There is no longer any doubt that women were key players in the manuscript culture of medieval and early modern northern Europe. Women made, sold, and commissioned manuscripts, they presented and bequeathed them to others, and they actively interpreted and reinterpreted their content. These conclusions have become evident largely through discrete studies of particular women’s manuscript collections and single volumes associated with specific women. Joni Hand, by contrast, provides a comprehensive look at the manuscript activities of a broader group. Her subject is the Valois courts, where educated women of privileged social, economic, and sometimes political status had the resources to procure luxury manuscripts, many of them illuminated. Most of these volumes were devotional, and it is around these books and their patronage that Hand shapes her study. Her aim is to better understand the lives of these women through their commissioned manuscripts, with particular attention to issues of identity.
The book is organized into four chapters. Chapter 1 sets the stage with a historical survey of the lives and manuscript activities of the women in question, most of whom receive deeper treatment later in the study. The chapter is shaped around specific individuals presented generationally and geographically beginning with Bonne of Luxembourg and ending with Joanna of Castille. Biographical details are woven into explorations of women’s roles as educators and political agents. These themes are investigated more deeply in the three chapters that follow, which are organized around various expressions of identity that Hand sees in these women’s manuscript commissions. Chapter 2 treats patronage activities as a means of such expression, with women’s choices for illuminators, prayers and inscriptions, and hagiographic references in regard to specific manuscripts presented as evidence. Hand argues, for example, that the Netherlandish illuminator Gerard Horenbout’s additions to the Sforza Hours commissioned by Margaret of Austria, Regent of the Netherlands, in 1517 represent Margaret’s personal aesthetic preferences and a desire to connect with her Burgundian forbears. These images differ stylistically from the earlier Italianate images of the manuscript, which Margaret inherited from her husband Philibert of Savoy in 1505. In the Hours of Catherine of Cleves (1442-43), St. Cecilia is depicted with a falcon. Hand proposes that this feature, which is unusual in the iconography of the saint, pertains to Catherine’s birthplace in the Duchy of Cleves, adjacent to the Duchy of Brabant, an important center for the training of falcons.
Chapter 3, on “visual demonstrations of identity,” examines portraits, coats of arms and mottos, and marginalia. Once again, individual women and their manuscripts shape the discussion. An example is a devotional portrait of Jeanne of Boulogne, second wife of Jean of Berry, in the Belles Hours of Jean de France (1405-08; 1409), in which the devotee is shown in prayer to the Trinity. Hand argues that the image would have conceptualized Jeanne’s devotions sufficiently enough to permit imageless devotion, the next best thing to image-based devotion, and perhaps even as a catalyst for visionary experience: “Jeanne’s goal as a reader may have been to see the same vision as her image sees (110).” Hand ties this approach back into the teachings of Geert Groot, founder of the Devotio Moderna and an advocate of image-text devotion among the laity. For the category of narrative portraiture, Hand addresses in a book of hours associated with Louise of Savoy a fluidity between the spiritual and the political spheres. Louise appears in the guise of the prophetess Anna in the manuscript’s image of The Presentation of Christ in the Temple. Louise, at the time of the commission, was regent for her son King Francis I, who was a captive of Charles V in Italy. Hand suggests that the portrait advantageously connects Louise to the Virgin Mary, who also appears in the image and whose intercessory role parallels that of Louise’s as regent. Such interpretations contribute to the now ample body of scholarship that demonstrates the use by early modern women of faith to negotiate political power.
The final chapter, Chapter 4, examines courtly women as teachers, proposing a “generational transference of identity” through that role and the manuscripts associated with it. The chapter is divided into two parts. The first assesses the use of manuscripts by women to shape the early education of children at the courts. Here, Hand argues that specific manuscripts helped women perpetuate a sense of self – religious and dynastic – to their progeny. The second section addresses a specific iconographical theme related to women as educators, namely, the Virgin Mary and St. Anne as teachers: Anne teaches Mary and Mary teaches Christ. Hand assesses how such images modeled for certain women the learned and competent female educator and the importance of the transmission of knowledge from one generation to the next. Noble women charged with the devotional education of children, could see themselves in these figures for they, like Anne and Mary, were teachers of royalty.
Hand’s book will inspire fresh questions, both broad and specific. How did courtly women such as Jeanne of Boulogne see themselves in the teachings of popular religious movements such as the Devotio moderna, which arose in a non-noble context? What evidence do we have for their knowledge of such movements? How did lay women respond to the literature and images that crafted visionary experience as the privilege of holy women, as signs of their sanctity? Would readers of these volumes really expect that they too would have such experiences? Did female patrons always have – or even wish to have – textual and pictorial agency in their commissions? Two illuminated volumes belonging to Margaret of York, Duchess of Burgundy, suggest not. These works, the Benois seront les miséricordieux and Le dyalogue de la duchess de Bourgogne à Jesus Christ, were commissioned by Margaret shortly after her marriage to Charles the Bold in 1468 not as expressions of self but rather to obtain instruction as a foreign bride. Was the concept of identity not socially fraught in cases like this and, if so, how did women’s manuscripts relate to such tensions? Indeed, readers seeking problematized discussions of patronage and identity will not find them here. Yet Hand’s book nonetheless provides a welcome first-stop reference for anyone interested in women’s manuscript culture in early modern northern Europe.