its original wooden boards covered with brown leather. Ege acquired it from Dawson’s Bookshop in Los Angeles in 1935, and was selling single leaves by the early 1940s (Gwara, pp. 57-58). Gwara records nine known leaves (see pp. 145-146), a list to which the MUO leaf can now be added.

Gradual recto

MUO, s.n., Gradual (Spain?, s. XV) (505 x 366 mm)

 This fifteenth-century gradual leaf, perhaps from Spain, is also noteworthy – not because of its music or script, which are not at all uncommon, but because of the small scrap of cloth adhered to the outer margin of the recto (about 25 x 50 mm):

Gradual recto detail

MUO, s.n., Gradual, detail

This bit of embroidery was cut from a larger piece of cloth and adhered to the leaf to be used as a bookmark tab. This leaf preserves Masses for Sts. Fabian and Sebastian (January 25) and for the fifth day during the Octave of St. Vincent (January 27); one of these days was important enough to a user of this choirbook that they felt it worthwhile to mark the page.


Foliophiles, Inc., Pages from the Past

Otto Ege was not the only dealer assembling and marketing leaf collections in the twentieth century. MUO owns a portfolio titled “Pages from the Past” that was assembled by Foliophiles Inc. in 1964. This set includes specimens covering a wide spectrum of humanity’s written record, from papyrus documents and cuneiform tablets through medieval manuscript leaves all the way to examples of fine printing from the twentieth century. A similar set belongs to the St. Louis Public Library, and another can be found at the University of Missouri – Columbia.

The MUO library also owns several codices, one of which is particularly noteworthy: a lovely and heavily illustrated Book of Hours from Flanders (possibly Ghent), produced around 1460-70. Although the Hours of the Virgin is for the Use of Rome and the Office of the Dead is of indeterminate Use, the calendar and litany point to Flanders (spelling Ursula “Hursula” and Gertrude “Ghertrudis”, for example), as does the artistic style. The manuscript comprises 124 leaves, measures 145 x 100 mm, has fourteen full-page miniatures and nine historiated initials, and is bound in 17th-century gilt armorial brown calf over pasteboard (the arms – a Katherine wheel surmounted by the barred helm of a Count below a lion rampant holding an ax or perhaps a cross – are as yet unidentified). It was purchased from Bromer Booksellers (Boston) in 1997 as Miami University of Ohio’s two millionth volume. The manuscript’s provenance prior to 1997 is unknown, and I can find no clear trace of it in the Schoenberg Database.

The Book of Hours is so lovely that I can’t bear to show just a few miniatures…here are all of them:

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The deep blue backgrounds and the brick-and-mortar structures, among other features, point to Flanders as the place of origin. Quite fortuitously, I have found another manuscript by the same workshop if not the same artist (Glasgow University Library Sp Coll MS Euing 3). The parallels are clear in this side-by-side of the Annunciation to the Shepherds (MUO at left, Glasgow at right): note the similarities in the treatment of the tiny lambs, the style of the rock cliff, trees, background, grass, and shrubs, as well as costumes and facial features.

If anyone has a more specific attribution, please let me know. Medieval artists are rarely known by name – instead, art historians give them descriptive epithets. Until we know otherwise, I’ll call this artist the Master of…well…how about The Master of the Tiny Lambs?

Before I flew back to Boston from Cincinnati, I had the opportunity to visit a private collector there. He had contacted me several weeks ago, saying that he had inherited several dozen leaves purchased from Otto Ege by his step-father’s first wife…would I be interested in seeing some images? By a wonderful co-incidence, I was already planning to be in Cincinnati just a few weeks later, and he invited me to see the leaves in person. And what a trove! In addition to several single leaves acquired from Ege (such as HL 13 and HL 150), he had an entire Ege portfolio, the set titled “Original Leaves from Famous Bibles/ Nine Centuries 1121 – 1935 AD” (if you want to get technical about it, this particular example is a combination of Series A (200 sets of 37 leaves, issued in 1936) and Series B (100 sets of 60 leaves, issued in 1938) (see Gwara, p. 36)). Series B typically begins with four manuscript leaves, as described in the accompanying Broadside:


Original Leaves from Famous Bibles: Nine Centuries 1121-1935 AD, typical Broadside

The Broadside in this private collection, however, has been altered. Not only that, but it was edited by the hand of Louise Ege herself. This particular portfolio was probably purchasedFBNC Broadside before Otto’s death in 1951, since he had once claimed that Series A had sold out by around 1940 (Gwara, p. 42). This set was likely acquired shortly before 1940, then, because by the time this set was purchased, certain leaves were already no longer available and Otto and Louise were offering substitutions. On the Broadside for this set, Louise notes, for example, that of leaf no. 4 (usually HL 54) there are only “a few left.”  No. 2 (HL 59) was completely out of stock.

These substitutions are evident in the collection itself. No. 1 (HL 56, a leaf from an Armenian Bible) is present, but the second (and out-of-stock) leaf (HL 59) has been replaced by HL 76, an equally lovely but totally different specimen of a twelfth-century Bible, this one with marginal glossing. Even though the two manuscripts are completely different (a typical example of HL 59 shown below left, the replacement HL 76 below right), Otto and Louise didn’t change the label when they made the substitution, since the description was vague enough to suffice for either manuscript:

The delicate thirteenth-century Italian Bible HL 58 serves as the third leaf, as expected.


HL 58 (Italy, thirteenth century)

The fourth leaf should be a small two-column Bible leaf from HL 54. According to the label on the matte, that manuscript is a “Dominican Manuscript written in Paris” in the unrealistically-precise year 1240 AD. In the present set, this was replaced with a leaf from HL 9, another small-format thirteenth-century Bible which Ege dated to the equally absurdly-precise year 1250 AD.* The date on the label has been edited accordingly:


After Otto’s death in 1951, Louise took over the leaf-marketing business. She had a gift for marketing and sales, reaching out to institutions and collectors throughout the country promoting the business. As correspondence preserved with this private collection demonstrates, after Otto’s death she kept up the relationships cultivated during Otto’s lifetime and gave the same time and attention to small private collections as to large cultural institutions:

Ege letter4 – 17 – 56

Dear Mrs. ***,

Would you at present be interested in having a selection of leaves for choice or perhaps for sale. I could send you a selection of hand written Bible leaves. If you wish them unmounted I can give you a very special price, perhaps I can also find some mounted ones which are reasonable.

Would you also be interested in some leaves from Books of Hours. I am not sure just what all your special interests are.

Would you care for some inexpensive assortment of unmounted leaves? I’ll be glad to try. Are you connected with the University [of Cincinnati]?


Mrs. Otto F. Ege



* On pp. 119 and 137 of Otto Ege’s Manuscripts, Gwara notes that in a different portfolio, “Original Leaves from Famous Books: Eight Centuries,” leaves of HL 54 are sometimes replaced by leaves of HL 9. The present set appears to be the only recorded example of the same substitution taking place in “Original Leaves from Famous Bibles, Nine Centuries,” but many examples of this portfolio have yet to be carefully catalogued and identified using Gwara’s handlist numbers. Peter Kidd has written about the marketing of the Bible sets and others here.













Filed under Books of Hours, Medieval Manuscripts, Otto F. Ege, Uncategorized

Manuscript Road Trip: The New Bedford Hours

The Flight into Egypt, Walters Art Museum, MS W.188, f.112r

The Flight into Egypt, Walters Art Museum, MS W.188, f.112r

An appropriate subtitle for this blog would be “Medieval Manuscripts in Unexpected Places.” Today’s installment is no exception.

The whaling town of New Bedford is nestled on the New England shore of the North Atlantic, in southeastern Massachusetts. It is an important center for the history of the whaling industry in New England, and its beautiful Public Library includes more than a century’s worth of whaling logs and records. But it also includes something much older, a sumptuous Book of Hours from France written around the year 1465.

New Bedford map

This 98-leaf manuscript is a real beauty, with nine miniatures and five full borders:

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This manuscript has never been studied or widely noted before now. It was recently brought to my attention by Phil Weimerskirch, the retired librarian of the Providence Public Library. Phil is 87 years old, and for nearly twenty years has been an important source of local knowledge for myself and my colleague and co-author Melissa Conway as we compiled our Directory of Collections in the United States and Canada with Pre-1600 Manuscript Holdings. During his career in Providence, Rhode Island, Phil – who is an expert bibliographer and book historian – regularly explored small collections throughout southern New England looking for unrecorded medieval manuscripts. At last count, he had brought more than a dozen such repositories to our attention. He remains, by far, our greatest sleuth and for his knowledge and experience we are extremely grateful!

When Phil emailed me a few weeks ago to confirm the presence of this manuscript in New Bedford, he included a few images. I could tell immediately that this manuscript was something special (not that they aren’t ALL special in their own way), not your every-day run-of-the-mill manuscript. Janice Hodson, the Library’s Art Curator, welcomed me to the collection last week to study and photograph the manuscript and has graciously given me permission to share my photographs and findings here.

I’m going to use this post as an opportunity to walk you through the steps of researching Books of Hours, and I will include links to several important online resources of particular use when working with such manuscripts. Roger Wieck’s Time Sanctified remains the best printed introduction to the genre, and I highly recommend you purchase it if you are going to work with Books of Hours in any capacity. If you’d rather explore an online primer, Les Enluminures presents a profusely illustrated introduction to Books of Hours here.

The first thing to know is that Books of Hours were personal prayerbooks, as opposed to books for use in a church or cathedral (the Beauvais Missal is one such churchbook). As such, they were not in general produced by monks or nuns in abbey scriptoria but were written and illuminated by professionals often working on commission. The genre developed in the mid-thirteenth century but really took off with the establishment of professional centers of book production in the fifteenth century. Wealthy patrons commissioned these prayerbooks for their own home use and could request personal touches such as added devotions to their name-saint or to saints of local importance, even self-portraits or coats-of-arms. In addition, particular sections of the liturgy can vary by locale. Books of Hours, therefore, are full of clues as to their origin and patronage. You can even tell if a book was made for the use of a woman, as many Books of Hours were.

As far as contents are concerned, Books of Hours are modular, consisting of discreet sections usually presented in the same sequence, although not all Books of Hours include all of these sections or present them in this order:

Liturgical calendar (listing which saints are to be commemorated on which day)

Passion narratives from the Gospels (often illustrated with portraits of the evangelists at work)

The Hours of the Virgin (divided into the eight canonical offices of the day, each of which is often illustrated with a scene from the life of the Virgin Mary): Matins (the Annunciation), Lauds (the Visitation), Prime (the Nativity), Terce (the Annunciation to the Shepherds), Sext (the Adoration of the Magi), None (the Presentation in the Temple), Vespers (the Slaughter of the Innocents or the Flight into Egypt), and Compline (the Slaughter of the Innocents, the Flight into Egypt, or the Coronation of the Virgin).

The Hours of the Cross and the Hours of the Holy Spirit (illustrated by the Crucifixion and Pentecost respectively and often abbreviated, in which case called “Little” Hours)

Prayers to the Virgin Mary (“Obsecro te” and “O intemerata”)

The Penitential Psalms (a group of seven Psalms – 6, 31, 37, 50, 101, 129, and 142 – that focus of the theme of repentance, usually accompanied by a portrait of King David or a scene from his life) and Litany (a series of Saints grouped by type and gender – Apostles, Popes, Martyrs, Virgins, etc. – from whom the penitent requests intercession)

The Office of the Dead (illustrated by a funeral, burial, or a scene from the Book of Job)

Suffrages and additional prayers (optional prayers for particular saints or events, sometimes illustrated by portraits of the particular saints)

When faced with a Book of Hours, the first step is to identify the contents and determine if anything obvious is missing or is out of order. Then you can go through more carefully looking for clues.

While conducting my initial survey, I could see that something was wrong. There were only five miniatures in the Hours of the Virgin instead of the expected eight. A comparison of the text with the online Hypertext Book of Hours confirmed that several sections of the Hours of the Virgin were missing: the end of Terce, the beginning and end of Sext, all of None, and most of Vespers. In addition, the Office of the Dead was interrupted twice, by the Hours of the Cross and by the Hours of the Holy Spirit. Sometimes the Hours of the Cross and the Hours of the Holy Spirit are inserted into the middle of the Hours of the Virgin (the term is “intercalated”), but never into the Office of the Dead. Clearly something was out of sequence here as well.

I set the codicological issues aside and began working on identifying the liturgical use of the manuscript, that is, identifying the place for which it was made. This is often different than the place in which it was made.

Stylistically, the manuscript can be localized to northern France, possibly Rouen, and dates to around 1460-70. In private correspondence, art historian James Marrow observed that the illumination style is similar to the workshop of the Masters of the Échevinage de Rouen, a workshop active in Rouen and the Loire Valley in the third quarter of the fifteenth century. If you compare the New Bedford Hours Annunciation miniature (below left) with the Annunciation in British Library Sloane 2732 B (below right, also attributed to the Masters), you can see the resemblance in the composition, the setting, and the treatment of hands and faces, even the structure of the Angel Gabriel’s wings and the gold cross-hatching that gives texture to the drapery.

Even if you’re not an art historian, you can at least get a sense of the date of the manuscript simply by looking at the border illumination. In the early fifteenth century, borders are comprised of delicate spindly vines (“rinceaux”) and small gold trefoil leaves. As the century progresses, colorful thick foliage begins to appear in the corners (“acanthus leaves”).


f. 13

By the third quarter of the century, the acanthus leaves have overtaken the rinceaux, as in this manuscript. By the end of the century, they’ve forced the rinceaux completely into the background and have come to dominate the border decoration.

So the manuscript was made in northern France, possibly Rouen, around the year 1465. But for WHOM was it made? To answer that question, we have to conduct a detailed textual investigation of several sections of the manuscript: the calendar, the Hours of the Virgin, the Litany, the Office of the Dead, and the suffrages.

Liturgical calendars such as the one in this Book of Hours are universal, as opposed to year-specific, and indicate which saint is to be commemorated on which day (they also help you determine the date of Easter and which days are Sundays in any particular year, but that’s another story). Saints are presented in a hierarchy indicated by color: saints in black ink are of “normal” importance, while those in red are more so (hence the expression “red-letter day”).



The first half of September in the New Bedford Hours, with the Nativity of the Virgin Mary in blue and the Exaltation of the Cross in red (f. 9)


Some calendars give a third level of importance, indicated by blue or gold ink. In the present manuscript, saints are written in black, red, and blue, with the latter reserved for the most important saints. It is those more colorful saints that are likely to provide significant evidence of the liturgical use of the manuscript. You want to look for atypical saints, that is, saints who aren’t apostles, or early Roman martyrs, or Biblical characters such as Jesus, Mary Magdalene, John the Baptist, or the Virgin Mary. Saints in red or blue who are unusual are the clues you’re looking for. If those saints also appear in the litany or the suffrages, you know you’ve hit upon critical evidence for determining the Use of the manuscript.

Most of the red and blue saints in the New Bedford Hours are either of the Biblical variety or are typically French (such as St. Katherine or St. Egidius) and so are not of much use in localization; we already knew from stylistic evidence that the manuscript was from France. But one blue saint stands out: St. Ursinus, Bishop of Bourges, on June 11. In fact, St. Ursinus appears in this calendar four times: January 5 (the Octave, written in black), June 11 (his Translation, i.e. the commemoration of the movement of his relics from one place to another, in blue), November 9 (in black, the “Revelatio,” or revealing of his relics), and December 29 (in red). In addition, Ursinus appears in the litany, in the list of Confessors. Clearly, St. Ursinus was of particular importance to the patron of this manuscript. The next stop is the online “Zeitrechnung des Deutschen Mittelalters und der Neuzeit,” an online version of Hermann Grotefend’s dictionary of Saints. Each alphabetical entry gives the date(s) on which a particular saint was commemorated and where they were of particular importance. For Ursinus, however, Grotefend does not mention June 11. Time to break out the big guns.

acta-sanctorumThe most detailed and lengthy dictionary of Saints is the Acta Sanctorum, begun by the Jesuit scholar Jean Bolland (1596 – 1665) in 1643 and carried on by the Société des Bollandists, who continue the work to this day. The Acta Sanctorum is organized calendrically and, like a great cathedral, is continually under construction; the 60+ published volumes cover only January through November. If you’re looking for a December date, you’re out of luck, since only an introduction to that month has been written so far. The volumes are enormous in size and copious in content, with each month filling three or four books. Many university libraries own the whole set, but if you can’t find it, you may be able to access it online through a library that subscribes to the Brepols Acta Sanctorum database. The digitized volumes are browseable through the Internet Archive and the URLs have been conveniently compiled here.

The Acta Sanctorum is written entirely in Latin and provides transcriptions of Saints’ lives, tales of their relics and miracles, and important information about where they are venerated and on which days. According to the Acta Sanctorum, St. Ursinus – the patron of Évreux in the diocese of Lisieux in Normandy – was venerated in Évreux specifically on January 5, June 11, November 9, and December 29. Other saints of regional importance in the calendar include: Launomarus, Abbot of Chartres (January 19);  Gatianus, Bishop of Tours (May 2); Translation of St. Audoenus, Archbishop of Rouen (May 5); Leufredus, Abbot of Merey (June 21, a date of particular import in Évreux); Ravennus and Rasiphus (July 23); Taurinus, Bishop of Évreux (July 23), Maurilius, Bishop of Angers (September 13); Mellonis, Bishop of Rouen (October 22, in red); Romanus, Archbishop of Rouen (October 23, in red); Briccius, Bishop of Tours (November 13); Anianus, Bishop of Orléans (November 17); and Gatianus, Archbishop of Tours (December 18).

This is all pretty clear evidence that the manuscript was made for a patron in or near Évreux. But there is more to do before drawing this conclusion with confidence. Does the rest of the liturgical evidence support this initial hypothesis?

This next piece is some hardcore liturgiology, so bear with me. It so happens that two deeply-buried portions of the liturgy in the Hours of the Virgin also point towards the Use of the manuscript: the antiphon and chapter reading for Prime and None. These can be difficult to find if you don’t have a lot of experience working with Books of Hours, but the miniatures can serve to orient you, just as they did for medieval readers. Prime is always illustrated by the Nativity, an easily recognizable scene (the Virgin Mary and Joseph gazing at Baby Jesus, surrounded by animals in a humble setting), and None by the Presentation in the Temple. Towards the end of each of these offices, you will find the antiphon (indicated by the rubric “Ant.”) and the chapter reading (indicated by the rubric “Cap.” for “capitula”). In the New Bedford Hours, the Prime Antiphon begins “Quando natus” and the Chapter reading begins “Ab initio et ante secula.” The next step is to make note of the antiphon and chapter reading in None, which is why it’s such a bummer that None is missing from this manuscript. It means that we only have half of the evidence.

Once you’ve made note of your antiphons and chapter readings, your next stop is another online resource, the extraordinary Book of Hours reference site authored by Erik Drigsdahl, who founded the Institute for the Study of Illuminated Manuscripts in Denmark and was its Director until his untimely death in 2015. Since that time, the website has remained viable thanks to the generosity and efforts of Peter Kidd. On this page in particular, you will find a very detailed list of these sets of antiphons and chapter readings, indicating where they’re used. There are many different Uses recorded for “Quando Natus” and “Ab initio” at Prime, and without the data for None we just can’t be sure. But even though None is missing, we can delve a bit further thanks to Drigsdahl’s recording complete outlines for several different local uses, including the Use of Lisieux. Even though so much of the Hours of the Virgin is missing from the New Bedford Hours, the extant texts are a near-perfect match to Drigsdahl’s outline. So Use of Lisieux seems likely, especially given the Lisieux emphasis in the Calendar.

The final piece of the liturgical puzzle is found in the Office of the Dead. Here, you want to make note of the (usually) nine responsories of Matins. Matins is divided into three sections called nocturnes, each of which consists of a series of psalms and antiphons followed by a series of three readings, each of which is followed by a responsory. Those are the texts you’re looking for.

In the New Bedford Hours, the Responsories of the Office of the Dead are as follows:

1)      Credo quod redemptor…

2)      Qui lazarum…

3)      Domine quando veneris…

4)      Heu michi…

5)      Ne recorderis…

6)      Domine secundum actum meum noli…

7)      Peccantem me cotidie…

8)      Requiem eternam dona eis domine…

9)      Libera me domine de morte…

Once you’ve found your nine responsories, the next stop is Knud Ottosen’s Responsories and Versicles of the Latin Office of the Dead. Fortunately, this, too, is available as an online resource. Ottosen’s methodology was to assign a number to each of the dozens of possible responsories used in Matins of the Office of the Dead. In this case, the numeric series is: 14 72 24 32 57 28 68 82 38. By looking up the numeric series here, you can determine where this particular series was used. The series in the New Bedford Hours turns out to be rather common, having been incorporated in the Sarum (a.k.a. Salisbury) liturgy among others. But it WAS used in Lisieux. When this evidence is combined with the evidence in the calendar, litany, and Hours of the Virgin, I think we’ve got enough to conclude that this manuscript was made for the use of someone in Évreux or elsewhere in the Lisieux diocese.


“The City of Evreux, Normandy, France,” published in Harper’s Weekly, January 1871

After all this, the hymns and suffrages are a bit anticlimactic: Sebastian, Katherine, Barbara, Blasian, the male and female “Privileged Saints” (Denis, Gregory, Christopher, Blasian, and Egidius and, for the women, Katherine, Margaret, Martha, and Barbara), Ivo, and Eustache. None of these are particularly localizable. I would’ve been very happy to see a hymn to St. Ursinus here, but so it goes.

Here’s the last bit. To determine if a Book of Hours was made for a female patron, turn to the Marian prayer “Obsecro te.” About two-thirds of the way through, you’ll find this phrase: “…atque momentis vitae meae et mihi famulo tuo impetres…” Or, if you’re lucky, you might find this: “…atque momentis vitae meae et mihi famulae tuae impetres…” Latinists will have spotted the difference between the two: the former is masculine, the latter feminine. If you’ve got the latter, you can confidently conclude that your book was written for a woman. If you’ve got the former, you can’t be sure either way, since the text could have been copied without “translating” the gender. On folio 68v of the New Bedford Hours, we find the masculine version, and so the gender of our Lisieux patron is not determinable.

Finally we have to ask the question I direct at all medieval manuscripts in North America: how did you get here? Unfortunately, we don’t know much.

The manuscript was acquired by the New Bedford Public Library in 1912, from New York bookdealer Lathrop C. Harper. I haven’t been able to find it in any of his catalogues (yet), and I have found no trace of it in the Schoenberg Database of Manuscripts. But we don’t need to find the Harper catalogue because the New Bedford Librarian very kindly transcribed it in his report to the Board of Directors in 1913:

“MS. Horae on Vellum—Horae Beatae Mariae Virginis cum Calendario, a Fifteenth Century French manuscript written in a large Gothic hand on 97 leaves of vellum, with nine large miniatures, nearly every leaf of the text decorated with a delicate floriated side border, the miniatures and some other pages being surrounded by similar, but rather more elaborate borders, 27 large illuminated initial letters, the smaller initials and the text also decorated (size 9 1-12 in. x 7 1-6 in.) in modern red velvet binding. g[ilt] e[dges]. Saec xv.”

In a report published several years later, the Librarian explained that he purchased the manuscript “a number of years ago, since it was deemed advisable that we should have in the library one sample of the beautiful work executed by the monks of the Middle Ages. The leaves of the book are vellum, and every letter and illustration is the handiwork of these mediaeval monks. Although a stiff price was paid for the book it would have been worth fully twice as much if the margins had not been cut in binding many years ago.”

Putting aside the librarian’s misconception about the origins of the volume (not written by monks but by professional guildsmen), these two descriptions provide important information: the book only had nine miniatures when the Library acquired it (in other words, it was already missing the lost leaves) and was bound in red velvet. It was bound in its current brown morocco leather after 1912.

Finally, by using the Hypertext Book of Hours, I was able to reconstruct the correct sequence of leaves and determine the missing sections. For those of you who care about such things, that information is detailed in my formal description of the manuscript: New Bedford Hours description

IMG_20170426_104030865_HDRFor 95 years, this beautiful Book of Hours has rested comfortably at the New Bedford Public Library, unknown, unrecorded, and unstudied. It is an instructive case study in how to interpret the evidence preserved in these medieval “best sellers,” but the manuscript also demonstrates that there is still material out there waiting to be brought to light.

RESOURCES CITED (in order of use):

Melissa Conway and Lisa Fagin Davis, Directory of Collections in the United States and Canada with Pre-1600 Manuscript Holdings:

Roger Wieck, Time Sanctified:

Les Enluminures, Book of Hours tutorial:

Hypertext Book of Hours:

Hermann Grotefend, “Zeitrechnung des Deutschen Mittelalters und der Neuzeit”:

Acta Sanctorum database (subscription only):

Acta Sanctorum scans:

Erik Drigsdahl, Book of Hours tutorial:

Knud Ottosen, Responsories and Versicles of the Latin Office of the Dead:

Schoenberg Database of Manuscripts:





Filed under Books of Hours, Medieval Manuscripts, Uncategorized