Friday, August 29, 2014

Flyleaf Friday, or When Is a Manuscript Finished?

  A current game in the medieval Twitterverse is to put up interesting things found on flyleaves and pastedowns on Friday under the hashtag #FlyleafFriday. My little contribution this week is a bit too lengthy and contains too much rumination for Twitter, so here is the story. 
  I once bought a scruffy, cut down flyleaf from a French book of hours containing prayers written in French. 

  It was purchased as an example of a late 15th or early 16th century Gothic cursive script in vernacular French. It has a certain formality in that it contains a rubric and a slightly scrappy illuminated capital.

  No doubt pages from the original book of hours text are gracing various collections of pretty medieval things. There is a script sample and paleography exercise for this sample in Medieval Writing
  Some time later the same bookseller made me an offer I could not refuse and I acquired two similar pages from the same volume with the prayers written only on one side. On the blank side of one of them, an inscription in a circle had been added in a much later hand.

  The book still had significance to somebody. There has to be a story there. The bookseller included with these some extra flyleaves from the same book, that were so little regarded by the collecting public that he gave them to me for free. These were two leaves with further prayers written in  a quite elegant, but completely different script.

  These were dated at the end to 1572.

  There are a few things to think about here. Firstly, the book could never be regarded as finished until the last addendum had been added. The scribe or the bookseller did not prescribe the total content. Owners added their own contributions. Individual volumes were evidently valued by owners, probably successive generations of owners, for a long time after the huge wave of popularity of books of hours in the 14th, 15th and early 16th centuries. Private devotions presumably did not always follow officially sanctioned religious fashion. Grandmere's old book of hours still provided solace and consolation for somebody.
  Finally, it is intriguing that in the modern collecting marketplace, these parts of the book should be considered valueless discards. In some ways they provide a closer bond to the book's former owners than the officially prescribed text. OK, it was probably falling to bits. It certainly looks that way, rather than having been cut up, but to me these are at least as interesting as the rest.
  I have a few scraps in my medieval detritus collection with personalised addenda and I thought at one stage it might be good to write an article about them. Then I discovered that a much more revered academic had written a whole book on this subject: Eamon Duffy 2006 Marking the Hours Yale University Press. It's a fascinating exposition of medieval people's relationships with their books.

Saturday, August 02, 2014

Angels Ain't Angels

  Having pottered my way through cleaning up and organising my photographs of stained glass windows in parish churches in England, a subset of my huge project to continue the process of turning a load of old decomposing Kodachrome and Ektachrome into an orderly digital archive on Flickr (why, oh why, did I think this was such a good idea?), I discover that two churches in York have windows that depict the Nine Orders of Angels. This concept, also referred to as the Celestial Hierarchy, was expounded by Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite somewhere around the 5th century AD or beyond. He has been dubbed Pseudo, not because he didn't exist or was some kind of fraudster, but because he wasn't the Dionysius the Areopagite mentioned in Acts 17 who was converted by St Paul. It was just his nom de plume. I have always thought this was a good name to drop unexpectedly into a dinner table conversation.
  The churches containing windows with this program are the fabulous All Saints, North Street, where the heavily restored window was reassembled from fragments after the discovery of an antiquarian drawing that showed how it was supposed to go, and St Michael Spurriergate.

  From St Michael Spurriergate, on the left the most senior order, the Seraphim, with multiple wings and bathed in fire; on the right Cherubim, also with multiple wings and bathed with light. In fact, many depictions of angels generally show them covered in feathers, which may relate to the costumes worn in the Mystery Plays.


  From All Saints North Street, a Seraphim in scarlet leads a procession of senior ecclesiastics while a Cherubim leads a group of cleric and scholars. The plain coloured glass represents where modern glass has been inserted to fill out the general design. The grid pattern is from the mesh screen behind the window, inserted to prevent kamikaze birds or rocks thrown by idiots from damaging the windows.

  Working down the hierarchy, from St Michael Spurriergate, Thrones or angels of humility and Dominations, dressed as armed knights to display their qualities of leadership.

  From All Saints North Street, a Throne leads a group of members of the legal profession, while a Domination leads a group containing a pope, a king and an emperor. This panel has rather a lot of the lovely and intricate original glass in it. The angels are being matched with the mortal folks in their hierarchy.

   Back in St Michael Spurriergate, the next panels should be Virtues, allied with nature, and Powers, depicted as armed warriors. Well that is the theory. I think these may have got a bit out of order over the centuries. The ones on the left are wearing armour, and crowns. It seems our Dominations, Powers and Virtues may have got a bit mixed up. Story of the history of nations really.


  Back in All Saints North Street, a Virtue leads the city burgesses while a Power leads a procession of priests. Ponder on that association.

   The final panels in St Michael Spurriergate show Archangels and Principalities. I had always thought that Archangels were at the top of the heap, but it's a bit more complicated. Archangels can be the leading or senior angels of each group, but as a whole they are in the lower orders. They are also the messengers from God to humanity. Think Archangel Gabriel, Annunciation. Principalities seem to be a somewhat subversive group and I don't quite understand them.

  In all Saints North Street an Archangel leads a group of ordinary city folks, including a worker with a shovel, while a Principality leads a group of noblemen.
  The sequence at St Michael Spurriergate ends here, as there are in fact only eight panels in that window.

  In All Saints North Street the final panel shows an assortment of townspeople being led by ..... an Angel. Yes, the lowest order of angels are called Angels. The people who hang out with Angels include a child and, if you look very carefully in the middle of the panel, next to the men in red, a person wearing spectacles.
  The whole thing is so appealing because of its ever so medieval tangled threads of iconography, text, tradition and social reinterpretation. An earnest early Christian scholar writes a dense and complex treatise under the pseudonym of a New Testament figure, which is translated in that literalising medieval way into pictures of angels in feathery tights or suits of armour or flapping their wings amid sheets of flame, then overlaid with some kind of commentary on the nature of the earthly hierarchy.
  Lessons for the illiterate?  Maybe just a reminder that God orders the estates in both heaven and earth.

These pictures appear in larger format on my Flickr site, but they are not properly organised yet. They will be. One day.