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This report is taken from PN Review 178, Volume 34 Number 2, November - December 2007.

Archive Corner 7: 'Through the Windows of the Eyes' Stella Halkyard

The Silent Revolution in Reading

As days grow short and frost silvers branches, shoppers brace themselves for a collision with crowds, extravagant window displays and shelves straining under the weight of wrapping paper, puddings, crackers, holly, turkeys, and greetings cards. Above a wonderland of Father Christmases, reindeer and fairy-lit synthetic snow loom the tranquil faces of angels, serene madonnas, adoring magi and watching shepherds. Many of these images, pale imitations of the lapidary radiance of their originals, have been culled from the pages of medieval and early modern Books of Hours. These types of books topped the bestseller lists for over three centuries and deserve and repay close attention.

The technological ingenuity of the codex format, with its capacity for compactly storing information and providing a material support for the transmission of written and visual texts, has long been disregarded as banal within the culture of the West. Because we take for granted the humble 'low tech' simplicity of the Book, a close encounter with an often breathtakingly illuminated Book of Hours can inspire awe. Customarily hidden from view between closed covers, their clandestine beauty, encoded in flashes of gold, vermilion and ultramarine, reveals and then conceals itself with each page turned. Their aesthetic qualities, M.R. James has observed, 'vary from loveliness to contemptibility'; but these private prayer books evoke a powerful nostalgia. Created and crafted by medieval bodies, and marked by the traces of their makers, these manuscripts reveal ...

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