Thirteen: Reading art, looking at books, watching screens: Learning to read in a 15th-century prayer book, learning to read todaypage 203
The French poet Eustache Deschamps (1346-1407) satirised bourgeois women's culture of the late 14th century — particularly the fashion for acquiring a finely illuminated Book of Hours — when he wrote
A Book of Hours, too, must be mine
Where subtle workmanship will shine,
Of gold and azure, rich and smart,
Arranged and painted with great art,
Covered with fine brocade of gold;
And there must be, so as to hold
The pages closed, two golden clasps.1
Mary of Burgundy with Book of Hours, Hours of Mary of Burgundy. cod.1857, Vienna, Österreichische National-Bibliothek, ca 1480, fol. 14v
Over that period, the increasing number of such books commissioned by women is testimony to the growing cultural importance of women as patrons as well as their role in increasing literacy. Recent research has posited links between this phenomenon and the new (from the 14th century) insistence on the representation of the book within Annunciation iconography, and further important links with the overall iconography of a whole new subject emerging in the 14th century that is featured in our Dunedin book: St Anne teaching the Virgin to read.3page 205
Open book, fols 8v and 9r; with St Anne teaching the Virgin to read, fol. 9r; Hours of Margery Fitzherbert of Derbyshire. no.61, reed ms 5, Book of Hours, Dunedin Public Library , CA 147O (FOL. 9R, CA 1400)
Like the multimedia PCs for today's aspiring middle classes, every home had to have its Book of Hours, through which knowledge was obtained — spiritual wisdom, that is, rather than informational secular knowledge. Towards the end of the chapter, crossing cultures from the 15th to the late 20th century, from manuscript to cyber, I investigate whether there are any continuities between the picturing of the role of the book in learning situations in 15th century representations and the picturing of the role of the computer in learning situations in a strand of contemporary representations in computer magazines. Does St Anne, who taught the Virgin to read in the Dunedin Book of Hours and in countless others of the period, still have the same role to play page 206 in representations of the downloading of literacy skills from one generation to the next in contemporary society?
The particular representation I am focusing on is in an histori-ated initial — an initial housing an istoria, or story — in a book known as the Hours of Margery Fitzherbert of Derbyshire. This Book of Hours is also known to have been passed to another woman who married into the family, Elyzabethe Cockayn,4 reinforcing the significance of women's association with and patronage of books, especially Books of Hours.
St Anne teaches the Virgin to read on folio 9 recto within a delightfully dainty, decorative 'D' — a little damp-stained — in a style associated with the so-called International Gothic of around 1400, and more particularly with that of the illuminator Herman Scheere, who worked in England at that time. Its subject, the transmission of culture through the teaching of literacy via the medium of the book, is one with considerable signifying power. I want to argue that it can also be 'read' to advantage from our present position in culture where the book is, as everyone knows, changing its position in the face of new technologies. The very 'object-ness' of this unique book, its tactile vellum pages, its handwritten text and glinting illuminations with, in this scene, a representation of such a book within the book itself, has peculiar resonance for us now, as we embark on an era when (it has been suggested) we will visit institutions such as the new British Library not so much to read a text but 'to experience the book as artefact'.5
Anne, Duchess of Bedford, at prayer before St Anne teaching the Virgin to read, with Christ-Child, Bedford Hours. British Library , CA 1423, FOL. 257B.
Interestingly, the subject of St Anne teaching the Virgin to read only evolved as a subject when the new emphasis on the book or books in Annunciation iconography superseded the standard accessory for the Virgin prior to this period, the spindle. This occurred in northern Europe in the 14th century and increased in importance in the 15th century. Its origins are usually located in England, with appearances in a wide range of media throughout Europe, but it featured especially in Books of Hours — and in Books of Hours for women.6 It is not hard to see why: the narrative focuses on two generations of women, with the mother, St Anne, teaching her daughter, the Virgin, to read. The subject's description of the transference of literacy skill in an intimate tutorial setting provides a counterpart to the more frequent public, institutional education of young boys at this time.page 208
As has been pointed out, there is no specific biblical or related textual basis for this subject, although the notion that Mary was wise is articulated in the Pseudo-Matthew: 'No one could be found who was better instructed than she [Mary] in wisdom and in the Law of God . . . ' and also in Albertus Magnus's 13th-century teaching that Mary was a 'master' of the seven liberal arts.7 But neither of these texts constructs a narrative relating to the particularities of the interaction involved in the representations of St Anne teaching the Virgin to read. They do not, for instance, specify how these intellectual skills were acquired, nor who taught her. There was a notion current that she was born with them, but that is not particularly useful for the investigation of this narrative. The general context of women's increasingly important role vis-a-vis books, as explored so fruitfully by writers like Pamela Sheingorn, plus the new emphasis on the representation of the book in Annunciation iconography, are probably as close to specifics as one can get.
Other factors, however, may be worth considering. The popularity, for instance, of such texts as Nicholas Love's translation into the vernacular of the 13th-century Meditationes vitae Christi is one.8 This gave a highly circumstantial account of the life of Christ and his ancestors and, with its detailed description of the Annunciation and the role of the book in the Annunciation, can be seen as a factor impacting on the iconography of the narrative that again involves the Virgin: St Anne teaching the Virgin to read. For there are, of course, other conceptual mergings between the life of Mary and of Anne: both conceive miraculously (Anne's Immaculate Conception was later verified by the Church), and both are pictured in Annunciation scenes whose iconography has much in common.
As art historians of the period will be aware, the Meditationes vitae Christi text states that not only was the Virgin reading when the angel arrived but — most conveniently for the pattern of Redemption narrative — she was at that very instant reading the Old Testament page featuring Isaiah's prophecy (7:14), 'Behold a virgin shall conceive and bear a son . . .'. Perhaps it is not so surprising, then, to see St Anne herself pictured with her daughter Mary in a related scene, and with a book, given its status in this influential text.
In the Dunedin Book of Hours the significance of this scene is heightened, I would argue, because it appears on an inserted page 209 page, with eight other inserted folios, at the beginning and before the bulk of the book (some 94 folios) and its illuminations. The latter were completed in around 1470 in Flanders for the English market, whereas the inserted folios were produced much earlier, at the beginning of the 15th century, in England. Although one would like to associate them directly with Margery Fitzherbert, this is not possible for the obvious reason that she may or may not have been responsible for adding them to her prayer book, and a later owner such as Elyzabethe Cockayn might have inserted them. Given the early history of the ownership of the book (two known women owners), the textual emphasis on the feminine (prayers take the feminine form), plus the gender bias in the selection of saints in the suffrages of the saints section (only women saints like Catherine, Barbara and Margaret are given the status of miniatures), it seems reasonable to assume the St Anne illumination folio did not constitute a random addition and was almost certainly added by one of its women owners. Inserted or 'inset' folios were generally most carefully chosen and placed. A major example is the Genesis narrative with the scene of the Temptation of Adam and Eve in the famous Très Riches Heures of the Duke of Berry that was later inserted opposite the Annunciation, in order to provide a pairing of the key episodes in the grand scheme of the Redemption in a double-page spread.9
In the Dunedin Book of Hours, the leaf in question is the last in a sequence of nine leaves, at the end of the opening calendar sequence, and it is the first illumination in the volume. The text it accompanies is also the first of the most important sequence of devotions in a Book of Hours, the Matins prayers from the Hours of the Virgin, 'Domine labia mea aperies', 'O Lord open my lips ... so that I may sing Thy praises' — praises which have a particular relevance to the theme of learning to read. Matins is the first of the sequence of Hours to be attended to in the daily routine of devotions programmed in Books of Hours — the medieval spiritual antecedent of the Filofax/laptop/notebook. Significantly, the middle section of this volume, with the main textual and illumination components, lacks the important Matins text, so its later addition would also seem to show a conscious desire to compensate for this lack.
The title of this essay includes the words 'reading art, looking at books . . . ', an obvious play on the impact of semiotics on the now not quite so 'new' art history, involving the notion of a close page 210 reading of the image's signs as part of a text among texts. However, the representation of the book, an object containing text more usually read in a 'literal' sense, operates in this instance more as a sign in a wider sense, with a whole host of significations. It can, then, somewhat ironically, be read as a text in the semiotic sense.
One kind of observation, for instance, which relates to the placement of this historiated initial, might note the nice analogy that is suggested between the double-page format of the open book — one object, two connected but separate units — and the two representatives in this scene of one family, connected but separate, mother and daughter.
Another might address ideas around the notion of teaching reading in a literal, practical sense; an approach to the generation of meaning in the Dunedin representation which is strengthened by reference to such works as the early 14th-century Psalter illumination of St Anne teaching the Virgin to read from an Alphabet Book. Here the role of such books in the mechanics of the teaching process is made abundantly clear through the large-scale depiction of the six letters 'DOMINE'.
While reading the classics was not deemed appropriate for women — their access to Ovid's Ars amoris ('the art of love') was perceived as particularly risky — documentation over this period does reveal that women were increasingly owners of books. These were mostly religious works and if a woman owned only one book this was likely to be a Book of Hours. The connections between the acquiring of literacy, and so piety, via devotional texts was of prime import for a middle- or upper-class woman. In this Psalter it is clearly important that the child learns to read so that she can learn about the Lord, about 'Domine': be spiritual. And, tellingly, it is within the 'D' of 'Domine' that the Dunedin illumination is situated. Reading meant she could then involve herself fully in the requirements of the daily routine of approximately three-hourly devotions laid out in Books of Hours, starting at dawn with Matins and finishing up with Compline at sunset or late evening.
Attending to other details within this tiny painting can also connect with and impact on the meanings generated by the representation of the book within it. The sprig held by St Anne is one such detail, and a most unusual aspect of the iconography of this subject. That it functions as a sign of spring, of regeneration and renewal, and so is appropriate to the theme of the renewal ofpage 211
St Anne teaching the Virgin to read from an Alphabet Book, Psalter, Bodleian Library, Oxford, MS Douce 231,J:3, CA 1300, FOL. 3
literacy as it is transferred from mother to daughter is possible, with memories lingering on within Christian iconography of the Demeter-Persephone relationship. Certainly the links with spring are supported by the colour which St Anne generally wears: green, which symbolised spring. (Unusually, and unhelpfully, she is not depicted in this colour in the Dunedin version.) The rather ritualistically held sprig may also be understood as functioning as a symbol of the gift of literacy in this representation, of the notion of growth via knowledge as it is handed down from one generation to the next. In relation to this, the notion of the child (the Virgin herself) as a gift is another aspect worth considering. The proto-Evangelium of James, for instance, has St Anne say, 'As the Lord my God lives, if I bear a child ... I will bring it as a gift to the Lord my God . . .'(4:i).10page 212
The significations of related motifs such as the flowers, often lilies, held by the Angel Gabriel in Annunciation scenes, symbolising the purity of the Virgin (or, if with three blooms, the Trinity) — or the Old Testament Jesse's twig, shoot or tree, referring to Isaiah's prophesies regarding the birth of Christ (Isaiah 11:1-3) — inevitably slide across (with a pre-modernist frame of mind like mine) to this context. This kind of transference is discussed by Mieke Bal and Norman Bryson in relation to what they call the textual character of inter-textual allusion, 'which involves the carry-over of meaning, or intersection of a prior discourse, into a different context', so complicating or enriching its meanings.11
Such sliding across of significations is supported in this instance by the Dunedin illumination's incorporation of an unusual setting for this interaction between St Anne and the Virgin: a garden. In relation to a scene involving the Virgin, this immediately suggests the hortus conclusus, the enclosed garden of the Virgin's virginal state, frequently depicted in Annunciation scenes. In the Dunedin version of St Anne teaching the Virgin to read, this garden provides a habitat for the reading of the sprig as the Word made flesh at the moment of the conception of Christ, the second person of the Trinity. It can also be seen as a sprig or shoot of Jesse, and so as the 'sprog' Jesus. Egrediatur virga de radice Jesse (a shoot shall grow from the stock of Jesse), the text stimulating medieval minds to much linguistic play around the similarities between virga (the shoot) and virgo (the Virgin), from whom the shoot, Christ, emerges.
Continuing with such medieval — and post-structuralist? — thought patterns, one could read the all-encompassing, dominating structure of the letter 'D' of 'Domine' in this historiated initial as suggesting (as does the sprig/twig) not only the all-encompassing presence of the Lord ('Domine') but also his worldly manifestation in the person of Christ.
It is also important to consider the links between femininity and piety in relation to the Dunedin work, with its focus on a mother teaching a female child from a book that is probably, self-referentially, a Book of Hours. The Virgin was the major role model for women, as is made abundantly clear in the illumination of Mary of Guelders as the Virgin in her own Book of Hours (the Hours of Mary of Guelders). In the Annunciation scene Mary of Guelders is shown as the Virgin, holding her Book of Hours. The depiction conflates portrait and role model.page 213
Mary of Guelders as the Virgin, Annunciation, Hours of Mary of Guelders. Staats-Bibliothek, Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz, Berlin-Dahlem, Ms Germ. Quart. 42, 1415, Fol. L9V
It is also worth bearing in mind that Mary herself could be cast, as it were, as a book, as the book in which God wrote the Incarnation, an idea familiar to the medieval world and with a long history reaching back to the 4th century.'12 These are distant antecedents, perhaps, for The sound of music's Leisel, 'sixteen going on seventeen', for whom Rolf sings, 'You little girl are an empty page which men will want to write on . . .'.
The relatively common image of women with small closed books in Renaissance portraiture relates directly to the mode of piety thought suitable for women of these classes, providing the notion of femininity with a distinctly 'devout' component.13 The open book, however, as has been suggested by Pamela Sheingorn, can also indicate, in the specific context of the narrative involving St Anne teaching the Virgin to read, more general notions relating to the potential of literacy. As she points out, literacy in a wider sense was being seen as increasingly important in an intellectual and also in a more basic functional sense. As well as being crucial for learning to read texts in Latin and the vernacular, literacy was page 214 also useful for upper-class women in administering estates. The representation of the book, then, in such a context as this can propel associations from the more mainstream and essentialist woman-femininity-piety nexus across (or 'up') the binary construct to associations between woman and culture. For a woman reader of such a book as this, it thus becomes apparent that this subject could mean a great deal — not only as a reflection of and a guide to her proper behaviour, but also in terms of a major form of validation of her role as transmitter of literacy and culture. As Sheingorn comments, quoting M. T Clanchy on that crucial shift 'from sacred script to practical literacy' over this period, the subject of St Anne teaching the Virgin to read not only reflected cultural practice, but also performed an important role in constructing or, as she puts it, 'shaping' culture.14
Among later variations on the theme of St Anne teaching the Virgin to read, Etienne de la Tour's beautiful The education of the Virgin (Frick Collection, New York) expands the traditional iconography to include the addition of a candle. The proximity of the candle to the book provides not only practical illumination for the Virgin's lessons but spiritual illumination as well, considering the candle's long history within representation as symbolic of Christ and of the Divine. The presence of God is clearly indicated. Coupled here with the motif of the book, certainly a prayer book like a Book of Hours, there is evidently a symbiotic signifying relationship at play, operating to intensify meaning as it flows from and oscillates between the two objects.
In an advertisement featuring an Internet home page, the computer will not provide a substitute for that peculiarly physical, intimate setting for mother-daughter tutorials we have seen in the scene of St Anne teaching the Virgin to read, and in Christ teaching his Mum.22 Here 'Mum', in a spookily static photographic image of 'Mom', welcomes him home and instructs 'Andrew' via remote control on his home page to 'Clean your room!' Digital Mom then encourages him (after the unlikely event of the room-cleaning) to go 'surfing' — to catch a wave of learning . . . maybe? — thereby clicking into his relationship, not with her but with cyberspace.
St Anne taught the Virgin to read so that, as the Matins text reads, she could 'open her lips' and 'sing Thy praises'. The role of the Book of Hours as a tool in the further glorification of 'Domine', God, of developing spirituality and wisdom in young women, was critical. It had its highly significant practical uses, too, regarding literacy, as I have outlined. But its primary function up to the 15th century was in engendering virtue, in instructing how, in a spiritual sense, that literacy be used: how to love ... to love God and all that that implied.
Whose praises will this child sing? I think we know.25
Permission has been sought from all institutions holding material illustrated in this chapter. Not all had replied at the time of going to print. The author would like to acknowledge in advance and apologise to any that were unable to reply.
1 Quoted in Erwin Panofsky, Early Netherlandish painting , 2 vols (Harper & Row, New York, 1971), v.1, p.68 (translated in footnote 3 to p.68, pp.387-8); from Eustache Deschamps, Oeuvres complètes , ed. by A. Queux de Saint Hilaire and G. Reynaud, 11 vols (Paris: Firmin Didot, 1873-1903), v.o, p.45 (quoted in O. Cartellieri, The court of Burgundy (New York, 1929), p.211).
2 Christopher de Hamel, Books of Hours: Notes on two illuminated manuscripts in the Alfred and Isabel Reed Collection (Dunedin: Dunedin Public Library, 1970), p.54; and Margaret Manion, Vera Vines and Christopher de Hamel, Medieval and Renaissance manuscripts in New Zealand collections (Melbourne: Thames & Hudson, 1989), p.85. In this catalogue, this Book of Hours, known as the Hours of Margery Fitzherbert of Derbyshire, is listed as N0.61, Reed MS 5, Book of Hours, Latin. No. 61 was bought by A. H. Reed of the well-known New Zealand publishers Reeds in 1954 for £50. His purchase demonstrates a modern 'fashion', the desire of wealthy book collectors who primarily focus on printed material to also own illuminated manuscripts.
3 Susan Groag Bell, 'Medieval women book owners: Arbiters of lay piety and ambassadors of culture', Signs, 7 no.4 (1982), 742-68; Pamela Sheingorn,'"The Wise Mother": The image of St Anne teaching the Virgin Mary', Gesta, 32 no. 1 (1993), 69-80.
4 Margery Fitzherbert is shown with her unnamed husband in another illumination in the volume (folio 83 verso); for details of provenance see Manion, Vines and de Hamel, Medieval and Renaissance manuscripts in New Zealand collections , p.85.
5 James Buchan, 'The library fiasco', Independent on Sunday , 24 July 1994, 'Sunday Review', p.7.
6 Bell, 'Medieval women book owners', p.762.
7 Sheingorn, 'The Wise Mother', p.69.
9 Jean Longnon and Raymond Cazelles, Les Très riches heures du Duc de Berry (London: Thames & Hudson, 1969), commentary to folio 25 verso.
10 Sheingorn, 'The Wise Mother', p.69.
11 Mieke Bal and Norman Bryson, 'Semiotics and art history', Art bulletin, 73 (1991), 174-208 (p.207).
12 The book, when held by the Virgin with the Christ Child, is the Book of Wisdom, hence the title 'Mater Sapientiae', the Mother of Wisdom, for the Virgin. She is the 'The Wise Mother' (refer Sheingorn, 'The Wise Mother'), she is the book.
13 Bronzino, Girl with book (ca 1540), Uffizi Gallery, Florence, is one example, where the young woman is shown clasping the virtuous accessory of the small, closed, devotional book to her chest.
14 Sheingorn, 'The Wise Mother', p.75, quoting M. T. Clanchy, From memory to written record: England 1066-1307 (London: Edward Arnold, 1979), p.263.
15 Ivan Illich, In the vineyard of the text, A commentary to Hugh's 'Didascalicon' (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), p.3. A more recent publication that explores many ramifications of medieval women and books and the significance generally of the book in the medieval period is Women and the book: Assessing the visual evidence, ed. by Jane H. M. Taylor and Lesley Smith (London: British Library; Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1996).
16 Hugh of St Victor, Erudit didascalicon, Book 7, Chapter 4, in J.-P Migne (ed.) Patrologiae cursus completus, vol.176, col. 814. Quoted in Emile Màle, The Gothic image, trans. by Dora Nussey (London: Collins, 1961), p.29.
17 See the 6th-century Byzantine dome mosaics in the Orthodox Baptistery, Ravenna, for the representation of the Bible on altars. For the book in Visitation scenes, see the Visitation (folio 38 verso) in Longnon and Cazelles, Les Très riches heures du Duc de Berry.
18 Sherry Turkle, 'They are our future', Independent on Sunday , 31 March 1996, 50.
19 Personal computer world, March 1995, 448.
20 Windows, October 1994, 298.
21 Independent on Sunday , 28 May 1995, 24-5.
22 Internet , April, 1995, 22-3.
23 Byte , April 1995, inside front cover.
24 Microsoft Encarta 96 encyclopedia (Redmond, WA, USA: Microsoft, c. 1993-5) [on 1 CD-ROM], wording on packaging.
25 As a child of the Harry Potter generation (which my text predates), this child may now of course enjoy multiple allegiances!