| A charming feature of Horae is the
calendar, which contains a series of twelve miniatures depicting the
occupations of the months and giving a vivid insight into late medieval
life. In the winter the lord and lady are generally sitting by the fire
while Tom bears logs into the hall; in spring and summer they indulge in
field sports, make music out of doors or go on pilgrimages, the sheep
are shorn and, later on, the crops are cut. In autumn come sowing and
harrowing, wood is stacked and, lastly, beasts are killed and salted
down against the grimness of the forthcoming winter . Very often the
occupations of the month are accompanied by the signs of the zodiac,
which give considerable scope to a decorative artist. The calendar is of
great use to the student in determining the origin of the manuscript.
The major saints and the great feasts of the Church are, of course,
universal; these days are entered in colour and give us the phrase
'red-letter days'. However, the presence of a group of minor Breton
saints unknown outside north-western France, or the dedication of a
church in Norwich, must indicate that the book was written for a patron
living in those places. Certain differences in the liturgy — Use of
Paris, Use of Sarum, Use of Sens, Use of Tours and so on — are also a
help in identification.
When the Bedford Book of Hours was produced the Duke of Bedford was lording it in Paris as Regent, at a time when the English domination of France was at its peak. A key factor in that domination was the Burgundian alliance, to further which, in 1423, Bedford married Anne, daughter of John, Duke of Burgundy. This manuscript was probably written in celebration of that marriage, and may well have been a wedding present to the bride, for it contains a portrait of Anne opposite the Memoria of her name saint, her arms and her motto. The Harleian manuscripts were purchased by the Nation in 1753, but this manuscript was 'reserved' and had to wait almost a hundred years, passing through several collections, before reaching the British Museum in 1852.
Actually, this is the Psalter of Henry VI of England, originally executed in Paris for someone else (we don't know for certain whom) quite early in the century and subsequently adapted. It may well have been for 'little Louis' (d. 1415), the eldest son of King Charles vi of France, for in one miniature the surcoat originally covered with the fleur-de-lys of France has been quartered by adding the leopards of England, and here the patron is Saint-Louis. In 1430, ten days after his ninth birthday, Henry was crowned King of France in Paris. It may well have been at this time that the book (having by now been adapted for him) was given to him by his mother, Queen Katherine. Among the added miniatures is one which shows St Katherine, identified by her wheel, presenting the little king to the Virgin.
Webster was much possessed by death/And saw the skull beneath the skin,' says T. S. Eliot. So, for that matter, was the Master of the Rohan Hours. In his earlier years this artist worked in the atelier that produced the Bedford Book of Hours, but later he had the good fortune to be taken up by Yolanda of Aragon, the wife of Louis n,Duke of Anjou and King of Sicily. Blessed with a sympathetic patroness who gave him a workshop of his own, the Rohan Master now developed into the most remarkable miniature painter of his day.
An artist of such perception cannot have been unaware of the new techniques of perspective and the new Renaissance spirit that were beginning to permeate art — qualities that, with his abilities, he could have mastered with ease. Instead he ignored them entirely. No man could have been further from the elegant, gay Gothic of the early fifteenth century. Rather, one might say, he was a Romanesque spirit born out of his due time. Jean Porcher has suggested that the Rohan Master may have been a Spaniard, and this is a very plausible hypothesis, for in addition to the character of his work, which, like that of so many Spanish artists, is obsessed with the fate of death that awaits us all, it seems likely that Yolanda would have been sympathetic to an artist of her own people.
The Rohan Hours (so named from the arms of a later owner, subsequently painted into the book) must have been executed in about 1418— 25, probably for Yolanda's eldest son, who became Louis in, Duke of Anjou. . The scroll from the dead lips reads: 'Into Thy Hands I Commend My Spirit', and not in vain, for the Archangel Raphael flies swiftly to the rescue, sword in hand.
Before turning to printing we must retrace our steps to fourteenth-century Italy, where the momentum of the medieval spirit was beginning to lose its force and the best minds were turning for inspiration to the ancient world. This was the dawn of the Renaissance when Petrarch (1304—74) and other poets and Humanists were rediscovering the Greek and Latin classics that, during the later Middle Ages, stood forgotten on the monastic shelves. They eagerly copied these precious works for their own libraries. In so doing they would have dearly loved to write like 'the ancients' — if only a single example of Roman handwriting had survived. They hated reading classical texts in what they had come to regard as a barbarous gothic script. To them 'gothic' was a term of contempt - so they produced a new handwriting of their own. For the capitals they turned to Roman lapidary inscriptions, of which a wealth of examples lay all round them, and derived their lower case from the minuscule manuscripts of the School of Charlemagne.
The great majority of fine Humanist manuscripts were created under the patronage of popes, cardinals, Italian despots and so forth. However, one very remarkable Humanist library of the highest order was formed outside Italy by Matthias Corvinus, King of Hungary (1440-90).
Matthias ascended a very insecure throne in 1458, threatened by the magnates who were led by his uncle and guardian. By means of brilliant abilities and force of arms he not only secured his position but entered both Prague and Vienna as a conqueror and lived to become the greatest ruler in central Europe. The Encyclopaedia Britannica says of him, rather touchingly:
Matthias Hunyadi was indisputably the greatest man of his day, and one of the greatest monarchs who ever reigned. Like Napoleon, with whom he has often been compared, he was equally industrious as a soldier, a statesman, an orator, a legislator and an administrator; but unlike him a fine moral character [my italics].
He certainly had Napoleon's capacity for grasping the affairs of his kingdom down to the smallest detail, and after a long day spent on these strenuous activities 'he sat up half the night reading'.
Plate vin, a manuscript of Aulus Cornelius Celsus from Matthias's library, was executed in Florence in about 1460—70. It is not most people's idea of a book to curl up with; the majority of similar manuscripts were written more for display, more as splendid objets d'art than for study. Yet Matthias read his books and won the friendship of important Humanists. Marsilio Ficino, the leader of the neo-Platonic academy in Florence, sent his edition of Plato to Buda, and wrote in the introduction that he was sending it not to Athens, because the city was ruined, but to Buda, to King Matthias, who 'with marvellous power and wisdom has restored in a few years the temple of the great and wise Pallas'.
The illumination in the style known as 'white vine' is classical in spirit. The arms of Matthias, within a wreath held up by putti, include the double-tailed Czech lion, which Matthias added after his conquest of Bohemia.
When the early printers turned their attention to the classics they cut types derived from the script in these manuscripts to satisfy the demands of the Humanists. So that the 'roman' type, which we read every day in the perfect form evolved by Stanley Morison for The Times, stems from Roman inscriptions, Charlemagne and the scholars of the Renaissance.
But the sands were running out. Imagine a scribe confronted with the first printed book. One man in a day could print more pages than a scribe could write in a whole year — and without danger of mistakes. The scribes' whole world had collapsed. By the middle of the sixteenth century a few luxury manuscripts were still produced as works of art or hieratic objects; some poor scholars actually made copies of printed books for their own use. But henceforth almost all books were printed, and the scribes and illuminators found that their livelihood had disappeared - as, over the last hundred years, so many hand crafts have gone down before the relentless advance of the machine.
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