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Jessica Brantley (Yale University), “The Late Medieval Book of Hours and the Idea of the Literary”

Thursday, November 2, 2017 @ 4:15 PM - 6:00 PM

In association with the Friends of the Victoria University Library

More books of hours remain in modern libraries than any other kind of book from late medieval England:  almost eight hundred manuscript volumes, and many thousands of printed ones.  From Europe at large the number of manuscripts alone has been estimated at around ten thousand.  Their survival rate suggests (though of course it does not prove) that these books were very widely read, and even that a late medieval reader would have been more likely to encounter a book of hours than any other kind of bound volume.  This truism–that the book of hours was a “bestselling” volume in the late Middle Ages–has utterly failed to affect the reading and interpretation of other kinds of late-medieval texts.  But any history of medieval reading practices must include a consideration of what Eamon Duffy calls “the most intimate and important book of the late Middle Ages.”  And any history of late-medieval English literature–this is my further argument–must come to terms with the material histories of reading that render literary culture legible.

In this talk, I explore the importance of the material and textual genre of the hours for English literary history.  Rather than offering a history of art or a history of prayer—the more common rubrics for approaching these volumes—the talk excavates the histories of literature that are manifest in this uniquely important textual archive.  My study therefore explores the evidence for connections both broad and specific between books of hours and vernacular literary culture in late medieval England.  As compendia of multiple texts and systems of images, books of hours reveal a rich hybridity of representation to be a central feature of late-medieval reading:  reading absent texts alongside present ones, vernacular captions alongside Latin prayers, static images alongside developing narrative and—not least—pictures alongside words.  Because these prayerbooks were so wildly popular, their construction of a both paratactic and simultaneous relation among multiple systems of signification informed the most common reading experience of the late Middle Ages.  Their complex understanding of what it meant to read—of how a person should engage with a book—can have enormous consequences for our sense of how medieval literary culture worked.

Jessica Brantley is Professor of English at Yale University, where she has taught since 2000. Before that, she studied at Harvard University (A.B.), Cambridge University (M. Phil.), and UCLA (Ph.D.). Her interests include Old and Middle English literatures, manuscript studies, text/image relations, and the history of the book. She teaches both undergraduate and graduate courses in all of these subjects, and she is currently the Director of Undergraduate Studies for the English Department at Yale. Professor Brantley’s research examines the cultures of medieval reading as they are preserved in manuscripts. Her first book, Reading in the Wilderness: Private Devotion and Public Performance in Late Medieval England (Chicago, 2007), shows that the format of a late-medieval miscellany reveals surprising connections between the private reading of a meditative lyric and the public performance of civic drama. Other projects in process include a handbook on Medieval Manuscripts and Literary Forms, an edited volume of essays entitled Late Medieval English Alabaster:  A Reassessment, and a monograph provisionally entitled The Medieval Imagetext:  A Literary History of the Book of Hours. 


Thursday, November 2, 2017
4:15 PM - 6:00 PM
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Victoria College Chapel (VC213)
91 Charles Street W.
Toronto, Ontario M5S 1K7 Canada
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Toronto Centre for the Book

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