Technology and the Medieval Church: Books of Hours

London, British Library, Additional MS 21114 f. 1v

By Jesse McDowell

When did humans first engage in systematized timekeeping? Why was it important that we measured the passing of the hours during the day as the sun traveled from the eastern to the western horizon? In the early middle ages, most likely because of the Benedictine wave of influence, keeping time became more and more important as the Church solidified its hold on the Carolingian world.

If you are reading this post, you might be debating as to why it matters at all that timekeeping came about in part from the existence of a liturgical calendar. And you’d be right to do so: we have in centuries since been accustomed to a concrete and objective standard of time (for the most part). But before the ubiquitous use of an objective calendar in a post-industrialized world, something as menial as timekeeping to us was for leaders in the medieval church as serious as a law itself. Take, for example, the Synod of Whitby, (c. 664): also known as the Northumbrian Synod, was a council of the church in Northumbria where King Oswiu decreed that, after some deliberation, the church in his lands would align itself with the timekeeping that Rome kept; it would celebrate Easter when Rome did, and would observe the monastic tonsure of Rome. For decades, even a century, the Irish had great influence on the early Christian church in the North of England. We see Insular influence throughout manuscripts of the Anglo-Saxon church during this era, most notably the Lindisfarne Gospels, and that which influenced the production of books, a most holy practice, influenced all else.

Besides these two outcomes–Anglo-Saxon monks deciding to wear their hair differently and feast on the day folks in Rome feasted–the notion of time change as a cultural signifier (the idea that canonical law constituted time change) should be observed coequally to historical outcome. In other words, according to the church, time was inextricably linked with either heresy or orthodoxy depending on which city fell one’s allegiance. This isn’t to say that if one kept time ‘incorrectly,’ that he was a heretic. More to the point, if he went against the Pope after such a Synod in claiming that Christ died on a day different than the Pope claims, he might be receiving a Papal Bull. Simply put, during this period clerics wedded what we consider scientific principles of nature and time with theological ones concerning Christ’s resurrection (which, ironically, derives in-time from the Jewish Year). Thus, if one should challenge Rome’s authority on any of these items, one needed to cite authoritative sources to do so. Bede constantly cited other sources that came into his possession on why he made the claims he did about doctrine in Historia Ecclessiastica. 

Walter Ong seems to have taken these questions seriously when analyzing the shift from orality to literacy. Seemingly to Ong, the passage of the sun was as important to the development of literacy in the West as were the methods of making parchment. One of Ong’s achievements was in widening our perspective when thinking of the onset of literacy, showing that it overlapped directly with technological innovation. Now when we think of how humans made and wrote books, we think about how and why they kept time. Essentially, Ong influenced thinking about human consciousness as a whole when thinking about early literacy.

The Book of Hours

As is becoming usual, let’s consider an example that helps to illustrate this phenomenon. Books of Hours were some of the most common books in Western society in the middle ages. These codices were made as devotional books containing psalms, liturgical prayers, and sometimes ornate decorations and miniatures alongside the book’s content. By the later middle ages, one could find a Book of Hours in both the home and the church, as their primary role in society was for lay people desiring to adopt monastic ways of prayer in their own devotional lives. The initial use of this specific liturgical genre became ubiquitous in the middle ages, so much so that it is now the most common surviving medieval book. An horae book living in the homes of noble or aristocratic families from the hands scribes thus outsourced scribes’ (both secular and monastic) way of telling time, made available by the same medium scribes used in the early medieval period to teach and read. Thus these books in the hands of more people, simply put, increased the amount of consciousness spent on when one should conduct certain activities in the day. There came, because of the codex, a larger and larger usage of a fixed canonical-cultural practice no longer strictly safeguarded by literate scribes (in use more and more by literates).

Rules for telling time in a fixed way facilitated a unified system of thinking about time. Elizabeth Eisenstein suggests in her Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe that fixity seems to characterize pre-print scribal practice. This may be true with copies of Jerome or translations of biblical commentaries. Yet in the case of the Book of Hours, because of its common usage, there seems to be more of an anticipation of a pre-mechanic form. Fixity provides permanence where orality negotiates permanence with fluidity, the codex being the fixed medium in which the mechanical clock extended, thus giving way to other mechanisms for telling time and computing mathematical equations.

We can maybe see how such media influence each other sequentially. Analogously we can see how the epic poem influenced the theatre which influenced the novel which then influenced the theatre once again (media shifts have proven to be cyclical). Audiences who experience narratives then repackaged in different media have drastically different experiences based on that media. From the theatre we received film and then video games–a now haptic remediation of story that negotiates permanence with fluidity, much like the characteristics of orality, yet now in mechanized form. Time-telling in early print culture likely did not receive a constituted paradigmatic shift in the sense that literate persons were ‘freed’ from the bondage not only of the church, but of telling time. No, the shift, save that of the printing press of a mechanism itself, from thinking about time-telling was gradual, and often orthodox.

In an age where big data and digital literacy must negotiate between permanence and fluidity in the narratives it translates and creates, what tools do humanists have at their disposal? One tool may be in the form of how we think of the goals of digital literacy. Too many times we delimit the new media by applying the binary negotiations of the previous one. A more likely recognition for the fruit of our reading labors could very well lie in acknowledging orality’s element of “play” in the mere sense that we do not know all of what it can offer.