Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 10, 2017
Lucy Freeman Sandler Illuminators and Patrons in Fourteenth-Century England: The Psalter and Hours of Humphrey de Bohun and the Manuscripts of the Bohum Family London and Toronto: British Library and University of Toronto Press, 2014. 404 pp.; 242 ills. Cloth $70.00 (9781442648470)

In 1985, Lucy Freeman Sandler began her examination of a corpus of illuminated manuscripts created for the noble English Bohun family in the second half of the fourteenth century. A very rich study of manuscript patronage and production, her Illuminators and Patrons in Fourteenth-Century England: The Psalter and Hours of Humphrey de Bohun and the Manuscripts of the Bohun Family is the culmination of thirty-five years of valuable research, analysis, and scholarship. The volume is densely illustrated with predominantly high-quality color images and includes essential reference materials, including an appendix of the manuscripts and the Bohun family tree.

The book is divided into two parts. Part 1 focuses on a single Bohun manuscript, the Psalter and Hours of Humphrey de Bohun (London, British Library Egerton 3277), which was begun in the 1360s for one “Himfridus” (either Humphrey de Bohun, the sixth earl of Hereford, Essex and Northampton, or Humphrey de Bohun, the seventh earl). This is the first monographic study of the manuscript and, as such, includes a full analytical description of the book’s textual content and illustrations. The manuscript’s main contents include a Sarum calendar, the Psalms, the Hours of the Virgin, the Penitential Psalms, and the Office of the Dead. Part 2 seeks to establish the broader context of Egerton 3277. It brings together twelve of Sandler’s previously published essays on the Bohun family and their manuscripts with focused topics ranging from historiography and heraldry to devotional content and text/image relationships. Although it would have been beneficial to have more integration or cross-referencing between parts 1 and 2, it is helpful to have all of Sandler’s Bohun scholarship “under one roof,” so to speak. As Sandler notes, these essays were “widely scattered” in various forms of publication, many of which are not as accessible to scholars or always adequately reviewed (xviii). Unfortunately, these essays will only be addressed in passing here. Illuminators and Patrons certainly is comprehensive in its content and approaches, providing a vivid insight into the Bohun orbit of manuscripts as well as broader trends in the commission, production, reception, and transmission of illuminated books in fourteenth-century England.

As members of the upper-echelon of English noble society, the Bohun family would have well understood the connection between the patronage of luxury illuminated manuscripts and the expression of familial power, spirituality, ideology, and dynastic continuity. Treated fully in chapter 1 and referenced throughout the book, one of the most exceptional aspects of Sandler’s study is the vast amount of documentary and manuscript evidence that she has uncovered on the Bohun family’s patronage, library, and system of manuscript production. For instance, wills, inventories, and surviving manuscripts reveal the family’s love of not only devotional, liturgical, and biblical texts but also vernacular romances and histories—her research has revealed the scope of a fourteenth-century noble library. Additionally, as Sandler notes in chapter 2, the records “afford a unique opportunity to reconstruct the material culture of a noble family . . . unique because for no other contemporary individual or family is the written record supported by so many of the artifacts themselves” (37). The Bohun records also reveal that the family included a small group of artists and scribes in their primary household at Pleshey Castle in Essex. These artists in various combinations played roles in the creation of all ten identified Bohun manuscripts made between ca. 1350 and ca. 1380. The production of these manuscripts was therefore insulated, a very important fact when interpreting unusual, unprecedented, or idiosyncratic aspects of the manuscripts’ pictorial programs. Interestingly, the illuminators were not commercial artists but Augustinian Friars, who also “may have served as interpreters of their own illustrations to their employers” (16). A few artists were even identified by name in Bohun records. In his will, Humphrey de Bohun, the sixth earl, names the illuminator: Friar John de Teye, “my illuminator” (9). They were also, as Sandler carefully points out, part of the “inner circle of the Bohun household” (18). Thus, not only does Sandler introduce the reader to a few important English illuminators, highlighting their “remarkable pictorial creativity” (280), but she also succeeds in extrapolating new facets of the very nature of the artist-patron relationship in medieval England, at least within the walls of Pleshey Castle. Indeed, broadening the scope of the study at times to include more comparative material would have emphasized the uniqueness of this system of manuscript production.

Chapter 2 is focused entirely on the Egerton Psalter and Hours, considering its history, production conditions, and program of illustration. This chapter (along with the analytical description of the manuscript that follows in chapter 3) constitutes Sandler’s new contributions to Bohun patronage in the volume. After tracing the modern provenance of the manuscript, she turns full attention to the artists and illuminations. Although the Egerton Psalter and Hours bears the major characteristics of the so-called “Bohun style” and features conceptual unity throughout, Sandler was able to discern subtle differences in colors, patterns, and tooling of gold to distinguish several different hands at work and suggests that the manuscript must have had a single designer (54). The program of illustration for the text of the Psalter and the Hours of the Virgin features two distinct but interconnected types of images: historiated initials (large and small) and figural marginal decoration. Sandler first briefly treats the historiated initials of the Psalter (several of her archival essays in part 2 focus on the same set of images). She interprets them as “pictorial translations of biblical words” (imagines verborum) that convey a noted artistic interest in vivid visual narration (57). Again, bringing in more comparative images and sources from beyond the Bohun orbit would help to establish the distinctive character of this pictorial program, which Sandler often qualifies as “unique” or “unprecedented.” She only mentions in passing potential correlations between the historiaed initials in the Egerton Psalter and Hours and the “picture-bible” tradition, for example, but never really unpacks this (or any other) manuscript relationship (57).

When Sandler shifts her attention from historiated initials to marginal imagery, her overall analysis becomes richer and her methodological contribution greater. The marginal or border illustrations (she is careful to avoid the term “marginalia” which could engender limited or predisposed readings of the imagery) include foliate, figural, and heraldic elements, all of which help to coalesce the mise-en-page of the manuscript and create a series of complex relationships between initials, marginal elements, and often the text itself. For instance, a number of “marginal” figures (both human and hybrid) “chew, grasp, tug and twist the foliage, are entangled with it, climb on it, tend it like gardeners, and in general express the idea of dominion and power to shape the organic material” (75). Such images, Sandler states, must be interpreted in multiple ways, e.g., as metaphors for the creative acts of the artists and scribes and simultaneously as models for the use of the book, whose “words are to be grasped, chewed and digested” by the Bohun reader (75). The marginal decoration also contains one of the earliest depictions of the Man of Sorrows in England—certainly an important reflection of Bohun devotion—and a series of carnal nudes, many engaged in sexual exploits and other behavioral sins. Food for thought, indeed. As Sandler notes, earlier generations of scholars likely viewed the marginal images in Egerton 3277 as too shocking or too insignificant in relation to the religious content of the book and were therefore in need of comprehensive treatment (84). Although Sandler offers judicious analysis of some of these vivid images, it would seem that more work locating them in the larger English context remains to be done.

Illuminators and Patrons is a welcome addition to the British Library’s monographic publications (in association with the University of Toronto Press) on major manuscripts in its collection, such as Kathryn A. Smith’s recent monograph on the mystifying Taymouth Hours (2012), Janet Backhouse’s concise but stunning volume on the Sherborne Missal (1999), and Claire Donovan’s important study of the De Brailes Hours (1991). Indeed, Sandler’s contribution may indicate the British Library’s ever-increasing dedication to scholarly breadth and high-value production of books on medieval illuminated manuscripts. Illuminators and Patrons is replete with color reproductions and features a large number of “close-up” details to highlight key points for the reader. Additionally, the book comes with a DVD that reproduces every folio of the manuscript in images that can be enlarged for close, detailed study. Scholars of medieval art history and manuscript studies especially will find Illuminators and Patrons an accessible, convenient, and important resource on patronage and manuscript illumination in fourteenth-century England and beyond.

Laura J. Whatley
Assistant Professor of Art History, Department of Fine Arts, Auburn University at Montgomery

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