From the garden to the place of skulls: illustrations of the Easter story in a Book of Hours

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Some of the finest art of the Northern Renaissance can be found hidden in books – painted into Books of Hours. The Book of Hours was a popular form of prayer book, based on the hours of the monastic services (Prime, Terce, Nones, Lauds, etc.), but Books of Hours were usually made for an individual lay patron, and sometimes richly decorated.  The images below are taken from a Book of Hours written and painted in the Netherlands at the end of the 15th century, which includes a Passion story composed of verses taken from all four Gospels.  The use of contemporary clothing and architecture, and the trompe l’oeil effect of the borders where each flower is painted as if sitting on the surface of the page, were intended to soften the boundaries between reader and the page, and between the worshipper and the scenes of Christ’s suffering.  Late medieval piety emphasised personal identification with Christ’s life, and meditation on his sacrifice.  The flowers in the borders relate to the main images: the red rose symbolises Christ’s Passion, periwinkle, forget-me-not and pansy are associated with remembrance and meditation, and the daisy with St Mary.

By Lucy Gwynn, Deputy Librarian

Incunable fragments

One of my recent tasks has been the identification and cataloguing of just over twenty loose sheets of printed material, found as fragments at ECL. Most of these are from ‘incunables’, books printed before 1500, when the printing process was in its infancy.  The rarity of printed books surviving from the 15th century means that even single sheets and fragments have been kept by collectors.

Although the ECL fragments are small and imperfect, they are each unique. For instance, most have had rubrics painted in by hand, so that they look more like the manuscripts fifteenth century readers were used to.  Some, like the fragment from Alphonso de Spina’s Fortaliter Fidei, even have beautiful decorated initials (whilst others, like the Dante, have gaps where painted initials should have been).

A list from the late 19th century identified some of the fragments, and I visited the Bodleian and Cambridge University Library to compare our fragments with complete copies there, and confirm each identification.  The remaining fragments involved more guesswork, identifying the text (the Bible was easy – bits of Plutarch and St Augustine much less so!) and working through the Incunabula Short Title Catalogue and the Bodleian Incunable Catalogue to seek out likely candidates.  Again, I went to see complete copies in other libraries, and managed to identify most of our fragments this way.  A few still have me completely foxed!  I will put up photos of these some time, to see if anyone can help.

After identifying them, of course, I had to tackle the difficulty of cataloguing fragments. But that’s a whole different blogpost…

By Lucy Gwynn, Deputy Librarian

Edward IV, protector of Eton?

The end of 1460 had been a bad year for the Yorkists. Richard Duke of York and his younger son Edmond had been killed in battle. The elder son Edward was now Duke of York, and he assumed his father’s claim to the throne. The tide would now begin to turn in favour of the Yorkists.

Edward met the Lancastrian army at Mortimer’s Cross in Hertfordshire on 2 February 1461, and defeated them soundly. During the battle, three suns were seen to be rising, a portent, Edward of York claimed, of his upcoming success and that God was on his side. He took these suns as his emblem. Queen Margaret headed towards London, but was prevented from entering the city by Londoners who feared pillaging. The Yorkist army gave chase and also set off for the capital.

This must have been a very difficult time for Eton, very much Lancastrian in its outlook. Although they had not themselves taken up arms, Eton was Henry VI’s project and they feared reprisals. Some of the Fellows headed out to meet the Duke of York on his way to London.

They came away with a written letter of protection, signed by the new Duke [ECR 39/124]. Dated 27 February 1461, it reads

Be it knowen that We, Edward by the grace of God of Englande, Fraunce, and Irlande vray and just heire, Duc of York, Erl of the March and Ulvestre, have by thees our lettres taken and receyved the Provoste and felaship of the Collage of Eyton into our defense and saveguard.

Just a few weeks later the Battle of Towton took place, and Edward was now King of England. The College must have been very relieved that they had got this show of support from their new King when they did!

This protection was not to last long though, for in 1463 Edward decided to annex Eton to the College of St George, Windsor Castle. All property, money, vestments, support went to St George’s, and Eton was closed down.

By Eleanor Hoare, College Archivist