THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Medieval manuscripts blog

16 January 2013

Monkeying Around with the Maastricht Hours

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Detail of marginal grotesques of (below) monkeys blowing horns and (above) a winged man with animal legs playing a harp; from the Maastricht Hours, Netherlands (Liège), 1st quarter of the 14th century, Stowe MS 17, f. 61v.

It is a truism, although one that never ceases to surprise, that medieval art – especially manuscript illumination – celebrates the juxtaposition between the sacred and the profane.  The Maastricht Hours is an early 14th-century book of hours made in Liège, and is remarkable for the large number of vibrant illuminations that cover its pages – full-page miniatures, lavishly decorated initials, and countless marginal scenes and grotesques.  A full digital version of the Maastricht Hours has just been made available on the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts site, and every page has something new to discover.

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Miniature of Sts Catherine (left) and Agnes (right); from the Maastricht Hours, Netherlands (Liège), 1st quarter of the 14th century, Stowe MS 17, f. 13v.

A book of hours is a devotional text, containing copies of the various scriptural readings, psalms and prayers that were to be said at set times during the day (the 'monastic hours').  It was intended to be used during prayer and pious contemplation, and it is no surprise, therefore, that the most important images in the manuscript are all on religious themes: two series of full-page miniatures depict the Nativity story and Christ's Passion.  Other important miniatures depict female saints – it is probable that the manuscript's original owner was a wealthy woman, and she may have appreciated these tributes to exemplars of female piety.  And the pictures are extraordinarily lively.  Catherine with her sword and wheel and Agnes with her lamb (above) may stand in stylized architectural sconces, the traditional placement for the stone statues in a church, but their posture is far from sculptural.  And the male figures in the roundels seem to interact both with the female figures and with each other.

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Disco fever!: detail of marginal figures dancing to bagpipe music; from the Maastricht Hours, Netherlands (Liège), 1st quarter of the 14th century, Stowe MS 17, f. 234r.

These religious miniatures are only part of the story, however.  While the major divisions in the manuscript are all introduced by full-page pictures, every page is bursting with small figures in the margins.  Strange hybrid creatures war with bows and arrows, dancers groove to the sound of bagpipe music, and monkeys abound.  We even encounter a pair of lovers, reclining in a garden, their minds surely on anything but the pious contemplation expected of the reader.  The falcon on the man's wrist advertises his aristocratic rank, and the songbird in its green tree evokes the refined garden setting traditional to courtly lyric and romance.

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Detail of a miniature of lovers, conversing in a garden; from the Maastricht Hours, Netherlands (Liège), 1st quarter of the 14th century, Stowe MS 17, f. 59r.

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Detail of a miniature of a woman in conversation with a monkey in the guise of a courtly nobleman; from the Maastricht Hours, Netherlands (Liège), 1st quarter of the 14th century, Stowe MS 17, f. 62r.

Only a few pages later, however, another image of lovers appears that seems to set the first one on its head.  This time the woman's suitor is no nobleman, but one of the manuscript's many mischievous monkeys, and the bird of prey on his wrist is no aristocratic hawk, but an owl.  Considering the frequently scatological behaviour of the manuscript's other monkeys (including, to name only one example, the pair appearing on the facing page, shown at the top of this post), the image may become a critique of its earlier companion, a moral satire on courtly love.  Or, perhaps, it merely celebrates a delight in the beautiful and the bizarre.

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Detail of a marginal grotesque firing an arrow at, on the facing page (not shown), a monkey playing a rebec or similar stringed instrument; from the Maastricht Hours, Netherlands (Liège), 1st quarter of the 14th century, Stowe MS 17, f. 33r.

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Detail of a miniature of a monkey riding an elephant and castle; from the Maastricht Hours, Netherlands (Liège), 1st quarter of the 14th century, Stowe MS 17, f. 36r.

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Detail of a miniature of a friar playing an instrument while a nun dances; from the Maastricht Hours, Netherlands (Liège), 1st quarter of the 14th century, Stowe MS 17, f. 38r.

Comments

This image shows a monk 'playing' a pair of fireside bellows with a lady's distaf (for wool) in imitation of an instrument.The nun dances to the silent 'music'

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