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  • Piety in Pieces: How Medieval Readers Customized their Manuscripts by Kathryn M. Rudy
  • Christine Schott
Piety in Pieces: How Medieval Readers Customized their Manuscripts By Kathryn M. Rudy. Cambridge: Open Book Publishers, 2016. <>

As the subtitle indicates, Piety in Pieces analyzes how and why readers altered their manuscripts in and around the fifteenth century. Kathryn Rudy draws on her extensive firsthand experience with manuscripts in the Netherlands, focusing on religious books (mainly books of hours) produced in that region after 1390, when book production methods shifted to accommodate the rapidly widening market. Open Book Publishers released Piety in Pieces in multiple formats: hard copy, eBook, and online (PDF and HTML). This review will focus on the effects of working with the book in these various formats.

The overarching argument of Piety in Pieces is that, beginning in the late-fourteenth century and continuing through the fifteenth, manuscript production methods in the Netherlands developed from a holistic process into what Rudy calls the "modular" method, in which both lay and monastic ateliers produced texts in independent sections that could be arranged, added, or removed from the book at will. This method coincided with the rise of books of hours, in which only a few offices were standard while other elements, like the calendar (which would be adapted to reflect local saints), single-page miniatures, and especially indulgenced prayers, could be added and changed at practically any point in the manuscript's life.

Because the interest in censorship has led other studies to focus on deletions from medieval books, Rudy takes up the less-studied subject of augmentations and additions, proceeding systematically through various kinds of alterations: those that did not require rebinding (like adding prayers into blank spaces), those that did require rebinding (like adding miniatures painted on individual leaves), and changes that were complex or unique in nature (like creating a composite book from sections either newly produced or previously bound elsewhere). The table of contents lists these kinds of interventions clearly, obviating the need for an exhaustive list here. Each type of augmentation is accompanied by a rich array examples and an analysis of the specific effects of the alteration: for instance, Heidelberg, UB, Cod. Pal. Germ. 148 intersperses [End Page 131] miniatures from a Biblia pauperum with the text of a psalter in order to integrate Old and New Testament theology (Part IV B, p. 233). In fact, Rudy's wealth of examples and her ability to posit the probable causes and motives underlying the changes made to the manuscripts constitute one of this book's particular contributions to the field of codicology and material studies. Rudy demonstrates the "close reading" techniques usually associated with the study of literature or art and applies them to the analysis of the details of decoration, mise-en-page, and concatenation in prayer books. These close readings in the body of Piety in Pieces culminate in a broader discussion in the final section, where Rudy posits that manuscripts like books of hours were seen as "expandable" entities, and that, contrary to our archivist instincts, writing in and altering them was seen as adding value rather than as defacement.

The other particular advance made by this work is that it has been published in multiple formats, two of which (the PDF and the HTML) are available for free from the publisher's website. Each format has its advantages, both in general and in relation to the specific project of this book, and readers will want to decide on their chosen format based on their particular needs.


The hard copy book is, of course, the easiest to read for those who prefer looking at a page to looking at a screen. However, Piety in Pieces is a particularly image-rich work, and for scholars interested in studying these images, the hard copy is probably not the best format. The reason is twofold: first, the book contains many imbedded images, and these full-color photographs of manuscript pages are printed on regular mat rather than glossy paper, rendering the colors inaccurately. The images are also...


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pp. 131-134
Launched on MUSE
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