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15th-Century European Life - The Hours of Catherine of Cleves

by Robyn Potts
Topic(s): Illuminated Manuscripts, Religion, Medieval


Table of Contents




Investigation Question

What can details from The Hours of Catherine of Cleves tell us about daily life in Northern Europe during the 15th century?


Background

During the late medieval period, the involvement of ordinary (lay) people within the church changed. Where the clergy and sacraments were the primary focus of medieval Catholicism, members of the laity increasingly incorporated Catholicism into their daily lives outside of the church itself. Parishioners began to direct their own religious practices, usually focused around individual, private piety. One symbol of this increased popular piety were the Books of Hours. Books of Hours are devotional texts, containing sets of prayers structured around the religious calendar. Originally illuminated manuscripts and thus the province of only the very wealthy, as printing became more common the books too began to filter downwards. Often owned by women, Books of Hours were usually personalized somewhat for the owner and reflected local traditions in their construction.

The Hours of Catherine of Cleves is one of the most spectacular remaining examples of Books of Hours. It was produced in 1440 in Utrecht by an unknown artist, commissioned for Catherine on the occasion of her marriage to the Duke of Guelders. It contains the usual prayers of a Book of Hours, but the artist also included numerous scenes of every-day 15th century Dutch life. This makes it an invaluable source not just for examining for religious practices of elites, but also daily life in the Netherlands. The 15th century was a period of political consolidation for Utrecht and the rest of the Netherlands, as they became united under the Duke of Burgundy. It was also a relatively prosperous period for Northern Europe, as evidenced in many of the images from The Hours of Catherine of Cleves.

Catherine of Cleves' life as a noblewoman was far removed from most of the residents of Utrecht and Northern Europe at large. But by looking closely at the book produced for her, we can get a glimpse of what daily life's routines looked like and the tasks that consumed every day life.

This lesson is intended to use the The Hours of Catherine of Cleves to gain a peek at life within a late medieval household.


Activity – Image Analysis

1. Display Image #1 – Birth of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Detail of central scene. 5. This displays the birth of Mary as happening with a bourgeois Dutch household.

Questions:

  • What do you see in this image? Describe the objects, people, actions, and physical setting.
  • Based on your observations, what inferences can you make about this illustration? (How did people think about religious figures like Mary? What sort of household is this?)
  • What can this picture tell us about daily life in a late medieval household? 

2. Display Image #2 - Detail of drinking scene. 110. 

Questions:

  • What do you see in this image? Describe the objects, people, actions, and physical setting. 
  • What sort of drink do you think they're making?
  • What does this tell you about late medieval life? Who is drinking?

3. Display Image #3 - Detail of fishing. 37. 

 Questions:  

  • What do you see in this image? Describe the objects, people, actions, and physical setting.
  • How is the man fishing? What else do you see that might be involved in food production?
  • What might this tell us about what they ate in 15th century Utrecht?

4. Display Image #4 - Detail of woman milking. 81. 

Questions:

  • What do you see in this image? Describe the objects, people, actions, and physical setting.
  • What sort of animal is the woman milking? What do you think the milk would be used for?
  • What might this tell us about what they ate in 15th century Utrecht?

5. Display Image #5 -  Detail of baking. 111. 

Questions:

  • What do you see in this image? Describe the objects, people, actions, and physical setting.
  • Who is doing the work here?
  • What might this tell us about what they ate in 15th century Utrecht?

6. Display Image #6  -  The Holy Family at supper. 93. Again, the family of Jesus is imagined as a 15th century medieval family.

Questions:

  • What do you see in this image? Describe the objects, people, actions, and physical setting.
  • Based on your observations, what inferences can you make about this illustration? (How did people think about religious figures like Mary? What sort of household is this?)
  • What can this picture tell us about daily life in a late medieval household?

7. OPTIONAL - Pull other images from the Hours of the Catherine of Cleves posted on this website (type Catherine of Cleves in the Keyword Search) for more information on daily life in late medieval northern Europe.


Concluding Activities

Options:

1. Have students return to the investigation question (What can details from The Hours of Catherine of Cleves tell us about daily life in Northern Europe during the 15th century?) and answer it in a well-written essay using evidence found from analyzing the images.

2. Have students take on either the perspective either an elite woman or a commoner living in the mid-15th Century. Write a letter to a peer describing your daily life and observations of people in the other class. Students should effectively use evidence found in the images as well as use language reflective of the perspective chosen.  This letter could include illustrations surrounding the text in a similar manner to The Hours of Catherine of Cleves.


Image #1 - Birth of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Detail of central scene. 5. From the Book of Hours of Catherine of Clèves, c. 1440.

Image #2 - Detail of drinking scene. 110. From the Book of Hours of Catherine of Clèves, c. 1440.

Image #3 - Detail of fishing. 37. From the Book of Hours of Catherine of Clèves, c. 1440.

Image #4 - Detail of woman milking. 81. From the Book of Hours of Catherine of Clèves, c. 1440.

Image #5 - Detail of baking. 111. From the Book of Hours of Catherine of Clèves, c. 1440.

Image #6 - The Holy Family at supper. 93. From the Book of Hours of Catherine of Clèves, c. 1440.