The cathedral of Notre Dame has stood at the heart of France and of Paris for the best part of 1,000 years. It watched as Paris rose from a former outpost founded during the Roman Republic to become the biggest city of medieval Europe. And although European printing was born in Germany, it is in France, in the shadow of Notre Dame, that the modern book was born.
Love it or hate it, dread it or revel in it, suck at it or excel in it, math makes the world go round, sending rockets to the moon, forecasting the weather, describing the motions of the planets and everything else in the cosmos. Galileo (1564–1642) famously said that ‘the universe is written in mathematical language, without which it is humanly impossible to comprehend a single word.’ But today we are concerned not with the math of the astronomer or physicist but with the altogether simpler but equally important branch of mathematics, arithmetic. From the Greek words for number and art, arithmetic describes the traditional operations of or fundamental manipulation of numbers, including addition and subtraction, multiplication and division.
Many of the first printed books in Europe were decorated with illustrations, initials and borders. Each served a purpose: initials signaled, via their range of sizes, a textual hierarchy, working in much the same way as chapter headings and sub-headings do today. Decorative borders were employed to demarcate or divide books, chapters or sections and, from the last decades of the fifteenth century, were used at the beginning of books as openers or title-pages.
Today we tend to associate magic either with the sleight of hand tricks performed by magicians and illusionists or with the fictional universes of Game of Thrones and Harry Potter.
Last week we visited mid-sixteenth-century Zurich to take a look at an intriguing encyclopedia of animals in Unicorns, Frogs & the Sausage Supper Affair. This week, for the second in our series of Remarkable Renaissance Books, we turn back the clock a couple of decades, and head northwest to Paris to pick up a very different kind of book – a Book of Hours, or Horae (Latin for ‘hours’). During the later Middle Ages, if you owned only one book, then there is a pretty good chance that it was a Book of Hours. These portable, small-format books were essentially prayer books for personal use. They typically open with a calendar of saints’ days and special feasts, followed by, in varying order, lessons from the Gospels, other Bible lessons or excerpts and, the core of the book, The Hours of the Virgin – a selection of prayers to be recited at eight times, or hours, throughout the day.
Recently on Twitter, I’ve been posting some photos of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century books. Some have been retweeted and commented on even more times than my cat pics, which is encouraging. That got me to thinking about a new feature for ILT, Remarkable Renaissance Books: brief posts dedicated to single books from the period 1450–1600. A little about the literary content, authors, typography, illustrations and perhaps even something about the book’s provenance, or history.
On the rare occasions I get to peruse paper and ink books in a brick and mortar bookstore, after a brief flirtation with the cover and blurb, I will scan the table of contents, then gently – for the book is new, the clean pages crisp – thumb through the final leaves until I locate the index, where, if I am familiar with the subject matter, I expect to find, at the very least, the usual suspects. Their absence might well be symptomatic of more profound flaws between the covers; for example, a book titled The History of Psychology, whose index fails to reference, say, Freud, Jung and Mary Whiton Calkins, could safely be passed over in favor of something better.