Leafing through the Library
The Lifework of a BookwormThe Lifework of a Bookworm
My name is Suzy Micklewright and I am a volunteer in Rochester Cathedral and Team Leader for the Library volunteers. As my background is in libraries I was asked to undertake a stock-check of the Cathedral Library in Rochester in 2009. This started with the Dewey classified books but, inevitably moved on to the pre-1901 section which contains many rare books.
I became completely engrossed in these amazing volumes found in various languages and states of repair. I was browsing one day and came across a re-bound volume called Masius on Joshua, dated 1574 and printed in Antwerp. As I was carefully leafing through this polyglot version (when the same text appears in more than one language) I became aware of many holes in the book. These holes became lace-like as the text progressed and I realised I was witnessing the life’s work of a bookworm.
A curious incident occurred when just a few days later, I came across a book dated 1849 by Beriah Botfield entitled “Notes on the Cathedral Libraries of England”. Mr Botfield, a Member of Parliament for Ludlow in Shropshire, had written a chapter on Rochester Cathedral Library after he had visited and actually mentions ‘Upon these [the books] the worms seem tacitly permitted to feed, for I found no less than three of these small white grubs, so well known as book-worms, and yet so seldom seen, greedily devouring a black letter folio. It is really astonishing how so minute an animal, with no apparent power of perforation, can drill holes through paper, wood and leather...’
Imagine my amazement, Mr Botfield was referring to the very same volume I had observed just days before. I tingled as I imagined we had both handled the same book. These two volumes are now displayed together when we do a ‘Show and Tell’ at the cathedral.
A Note on Bookworms
Rather than relating to one specific beast, the term ‘bookworm’ is a catch-all that generically refers to insects and their larvae that cause damage to books. Common book pests include woodworm (in itself a beetle rather than worm) and their larvae, death watch beetle, moth larvae and silverfish. The insects can be attracted by the leather boards of a book or even the shelves of the library as much as the paper inside the books. Also, the paper in old books was often treated with a ‘size’, a paste-like substance made by boiling animal skin and other tissue. This organic mixture makes attractive eating to the insects.
Past methods of dealing with bookworms included using insecticides or even a fine layer of pepper. Today, libraries favour prevention methods wherever possible. General practices include keeping a stable temperature (silverfish love the damp), keeping the books dust free, not allowing the consumption of food on the premises and the use of pest monitors to be checked on a monthly basis. Mr Botfield’s ‘small white grubs’ sound very like the larvae of the woodworm/furniture beetle.
Dr Jayne Wackett (editor)
Books of Hours: A Day in the Life
|Opening page of the Rochester Book of Hours, Drc Z38: the kalends of January
So, what is a Book of Hours?
Books of Hours are prayer books mainly used for private devotions. They vary in size from the very tiny to the very large, but, for the most part, they tend to be moderate in size, in order to be easily carried and conveniently used. The smaller size also means the books are more personal, not being big enough to be shared. At 10.5cm x 8 cm the Rochester Cathedral Book of Hours is slightly smaller than the norm.
From the fourteenth century, Books of Hours became immensely popular with the gentry and richer members of society. Before the advent of printing (Caxton set up his press in Westminster in 1476) manuscript books were costly whether bespoke or readymade, but books with any coloured images were elite and the preserve of the very wealthy.
The name Books of Hours derives from the Latin for horae - Horae beatae virginae or Hours of the Blessed Virgin, also known as the Little Hours/Office of the Virgin Mary. As a devotional text the Hours of the Blessed Virgin originated in the 10th century and are based on the Divine Offices that formed the daily structure in monasteries. Using Books of Hours was a way for ordinary folk to emulate the spiritual devotional day of monks and nuns.
The monastic day was divided into the eight offices of Matins, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers and Compline. In a monastery these would be regulated according to the hour of the day and theoretically this could also be done away from a monastery with a private Book of Hours, although in practical terms this would mean getting up at 2am. So as might be imagined, adaptations were made in how these books were used privately. Also, the offices found in the Books of Hours are shorter versions of the fuller monastic services. Another main difference is that the text of Books of Hours is fixed rather than subject to variations according to seasons and feast days.
As the name suggests, Books of Hours all contained the eight offices of the Hours of the Blessed Virgin, but they also have other ‘ingredients’. There is no exact pattern of what is included in Books of Hours, but there are certain common elements that appear consistently across the thousands that survive.
|Illuminated Letter D at the office of Terce
As with all things, despite the fact that all illuminated Books of Hours were expensive, there is variety in the quality of artwork. A noticeable drop in the quality of manuscript art has been noted after the Black Death of 1348-50. The epidemic that claimed 30-50% of Europe’s population has been put forward as a possible reason for that drop in quality; as artist communities were small and concentrated at specific localities it would be easy to lose many specialised workmen at one fell swoop.
|Madonna and Child at the beginning of the Hours of the Blessed Virgin
Very little is known about where the book comes from. The text is Latin, with no vernacular writing in any other language, although the nature of the text and images suggest that it is from the 15th century and is probably either French or English. Many books produced specifically for the English market came from book production centres in France, particularly Paris and Rouen. It has a total of 137 folios (274 pages).
We do not know who owned it; unlike other Books of Hours it does not contain any heraldry or names to help understand its provenance. The book could have been commissioned and created specifically for an individual or could also have been held in a shop’s stock of pre-made manuscripts; sometimes there are clues in the prayers that reveal whether the owner was male or female, depending on the Latin endings that are used.
|Skull denoting the beginning of the Office for the Dead
Although much is unknown about this Book of Hours, the small size and modest illumination and signs of regular employment infer that it was intended for very personal use as opposed to being a status showpiece, and therein lays its true beauty.
Dr Jayne Wackett
Eamon Duffy, Marking the Hours: English People and their Prayers 1240-1570 (Yale, 2007)
The Great Bible: The Gospel According to Henry VIII
The first authorized vernacular Bible was printed in early 1539 and due to its tremendous heft the book became known as the Great Bible. To this day it stands as a milestone of the English Reformation. Aside from the enormous impact of a book containing the scriptures translated into English, the frontispiece that confronted readers upon opening the tome also sent a mighty message– and, indeed, this was an image seen by many. Because, regardless of its material grandeur, it is to be remembered that these Bibles, filled with two columns of Gothic print, often interspersed with a simple woodcut rendering of the accompanying passage, were functional books, printed at the behest of the Tudor regime. They were to be sent to parishes across the nation for the perusal of the parishioners after an order set forth by Thomas, Lord Cromwell, that required a copy to be placed ‘in some convenient place’ in every church in the realm.
In order to furnish England’s parish churches, more than 9,000 copies of the Great Bible were printed between 1538 and 1541, presenting an unmissable propaganda opportunity for Henry VIII’s regime. Ever since the king had divorced England from the See of Rome in 1534 and fashioned himself as Supreme Head of the English Church, the Tudor state had embarked upon a multi-faceted propaganda exercise aimed at transmitting the new order of things to the English populace. This ranged from printed proclamations, pamphlets, and treatises to bien-pensant sermons and homilies. The Great Bible’s frontispiece continued this process, offering the viewer a visual summation of the Royal Supremacy as it was to be understood by English men and women – literate and non-literate alike. The intended symbolism inherent in the image is multi-layered; on first glance it is sledgehammer-subtle: a magnificent king surrounded by adoring subjects. Yet behind this lies a more muted series of insinuations and exhortations designed to filter into the Tudor parish consciousness via the king’s Great Bible.
The whole frontispiece is well-proportioned and rich in detail. In the top right hand corner, somewhat obscured in the background, a bare-headed figure swathed in royal robes kneels before Christ, who peers through the clouds above. This individual, both modest and magnificent in the face of the lord, is King Henry assuming the guise of Moses and receiving the divine wisdom to spread the Word of God (Verbum Dei) to his people. This one fragment neatly encapsulates the message at the core of the image and the Royal Supremacy: Henry, the king of England, knelt directly before God. That the scriptures might act as a vehicle for such an authoritarian message may seem incongruous, but it was at the heart of the Henry’s Reformation. The king, like many in England, was a moderate, someone for whom many facets of continental reform (such as the Lutheran concept of sola scriptura) were profoundly troublesome. For him a vernacular Bible was a tool of re-edification rather than simple evangelising: it was a squint through which the theological justification of the Royal Supremacy could be glimpsed by all.
In truth the king had little involvement with the project aside from allowing it to proceed, indeed Henry was at times profoundly wary of allowing common access to the scriptures, but for propaganda purposes this was beside the point. With this in mind the frontispiece is divided into four compartments. At the top Christ looks down upon the enthroned King Henry in the compartment beneath, a figure that dominates the whole image. The king holds two copies of the scriptures; one to be passed to Archbishop Cranmer who stands on his right, one for Lord Cromwell and the lay peers who stand on the king’s left. It is worth noting that just as Henry is bare-headed before God, so Cranmer and Cromwell appear hatless before their king. In the next compartment Cranmer and Cromwell distribute the Word of God to kneeling clergy and laymen, while in the bottom section a preacher sets forth the word of God to massed crowds, who in turn cry ‘Vivat Rex’ and ‘God save the kynge’. The motif of Verbum Dei is particularly noteworthy, as it hints at a cornerstone of the Royal Supremacy, that is, that the king was the principal conduit of God’s Words. Overall, the message is clear. Thanks to Henry’s generosity the Word of God has percolated through the social order.
Overall the image presents a rosy image of Tudor society: well ordered, strictly hierarchical, and content without the pope. Yet the image also carries warnings. Squirreled away in the bottom right-hand corner of the frontispiece is a small gaol, containing two inmates. The intended meaning of this is unclear as it seems to go against the otherwise serene picture of post-Supremacy society. Some have suggested that the placement of the prisoners amongst the otherwise adoring common-folk was to convey the redemptive potential offered by the vernacular scriptures, but I would suggest something more sinister. Firstly, it should be noted that none of the cries of ‘Vivat Rex’ rising from the crowd emanate from those in the gaol, suggesting that perhaps their love for the monarch was not as forthright. The gaol seems to represent those elements within the nation who grumbled against the king’s reforms, those who Henry was most desirous to reach with devices like this frontispiece. In 1536 a series of large rebellions in the north of England (the Pilgrimage of Grace) re-galvanised royal commitment to an English Bible. Access to vernacular scriptures was not a demand of the rebels, rather they were driven by an attachment to traditional religion; instead the vast scale of their rising (upwards of 40,000 ‘pilgrims’) demonstrated to King Henry that lingering religious ignorance amongst the people could be readily turned into rampant rebellion. Thus the vernacular Bible became a tool through which this ignorance could be remedied. In the frontispiece, then, the souls languishing in gaol were purposefully kept separate from the happy throngs outside as a subtle aide-mémoire to those sections of English society who obstinately repudiated Henry’s Reformation.
The images are bolstered by the text that appears throughout the frontispiece. Various scrolls contain scriptural excerpts, which are ironically almost exclusively in Latin, selected to underpin the visual schema. Most of the textual allusions do not court subtlety. For example, at the top of the page Christ proclaims that in King Henry he has found ‘a man after my heart who will do all my will’ (Acts 13:22), while the kneeling Henry meekly retorts: ‘Thy word is a lantern unto my feet’ (Psalm 119:105). Notably underscored are the textual allusions to Moses. Sitting on his throne the king, invoking Moses’ sermons to the Israelites, instructs Lord Cromwell to ‘judge righteously’ (Deut. 16:18) and ‘hear the small as well as the great’ (Deut. 1:17). This follows the iconography of Henry sitting holding in his hands the Word of God which calls to mind Moses’ descent from Mount Sinai carrying the Commandments. Drawing parallels between Henry and the Old Testament prophet was a common tool of the Tudor propagandists, as, however, were allusions to biblical paramours like Kings Solomon and David. The suggestion that by purging England of Rome’s influence Henry had led his people out of a papal-Egypt was both flattering and potentially powerful during turbulent times.
Aside from its obvious place in the history of English Bible translation and Anglicanism more generally, the Great Bible and its frontispiece provide modern viewers with a glimpse of the interplay between high politics and parish religion that characterises so much of the Henrician Reformation. Both the images and the biblical passages chosen to accompany the commanding opening image reinforce the divine providence that lay behind Henry’s authorisation of the Great Bible, his ordained role as Supreme Head of the Church, and, most of all, the obedience that his subjects owed to him as a result of this. It is an intricate and beguiling image, and we are lucky that it survives in such pristine condition in Rochester Cathedral’s Library.
Stuart Palmer: Centre for Medieval and Early Modern Studies, University of Kent
Editor: Dr Jayne Wackett, University of Kent
John N. King, Tudor Royal Iconography: Literature and Art in an Age of Religious Crisis (Princeton, 1989)
Richard Rex, Henry VIII and the English Reformation (Basingstoke, 1993)
Textus Roffensis: Foundations for the Magna Carta
In this year of Magna Carta, we have already heard a huge amount from the big guns of radio and TV, the likes of Melvyn Bragg and David Starkey, about the primary importance of that remarkable document in the development of English freedoms. But if there was a Great Flood and I had to save one historical document from the whole of English history, it would not be Magna Carta — or even Domesday Book- but Textus Roffensis: the ‘Book of Rochester’ (Rochester Cathedral Library MS A.3.5).
The book contains English laws going back to 600, from the first Christian kingdom in Kent in the time after the mission of St Augustine in 597: it is the foundational document of English law, which along with our language and literature, is our greatest legacy to the world.
Let’s turn its pages, which we can all do now the manuscript is online (click here to see it). Seeing it close up — and there’s a zoom facility so you can see the very texture of the vellum, is a real thrill.
On the opening page you can see the signs of its near fatal immersion in the Medway in around 1710 when the boat overturned on which the manuscript was being carried: a big dark water stain spreads down across half the folio. It’s a miracle it survived at all is the first reaction. But then, how often has the survival of some of our greatest literary treasures–one thinks of the Beowulf manuscript and other books from the Cotton fire — hung by a thread? As it is, on the famous opening page of King Eethelberts’s law codes, the writing is still clear despite the water stains:
‘This syndon tha domas the Aethelbirht cyning asette on agustines daege’: These were the laws made by King Aethelberht in Augustine’s day
Below it is the still bright great red capital G beginning ‘GODES FEOH 7 CIricean’: The dues of God and the Church.
Medieval palaeography may sound as dull as ditchwater, but, as your eye wanders over this single page, you can immediately see why the study of old manuscript books is so alluring. (Not for nothing are the heroes of The Name of the Rose and Brother Cadfael among the most popular creations of modern detective fiction!) Sometimes working on medieval manuscripts you have an electric moment staring at a battered page, with its stains and burns and worm holes, when your eye alights on some detail — a marginal note, a scribbled alteration perhaps — and then, for a moment, the barrier of the intervening centuries seems to fall away. Imagine the incredulity, I mean, can this really be King Aethelstan, who created the English kingdom, speaking in his own words?
We’ll come to the king in a moment, first though, a few facts. The Textus contains over half a millennium of English law: it is nothing less than a window into the development of early English society. It was compiled less than sixty years after the Norman Conquest (c.1123-4), as a part of the Norman effort to understand the country they had so violently overrun in 1066. Preserving accurate texts from the pre-Conquest past, it even contains the earliest examples of the English language. It starts with the earliest Kentish codes with their simple eye-for-an-eye and a tooth-for-six-shillings tariffs. And then as you go deeper into the book, turning the pages of English social history, you watch as law becomes real legislation, adapting to the times; not just retribution but responsive to social conditions, incorporating Christian ideas of charity and forgiveness.
Here you’ll find the laws of Alfred the Great and the later kings of England down to Canute, William the Conqueror and Henry I. The key sections of the Textus though (and ones that have fascinated me since my student days) take us back to the creation of the English state in the tenth century — the origin of today’s England. Premature, unstable, overambitious, but a state nonetheless, its core achievement was the creation of an allegiance to the king, and to his law; but with a clear understanding that the two were distinct. Inspired by Carolingian ideas, they created a system of local government through which the opinions of the hundred and shire courts could be transmitted to the king’s council. The world was changing, with the beginning of the idea of consensus and collaboration. At his assemblies the king listened to the localities, to the ‘lesser thegns’ who represented their communities like the local knights of King John’s day. These assembly politics are the root of our parliament; they begin in Aethelstan’s reign (925-939) and in the Textus you can actually eavesdrop on their discussions.
‘I am sorry our peace is so badly kept.’ Aethelstan says, ‘and my councillors say I have put up with it for too long…’
Moving on through its pages, by the later tenth century, the Viking age, the kings who claimed to rule all England were now ruling Welsh speakers, Cornish speakers, Cumbrians and people with Danish and Norse speech, as well as Angles and Saxons; so no one code of law could really accommodate all that. They had to be flexible. In a law code from the 960s King Edgar says: ‘as regards my Danish subjects, with secular law, I leave it to them which good laws they judge as being best for their people.’ After a century of warfare with Vikings, that is, to say the least, eye-opening!
So in the brutal tenth century, in the pages of the Textus, the people of England, with all their tribal differences, emerge into the light of day as people with hopes, aspirations and a voice.
And the dialogue had now begun between the rulers and the people. Nearly three hundred years before Magna Carta, English kings were promising to rule justly, to protect the poor, and to deal with the over-mighty; and they were held to this by their councils, in whose meetings there was clearly a great deal of give and take. These were just ideals maybe — Anglo-Saxon society no doubt was appallingly violent — but inspired by Carolingian humanism, the ‘royal road’ of Christian kingship, the path to restraining royal power began long before Magna Carta in 1215. The key idea was that the king was elected and anointed and must be subject to the law. It was not democracy of course, but the seed-idea that English medieval society, repressive as it was, was consultative, was well and truly sown.
Things changed with the Norman Conquest. When William the Conqueror was crowned king of the English at Christmas 1066, he made the same royal promises. But the Old English ruling class was removed, and their land shared out, thus beginning a century of barefaced colonial exploitation until gradually the Normans began to be perceived as English. But the English people never lost the idea of royal law as a cornerstone of the state, as Henry I’s judges recognised in going back to the pre-Conquest codes for his laws: the impetus that led to the compiling of the Textus. That’s why to my mind the ‘Book of Rochester’ is one of our greatest national records; and important as Magna Carta may be, in all the brouhaha of this anniversary year, we should not think that it came out of the blue.
Michael Wood: broadcaster and Professor of Public History at the University of Manchester
Editor: Dr Jayne Wackett, University of Kent
Patrick Wormald, Legal Culture in the Early Medieval West, (London, 1999), Chapter 5.
October Highlight Tours
New Lease of Life for Old Deanery
A Grade I listed building in the precincts of Rochester Cathedral will be given a new lease of life following a deal struck with one of the country’s oldest charities. ...
Show of Hands - here in October!
SHOW OF HANDS – THE CATHEDRALS TOUR With guest Kirsty Merryn In 2010 Show of hands embarked on their ‘Spires and Beams’ sell-out tour of churches and ancient buildings. Now,...