Linda Mitchell

title.none: Smith, Art, Identity and Devotion (Linda Mitchell)

identifier.other: baj9928.0511.007 05.11.07

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Linda Mitchell, Alfred University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2005

identifier.citation: Smith, Kathryn A. Art, Identity and Devotion in Fourteenth-Century England: Three Women and their Books of Hours. Series: The British Library Studies in Medieval Culture. Toronto: The British Library and the University of Toronto Press, 2003. Pp. xix, 364. 75.00 0-8020-3920-0. ISBN: 29.00 0-8020-8691-8.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 05.11.07

Smith, Kathryn A. Art, Identity and Devotion in Fourteenth-Century England: Three Women and their Books of Hours. Series: The British Library Studies in Medieval Culture. Toronto: The British Library and the University of Toronto Press, 2003. Pp. xix, 364. 75.00 0-8020-3920-0. ISBN: 29.00 0-8020-8691-8.

Reviewed by:

Linda Mitchell
Alfred University

Smith (Dept. of Fine Arts, New York University) has presented a comparative study of three early fourteenth-century books of hours (one of which was also the subject of her doctoral dissertation) and how each book related to the social, political, and aesthetic interests of its female owner. In the process, she has presented a challenge to other art historians of the medieval book to look beyond text and image and to consider the multiple contexts in which books were commissioned, created, and consumed.

The three books of hours under study are the De Lisle Hours (Pierpont Morgan Library ms. G. 50) created for Margaret de Beauchamp, wife of Robert de Lisle ca. 1320-25 and likely to have been commissioned by him for her; the De Bois Hours (PML ms. M. 700) created ca. 1325-30 for Hawisia de Bois, probable wife of Ralph Giliot; and the Neville of Hornby Hours (British Library, Egerton ms. 2781) created between 1335 and 1340 for Isabel de Byron, wife of Robert de Neville. These three books were therefore created for women whose social status ranged from the middling nobility (Margaret de Beauchamp, who was related to the earls of Warwick) to the lower baronage (Isabel de Byron) and the gentry (Hawisia de Bois). Smith made a deliberate choice to compare books purveyed by women of less-than-magnate status, although she makes use of a large number of contemporary books of hours and psalters--most of them of English origin--to promote further comparisons in her analysis of the three main books. Smith's rationale for focusing on these particular manuscripts is especially to emphasize the ways in which books of hours, the contents of which were often quite uniform, could nevertheless present the radically different interests of their owners. Her decision to focus on books created for female owners is also timely: the previous neglect of the roles of women in developing late medieval literary culture, especially the commissioning of books of hours, has recently spurred greater interest in women as book owners, an issue Smith covers nicely in her introduction.

The author begins her work with a thorough analysis of the contents of the three books of hours in the opening chapter, "Books of Hours as Historical Documents." Included in this chapter are biographical studies of the books' owners and their families, identification of the texts included in each, discussion of the possible miniature artists and the relationships between these books and contemporary manuscripts, and detailed descriptions of the manuscripts themselves, with numerous black-and-white and some color reproductions. Even in this opening chapter, however, which could have been a typical boilerplate art historical analysis of the manuscripts, Smith identifies the differences between her perspective and more traditional approaches. For example, Smith considers the biographies and relationships of the three owners to be important components in understanding the design of their books, the texts included in them, and the pictorial details chosen to illuminate them. This is a different approach, indeed, than the traditional one in which the owner is considered to be a cipher whose active participation in choosing miniatures, marginalia, and rubrics is limited to the occasional portrait or heraldic device. In discussing the biographical material she uncovered, Smith admits that the male relations of her female owners are far easier to identify and illustrate than the female owners themselves, but she nevertheless makes some attempt to reveal Margaret, Hawisia, and Isabel by searching for them through the main printed sources for the fourteenth century. Her claim that they are almost entirely invisible in these sources, however, leads her to assume that they would be invisible in other contexts as well. This is an unfortunate lapse on her part, since the social status of the three women would make them less likely to appear in the Close and Patent Rolls (for instance) than more prominent women of the magnate class. If Smith had had an opportunity to search the manuscripts of the British National Archives, she might have had better luck in locating more information, especially if she targeted the times when women were more likely to engage in litigation, such as immediately after inheriting property or in the early years of widowhood. Such work, however, is so labor-intensive that I can forgive the author for foregoing it: it would have taken up most of the time she spent pursuing research on the actual manuscripts.

Smith's pursuit of uncovering the owners of the books by analyzing the manuscripts' contents shapes the rest of the work's three main chapters, "Concepts of Time," "Devotional Themes and Pictorial and Textual Strategies," and "Functions of the Book of Hours." Of particular significance is her analysis of the relationship between decorated initials, marginalia, and the organization of the text. For Smith, each book's creation was the result of a subtle and sophisticated interplay between scribe, artist, and owner designed to emphasize the owner's specific motives and desires. Thus, the abundance of portrait images in the De Lisle Hours, especially the inclusion of multiple generations, suggests to Smith that Margaret intended to use this text to educate her daughters and/or granddaughters. The elaborate heraldic decoration in the De Bois Hours demonstrates the genealogical significance of the De Bois family even though the family was itself in decline at the time Hawisia commissioned the manuscript. The specific relationships between texts and images in the Neville of Hornby Hours guides the reader to equally specific theological positions, with the placement of images on the page even pointing to and emphasizing particular issues, especially ones with penitential importance.

Smith's approach is archaeological, looking at each book as both artifact and exemplar. She uncovers relationships with the delicacy of peeling an onion layer by layer, interspersing her discussion of the three manuscripts with numerous examples from other books of hours, psalters, and similar texts. For her, the microcosm of each book's "worldview" also relates directly to the macrocosm of the fourteenth century's social, religious, and intellectual culture. The relationship between text and image reveals larger social and intellectual issues, such as the tension between human time and the eternal present of biblical time; the desire for personal salvation and the preservation of the memories of loved ones; and the position of humanity in the cosmic universe articulated through a combination of Dantean and Ptolemaic notions of the heavenly spheres, the enumeration of the "Ages of Man," and the position of Christ as Judge. The design of each manuscript page has significance for both the historian and its original owner: Smith envisions the re-reading of each prayer, hymn, story, and psalm as an exercise in nostalgia as well as instruction, with the increasing familiarity of each revisit only enhancing the value of the book to its owner.

Smith's total immersion in these three manuscripts has reaped significant rewards. The reader is able to gain a sense of the tactile experience of reading and absorbing each text, of connecting text to image. Her inclusion of speculation on the emotional experience of reading for the three female owners is sufficiently delicate not to become anachronistic; indeed, Smith might actually underplay the significance of Margaret de Beauchamp, Hawisia de Bois, and Isabel de Byron in their familial and social relationships in her interest to retain a certain historian's distance. Although the books themselves cannot blatantly demonstrate the personalities of their female owners, the choices made in their creation certainly seem to suggest that each owner had a distinctive personality: women whose personal tastes are so clearly articulated in their books of hours were unlikely to have been passive wallflowers in their families.

The apparatus for this volume, which is part of The British Library Studies in Medieval Culture series, are up to the high standards of the author's text. Detailed descriptions of all three manuscripts occupy the appendices, the bibliography is comprehensive, and a separate index of manuscripts cited is included. This is a welcome change in this era of shortened apparatus and minimal notes in the interest of economy. This is a book worth investing in, especially for those whose interests intersect material and social culture, women's studies, and traditional art history.