Hore Beatae Mariae Virginis Secundum Usum Sarum
Paris: Printed by J. Philippe for J. Kerver, 1497
Folger Shelf Mark: STC 15885


A Salisbury Primer
Rouen, 1538
Folger Shelf Mark: STC 16004

Primers, or books of hours, were religious handbooks compiled to guide the private daily devotion of their lay readers. Hundreds of editions were published in the first century of printing, and their histories in England are closely tied to the development of the English Bible. Within the pages of a primer, one might find an almanac (to help a reader determine movable holidays, such as Easter), a calendar of saints' feast days, the Paternoster (or "Our father"), the Credo (literally, "I believe"), and the Ten Commandments, as well as popular readings from the Psalms and the Old and New Testaments. The primer's original purpose, however, was to present the offices of the Catholic Church: the canonical Hours, the Litany, the Dirge, and the Seven Penitential Psalms. Following John Wycliffe's advocacy of an English liturgy, new and severe restrictions were put on the English translation of Scripture at the beginning of the fifteenth century. Therefore, Psalms and other biblical passages appearing in primers were henceforth printed in Latin with accompanying rubrics, directions or commentary in English. The first primer entirely in English was probably printed on the Continent in 1529, although no known copy survives.

Both of the primers portrayed here are of "Sarum use," which is to say they follow the practice of the diocese of Salisbury. The first copy was printed on vellum for the English market. It was expurgated by an unknown hand, probably after October 1538, when a royal proclamation was issued to suppress heresies. The proclamation abolished the feast day of Thomas Becket, established a review process for the translation of Scriptures, and banished the importation "of bokes imprinted in the englyshe tonge, brought and transported from outward parties." Shown here is the calendar for January, the octave of the Feast of Becket (Jan 5th) has been scraped out entirely, along with the word "pape" for the feast of Pope Hyginus (Jan 11th). However, the name of the feast itself survives, as do those of Marcellus and Fabian (both Popes) on Jan 16 and 20, and the designation "abba" for St. Maurus the Abbot (Jan 15). Note also that at left, the figure of a devil trying to blow out the saint's candle with his pair of bellows has been removed from the left side of St. Gudula (Jan 8th, not listed). Indeed, all the devil imagery has been consistently erased throughout the book. The pope and cardinals in the illustration at bottom, however, have been allowed to remain. About one third of the Folger's incunabula, books printed in the first 50 years after the invention of the printing press, bear such marks of eradication.

The title-page woodcut in the second example portrays the Virgin Mary and Christ emanating from the womb of Mary's mother, Saint Anne. This copy of a 1538 edition, one of at least five French editions that year intended for the English market, responds to a revived demand for an English translation of the Bible. Several clerical injunctions in 1538 required that the Epistle and Gospels recited in the pulpit be "in the English tongue." This copy also bears the effects of the royal proclamation issued later in the year. It is unclear what has been blacked out on the title page, but it almost certainly is in response to the proclamation.

For more information on primers and incunabula, consult Charles C. Butterworth, The English Primers (1529–1545): Their Publication and Connection with the English Bible and the Reformation in England (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1953); Monique Hulvey, "Not So Marginal: Manuscript Annotations in the Folger Incunabula," in Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America 92 (1998): 159-76; and Roger Wieck, Time Sanctified: The Book of Hours in Medieval Art and Life (New York: George Braziller, 1988).