Thursday, January 19, 2012

The world in miniature

The more observant of my readers may have noticed me saying more than once that I find blogging more interesting and enjoyable than almost anything on TV. I’m glad now that I used that qualifying ‘almost’, because for an hour last Monday (and the previous one) only the direst emergency could have dragged me away from the TV screen.

It was by complete chance that particular Monday evening that I switched on the TV to find that BBC4 was about to start a 3-part series on one of my longest-standing passions: mediaeval illuminated manuscripts. The series is called Illuminations: the Private Lives of Mediaeval Kings and has been made to link in with a new exhibition of royal manuscripts currently being shown at the British Library in London.

Each was an hour of pure bliss, as I watched the art historian Dr Janina Ramirez explore the world in which these treasures were made and the reasons for their making. The programmes are so good that we have recorded them for future viewing and I know I will return to them more than once.
King Henry VI and Queen Margaret of Anjou
As I watched the first programme I tried to recall when my love of mediaeval and Renaissance architecture, art and, in particular, manuscript illumination began, but couldn't. It may have been sparked by the mediaeval German literature I studied as part of my degree course back in the mid-1960s. If so, it lay dormant for the next few years until I qualified as a librarian and began work in a public library, where my immediate superior was an immensely knowledgeable collector of old and often rare books.

During our coffee breaks he would sometimes show me book auction catalogues, many of them illustrated with pages from the works on sale. It was in this way that I first learned about Books of Hours and began to read about them and the people for whom they had been made.

My own bookshelves tell me that by 1979 my interest had grown to such an extent that my mother gave me a beautifully-illustrated book on the subject as my Christmas present. I spent many hours reading this book and poring over the exquisite detail of the wonderful illuminations, with their jewel-like colours, lavish use of gold-leaf and fascinating glimpses into a world so distant and different from our own.

One of the manuscripts examined in the book is the world-famous and immensely richly-decorated Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de BerryI was so bewitched by the beauty and variety of these illuminations that at Christmas 1985 DH gave me a book about this one unique Book of Hours. The Très Riches Heures is deservedly famous for its wealth of exquisite sacred images, but above all for its extraordinary calendar of the months.

This portrays in loving detail the seasonal life of the countryside of the Berry region and the Duke’s court, from feasting at Christmas to haymaking in June and back again to winter, many of the images enhanced by the amazingly detailed depictions of castles and towns in the background.

February - life in winter
September - the grape harvest

The book DH gave me consists almost entirely of illustrations, with only the minimum of explanatory text. Next to it on my shelves is another volume, again a gift, this time a gesture of thanks and farewell from my former library colleague and friend, who retired in 1987. It is another splendidly illustrated book on the Très Riches Heures, but this time complete with a scholarly introduction and a much fuller commentary on the wealth of illustrations.

Taking these books off the shelves and looking at them makes me realise how much our interests and passions are bound up with who we are and the relationships that have formed us. Here are three gifts linked to a lasting interest in my life. Three gifts from different people, each of whom knew how much the gift would mean to me, each of whom has contributed, to a greater or lesser extent, to making me the person I am. 

These three books may stay on my shelves undisturbed for long periods as new interests come to the fore, but once opened again they still transport me instantly into a different world, while at the same providing a tangible link to some of the most important people in my life. Sadly two of the givers are long dead, but the first glimpse of their handwriting on the fly-leaf of their gift makes them live again in the little world of my memory.

The world in miniature…

Most images via Wikipedia, with thanks


  1. Hello Perpetua:
    Only rarely do we wish that we had a television. Now is one of those moments, for we know that we should love to see these programmes. However, we have had the benefit of your marvellous post, so all is not lost!!

    These mediaeval manuscripts are absolutely delightful. The painstaking attention to detail and the colours make them treasured jewels indeed. How marvellous that you can look into your wonderful collection of books and bring these times to life again, as well, of course, as remembering those who have kindly made you a present of these books which obviously you cherish.

  2. I shall look to see if i can see these programmes on the iplayer...I do hope they'll be available after reading your account of them!

  3. Thank you, Jane and Lance. Just occasionally a programme comes along which in itself makes the annual TV licence worth paying and this series for me was such a one.

    If you enjoyed these images, there are many more available on the internet, some through the links in my post. Wikipedia again proves itself invaluable. For me my books with all their memories are still my first port of call.

  4. Fly, I've just checked and they are both still available, at least here in the UK. If you can get iPlayer in Costa Rica, you should be able to watch them and I'm sure you'll enjoy them.

  5. Terrific post Perpetua and wonderful illustrations. Illuminated manuscripts really are an amazing treasure house of potted history aren't they.
    Thanks for the chance to see these.

  6. How lovely! I saw some similar books at an exhibition quite a while ago at the British Library. I have the same feeling about gifts and interests. It's so nice to revisit them and have them rekindled once in a while!

  7. These books are absolutely beautiful. I remember reading about them in an art history class but have never actually seen one in person. It's so great when people know you well enough to know exactly what will please you as a gift.

  8. Thanks, Ray, I'm glad you enjoyed it. You're so right about the history in these manuscripts and their illuminations, not only in terms of kings and rulers, but also in the glimpses they give us of everyday life so long ago.

    The programmes are still available on BBC iPlayer if you didn't see them. Perhaps if you are wakeful one night....?

  9. Hello Nicola and thanks. I've seen illuminated manuscripts both at the British Library and in a number of museums and always long to be allowed to examine them, as happened in the TV programmes. Oh, to hold one of them in my hands....

    I'm glad you're another who enjoys reawakening dormant interests. They often feel very new and appealing after a lapse of time. :-)

  10. Oh, they are Rubye. I often think they are some of humanity's greatest cultural treasures. As I said in an earlier comment, I've been lucky enough to see some, but obviously not to touch. One of our local landmarks, a historic castle, has on display a lovely little Book of Hours which belonged to Mary, Queen of Scots.

    To be honest, I think my nearest and dearest would have had to be blind and deaf not to know of my passion for illuminated manuscripts, but I'm so glad they acted on that knowledge.

  11. Aren't they beautiful? It's hard to imagine the skill and patience taken to make them, especially in today's world of cut-and-paste and photoshop!
    Lucky you to have some examples.

  12. Hello Perpetua - as you know, I live completely without a TV. And whilst the BBC does make many things available via its website, quite frequently when I try to access them, I get the message, 'Not available in your territory'. Remembering for how many years I paid my licence fee &, like you, watched very little TV, I do find this situation rather frustrating.

    However, despite the internet being such a wonderful resource, (how did we manage before it existed?), I like you, greatly value my books to which no one can deny me access! Whilst I massively downsized when I moved from the UK over three years ago, I only slightly diminished my library.

  13. Oh, they are, CB. I can spend hours poring over the originals in exhibitions and even the reproductions in my books are so lovely that I'm lost once I open one of them. The artistry involved is mind-blowing.

  14. Very sorry to hear that the BBC is so niggardly in what it lets you access from the Czech Republic, Ricky. I know a lot of people in France use services such as Expat Shield to enable them to access iPlayer.

    I can certainly testify to the fact that your library hasn't shrunk much in your move abroad. :-) Neither would mine. Even if I had to leave other things behind, my books would go with me.

  15. Lovely lovely things aren't they? One of my most treasured things is a --now somewhat battered-- little booklet with reproductions of the calendars of months. I was lucky enough to see them for real in the Musée de Chantilly as a teenager and bought the booklet with pocketmoney. Seeing them kindled a life long love affair. A close second is being able to see the York gospels out of their case. A lovely perk of doing grad work at the York Minster library.

  16. Sorry - found too many spelling mistakes in the last comment - think my ekyborad isplaying up...

    Just wanted to thank you for this lovely post - yet more evidence of our soul-sister status, though my love comes from English medieval literature, not German. Also takes me back to the period when I was a francophile and wanted to live in the Chateaux in Saumur...

    No iplayer here either but I'm glad the BBC inspired this post - really enjoyed it. Axxx

  17. Chateau - it was just the one.

  18. They are truly wonderful, Antoinette. I think that once you fall in love with mediaeval illuminations, there's no going back. Lucky you to have seen the Très Riches Heures calendar for real. The book DH gave me has wonderful reproductions though.

    As for doing grad work at York Minster library - I'm green with envy!

  19. Drat those keyboards, Annie! :-)

    There is something about grappling with mediaeval literature, whatever the language, which makes one very receptive to the art and architecture of the period too. I visited a couple of the Loire chateaux as a teenager, but have never been to Saumur. One for the future, I think.

    Sorry you too can't watch the programmes, but I'm glad you enjoyed the post.

  20. the september harvest is from the castle in my home town Saumur it is the same but without a lof the decorations

    Annie v.

  21. Another very intersting post - not least beacuse I pass the British Library regularly and will definitely go to see teh exhibition. Also beacuse my Grandfather was headmaster of the school next to Bede's chapel in Jarrow (coincidentally my good friend is studying at the Bede Centre in York) and I recall there being fabulous manuscripts (probably facsimiles now I think) on dispaly in the visitor centre - from memory, would these be of the Lindisfarne Gospels, or have I got that wrong?

    And finally beacuse I love minature paintings too - indeed I like bot the very large and teh very smahll and recently wrote an article for a website on that very subject.

    So lots of connections today.

  22. Imagine the patience needed to do that work.


  23. Hello Annie and welcome to my blog. Thank you for that confirmation that the buildings in the calendar illuminations were taken from life and painted in the most accurate detail. It's yet another thing that makes them so wonderful.

  24. Thanks, Mark. I'm glad you enjoyed it. Do go and see the exhibition if you can. Judging by what I've seen in the programmes it will be fascinating.

    Because of the geographical link with Lindisfarne, there is a good chance that what you saw at Bede's chapel were facsimiles of the Lindisfarne Gospels, but I can't be sure. The original is in the British Library and you can see it online at:

  25. Absolutely, SP, and the skill and the enormous amount of time needed to do such fine and detailed work.

  26. Thank you, Perpetua, for checking the iplayer...two are up and I've watched the first one so far.
    A nicely presented programme too, for once...not all shots of the presenter and nothing happening.

  27. Great, Fly! Glad to be of assistance. :-) The third won't be broadcast until next Monday and will be available straight after that. May I ask, please, how you managed to access it, for the sake of others living outside the UK who might want to do the same?

  28. Dear Perpetual,
    This blog spoke to me in many ways. I, too, am fascinated by illuminated manuscripts although I have no books to browse. But I have seen them in museums. The pages are jewels that bewitch.

    I don't know whether you've heard of the illuminated Bible done recently by European and American artists for St. John's in Collegeville, Minnesota. St. John's is a Benedictine monastery. Here's the link for it:
    It's the first illuminated Bible done in centuries I think.


  29. Dee, it's great to realise how many people share my love for these exquisite works of art. Each of them repays close study when we get the chance.

    Thank you so much for the link to the St John's Bible. I've had a quick look and bookmarked the site for another visit when I have more time. It says that the project was started in 1998 and finished last year, which gives us some idea of the time and work that went into all the old manuscripts we love.

  30. Oh ja, liebe Perpetua, die Bilder sind Kostbarkeiten und bezaubernd über all die Jahre hinweg.Ich bin begeistert über Deine Recherchen und die Beherrschung der Technik! Und wie gern Du schreibst!Steht Dein PC noch an der alten Stelle?Leider sind die blogs nur im UK zu sehen. Liebe grüße und ich genieße die Post von Dir!

  31. Guten Abend, R. Ich freue mich, dass Du die Post genossen hast. Ja, die Bilder sind völlig bezaubernd. Schade, dass Du die Sendungen nicht sehen kannst. Du hast recht, die Recherchen machen mir viel Spass und das Schreiben auch. Mein PC steht heutzutage im Zimmer unseres Sohnes, wo ich jetzt mein Schreibzimmer habe. Liebe Grüsse an Dich auch.

  32. I used to use Expat Shield...but it took over my I've gone to Identity Cloaker which is cheap and very effective with a great back up service.
    You can either change your IP address continually to hide your presence on websites (why you should so wish is beyond me) or choose a country address for your IP.
    I would happily pay a licence fee if the BBC would get its act together for overseas viewers.
    Needless to say all this was started by my wish to listen to Test Match Special when the normal free radio on BBC was not available thanks to broadcasting rights problems.

  33. Very helpful, thanks, Fly. You might be regretting the Test Match Special bit after this week's abysmal performance....

  34. Absolutely gorgeous! Thank you for this post, I enjoyed it.

  35. Yes, they are truly wonderful, Sue. Glad you enjoyed the post. There's still time to catch the third programme on Monday on BBC4 - so worth watching.

  36. Dancing Beastie here. I wanted very much to comment on your wonderful post on Books of Hours, but Blogger (not for the first time) doesn't seem to be letting me, for whatever reason. I hope that this email might reach you instead, saying what I wanted to say in a comment...

    You have, yet again, struck a chord with me. (It makes me wonder why I blog about nature most of the time when there are so many other passions deserving attention.) Thank you so much for bringing this to us and for these wonderful illustrations. I too am avidly watching the programmes on BBC4 and finding them fabulous and infuriating in equal measure: the subject matter is breathtaking, but the presentation is rather self-conscious and facile...! Still, I can put up with it for the sake of the extraordinary MSS.

    Books of Hours have been a fascination of mine all my adult life, since first discovering them in my teens. My Godmother gave me that John Harthan overview which you picture for my 18th birthday, and a few years later I was lucky enough to be given a book on the Très Riches Heures as well. These two books were the beginning of my small but treasured collection of monographs and facsimiles of Books of Hours. They inspired my love of history and directed me towards eight years of academic immersion in the Medieval world. (In fact, I wanted to look at women's patronage of the arts, and of illuminated books in
    particular, for my DPhil., but was told I'd have to transfer to the Dept. of Art History for that, which wasn't an option.)

    Later, I worked in an office in Mayfair, just around the corner from Sotheby's. One week, before a sale of illuminated manuscripts, I spent two or three blissful lunch-hours sitting in a hushed upper room in the auction house, poring over an exquisite little early 15th C French book of hours. I forget the asking price, but it was in five figures. I hope the buyer didn't just stick it in a safe.

    The months from the Tres Riches Heures are, as you say, masterpieces of the genre. If you watch Laurence Olivier's film of Henry V, you'll notice how much of the backdrop and even the costumes are consciously modelled on those pages - which makes me very happy! I suppose they have been inspiring further creative endeavour ever since they were first seen.

    It's a great pleasure to discover that we share a love of Books of Hours. Thank you for reminding me about all this life-enhancing beauty.

  37. Dancing Beastie, how very kind of you to take the trouble to email me when Blogger played up. It's great that WordPress gives you that facility. If it's any consolation, you're not the only WordPress follower of mine who is having trouble commenting on my blog at the moment. And it's not as though I'm using the new but badly flawed threaded-comment format either. Sigh.....

    I'm so glad you enjoyed my post, as I had great fun writing it. It took the BBC programmes to trigger the idea, but after that it nearly wrote itself. I love all illuminated manuscripts but somehow Books of Hours seem to be in a league of their own, perhaps because the wealth and prestige of those for whom they were first made means that the art is of an exceptionally high standard.

    I'm very much an amateur (in both senses of the word) where they are concerned, but they continue to fascinate me and their beauty feeds something deep within me. I'm thrilled to discover that you share my love of them and am deeply envious of those lunch-hours spent looking at one in the flesh, having only ever seen them under glass. Still, under glass is better than in a safe, as you say.

    Your love of them began much earlier than mine and I find it wonderful that it shaped your whole academic career after that. You must have so much you could blog on other than nature, though I would hate you to desert nature as a subject completely, as your posts on it are so beautiful and thought-provoking.

  38. And in response, Dancing Beastie wrote:

    Books of Hours are somehow 'in a league of their own', as you say. I wonder if it's not only the wealth and prestige of the patrons that gives them their allure - although on the material level this must be so - but also the frisson one feels from knowing that these are books of personal devotions, designed for daily use.

    I love to read through the familiar cadences of the opening prayers ('Deus in adiutorum meum intende, Domine ad adiuvandum me festina...') and think of the thousands of others who have used these same words over the centuries, whether from priceless illuminated manuscript, well-worn communal missal, or from memory. It's a way of collapsing time, of bringing the people of the past into our own circle of sympathy, if you like. Certainly, turning the pages of a personal book of prayers once read by a princess in 15th Century France is an extraordinary experience, on many levels.

    Ah, what a pleasure to be thinking about these treasures again!

  39. This was such a wonderful post and I kept thinking about the treasures you have in those books; for their beauty, the illuminated manuscripts, the rich and informative text, and for the gift of having received them from people who have meant so much to you.

    I have books that remain on the shelves for a long, long time. Treasures that I revisit upon a good dusting or when I'm searching for something in particular. In fact, I just found one our older daughter gave me on the eve of her wedding. It was so very touching to receive then, and I feel like I just was gifted all over again.

    I hope that this series on the Private Lives of Mediaeval Kings finds its way to our public television stations some day soon.

    Perpetua, you are so very accommodating. I'm sorry to cause you so much fret and trouble over my being able to comment. I will give this a try now and we will see how it goes. I certainly do not want you to be plagued with spams on my account.

  40. Penny, I'm so pleased you could get through. Please son't worry about possible spam. I made this change because others (like Dancing Beastie) couldn't comment either and I value comments too much to want to miss them.

    Thank you, I'm glad you enjoyed the post and I can see that you understand completely how important the books I mentioned are to me, just as your daughter's gift is to you. They are treasures both for their beauty and their personal significance.

    It would be lovely if you could see the series sometime on PBS, as I know you would find it fascinating. I'll keep my fingers crossed for you.

  41. Hello again, thank you for publishing my long spiels and I apologise for rather hijacking the comment thread! It's so interesting to read of the connections and interests of your other readers too. Just a v. brief postscript, if I may, to let you know of a post that has a reproduction of the beautiful "May" page from the Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry. It's at (Not sure if that'll work as a live link but you get the idea.) Please ignore/ delete this as you wish - I'll stop now! Thanks again.

  42. DB, I'm glad you can now get through and there's no need to apologise. What you wrote was so interesting and relevant that I didn't want to prune it. Comment threads are for comments and Blogger kindly doesn't truncate them unless they are very long.

    Many thanks for the link. It's not live, but when I highlight it Google Chrome takes me straight there and the image is gorgeous. :-)

  43. Hello Perpetua,
    I wish my Hubby would stop watching so much TV. It's on 24/7. Mind you, he is very good with completing all house work, etc, but the TV makes me nuts. There's nothing on that's worth watching!
    I remember the very first time I saw medieval art in text books. I was just a girl. I was amazed by the detail in such a "cramped" style.
    Personally, I've always been drawn to viewing furniture and house-hold objects from that time period. Hmmmm. Time to visit the museum again...

  44. I enjoyed reading your post and certainly think you have a wonderful knowledge and appreciation of these beautiful manuscripts. I have appreciated a beautiful collection at our Huntington Library (San Marino, CA), but I probably learned a little more from my mother-in-law, an artist and historian who appreciated them on a level that I didn't fully appreciate when she was living and could have instructed me so well! It's always a treat when I find something o television that really delights and feeds me! A rarity! Debra

  45. Good morning, Nerima. I do sympathise with you about the TV. DH watches considerably more than I do, but thankfully does switch off in between.

    Yes, mediaeval art is wonderfully detailed, but as you say, there are many other tings that have come down to us from that period and are worth seeing and cherishing. Enjoy the museum! :-)

  46. Hello Debra and glad you enjoyed the post. How lovely that you have a good collection of these manuscripts close enough to visit and that you had a mother-in-law who was so knowledgeable and appreciative about them. Sadly we often don't take advantage of this depth of personal knowledge as much as we should.

    The last programme is tonight and I can't wait....

  47. Did you see the Henrician books in the last episode, with those exquisitely naturalistic borders? Sigh...
    The British Library website has all sorts of delights on it at the moment, with pages and pages of enlarge-able pictures and good commentary. There's even an iPhone app - I love the meeting of medieval and modern technology, studying a page from a book of hours on my phone! I now find myself seriously contemplating a rare trip to London to see this royal manuscript exhibition for real.

  48. DB, I was glued to the screen for the whole hour and revelled in those glorious books and their decoration. Like you I’ve been spending quite a lot of time on the British Library website, though sadly without the aid of an iPhone. It’s wonderful that these treasures are being made freely available like this. I do hope you can manage to make your trip.


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