15th-century Book of Hours comes to South Carolina

A 15th-century Book of Hours has been recently purchased by the University of South Carolina, and students and the public will soon be able to see the valuable medieval text in person and online.

Still in its original binding from the late 15th century, the Book of Hours is virtually flawless, just like the day it was painted 500 years ago. From Rouen, France, the book is “illuminated” with a dozen lush, full-page miniature paintings highlighted by liquid gold panels. The sumptuous artwork is securely ascribed to the 15th-century artist Robert Boyvin.


“The Book of Hours is an exceptionally fine acquisition for the Irvin Department of Rare Books and Special Collections’ teaching collection of manuscripts and a wonderful addition to the department’s program,” said Elizabeth Sudduth, department director. “It should be noted that we are in the process of photographing the Book of Hours and expect that it will be available as part of the Pages from the Past digital collection later this fall.”

The book will be used in history, art history, French, religion and English classes and for research by students, faculty and visiting scholars, said Scott Gwara, a USC English professor and medievalist. This major acquisition completes the University Libraries’ medieval teaching collection, which already includes a Missal (book of the order of the Mass), a Psalter (book of Psalms), a Breviary (book of prayers and hymns) and a Bible, Gwara said.


“Until now, we’ve only had a fragmentary Book of Hours to teach with, and it was awkward to use in the classroom,” Gwara said. “I saw this Book of Hours at Sotheby’s in London while I was teaching a King Arthur class during Maymester 2012, and thought it was just magnificent. I knew that generations of USC undergraduates would learn a lot from this manuscript, and I made a strong case that our citizens deserved an exceptional example of medieval art. Not only is this the best Book of Hours in South Carolina, it is the best illuminated manuscript in the state and ranks among the nicest in the South.”

Books of Hours were the most prevalent manuscripts in the Middle Ages, more popular even than the Bible, said Gwara, who teaches medieval English language and literature at USC.

“In theory, literate people in the Middle Ages would pause eight times a day and recite from the Book of Hours,” he said. “Readers knew the texts intimately, so they convey an unparalleled understanding of medieval piety.”

The book trade in Rouen, France, where this Book of Hours originated, was among the most prolific ever and among the best documented in Europe, according to Cambridge University manuscripts scholar, Christopher de Hamel.


“This is a classic Rouen Book of Hours, in almost flawless condition, by one of the last great manuscript workshops of medieval Europe,” de Hamel said of the book acquired by USC. “As a magnificent example of a familiar book, it takes us to the heart of late medieval workshop practice, at the moment when the illuminators found themselves under threat from printers, and responded by ever more sophisticated types of traditional manuscript.”

With significant financial support from the B.H. Breslauer Foundation in New York, USC acquired the manuscript at auction in London. Established by the estate of the renowned book dealer Bernard H. Breslauer, the foundation supports acquisition of rare books and manuscripts by U.S. libraries and institutions. This is the third time the foundation has helped USC Libraries with a purchase to support the university’s teaching mission.

“The B.H. Breslauer Foundation has supported the University of South Carolina before in its quest for illuminated manuscripts that bring European medieval art to the American South and enable students to be instructed from original codices rather than from facsimiles or reproductions,” said Felix de Marez Oyens, president of the B.H. Breslauer Foundation. “The codex form preserves medieval works of art in larger numbers and in closer to original condition than buildings, panels, sculpture, furniture, tapestries and most other objects. Among those manuscripts the most widespread as well as the most elaborately decorated type was the book of private devotions known as Horae, or Book of Hours, many of which can now be confidently attributed to specific towns, workshops and even individual artists.”


“The directors of the foundation are therefore pleased that now once more they have been able to help the University of South Carolina Library acquire a finely illuminated manuscript, this time a Book of Hours from Rouen securely ascribed to the late-15th-century artist Robert Boyvin,” he said. “In fixing the extent of the grant, the directors took into account the preservation of the original binding and the antiquarianism of the provenance as one of the owners, Henri-Auguste Brölemann of Lyons, must be counted among the leading 19th-century French collectors of illumination.”

The new manuscript will be on display during two upcoming Open Gallery weekends in the Ernest F. Hollings Special Collections Library, Saturday, Sept. 22, from 10 a.m. – 1 p.m., and Sunday, Sept. 23, from 1-4 p.m. and on Saturday, Oct. 20 from 2 – 5 p.m. and Sunday, Oct. 21, from 1-4 p.m.

Source: University of South Carolina