Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Looking back in time

"If a book of hours survived rigorous daily use and got passed down through generations of women...all of its users would essentially contribute to the 'use-value' of the object."

This morning, I took the Metro North train into Manhattan, which is the opposite direction of what I usually travel. As I navigated my way through the swarm of commuters in Grand Central Terminal at 8:30 am, I felt very thankful to avoid such chaos on a regular basis.

The occasion for traveling south was to attend a retreat for tenure-track librarians at Stony Brook University. I presented a paper that I delivered two weeks ago at the International Congress of Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo, Michigan. The initial presentation was given to a mix of scholars from art history, literature, history, and theology, so it was a treat to present the same paper today to a group of librarians, especially because my approach to the topic was inspired by librarianship.

Here's a summary of my presentation: Traditionally, patronage in the arts has been associated with men, but I believe that we can look beyond economics to see the impact of women in shaping art history. My focus was on medieval books of hours, which were very small prayer books that emerged as early as the 11th Century and became immensely popular in the mid-14th Century, remaining the darling of bibliophiles for an incredible 300 years. They are primarily associated with women, which is how my presentation, 'Redefining Medieval Patronage: Female Circulation of Books of Hours', came to be included on a panel entitled 'Gendering the Book' in Kalamazoo. Although their primary function was devotional, they doubled as art objects, which is where my interest was piqued as an art librarian.

Essentially, my intention was to introduce a librarian's perspective to the domain of medievalists. Based on the tendency of libraries to assess the value of a book based on the degree of its use rather than on the circumstances surrounding its creation, and to avoid making distinctions between the various kinds of use (recreational, academic, etc.), I proposed that we consider all users of books of hours to effectively be patrons. If a book of hours survived rigorous daily use and got passed down through generations of women through bequests, loans, purchases or even if it were won in political conquests, all of its users would essentially contribute to the 'use-value' of the object.

My assertion was that peripheral and subsequent users of books of hours valued them for reasons beyond their primary purpose (that of assisting devotion by guiding prayers throughout the day); specifically, women valued ornate versions of books of hours as virtual accessories; they used them as tools for literacy, both for themselves and for their daughters; and they used them to negotiate personal salvation in the afterlife by making inscriptions and alterations to the text that called on subsequent readers to effectively pray for them posthumously. Basically, I believe the investment of time (i.e., in using books of hours) should be equated with the investment of money (i.e., in commissioning books of hours). Through this shift in perspective, we can recognize the power of female medieval readers.

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