Private Prayer Books from Lower Saxon Nunneries: Instrument and Interaction

Cod. Guelf. 1231 Helmst., fol. 232v-233r, Christus und die minnende Seele

Private prayer books serve as instruments for transcendent communication and interaction. “Materiality”, “mediality” and “performativity”, understood as research perspectives, will be used as keys to unlock the secrets of this neglected, yet rich body of sources, exemplified by the material remains of a selected number of late medieval convents and monasteries in northern Germany. Around the middle of the fifteenth century, the female convents of Lüneburg and Brunswick (Lower Saxony) underwent thorough reforms that lead to changes in the nuns’ spiritual life. The new spiritual life has materialized in handwritten and often illuminated prayer books. These books were meant to serve individual, extra-liturgical prayer and meditation. They were not only owned and used, but also produced by the nuns themselves. Serving as they did private devotions, they were not regulated by strict liturgical rules, as would be the case of liturgical books. It is precisely the relative freedom from official rules that permit insight into the actual, everyday practice of prayer. A sizeable number of such prayer books is extant, and about forty to fifty of them are to be studied in detail.

The very distinction between two ways of producing such prayer books – the making of a completely new book, and the more simple addition of selected pages from existing manuscripts –, permits a first insight into manuscript culture, art, and devotional life of the reformed convents. It was especially in the convent of Medingen near Lüneburg that many books were newly created, lavishly adorned with newly devised illustrations. Much simpler was the production of new prayer books in the convents of the Brunswick region where already existing individual leaves or quires were bound together (and rarely furnished with new illuminations) to form a new item. This latter procedure, i.e. the production of composite manuscripts, e.g. in Steterburg and Heiningen, had the advantage of permitting, through the re-use of existing and perhaps often-used parts, the continuation of certain traditions, including memoria, in a new context. Both forms of manuscript production can be understood as ways of giving the reform a literally tangible form. More insight on the actual use of these books is promised by the close inspection of prayer books to detect traces of use, of wear and tear, especially traces of frequent touch, later insertions, marginal notes and other additions to an essentially finished prayer book. Traces of use and the layout of images and texts can tell us much about favourite prayers or the role specific images had in the nuns’ devotional practice.

The research project is designed to enhance our knowledge of the histories of images, visuality, media, devotions and books in an as yet unexplored area.


Funding: Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG)
Duration: March 2019 – February 2022
Researcher: PD Dr. Gia Toussaint
Phone: +49(0)5331-808-229, Fax -277