Dirty pages reveal medieval fears, prayer habits

Densitometer analyzing page of a medieval illuminated manuscriptUniversity of St. Andrews art historian Dr. Kathryn Rudy has devised an ingenious new way to unveil the deepest fears, reading and prayer habits of medieval people. Using a machine called a densitometer, she measures how much dirt is on each page of a medieval manuscript. The dirtiest pages are the ones that were open the most, and therefore most read and referred to.

Dr Rudy said: “Although it is often difficult to study the habits, private rituals and emotional states of people, this new technique can let us into the minds of people from the past.

“Religion was inseparable from physical health, time management, and interpersonal relationships in medieval times.

“In the century before printing, people ordered tens of thousands of prayer books – sometimes quite beautifully illuminated ones – even though they might cost as much as a house.

“As a result they were treasured, read several times a day at key prayer times, and through analysing how dirty the pages are we can identify the priorities and beliefs of their owners.”

St. Sebastian by Andrea Mantegna, ca. 1470-1475Dr. Rudy analyzed a number of European prayer books. She found that one of the most read pages was a prayer to St. Sebastian, the saint who was shot full of arrows at the command of Diocletian but didn’t die from it. The iconography of the nearly nude martyr with wounds all over his body that he survived associated Sebastian with surviving the plague. Legend has it that after an altar was built in his honor in 7th century Lombardy he stopped a plague, so praying to St. Sebastian was deemed a protection against it. Given the alarming frequency and mortality of plague in medieval Europe, it makes sense that the prayers to Sebastian would be among the most frequently recited.

In people-are-people news, prayers for the salvation of one’s own soul were more often read than prayers for the salvation of other people’s souls, and the prayers read in the wee hours of the night and morning are dirty mainly on the first couple of pages. After that, readers consistently stopped, no doubt because they were face down in a puddle of their own drool, snoring happily.

7 thoughts on “Dirty pages reveal medieval fears, prayer habits

  1. This is fascinating and the (admittedly slight) results are credible since they reinforce our instinctive assumptions. However, I would like to know more about the underlying science here and also the test sample. And what, in fact,is a “prayer book”? We are dealing specifically with “Books of Hours”, which were indeed devotional books for lay use (as compared with church and monastic service books. As you say, they had intrinsic patterns of use based on the times of day (although people certainly jumped in and went wherever they wished in search of prayers for special needs and also comfortingly familiar ones.)And all “Books of Hours” are not the same–there were significant variations reflecting local usage, especially in the range of prayers to various saints. (This often allows us to deduce the point of production or destination of a book–and even the name saints of the initial user.) In fact, one of the most interesting potential findings regards the relative interest in local saints versus more general devotions. Also,did extremely luxurious Books of Hours receive less use than plainer ones? It is worth noting that Books of Hours were an overwhelmingly northern phenomenon–especially French, Burgundian, Netherlandish, etc. Not quite pan-European, although there was an export trade to Italy, Britain and elsewhere.

  2. One could just as easily, if that was one’s intent, demonstrate that frequent consultation of St. Sebastian’s page reflects homosexuality (assuming the reader was male) or simply an interest in the nude male figure (assuming we don’t know who was reading). Was the prayer to St. Sebastian typically an illustrated leaf in the sample study?

  3. I cannot say if this is necessarily more than just a ‘proof of concept’. Even when it comes to temporary folk, it remains difficult to study their ‘habits, private rituals and emotional states’. Moreover, it might help to have a look at the different rates of literacy over all these centuries in the first place. And of course, there always was much more than just prayer books. With reference to the blog entry before this one, there were -certainly not out of nowhere- medieval forms of ‘history blogs’. In 1493, an entry for Cleopatra looked like this. An early publishing house, by then not at all medieval any more, was founded in 1555, cf. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plantin-Moretus_Museum. Finally, what science does it take, to tell that pages with half naked people will probably always be ‘dirtier’ than the rest ? What is Dr. Rudys approach to Sebastian ?

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  5. The first three comments make good points. I would add to the books of hours comment that they were commissioned works, which means that most commoners probably wouldn’t have had these books for lack of funds. I would add also that the title is off; fear certainly plays a part, but the myth that the Middle Ages was an age of faith has been largely discredited. I too would like to see scientific details of what constitutes “dirt,” particularly since not all pages are going to deteriorate at the same rate for paper books and for parchment, I could imagine that some sheets were processed at different times, maybe in different ways. The longer a sheet sits out would naturally impact dust and grime levels, as would the differing lengths of time and amounts of contact needed to make a st. sebastian illumination over just writing text. And we cannot ignore the possibility of the person who simply walks away from an open book, or time open in displays, or time open for historical use. I just don’t buy this conclusion based on such simplistic methods.

  6. Good question. Books of hours, if that is in fact what they used, were custom made. A lot of them did have more pictures than text, since many patrons could not read Latin and we wouldn’t see many early vernacular ones, but the fact remains that not all st. sebastians are going to be depicted, although those who were probably shared similar motifs, like the arrows and some degree of “nakedness” (he’s a fairly old saint and dress is one way of capturing his origins).

  7. I’m looking for examples of written prayers or forms of blessing used during the plague years, especially any that include the sign of the cross within the text.

    If you should happen across anything of the kind, I’d be very glad of the reference.

    btw – for others who have commented: medieval people saw St.Sebastian by reference to the suffering of Christ on the cross – since Christ too had been stripped of his garments and tied to the ‘tree’.

    Sebastian however had lived despite suffering the multiple deadly wounds so his example offered hope in that dreadful time.

    I rather think that if you were seeing as many as 50 percent of your friends, relatives shop-keepers and farmers die within a few weeks, you’d me more interested in your hopes of survival that in treating the picture of a saint as if it were a centrefold.

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