What I Did in My Year Off

The foundation whose fellowship has funded (in part) my leave this past academic year has asked me to write a couple of pages about how the year has gone. What can I say? It's been quite a journey.

I spent August in Europe, first two weeks in London working at the British Library looking at manuscripts of some of the earliest books of Hours as well as other early manuscript witnesses to the hours of the Virgin; then two weeks in Belgium looking at fifteenth-century devotional paintings in which people are depicted using books of Hours, visiting some of the towns where books of Hours were made and as many of the churches as possible in which people prayed their books of Hours.

I spent September reading around in the scholarly literature on late medieval devotion (Huizinga, Bossy, Oberman, Duffy, Ozment, Van Engen) and October reading about the history of books of Hours more specifically, particularly the literature on book production and on the devotional responses to the images contained in the more luxurious books. One of the things that surprised me most about this literature, extensive though it is, is how little in fact it says about the textual contents of the books, other than some of the more exceptional pieces (e.g. prayers added in the vernacular by lay users, additional devotions copied at the back of the books). Other than Roger Wieck, almost no one has written anything about what the Office of the Virgin actually said, and even he does so only in order to give some general context for the meaning of the images. Rebecca Baltzer is one of the few to say anything about the performance of the Office of the Virgin, and Sally Roper is the only one who has traced its development in anything other than the most cursory way. There are editions of some early offices by Jean Leclercq, Jose Marie Canal and E.S. Dewick, but even Eamon Duffy's Marking of the Hours (2007) says almost nothing about the actual office itself, concentrating rather on the contexts in which the books seem to have been used and the ways in which their owners inscribed their lives into the books.

Accordingly, I spent November and December compiling a number of charts in Microsoft Excel: 1) A chart of the texts (antiphons, psalms, lessons, responsories, and prayers) contained in some thirty-four different manuscript versions of the hours of the Virgin from the eleventh through the fifteenth century, some published by Leclercq, Canal, Baltzer and Dewick, others transcribed myself from the books in the British Library, others taken from Erik Drigsdahl's extensive database of late medieval books of Hours. 2) A list of the books of Hours copied before 1400 as catalogued from the collections in the British Library, the Bibliotheque nationale, and the Walters Art Museum, along with every other mention of an early manuscript book of Hours I could find. 3) A chart of the psalms as they appear in the Office of the Virgin according to the eighty different Uses thus far described by Drigsdahl on his site. 4) A chart of the offices of the feasts of the Virgin as they appear in the breviary for Hyde Abbey (one of the few English monastic breviaries to include both the texts for the feasts of the Virgin and that for the Hours of the Virgin as they were observed at the abbey over the course of the liturgical year). And 5) a chart of the contents of the books of Hours contained in Special Collections at the University of Chicago library, so as to give myself an idea of the context in which the office of the Virgin typically appears. Having completed these charts, I had learned a number of things: first, it would be next to impossible to write about all of this material in detail; and second, there was no such thing as "the" office of the Virgin in the later middle ages. Textually, it was as dynamic as it was mysterious. No wonder nobody other than Ethelred Taunton had ever tried to comment on it in any detail (and then not until 1903).

I started writing in January with a chapter on the history of the Hours, particularly their adoption over the course of the centuries by monks, nuns, clergy, and lay people. This was the chapter for which I had the most scholarly support and yet no one to date has written anything like a full history of the way in which the hours of the Virgin became the one text with which (as I say at the outset) "every European Christian--man, woman or child; monastic, clerical or lay--who could read" would have been familiar, most likely by heart, by the later middle ages. As it turned out, writing the first part of this chapter on the adoption of the office required me in effect to write a history of religious life more generally over the same period, as the office was taken up in turn by monks and nuns (eleventh century), cathedral clergy (twelfth century), the friars and their spiritual advisees, particularly anchoresses and beguines (thirteenth century), the brothers and sisters of the Common Life (fourteenth century), and lay people more generally (fifteenth century). This part of the chapter also required me to consider the history of book production and changes in literacy as witnessed by the production of books of Hours, including, of course, the great proliferation of books at the end of the fifteenth century thanks to the introduction of the printing press. The second part of this chapter offers a history of the meaning of saying the office more generally, particularly the meaning of its seven "hours." It concludes with a brief description of the structure of the Marian office itself, its distribution of psalms and other texts, and its great variety of liturgical Use. This chapter took me the better part of January, February and March to write.

By mid-April, I was ready to start writing the second chapter, on the recitation of the "Ave Maria" and the mystery contained therein. This was an exciting chapter to write, as it gave me the chance to develop further an argument that I had only hinted at in an article that I wrote several years ago for the Cambridge History of Christianity (just out this summer) on "Mary": Mary, I argued, is important in medieval devotion because it was she who contained the uncontainable (God). More particularly, or so I argue in this second chapter, the reason that saying the "Ave Maria" (itself, in fact, the invitatory antiphon for the hour of Matins of the Virgin) was considered such a service to Our Lady is that it reminded her of the moment in which God became incarnate in her womb. "Every time," or so Mary's medieval devotees imagined her saying, "I hear the angel's salutation, it is as if I can feel my Son within me once again, just as once he took flesh from me to be born, God and man, for the salvation of sinners." In the first part of this chapter, I discuss the evidence that we have from hagiography, miracle stories, monastic and hospital customaries, sermons and confraternity statues for the recitation of the "Ave" as a devotional practice. In the second part, I discuss what it meant to try to name the woman whom God himself had chosen as his dwelling. In this part of the chapter, I also introduce many of the sources on which I will be depending for my interpretation of the office in the rest of my book: treatises on the Virgin by canons and friars such as Jacobus de Voragine, Conrad of Saxony, Richard of St. Laurent, pseudo-Albert the Great, and Bernardino da Busti; "Mary psalters" and other greeting texts; along with sermons by Bernard of Clairvaux, Bonaventure and others, and other devotional writings. I finished this chapter in late May.

I spent the first part of June reading even more broadly in the sermon literature on Mary (Matthew of Aquasparta, Bernardino da Siena, more sermons by Jacobus and Conrad, treatises by Dionysius the Carthusian), at which point I felt myself ready to start on chapter 3. And then I hit a wall. Chapter 3 is meant to be the first of three chapters in which I discuss the meaning of the Marian office in depth, from the antiphons and the psalms (chapter 3) to the lessons (chapter 4) and the prayers (chapter 5) which were said in the office. Chapters 1 and 2 have set the stage: we now know how the office came to have the prominence that it did in the devotional life of both the clergy and laity; we know why there were the hours that there were and how they were meant to recapitulate the events in Mary's life and her Son's passion over the course of the day; we know how important medieval Christians considered it to offer Mary this service; and we have some idea of the complexity of the image of Mary as the container for God based on the great proliferation of metaphors medieval preachers and commentators felt it necessary to draw on in order to describe her. And yet, we still know next to nothing about the way in which they experienced the office itself.

This is the point of my writing this book: I want to know what it was like to pray the Hours of the Virgin from within, how the texts resonated over the course of the day--or a lifetime; how, in other words, praise becomes prayer. But, frustratingly enough, nobody in the Middle Ages ever wrote about it. As Jean Leclercq once famously noted, the monks and nuns who said the Divine Office on which the Marian Office was modeled “wrote little about their attitude toward the liturgy: its importance was quite taken for granted; for men [and women] who were living constantly under its influence, it hardly needed any commentary.” So how do we know what it meant to them? This is the challenge that I have set for myself in these central chapters of my book. It has taken me all summer and much struggle to figure out how I am going to solve this problem, but I think it is starting to crack and I am going to be able to begin writing properly again once I get back from my actual vacation this month. I don't want to say much more about this now as my thinking is still fairly fragile at the moment. But if I can pull this off (if I may say so myself), this is going to be a book that teaches us more about devotion and prayer than we have hitherto suspected was even possible to know.

Not that I am doing this by myself. I am also fully convinced that the only reason I have been able to write as much as I have thus far (about 45,000 words, not including notes) is because the Virgin herself has been helping me. Certainly, it would have been easy this summer to succumb to despair or to think that I needed to wholly reconceptualize my project. But she has given me courage, even when I wasn't always able to appreciate how much I was depending on her. I hope very much that my small offering does something to help revive her devotion in our own day. Hail, Mary!


  1. 80 different uses? No wonder I've never been able to get to grips with medieval religion.


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