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Reading and meditation in the Middle Ages: Lectio divina and books of hours

Reading and meditation in the Middle Ages: Lectio divina and books of hours

By Laura Sterponi

Text & Talk, Vol. 28:5 (2008)

Abstract: This article offers a historical perspective on reading as a situated activity through an examination of the medieval devotional practice of reading the book of hours. My historical investigation opens with an analysis of key pedagogical treatises and religious essays popular in the Middle Ages, which provided instruction on reading, its sensori-motor enactment, its interpretive procedures, and its ultimate goal. These texts, which portray reading not as a self-contained and intrinsically motivating activity but rather as a necessary component of a broader spiritual project, o¤er precious clues about how medieval readers approached the reading activity, the ways they engaged with the book, and their expectations pertaining to the scope of the reading practice. In the second part of the article, the focus turns to the book of hours. We will leaf through folios of these devotional manuscripts and examine their format, semiotic configuration, and textual and visual content. This analysis will show how textual and illustrational features of the book of hours reflect and foster the ideology and practice of reading as meditative and prayerful activity.

Introduction: This article offers a historical perspective on reading as a situated activity through an examination of the medieval devotional practice of reading the book of hours. Reading as a situated practice is ephemeral and dynamic; it is not entirely encoded in the text and leaves poor traces behind. This conception constitutes the foundation as well as the challenge for any exploration of reading practices in historical epochs far from ours. Historical investigations of reading practices are faced with the task of reconstructing the sociocultural contexts to which texts belonged: the institutional and more informal situations within which they were animated and apprehended, the mentalities and ideologies they illustrated and contributed to shaping. This article aims to shed light on the practice of reading the book of hours by considering who engaged in this practice, how the book of hours was read, and what the goal of such reading activity was.

Click here to read this article from the University of California, Berkeley

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