– notes, frequently asked questions and useful links from the archivist and curator of manuscripts at Balliol College, University of Oxford. Opinions expressed are the author's own.

#mss2017 Case 14: MS 384

MS 384, open to full page miniature of the martyrdom of St Thomas à Becket

MS 384 is a 15th century Flemish Book of Hours, made in the Low Countries for the English market according to the Use of Sarum. I am sometimes asked about the pre-Reformation liturgical books lost from the College chapel. Books of Hours would not have been among them – they were designed for the private devotions of secular individuals at home.

It is not known who gave the book to the College, or when, but from a note inside it, it was not at Balliol before the 18th century. It bears marks of having been a much-used family devotional book, and has a remarkable history ( or at least legend) of preservation against the odds; the anonymous donor writes: ‘The Book was found in the thatch of an old house… now my guess is that at the beginning of the Reformation, this Book was committed to Atkins of Weston to be secured ‘till a turn might happen… Pray Sir my humble service to Mr Harris and all friends at Colledge.’

MS 384 does corroborate this story in several ways: there is rather heavy, ingrained dirt across all surfaces, which would fit with its having been stored in the inevitably smoky thatch of a house. Burn marks on its lower edge might indicate a thatch fire – perhaps this is how it was rediscovered. It shows a few signs of contact with water, and of damp conditions. Otherwise, it is in remarkably good condition – it was rebound, probably in the 18th century, but does not show much evidence of earlier intervention in the text block. The only essential repair needed in 2017 was to secure a long tear across the lower part of f.70. unusually, this tear did not start at the edge of a page; rather, it looks as though a guideline ruled with a dry point may have (after several centuries) weakened an already thin and fragile area of parchment.

MS 384 – L, detail of miniature damaged by devotional kissing; R, rather dirty liquid damage from head edge

 The other type of damage evident in this manuscript affects two miniatures, with similar partial removal of the faces of the central figures. Such damage to saints’ images, and sometimes to the associated texts, has often been assumed to be deliberate ‘de-face-ment’ by anti-Catholic reformers – but Kathryn Rudy and others have more recently asserted, with excellent evidence, that some such instances are the result of devotional kissing. Both Thomas à Becket (a frequent victim of the deliberate type of damage) and John the Baptist have suffered loss of paint here, but not of drawing or parchment surface – the painting has not been scratched or scraped, neither text nor image has been struck through, and the faces are still clear despite the smudging. Both also look as though the damaged areas have been somewhat damp. Viewers may draw their own conclusions!

work on MS 384 by Celia Withycombe of OCC:  fine bridges of Japanese paper connect the edges of an irregular tear, 2017.

More about devotional damage in manuscripts:

  • John Lowden, Manuscripts tour ‘Treasures known and unknown in the British Library’ – Kissing Images section
  • Kathryn M. Rudy, “Dirty Books: Quantifying Patterns of Use in Medieval Manuscripts Using a Densitometer,” Journal of Historians of Netherlandish Art 2:1-2 (Summer 2010) DOI: 10.5092/jhna.2010.2.1.1

More about defacement of images of Thomas of Canterbury (Thomas Becket):

  • Sarah J Biggs, ‘Erasing Becket,’ British Library Medieval Manuscripts Blog, 2011.
  • Cambridge University Library, ‘The Face Defaced,’ Bodily Memory section of Remembering the Reformation exhibition, 2009-2017. Individual author unidentified.

 

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