ARTICLE: An English Medieval Book of Hours from the Newberry Library, Chicago, by Karen Christianson.
One of the Newberry’s most beautiful medieval manuscript books is Case MS 35, a Book of Hours, Use of Salisbury, probably made in Bruges in the mid-fifteenth century for the English market.
Books of Hours were abbreviated versions of the monastic divine office, a cycle of psalms, readings, and hymns that varied over the course of the liturgical year. Medieval monks or nuns generally gathered to recite or sing these devotional texts at eight set times each day, from before dawn through late at night. By the later Middle Ages Books of Hours were developed to guide lay people through a less rigorous and less time-consuming series of daily devotions.
Wealthy families often commissioned luxury Books of Hours, such as this one, with elaborate and colorful illuminated miniatures embellished with decorative borders and gold leaf. Bruges became a major center of production of these works of art. That this book was destined for England is attested to by inclusion of English saints, including among others Wulfstan of Worcester and Augustine of England, and prayers to the Venerable Bede and Thomas Becket, as well as the phrase “secundum consuetudinem Anglie” (following the usage of the English) at the top of the page for the hours of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Many of the illuminated miniatures in this book illustrate the stories of saints’ lives in the text. Among them are Saint Margaret emerging unscathed from being swallowed by a dragon; Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden with the snake—who has a woman’s head; Saint Catherine standing before her wheel; and Saint George, patron saint of England, slaying a dragon.
While we do not know who originally owned this book, by the early sixteenth century its front endpapers were being used as a family register, beginning with “The namys of the children of Wilham Gonstone and Benet his wif of the perisshe of Saincte Donistones in the est as hereafter ffolowith”. The first entry records the birth of the couple’s first son, Dany, on November 29, 1508 (at five o’clock in the morning). The births of two more sons and a daughter are also listed, the last born in 1515. On the following page appears the family of “Sir Thomas Myldmaye, knight, and the Ladye Frauncys his wiefe”, recording the births of their five daughters and three sons, plus a son borne to Thomas by his second wife Margaret, over the years from 1568 through 1593.
We know that this Sir Thomas Mildmay (to use modern spelling) was the son of Thomas Mildmay of Moulsham, who had been granted this manor in Essex in 1546 by King Henry VIII. The book’s owner was also a nephew of Sir Walter Mildmay, who served as Chancellor of the Exchequer under Queen Elizabeth I. In 1538 Henry VIII had issued a proclamation “unsainting” Thomas Becket. It read, in part, “Therefore his Grace strayghtly chargeth and commandeth that from henseforth the sayde Thomas Becket shall not be estemed, named, reputed, nor called a sayncte, but bysshop Becket.
And that his ymages and pictures, through the hole realme, shall be putte downe, and avoyded out of all churches, chapelles, and other places; and that from henseforthe, the dayes used to be festivall in his name shall not be observed, nor the service, office, antiphoners, colletes, and prayers, in his name redde, but rased and put out of all the bokes.” As evidence of the family’s strong ties to the royal court, the prayer to Becket in this book has been crossed out—though the lovely miniature showing Becket’s martyrdom remains untouched—and his name has been erased from the calendar of saints’ days.
This fascinating book is one of nearly three hundred medieval manuscript books in the Newberry collection. Learn more about our Pre-1500 European Manuscripts (here).