Roger S. Wieck

title.none: Higgitt, The Murthly Hours (Roger S. Wieck)

identifier.other: baj9928.0206.008 02.06.08

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Roger S. Wieck, Pierpont Morgan Library,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2002

identifier.citation: Higgitt, John. The Murthly Hours: Devotion, Literacy and Luxury in Paris, England, and the Gaelic West. The British Library Studies in Medieval Culture. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2000. Pp. v, 362. 80.00. ISBN: 0-802-04759-9.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 02.06.08

Higgitt, John. The Murthly Hours: Devotion, Literacy and Luxury in Paris, England, and the Gaelic West. The British Library Studies in Medieval Culture. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2000. Pp. v, 362. 80.00. ISBN: 0-802-04759-9.

Reviewed by:

Roger S. Wieck
Pierpont Morgan Library

Read this book backwards. Start with chapter 9, which is called a conclusion but which actually forms a good introduction to the book as a whole. All the major discussions and arguments are clearly summarized here. We learn that the Murthly Hours (Edinburgh, National Library of Scotland, MS 21000) was made for a lay English woman, possibly Joan de Valence, who married in 1292 or shortly after. Her father, William de Valence (a half-brother of King Henry II of England), had been born in France and maintained ties there (he was in Paris in 1286, for example); it is he who might have commissioned the Book of Hours for his daughter. The core of the manuscript--Hours of the Virgin, Hours of the Holy Spirit, Penitential Psalms and Litany, Gradual Psalms, and Office of the Dead--was written in France, probably Paris, in the 1280s, and it was there, too, that the historiated initials accompanying these texts were painted. The twenty-three full- page miniatures that comprise the manuscript's prefatory pictorial cycle, however, are English and come from a slightly earlier codex, possibly a Psalter or an independent picture book. The full-page miniatures were apparently added to the French Book of Hours soon after the latter arrived in England.

Chapter 8, "The Murthly Hours and the Illuminated Manuscript in Medieval Scotland", tells us why this monograph was written in the first place. The Murthly Hours is one of the very few manuscripts that can be documented to have been in Scotland in the Middle Ages, having arrived there some time in the fourteenth century. (As for manuscripts that were actually produced in Scotland, next to nothing survives.) Named after Murthly lands in Perthshire, where the Stewarts of Grandtully, who owned the book in the nineteenth century, had a residence, the Murthly Hours resurfaced from obscurity in 1980 and was happily acquired by the National Library of Scotland in 1986. The author, John Higgitt, is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Edinburgh and, according to the dustjacket's blurb on him, has a particular interest in the manuscripts of medieval Scotland.

The longest discussion in the book is found in chapter 7, "The Full-Page Miniatures". All twenty-three miniatures--a prefatory suite composed of a Genesis, Infancy, and Passion cycles--are reproduced in (rather muddy) black and white. The pictures' iconography, three different artists, and two different dates are all convincingly treated. The iconography, Higgitt is honest enough to admit, is rather routine; more interestingly, the author argues for the pictures' close relationship to a series of contemporaneous reliefs sculpted in the chapter house of Salisbury Cathedral. Which came first-- illumination or sculpture--and what exactly their relationship is, Higgitt, in the measured wisdom that characterizes the writing throughout the monograph, leaves unanswered. The miniature cycle, beginning abruptly with the Sacrifice of Cain and Abel and lacking such scenes as the Nativity and Crucifixion, is obviously incomplete. The series could easily, Higgitt reconstructs, have been twice as long. Bigger would not have made better, however, for the prefatory pictures, conventional in iconography as already said, are also not the most exciting stylistically; they are, in the author's words, "almost folk-like" (though I am not sure they are even that good).

Chapters 4, 5, and 6 discuss the original commission, that is, the Book of Hours made in France in the 1280s for an English female patron. The eleven (originally thirteen) historiated initials are of first-rate quality, even if their condition (from abrasion, water, and some effacement) is not. The pleasure in reading these three chapters is the informative attention with which Higgitt places the Murthly Hours and its decoration within a number of carefully considered contexts. These include the relationship between French and English illumination in the second half of the thirteenth century, stylistic arguments for the probable Parisian origin of the book, the role played by marginalia (about which Higgitt keeps a cool head), the devotional character and origins of the book's prayers, the emergence of the independent Book of Hours, the nature of thirteenth-century literacy, and, finally, the important role played by women as transmitters of that literacy and culture. Needless to say, however, some or all of these discussions might easily be expected in any book or article that deals seriously with a thirteenth-century Book of Hours in context. There is nothing new here, but students, I trust, will find it convenient to have these matters within the covers of one book.

As we near the beginning of the book (reading backwards, remember?), the going gets a bit tedious. Chapter 3 spends an awful lot of time on ruling patterns (information replicated in Appendix 2 anyway), script, the secondary initials and line- fillers, descriptions (not interpretations) of marginalia, and accounts of the formal aspects of the style of the historiated initials. The reading is boring and it should have been shorter. The most interesting part of the chapter is the author's argument for attributing the decoration to the Parisian illuminators of the "Cholet Group" (as Robert Branner baptized them in his study, Manuscript Painting in Paris during the Reign of Saint Louis: A Study of Styles, Berkeley, 1977).

When we finally reach chapter 2, "The Origins and History of the Murthly Hours: From the Thirteenth Century to the Present", we come to the beginning of the book, which really should have been the end. Higgitt's claim for Joan de Valence as the manuscript's original owner is all very interesting, and he has clearly done a lot of digging to bolster his case, but the argument will always remain within the realm of hypothesis. But it is the Scottish connection that clearly interested the author who, before he had seen the manuscript itself, had read a reference to it that called the illumination itself Scottish. This and much more of its provable or putative provenance is discussed at length here, which will have very limited interest for the reader. Since chapter 2 is the first real chapter in the book (chapter 1 not being a chapter at all but a scant two- and-a-half-page introduction), it was a real mistake to place this material at the front.

Attached to the inside back cover of this book is a CD-ROM that reproduces the entire manuscript (text leaves and miniatures) in order and in good color and resolution. The software is blissfully easy to use. As an electronic facsimile, the CD allows the reader to finger through the codex, leaf by leaf. One can experience the manuscript pretty much like its original thirteenth-century owner (whoever she might have been), without art-historical commentary to get in the way. The CD has wonderful potential. Students of paleography could gain a mastery of thirteenth-century script by following the Latin text. Those who own color printers could reproduce all the folios and assemble a facsimile they could hold in their hands. The CD is a wonderful beginning; then turn to chapter 9, as I said, and read Higgitt's book backwards.