This wonderful historiated initial comes from the opening of our copy of the La regle saint Benoit, a French translation of the Rule of Saint Benedict. The illustration shows Saint Benedict addressing four attentive nuns. The artist incorporates suggestive details that give the scene a liveliness that is surprising for so small a picture. The nun closest to Benedict points to a passage, as if asking for clarification. Benedict holds his book closed, appearing to keep his place with his index finger as he pauses to answer a question.
Decorated initials are among the most striking features of manuscripts, but they were not widely attested until the Middle Ages. Books were rarely decorated in the ancient world because, even though literacy rates were higher, oratory remained the principal means of delivery while the physical books and scrolls were relegated to supporting roles.
During the Middle Ages, with the influence of Christianity, the book became important both symbolically and practically as an instrument of textual transmission. Decorated initials helped to reveal the structure of a text by emphasizing the beginnings of works, sections and verses. Historiated initials such as this one tended to be reserved for major divisions, while smaller initials might break a text into sections. A memorably decorated initial would help a reader locate its associated text. This is especially so when it reflected the text’s meaning, as in this case, where the initial introduces the sentence, Escoute fille les coma[n]demens de ton maître [Listen, daughters, to the commandments of your teacher]. It may seem odd that the initial, so appealing to the eye, introduces the injunction to “listen.” It reflects a cultural milieu in which the reception of texts was both auditory and visual.
Our copy was produced in northeastern France toward the end of the thirteenth century. In addition to the Rule, it also contains other devotional works, including Li livres des tribulations, Chanson d’amors de pure povreteit, and three short treatises. The French has feminine inflections, suggesting that the book was made for a female readership. An inscription pasted into the book by Claude de Grilly, a nun at the Abbey of Sainte-Glossinde, suggests the book may have been made for that convent. JC