Books and their Owners I: Private Devotions

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Thys prymer of Salysbury use. Paris: Thielman Kerver, 1534. Shelfmark: 1534.46

The Lambeth Palace Library copy of Thys prymer of Salysbury use (Paris, 1534) is a fine example of how the physical evidence left behind in a book by its readers can give us an insight into the times in which they lived. Books of Hours (Horae), also called primers, were books of private devotions for use by the laity and were popular from the later medieval period until the sixteenth-century. This example, printed in Paris for the English market on the cusp of the English Reformation, although mainly in Latin, contains several popular devotions in English, such as The Days of the Week Moralized and The Manner to Lyve Well. Inscriptions in the book recording births suggest that this primer was owned by the Constables, a prominent Catholic family from the East Riding of Yorkshire. However, in accordance with various Royal proclamations, rubrics mentioning indulgences have been erased from it (see opening), as have all mentions of the Pope and St Thomas Becket. The crossings out made by this book’s owners have generally left the text legible, suggesting that they were following the letter of the law but did not necessarily not agree with it. Furthermore, the presence in this primer of devotional woodcuts dating from later in the sixteenth century attest to its post-Reformation use. Three woodcuts have been pasted in: a hand-coloured woodcut of St Roche, an image of John the Baptist and John the Evangelist and the Arma Christi, depicting the wounds of Christ. Two others, a depiction of the Pentecost and the image of the Virgin feeding the Christ Child (see above), have been sewn in.

This book was purchased for the Library by the Friends of Lambeth Palace Library in 1994 and was displayed in our 2012 exhibition, Royal Devotion: Monarchy and the Book of Common Prayer. It attracted a lot of comment from our visitors and the postcard of the Virgin and Child was one of our bestsellers. Visitors were intrigued by the story it told about the turbulent times of the mid-sixteenth century and touched by the insight it gave into one family’s devotional life. Indeed, it was the books annotated by their owners, such as the Book of Hours of Richard III where he inscribed a note about his birthday in the calendar and the Order of Service for the 1953 Coronation, with notes by Archbishop Fisher about how to conduct the service, that really captured the imagination of the public during the exhibition. Over the next few months we will publish pieces about books and manuscripts from the collection which have been annotated in some way by their former owners.

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