A book defies time

The manuscripts from this library are little time machines: they bear witness to the tastes, ambitions and dreams of their owners and carry us away to the fifteenth century.

 

 

From the flames into the snow

In the fifteenth century, the Library of the Dukes of Burgundy was indisputably one of the most beautiful libraries in the world. Over the centuries, however, the collection had to put up with a lot. The manuscripts braved fires and looting.

Take the fire at the Coudenberg Palace. In the winter of 1731, a fire destroyed large parts of the building in which the manuscript collection was kept. Servants threw the books out of the windows of the tower of the palace, into the snow. They gave priority to the most prestigious manuscripts. A lot of handwritten books must have been lost then.

Miraculously, about a third of the collection remains today. In 1477, the ducal library consisted of more than 900 manuscripts. Today, more than six centuries later, about 300 of them are still preserved at KBR. It is very rare for a book collection to be preserved as a whole for so long.

 

The mirror of a multifaceted era

It is a small miracle that the collection survived these turbulent times and that it remains in such a good condition after hundreds of years. But it is not just the physical story of these books that is fascinating. In fact, they also provide a wealth of information about their owners and the period in which they were created.

The manuscript collection of the Dukes of Burgundy is marked by the many facets of a century during which the Middle Ages slowly gave way to the modern era. It forms a coherent but diverse and multi-faceted whole.

This diversity exits in books throughout the ages. In this respect, the fifteenth-century manuscripts are not so different from the books of the twenty-first century: you will find books for learning, discovery or entertainment.

Yet there is also an important difference: the books of the Burgundian dukes have today acquired a historical dimension. They teach us what was important at the end of the 15th century and what values their patrons held dear. For example, they show us the extremely important role religion played in 15th century, something that is in strong contrast to most books today.

 

Religion in the spotlight

A third of the manuscripts from the Library of the Dukes of Burgundy are religious works. The library’s shelves included mystical and ascetic texts such as Augustine’s City of God, and works by Jean Gerson and Pope Gregory I. Deeply religious and tormented by aspirations of undertaking a crusade, Philip the Good commissioned a number of pious works. These were works intended for private prayer, such as missals, breviaries and psalters. The Book of Hours was also very popular.

Book of Hours are prayer books intended for lay people, i.e. people who are not clergy. The content is always more or less the same: a calendar of the main church feasts, excerpts from the Gospels and prayers adapted to different “hours” (from which they derive their name). These manuscripts, intended for daily use in a strongly religiously entrenched society, are distinguished above all by the richness of their execution. Despite their “serious” nature, they often contain images where fantasy, even satire, juxtaposes with religious representations, while the margins allowed the miniaturists a certain freedom to get creative.

 

The Tavernier Hours. Southern Netherlands, 15th century. ms. IV, fol. 71r Annunciation

 

A broad view of the world

Yet certainly not every book is dominated by religion. The Burgundian dukes also cherished many other interests. In their library, central texts from medieval literature and ancient authors shared shelves with adaptations that served the dukes’ propaganda purposes. Dreams of crusades and a fondness for chivalric tradition intersected with the emerging humanistic spirit. It consists of texts directly related to the Burgundian context and a clear interest in the Middle East. Also present are treatises that evoke the dukes’ legendary ancestry, including figures such as Alexander the Great, King Arthur, Charles Martel and Charlemagne.

The oldest manuscripts date back to the 13th century, and the most recent are from the end of the feudal era and the beginnings of humanism. Many have been translated from Latin into French and copied at the dukes’ express request by renowned copyists such as Jean Miélot, Jean Wauquelin and David Aubert. The library of the Burgundian dukes clearly demonstrates a broad view of the world.

 

Xenophon, Hieron (French translation by Charles Soillot). Southern Netherlands, 15th century. ms. IV 1264, fol. 1r Presentation of the work to Charles, Count of Charolais

 

Visit the KBR museum, where time stands still for a moment, and admire the versatility of the 15th century with your own eyes. From 11 May 2021, you can admire a completely new selection of manuscripts and miniatures.

Get to know the KBR museum through a series of facts that take you back to the time of the Burgundian dukes. Discover the knowledge hidden in the manuscripts of their library and learn more about the themes in the museum.

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