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This particular manuscript is a 15th c. book of hours, commissioned from a Parisian workshop by John, Duke of Bedford.
The text reads easily. Ms. Backhouse covers a short history of the Duke, to place the book in context, and follows with a modestly comprehensive study of the book as an art object.
The book contains around 60 plates, some in black and white, some in color. There are about as many full page illustrations as there are text pages, so the book makes a very suitable visual reference for book artists wanting to illuminate in the style of the Bedford Master.
All in all, a very nice, short study of a justifiably famous medieval manuscript.
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The text is lively, including, for example, an old riddle describing the wax table used for sketches. The Anglo-Saxom instruments used in illuminations are shown in a photograph; you aren't expected to have detailed knowledge of medieval tools. The color plates of the Gospels are magnificant. The art shown for comparison includes not only other manuscripts but metalwork etc.
This book is not only an introduction to the Lindisfarne Gospels but is a good starting point for illuminated manuscripts in general.
Birds decorate the pages. But there are only three places where it hits you in the face why a particular bird is shown on a particular page. The goldfinch, as a medieval Italian symbol for the crucified Christ, is shown with Epiphany, the robin with Sherborne Abbot Robert Brunyng, and the skylark soaring upwards into the skies with the Ascension.
According to MEDIEVAL BIRDS IN THE SHERBORNE MISSAL, the artist must have owned or gotten easy hold of models or sketches. One known pattern book, from possibly around 1400, mainly showed initial letters, with only four leaves of bird studies. But Giovannino De' Grassi's late 14th-century sketchbook, now in the Biblioteca Civica in Bergamo, helped to spread the northern Italian style of drawing nature as it really was, without fantastic add-ons.
Private collectors in France kept the Missal safe from 16th-century Reformation England, until calmer days at the end of the 18th century. Then the Missal ended up in the library of the dukes of Northumberland, at Alnwick Castle. In 1983 the 10th duke loaned the manuscript to the British Museum. With the death of the 11th duke the Sherborne Missal became, in 1998, additional ms 74326, as a permanent part of the British Library collection.
It now is among the exhibits in the library galleries. But only two pages can be seen at any one time, and usually not of the birds. So Janet Backhouse's book is particularly valuable, as the first complete full-color publication under one roof of all the birds.
The author has written many books on medieval manuscripts. But readers might particularly like THE LINDISFARNE GOSPELS and MEDIEVAL RURAL LIFE IN THE LUTTRELL PSALTER, for their similar themes on nature in the English Middle Ages.
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As an introduction, the book provides some general information in a readable format. If you are looking for a book that provides in-depth subject coverage, this is not the one you want. As an introductory book, or as a book bought to add to your collection on the subject, however, it's a nice, inexpensive addition.
There are 68 plates in the book, about 1/3 in color and the remainder in B&W. The plates tend to be reproductions of the more lavish pages to be found in books of hours; there are no pages of text alone reproduced.
In all, it's a nice book, but not Backhouse's best. I'd like to give it a 3.5 stars, but Amazon's rating system doesn't allow for it, alas.
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This is definitely one to have on the shelf.
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