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A colorful medieval sketch of a holy scene
The Virgin Mary speaks with the angel Gabriel in this illumination from the Edith Book of Hours. Rare Book and Special Collections Division. Photo: Shawn Miller

An 800-Year-Old (Tiny) Book of Hours

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— This is a guest post by Marianna Stell, a reference specialist in the Rare Book and Special Collections Division. It also appears in the March-April issue of the Library of Congress Magazine.

In the medieval world, impossibly small, cleverly constructed objects made of precious materials were appreciated for their craftsmanship and their inherent miraculous quality.

The Edith Book of Hours, a handwritten 14th-century volume of prayers, is such an object, one that today still prompts viewers to ask: How could anyone create something so small?

The book, which measures just 25/8 inches tall and 17/8 inches wide, contains more than 300 pages. It is a masterpiece of Gothic illumination, with its many lovely leaves containing delicate, scrolling border designs and flawless miniatures crafted in the style of Parisian artist Jean Pucelle.

Renowned collector Lessing J. Rosenwald presented the book to his wife, Edith, on her birthday in 1951 — along with a custom case and a small magnifying glass to make viewing easier. Edith donated the book to the Library in 1981 in commemoration of her husband, who had passed away two years earlier.

Today, the Edith Book of Hours is part of the Library’s Rosenwald Collection and the beauty and meaning found in its pages still amazes.

A tiny book held on the fingers of an open hand
The Edith Book of Hours with its magnifying glass. Rare Book and Special Collections Division. Photo: Shawn Miller.

In a miniature rendering of the Annunciation, the Virgin Mary holds a book in her hand and a centrally placed scroll highlights the moment when, in the Christian tradition, the “Word became flesh” in a verbal exchange between Mary and the angel Gabriel. “Ave maria gratia plena,” the scroll reads: “Hail Mary, full of grace.”

The scene, and the book itself, invites its readers to experience the miracle of just how small words can be: tiny letters written on a tiny scroll within a tiny miniature within a tiny book.

Recently digitized, the volume now can be appreciated by more than one person at a time, allowing people everywhere to experience the smallness of the Edith Book of Hours. Centuries after the book was created, it still feels nothing short of miraculous.

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