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"The Medieval Imagetext: A Literary History of the Book of Hours" (ACLS Frederick Burkhardt Fellowship, 2015–2016)
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. Their survival rate suggests 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 wildly popular prayerbook informed the most common reading experience of the late Middle Ages, and, as a result, their complex understanding of what it meant to read—of how a person should engage with the textual and visual forms of a book—has enormous consequences for our sense of how medieval literary culture worked. These popular books played a central role in many of the dramas of late-medieval literary culture: the rise of private reading, the development of lay literate piety, the emergence of female readers, and the growing influence of the vernacular as the language of literate practice of all kinds.
In The Medieval Imagetext, I explore the importance of the book of 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—my study excavates the histories of reading that are manifest in this uniquely large textual archive. By opening up those reading histories, I hope to move beyond merely noting the explosion of books of hours in the fifteenth century, to incorporate that explosion—and those manuscripts—into the ways that we understand the vernacular literature of the period. Manuscripts of the hours, which provided the most common experience of books in the late medieval period, informed literate culture at large with their complex understanding of what it means to read.