Stirling Burgh Box

By Joanna Tyler
Stirling Burgh Box held in the collection of the Stirling Smith Art Gallery and Museum

When first viewed, the Stirling Burgh Box appears to be a unique object – it is obviously aged, there is faded paint on the outside to indicate it may once have been brightly decorated and the inside is lined with beautifully detailed text and illustrations. However, the most intriguing thing about this box is how little is known about it. The box was gifted to the Stirling Smith Museum in Stirling, Scotland, by the Burgh Council in 1931, and is in some way associated with Stirling and the monasteries of the town. Yet, nothing else is known about its origins or purpose – not even how old it is.

A study of the box by Jamie Reid Baxter has revealed some detail about its lining. While originally assumed to be a bible, the pages on the inside of the box are actually are from a printed Book of Hours according to the Sarum Rite dating to approximately 1503. All of the pages, from different parts of the book, pertain in some way to the Hours of the Virgin.

Books of Hours were personal books of prayers which were very popular in the Middle Ages and widely owned. They were quite often personally customised and were always illustrated with intricate devotional images – usually pertaining to the Virgin Mary. [1] They were supposed to be read daily at the time of the eight canonical hours; an activity which become known as ‘saying one’s Hours’. [2] The advent of the printing press meant that while books were still expensive for the majority of people, Books of Hours were more widely available to wealthy individuals such as merchants. [3] The popularity of these books and their printed form also means that countless versions were produced. Unfortunately, this also makes obscure versions of the Hours with no identifiable markings very difficult to trace.

There is justified reason for suspecting that this box has a relation to the monasteries of Stirling. Stirling was a powerful and significant location in medieval Scotland. It was royal burgh at one point in time, sharing the honor of being the capital city with Edinburgh. It was also the chosen location for parliament on some occasions. [4] There are records of at least two large monasteries in Stirling, the Greyfriars and Blackfriars (Franciscans and Dominicans).

These records show that at least the Blackfriars monastery was receiving regular endowments of 10 pounds per year from the King, in addition to being granted other money on a regular basis for specific purposes such as repairs or as payment for providing accommodation. [5] It would not be surprising to find that such a beautiful object was at one time the possession of a well-funded monastery. However, both the West and East churches of Stirling were destroyed during the Reformation. [6] It is possible this could account for the loss of information pertaining to the box’s origins, its repossession and eventual reuse.

How the box came to be lined by pages from a Book of Hours is also a mystery. Because of the box’s association to monastic life in Stirling, it could be assumed that the book used was also the possession of a monastery. Medieval books are often thought to be ‘a possession of the cloister or of the male of the family…associated with either monasticism or feudalism.’ [7] However, the very specific choice of prayers to the Virgin Mary suggest this box may have at some point been lined or at very least used, by a woman.

Books of Hours were popular devotional and decorative items for women and could also play a part in her family’s education. They quite often contained specific prayers that children were expected to learn by rote and were valuable enough to be passed on through a family’s female line. [8] Some versions of the Hours were so expensive and richly decorated that the women who owned them stored them with their valuables and only took them out at special occasions. [9]

The role of the Virgin Mary as the archetypal model of a wife and mother was one all women were supposed to aim for and uphold. But she was also an intercessor, a female religious figure that women may have felt would sympathise with them in a manner which male religious figures could not. Both before and after the Reformation, Mary remained a prominent figure for women in both Catholic and Protestant cultures. [10] These attitudes are also demonstrated in sixteenth and seventeenth-century conduct literature; Mary’s virtue of frugality is one to be carefully reproduced, a model for all young women, wives and mothers. [11]

Yet, if the Book of Hours was such an important item in the lives of women and children, valued both for its lavish appearance and its content, this begs the question: why was something which had such religious and monetary worth – to women or men – be dismantled to line a box where the pages would rarely be seen? Did the box and it’s special lining play a pivotal role in someone’s life to help them negotiate the upheavals of the English Reformation? Was it kept, secret, hidden from authorities to be used as an exceptional devotional item? This cannot be known with certainty, but there is definitely value in viewing the box and pages as items which have been reused to create an entirely new object with new emotional meanings.

‘Reuse also implies use; by definition, the objects of reuse are “used.”’ [12] As fascinating as the possible histories of the box and its lining are, the box as it currently exists is two objects combined to make one. The history and the emotional connections of each individual item have been merged to create an entirely new emotional meaning. The box was clearly intended to be a tangible form of devotion despite its altered state – there is little other explanation that can be offered for such a specific selection of pages to line the box. [13]

Also, the destruction of a religious book does not necessarily detract from its value or reuse as a new object – it had clearly reached a point in time where it was not considered to be so precious that it could not be altered. In fact, the religious connections of the box and the book, their age and the fact that they were not inexpensive objects to possess may be indicators of the skills and status of the person who transformed them into the object we see today. Their transformation into a spoliated object could be indicative of handicrafts, which were popular in elite circles as well as lower classes. [14]

When I look at the Stirling Burgh Box, I consider whether or not this box has ever left Stirling and whether or not the parts it is comprised of – the box itself and the Book of Hours – were also created and used in Scotland. While there is no way to prove this – on the contrary, the reuse of objects often sees them travelling great distances – there is something captivating about the thought. If the box and its parts have never left Scotland, it possesses almost the same power that we grant to archaeological objects found in the ground in the same location, unmoved for hundreds or thousands of years. Assuming the object was once owned and used in a monastery by friars or was reused as a devotional object for a woman also grants the box a kind of power, as gendering an object gives it ‘a certain agency, or impact, upon the lives of human beings. [15]

There are many ways to interpret the limited amount of information we have about the Stirling Burgh Box. How do you feel when you look at it? What do you think it has seen?

About the author

Joanna Tyler is studying towards her degree in Medieval Studies and works part-time as a teacher. She is interested in digital learning and public outreach for cultural heritage.

References

1. H. Maddocks, ‘A book of hours by Anthoine Verard in the the University of Melbourne Library’, University of Melbourne Collections 16 (2015), p. 15.

2. S. Penkneth in J.A. Mellon, ‘Most Glorious Mother: Images of the Virgin Mary in Women’s Books of Hours’ (PhD Thesis, San Jose State University, 1998), 19.

3. H. Maddocks, ‘A book of hours by Anthoine Verard in the the University of Melbourne Library’, University of Melbourne Collections, Vol. 16 (2015), p. 15.

4. R.S. Shearer, ‘Shearer’s Stirling: historical and descriptive, with extracts from Burgh records and Exchequer Roll volumes, 1264 to 1529, view of Stirling in 1620, and an old plan of Stirling’ (Stirling,  1897), 10-11.

5. R. Page and C. Page, ‘Blackfriars of Stirling’, Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 126 (1996), p. 882, 884.

6. R.S. Shearer, ‘Shearer’s Stirling: historical and descriptive, with extracts from Burgh records and Exchequer Roll volumes, 1264 to 1529, view of Stirling in 1620, and an old plan of Stirling’ (Stirling,  1897), 55.

7. S. Groag Bell, ‘Medieval Women Book Owners: Arbiters and Lay Piety and Ambassadors of Culture’, Signs 7: 4 (1982), p. 744.

8. P. Cullum and J. Goldberg, ‘How Margaret Blackburn Taught her Daughters: Reading Devotional Instruction in a Book of Hours’, ed. P. Cullum, et al., Medieval Women: Texts and Contexts in Late Medieval Britain, 200, 221, 231.

9. S. Penkneth in J.A. Mellon, ‘Most Glorious Mother: Images of the Virgin Mary in Women’s Books of Hours’ (PhD Thesis, San Jose State University, 1998), 17.

10. R.M. Toivo, ‘Religion and Emotion: Rosaries as objects and the associated emotions in 17th century Finland’,  Scandinavian Journal of History 41: 3 (2016), p. 293.

11. S. Haskin (ed.), Who is Mary?: Three Early Modern Women on the Idea of the Virgin Mary (Chicago, 2008), 4.

12. R. Brilliant and D. Kinney (ed.), Reuse Value – Spolia and Appropriation in Art and Architecture from Constantine to Sherrie Levine, (Farnham, 2011), 2.

13. R.M. Toivo, ‘Religion and Emotion: Rosaries as objects and the associated emotions in 17th century Finland’,  Scandinavian Journal of History 41: 3 (2016), p. 290.

14. J. Van Gent and R.M. Toivo, ‘Introduction’, Scandinavian Journal of History, 41: 3 (2016), p. 266.

15. J. Hoskins, ‘Afterword – gendering religious objects: placing them as agents in matrices of power’, Material Religion 3: 1 (2007), p. 112.

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