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Anna Dlabacova receives ERC Starting Grant for research on late medieval prayer books

Assistant Professor Anna Dlabacova has been awarded a Starting Grant by the European Research Council. She will use this grant of around 1.5 million euros to conduct research on the Dutch vernacular ‘book of hours’.

Anna Dlabacova

Books of hours were used in the Middle Ages for reciting prayers. These works written in the vernacular were popularised by the religious reform movement known as the Modern Devotion, which emerged at the end of the fourteenth century and aimed for an internalised faith. ‘The books of hours are fascinating texts, using interesting techniques to achieve a highly personal experience of faith,’ says Dlabacova. ‘They address the readers directly, for example, and encourage them to imagine that they were present at the birth of Christ.

Role in textual culture

‘For this research, we’re going to look at the books containing the “hours” translated by Geert Grote, the leader of the Modern Devotion movement. His texts were tremendous best sellers.’ In the Middle Ages, however, this did not mean that all copies of the book of hours were identical. Especially at the beginning of the period to be studied (1380-1450), differences would occur because all the books were produced as a handwritten manuscript, combining the hours texts with various other prayers and religious exercises. Dlabacova: ‘Because the texts were copied by hand each time, every book was slightly different, not only in terms of text but also layout. We want to know what this means for the position of the book in society. How is it influenced by religious movements and societal developments?’ 

These are the texts that people encountered most often. 

She sees the book of hours as ideal for such research. ‘These are the texts that people encountered most often. This makes them interesting for understanding the operation of the textual culture of those times. For example, how many of the books were owned by men and how many by women? You might think you could just look that up somewhere, but that isn’t the case.’

Ecosystem of the text

After recruiting two PhD researchers and a postdoc, she will work with them on creating a database to incorporate all the available data on the books, thus making it possible to find interconnections between different aspects. ‘We will start with a quantitative approach and then proceed more qualitatively. For example, one of the PhD researchers will look at how the various prayers are clustered: which prayers are often included together in a book, and what is the significance of this? The postdoc will then focus on the use of illustrations, while I myself will concentrate on the early printed books. At present, for example, we don’t know whether an existing manuscript was used for them, or whether the printers themselves compiled a new set of texts.’ The ultimate goal is to gain a picture of the ‘ecosystem of the prayer book’, situating all the actors involved in the book: from the texts to the producer and reader of the book. ‘We will then be able to discover what the function of the prayer book was in the Middle Ages.’

It will be difficult, but I’m pleased that we finally have an overview of all these works.

Opportunity for fundamental research

Dlabacova herself is most looking forward to starting the research. ‘I think I’m personally going to learn a lot from it. It will be difficult, because it’s a really ambitious project, but I’m so pleased that we can bring all these data together and finally have an overview of all these works. It’s wonderful that the European Research Council gives you freedom for more fundamental academic research. I’m very grateful for the support of everyone who has helped me in the process of applying for this grant.’

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