A colorful Medieval manuscript showing the religious life and major holidays in the Age of Faith, with multiple contemporary annotations.
In the Middle Ages, religion was part of almost everyone’s daily life to an extent most people today would not recognize. Religious manuscripts and works such as books of hours governed the daily ebb and flow of life, and they contained such information as what times to pray, which prayers to recite,...
In the Middle Ages, religion was part of almost everyone’s daily life to an extent most people today would not recognize. Religious manuscripts and works such as books of hours governed the daily ebb and flow of life, and they contained such information as what times to pray, which prayers to recite, and when holidays fell. In the days before the invention of printing, all of these were handwritten. The creation of a handwritten book was a labor-intensive process, so they were scarce and expensive. At first, only religious centers like monasteries produced them, but by the 1300s, books were also being produced for commercial purposes by merchants, though in limited numbers.
In the Middle Ages, the celebration of the Mass required a prayer book. This was known as a Breviary and contained psalms and hymns, the readings from Sacred Scripture and the writings of the Fathers, the prayers and the responses, all combined to form the canonical hours of the divine office of prayer that was recited daily. Originally, this required many books. However, in the later Middle Ages, the desire to give the word of God to individuals who were unable to attend church, and to enable them to recite the canonical hours privately, led to the combination of all of this holy information into one book- the breviary. This book was also used by smaller churches and less prominent preachers.
At the head of these books was placed a calendar, which tied it all together and gave the dates and names of Saints, the organization of fixed feasts, the movement of the sun and moon, and the major dates in the Christian calendar. It anchored the contents of the Breviary.
Breviary Calendar, undated but bearing the artistic marks of the early to mid 1300s, Paris, written in Latin with red and brown ink in smooth angular Gothic bookhand, with major feast days in red. The large burnished “KL” header initials (Kalends or Calendar) are raised and traced with delicate blue, red and brown-green lines. Large, decorated capital letters are throughout, often filled in with yellow. This is our first full and complete breviary, and indeed few such manuscripts complete ones survive today.
Keys to interpretation: Holidays occupy nearly every day. However, the most important ones are in red – they are the “red letter days.” The thicker black ones were added by that same scribe of the issuing shop. The other days were likely originally blank. To the left of the words indicating the Saints Days are repeating letters a – g, “Dominical Letters.” These correspond to a day of the week, 7 letters or 7 days. So, if 1320 began on Monday, or B, you could go through the year and find each Monday. To the right of these letters are roman numerals. The medieval religious calendar had 3 fixed points on the calendar: the Kalends (Day 1), Ides (half way point) and Nones (9th day before Ides). All days were counted backward from there. So in October, we find St. Luke 2 days after the Ides but 16 days before the new Kalends. Likewise, the Feast of the Crown of Thorns (Festum Spinee Corone) is three days before Nones. This festival is written in another, possibly later (and apparently humanist) hand. Five lines down, St. Mark can be found in yet another hand, this one gothic, cursive, and more likely belonging to the first owner. The far left is a column of Roman numerals i – xix called “Golden Numbers,” showing new moons.
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