Religion and Noble Families in Late Medieval Society

We are pleased to bring you another post from Shennan Hutton, author of Women and Economic Activities in Late Medieval Ghent, on the Book of Hours of Catherine of Clèves:

About the image: This beautiful example of late medieval manuscript illumination is the front page of the Book of Hours made for Catherine of Clèves, the Duchess of Guelders and Countess of Zutphen.  All of these small territories are now in the nation of The Netherlands, but in the 15th century, when this book of hours was prepared, they were semi-independent principalities under the loose rule of the Holy Roman Emperor.

Shennan’s Insights: I like to use this image in teaching to highlight two themes about late medieval religion and society.  The first theme relates to late medieval religion.  This book was produced around 1440, which is approximately 80 years before Martin Luther wrote the Ninety-Five Theses and set off the Reformation (1517).  In addition to anti-clericalism and dislike for the abuses of the church, such as indulgences, one of the major precursors of the Reformation was the laicization of spirituality.  This awkward nominalization – laicization – means that lay people (that is, not clergy) were practicing spirituality outside of church activities.  They were making their spiritual lives more personal and private, and integrating spiritual objects and practices into their daily lives.  This front page illustrates the laicization of spirituality.  Catherine owned this book which included prayers for different hours of day, and for different days of the year.  The book made it possible for her to worship in her room, and not only in the chapel of her castle.  She could worship by herself, without the intervention of clergy.  In the illumination, Catherine is “entering” the space surrounding the Virgin and the Child.  It is an intimate setting of worship.

The second theme relates to noble families.  In addition to private devotion, Catherine would have likely prominently displayed this book to noble visitors.  Everyone knew that it had been enormously expensive, which would add to Catherine’s prestige, and that of her husband, Arnold, Duke of Guelders.  On the bottom in the center are Catherine’s coat of arms combined with that of her husband.  In the four corners (and the four corners of the next page) are the coats of arms of her great-grandfathers.  Noble families displayed their honor through expensive clothing and objects, and their “noble blood” by coats of arms.

Shennan Hutton is a Program Coordinator for the California History Social Science Project. She taught world history in high school for 15 years, before entering the graduate program at UC Davis.  She earned a Ph.D. in medieval European history in 2006.  She teaches medieval, European and world history at various colleges and universities, as well as promoting K-16 collaboration at the California History-Social Science Project. You can read more from Shennan at Blueprint for History Education.