A Courtly French Prayer Book

The last book I shared with you was a French Breviary, an office book for a priest, the second book I would like to share with you is also a French volume, but is something quite different, a devotional book intended for use by the laity. This diminutive volume is only four inches tall and it sits very neatly and comfortably in the palm of the hand. It is entitled L’Office de l’Eglise dedie au Roy and was printed in Paris in 1751 by Theodore de Hansy, the court printer.

The book contains a number of different elements: within it are the offices of Matins and Vespers in Latin according to the Roman Rite; there is also a French translation of Matins and Vespers and the Ordinary and Canon of the Mass. There are also compilations of ‘Oraisons’ and other devotional prayers, including French prayers for use at the reception of Communion. This book contains everything a literate and devout lay person of the mid eighteenth century required, in order to pray a simple office in the vernacular and to conduct themselves devoutly at Mass. The book itself is dedicated by the printer to Louis XV and the dedication makes it clear that the book was intended for use by members of the royal family and the court.

Although tiny, this book is beautifully bound in Morocco leather. The native-dyed goatskins coming out of northern Africa in the seventeenth and eighteenth century and used in bookbinding, were universally called Morocco. The skins came in a range of colours from bright red to black and as a foreign import they were more expensive than native leathers like Calf and were therefore reserved for high status volumes. The Morocco of this particular binding is coloured a subtle Olive green and has in turn been gold tooled with fashionable Rococo decoration. The front and back boards have been decorated with what it termed ‘dentelle’ decoration, an engraved wheel called a ‘roll’, has been used to apply a repeating design of flowering plants around the edges of the boards forming a dense decorative border. The spine is tooled in compartments filled with flowers and foliage sprays and is neatly labelled ‘Loffice de Leglise’ (sic.). The edges of the book have been marbled and then gilded solid and there are endpapers of combed marbled paper.

The binding is of the highest quality and was almost certainly produced by one of the leading bookbinders of Paris at the time. The tools used in the gold tooling of this book, are comparable to those used on known bindings by Antoine Michel Padeloup, binder to Louis XV and by Louis Francois Lemonnier, binder to Louis Philippe, Duke of Orleans.

This tiny volume is a luxurious book that was intended to be seen as much as used and would have been a fashion accessory as well as a tool of devotion. The text was one intended for use by the printer at the royal court and the binding is courtly. Although this little volume may well have been used by a member of the court of Louis XV, it is just as likely to have been purchased and bound for one of the aspirational and fashion-conscious bourgeois, the upwardly mobile members of the Parisian middle class, financiers, merchants, shopkeepers and artisans.

Dr. Allan Barton
Art historian, bookbinder and clergyman of the Church of England. Allan Barton obtained his MA in Medieval Studies and Ph.D in Art History at the University of York.

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