Religious literature in lay hands: The 'book legacy' of Elisabeth De Grutere (Ghent, †1500) as an example of late medieval religious book ownership and book use by urban lay people

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This article focuses on a small, rather unknown, and undated late medieval manuscript in Middle Dutch, of the book legacy of Elisabeth De Grutere to the beguinage of Onze Lieve Vrouw Ter Hooie or Klein Begijnhof (Small Beguinage) in Ghent. The manuscript, Ghent, Klein Begijnhof, s.o., includes an introduction and the list of seventy religious books in vernacular Elisabeth donated, of which seemingly none has survived. Elisabeth belonged to a distinguished Ghent family and was the widow of Simon Borluut (†1488), city leader of Ghent and member of the powerful Borluut family.
This manuscript is studied for the first time in its entirety, to find out more about the religious book use of late medieval urban lay readers in the Low Countries, a rather new subject for research. The leading questions are: can Elisabeth be perceived as an active reader, and do the beneficiaries of her legacy function as her community of interpretation? Elisabeth’s personal book use, her intentions as a book donator, and the use of her books after her death are points of focus. Examination of the historical context and the codicological and paleographical details, the identification of the type of this source, the analysis of the themes and topics, and close reading of the text, provide a definite dating of the manuscript in 1500 and new insights.
In particular the identification of the type and the function of this manuscript reveals a lot. It is not a will, but a copy of a will, made by the scriverigghe of the beguinage for the keeper of the books after Elisabeth had died. This book keeper used the copy as a ‘register’, as it is called on the backside of the cover. He or she also was responsible for the preserving and lending of the books following the specific conditions set by Elisabeth. Her intentions and conditions precede the book list. The books were to lend out exclusively to her friends and the friends of her late husband, and only when they handed over a note with their names. These ‘friends’ consisted of their relatives and the families they were related to by marriages (basically all Ghent’s urban authorial families), beguines as well as urban lay people. Codicological research shows for the first time that the manuscript actually has been used as a lending catalogue. The pages are smudged. Small pricking holes next to the book titles, most likely from attaching notes with the names of the borrowers, prove that books were borrowed, some books several times, some once, some never. To whom and when however is unknown.
Only a part of the active readership of Elisabeth becomes visible. Whether she wrote or copied books herself, or what she thought about their individual contents, is unknown. The composition of her collection of seventy religious books shows however which books she thought important to donate. Her choice for the Klein Begijnhof as a receiver, her conditions on the legacy, and her choice of books, indicate that she headed for the salvation of her own soul, but also for the salvation of the souls of the readers of her books. She probably already lent these out during her life.
The common theme of the booklist is ‘The right way of living, heading for Christ and the salvation of the soul’. Within this theme four topics, as four stages, are present, ‘Instruction on basic religious rules and ecclesiastic regulations’, ‘Imitatio Christi’, ‘Life and Passion of Christ’, ‘Growth of the believer focused on spiritual unification with Christ’. By studying the books lay readers could work on their personal religious life at any level, in a way Elisabeth thought fit. In her book selection she emphasized the fourth and most difficult and mystical stage of religious life, by leaving many books on this, e.g. a sermon written by Alijt Bake.
The community of interpretation consisted of the well to do friends of Elisabeth and her late husband who borrowed her books in the Klein Begijnhof. The contents of her books however, became known to more people because of the reading practices in the beguinage and in the city of Ghent. Though the names of these people are not known, at least a community of relatives of Elisabeth and Simon from inside and outside of the beguinage can be perceived, borrowing, discussing and spreading the texts of her books, focused on the right way of living as a lay person, in imitatio Christi.
Translated title of the contributionReligious literature in lay hands: The 'book legacy' of Elisabeth De Grutere (Ghent, †1500) as an example of late medieval religious book ownership and book use by urban lay people
Original languageDutch
Pages (from-to)61-82
Number of pages22
JournalJaarboek voor Nederlandse Boekgeschiedenis
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2015

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