- Piety in Pieces: How Medieval Readers Customized Their Manuscripts by Kathryn M. Rudy
Manuscript studies, Medieval
In this comprehensive study, Kathryn Rudy makes an important intervention into studies of late medieval manuscript culture. "Manuscript culture" as a large phenomenon is a difficult object of inquiry, not least because manuscripts themselves are not easily treated within the frame of a single discipline, be it literary or textual history, art history, or media history. More difficult still is an attempt to characterize a large corpus of these objects as a single phenomenon pointing to larger trends within the economy, ecology, and society of the late Middle Ages in northern Europe.
What Rudy is attempting in this book is nothing short of a large-scale qualitative study of the largest arm of late medieval manuscript production: the dramatic rise in the creation and consumption of books of hours. Her study focuses on the Netherlands in the fifteenth century, but as a major production center for these objects whose style was very much in vogue across Northern Europe, the impact of Rudy's study extends as far as the Dutch and Flemish books themselves did.
The difficulty of Rudy's intervention is that she is attempting to enact a complete shift in the current conversations and conclusions about books of hours in the fifteenth century with an exhaustive, nigh on catalogic exploration of a large quantity of manuscripts. This is not a case study. This is not an attempt to make an argument out of a localized context that, by its very localization, generates a handy sample of objects that can be used for [End Page 487] evidence. It is instead attempting to redefine a totality—a large, sprawling, century-(or-more-)long whole by examining quite literally hundreds of manuscripts that feature in her study in 286 images. Rudy is executing a comprehensive redefinition of late medieval Netherlandish book culture—and by extension those of other countries, like England, whose book cultures interacted or traded with it. Rudy simultaneously upends the disciplinary logic of literary studies—that books are about authors and readers—and art history—that books are about artists and patrons—in order to center the conversation around books as usable technologies, with users and interface adaptations and upgrades—we might even say "hacks."
This is based upon her introduction of what she calls the "modular method," in which various pieces of books could be made and purchased in discrete units in a build-a-book fashion. The mere fact that manuscripts could be made in this way, and that they sometimes were, is not in itself a new discovery. Rather, Rudy pushes readers to absorb the magnitude of this element of devotional book production as more common than not, which understanding, if it does not entirely redefine how scholars are thinking about late medieval book culture, at the very least must open up another vein within that culture that shows distinct characteristics of production and use—which are often the same thing, we discover in Rudy's analysis.
First, the modular method essentially notes that as literacy rates and demand for books of hours rose after 1390—a date that Rudy identifies as a marked turning point—book labor became increasingly divided and specialized even as it was de-skilled by the proto-assembly-line practices. Book pieces were sold in what Rudy calls "design units"—or modules of images, texts, or sets of either. These units could then be purchased piecemeal to include a vaguely standard set of texts (The Little Office of the Virgin, The Office of the Dead, the Seven Penitential Psalms, and a calendar) as well as a number of other options that provided opportunities for tailoring by adding particular prayers, indulgences, saints, or images.
What is more, however, is that Rudy argues that this kind of tailoring was not simply enacted at first production, but that manuscripts remained vital and accretive, accumulating texts, images, and objects, sometimes for centuries. In Rudy's...