February 1, 2018

Library Acquires 15th Century Prayer Book

Special Collections

The Goucher College Library’s Special Collections and Archives has acquired the Berners Hours, a 237-leaf illuminated manuscript prayer book.

  • The Berner's Hours, a 15th c. prayer book

Goucher College announced that the Library’s Special Collections and Archives has acquired The Berners Hours, a 237-leaf illuminated manuscript prayer book, to enhance its collection of early printed books for students in Goucher’s Book Studies Program.

The manuscript was donated in 2017 by Arnold Sanders, professor emeritus of English, and his wife, Laura Provan, in honor of their parents and Nancy Magnuson, college librarian emerita. Professor Sanders continues to teach a course in the history of the book and his wife is a docent who leads tours of the Walters Art Museum, including examples of its extraordinary medieval manuscript collection.

This small prayer book, or Book of Hours, served to guide and inspire its owner in daily private prayer. Custom-made prized possessions, Books of Hours reflect intimate details about their use and owners.   Written for English users and on finely polished, thin parchment in the Netherlands (Bruges),1470, The Berners Hours was made by artists associated with William de Vrelant (ca. 1420-1481), one of the most prolific Netherlandish illuminators. Though The Berners Hours is a single book, not much bigger than an iPhone5, its rich store of evidence can supply Goucher students with subjects for research for many years.

Before the acquisition of The Berners Hours, Goucher students had no direct access to a complete medieval manuscript book, though they could use two major local collections at the Garrett Library (Johns Hopkins University) and at the Walters. Interdisciplinary study of manuscript books requires hands-on contact with their materials, beginning with their parchment leaves and the binding that protected them, though the illuminations always attract the most attention.  

The Berners Hours’ nine full-page illuminated miniatures, though small, are executed in strikingly bold colors, embellished with liquid gold, and surrounded by complex borders of leaves, flowers, and berries. Twenty-one even smaller “historiated initials,” enclose tiny religious scenes. The historiated initials and full-page miniatures offered the book’s users a visual focus for intense meditation while they recited the nearby prayers to invoke the aid and protection of saints, and to pray for the souls of their family members, living and dead.

The book was named for its first recorded owner, William Berners of Castle Angers, France, and Epping, England who recorded the births of four of his children in the manuscript. Fingerprints found in the book, wear on the binding, as well as damage to the miniatures from repeated reverential kissing, suggests the owners may have been particularly passionate in their worship practices. This evidence of use may be scientifically analyzed to provide further clues about the owners’ identities.

Recent scholarship has uncovered the possibility that female scribes and illuminators (at a time when most were male) worked on the Berners Hours. Comparison with manuscripts in the collections of the Walters and of New York’s Morgan Library, may help identify groups of artists who worked in the same period on similar works of art.

To see more of The Berners Hours, please visit: