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The Meanings of Devotional Space: Female Owner-Portraits in Three French and Flemish Books of Hours
York Medieval Yearbook, No. 2, (2003)
Introduction: Books of Hours are traditionally held to be ‘women’s books’. Made for women but constructed by men (or so runs the truism), they are book s which, as an aid to devotion, are seen to either delight or to educate them. Although their implications for medieval women’s literacy are difficult to gauge, at the very least, Books of Hours locate women in a book-reading and book-owning culture. More than just owners and readers, however – through the convention of owner- portraits – Books of Hours make individual women visible. Furthermore, women are made visible alongside images of the divine, and as L. F. Sandler warns us, we must not forget “just how great an imaginative leap such conjunctions of the human and the holy represent.”
Thus, like the new architectural space of the Romanesque churches and great Gothic cathedrals, I would argue that owner-portraits create a new textual space for women. Indeed, they are the means of a new way, not just of seeing women, but also of women seeing.
Women, within the misogyny of the medieval period, are associa ted with the corpore al, with appetite, temptation, sex, sin and thus, death. Devotion, however, provides a means for their redemption, a way a transc ending the ir ‘fallen’ bodies. Even within this tradition, women stand uncomfortably with the church; excluded from ordination (because they have ‘the wrong kinds of bodies’), forbidden from touching sacred objects or even from entering the church after giving birth (until the churching ritual had taken place at the church door). If we then imagine a medieval woman who, as she reads of and meditates upon divinity, looks and finds her self-image – her own marginalized and defective body – inscribed on the same page, we must also recognise the massive “imaginative leap” that this performs. Hence, the textual space that women can inhabit within Books of Hours is ideologically empowering because they are pictured as communing, and communicating, with the divine. It is however a double bind, for it is this very devotion that provides the means for the control of the female body: the ideas of virginity and chastity not only facilitate mystical experience, they cordon off the dangers of the female. In this essay I will look at three owner-portraits in Books of Hours – those of Yolande de Soissons (c.1280), Jeanne d’Evreux (c.1326), and Mary of Burgundy (c.1477) – and ask how both a textual space and a real space might operate under this double bind, in order to understand how these women see and are seen