Louis and His Ladies: Beguines and the Hargrett Hours

Authored by Jordan Stanley and Rebecca Haulk for Team Sainte-Chapelle (Jordan Stanley, Rebecca Haulk, Isabel Davis, Kate Gottsman, Jilian Hanna, Lauren Mattson)


We know that the University of Georgia’s Hargrett Hours originated in Paris, France, in the fifteenth century. We also know that, because the manuscript includes the feast day on April 26th from Sainte-Chapelle, it has to somehow be related to that church. However, our biggest question still remained: who actually owned this book? Since the manuscript is not highly decorated, we know the owner was not wealthy and was likely middle-class. We also know that Books of Hours were commonly (but not exclusively) owned by women. Through our research we found that Louis IX, the king who founded Sainte-Chapelle, supported beguinages in Paris. This connects beguines to Sainte-Chapelle via the king. A woman could have lived in a Parisian beguinage that was supported by Louis IX and became invested in the religious practices of Sainte-Chapelle. This was vital in conceptualizing our hypothesis: Did a beguine own the Hargrett Hours? 


Margaret Wade Labarge explains that beguinages began around the twelfth century in the “diocese of Liege and spread to northern France, Flanders, and Southern Germany” (Labarge 115). They began as a response to many men dying in crusades or on military expeditions. The resulting scarcity of men left many middling-class women either widowed or unmarried and with no position in society. Nunneries were only an option for high-ranking women. Many nunneries lacked places and “rejected women who were not well-born or wealthy enough” (Labarge 116). Unmarried peasants and working-class daughters could help their families through a craft or trade; however, middling-class women did not have the same opportunities. Thus, beguines came from broader socio-economic backgrounds than nuns and were more pious than the typical laywoman. 

Portrait of Dame Jeanne Goethals, sixteenth century. Het begijnhof Sint Aubertus (Poortacker) te Gent, c. 1840. Ghent University Library  BIB.G.005891. 

Beguines and Louis IX

King Louis IX is the link we have between Sainte-Chapelle, beguines, and the Hargrett Hours. Louis and the royal family funded many religious orders, but his support of beguinages is of particular interest. Beguine women founded a community in Paris in the thirteenth century. Meredith Cohen explains that they received institutional credibility when Louis IX purchased for them “£100 of land on the right bank in the parish of Saint-Paul” (176). He bought this land stating it was for the “honest women who are called beguines”(Miller, “What’s in a Name?” 15). Tanya Stabler (Suella) Miller explains how “royal account books show that the French kings established a special account for allocating regular funding to the beguinage” (The Beguines of Medieval Paris 149). This account came to be managed by canons of Sainte-Chapelle over the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Miller states, “French kings frequently designated a canon of Sainte-Chapelle as royal almoner” (149). The monetary support of the Parisian beguinage from the royal family and Sainte-Chapelle canons furthers the relationship between a single beguine and the specific religious practices of Sainte-Chapelle. This relationship was maintained not only through the canons’ monetary support, but also when some canons’ relatives joined beguinages. The strong bond between the royal family, canons of Sainte-Chapelle, and beguines persisted “well into the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries” (54). 

Beguines and Books

A Book of Hours directly connected to Sainte-Chapelle would be highly decorated, featuring lots of images, gilding, and intricate borders. In contrast, a beguine-owned Book of Hours could not be as highly decorated, as the beguine would not have the financial means to invest in such embellishments. However, a Book of Hours owned by a beguine with ties to Sainte-Chapelle through Louis IX could be less decorated while holding similar content to a book directly connected to Sainte-Chapelle. The problem is that tracking beguine-owned books, especially in Paris, is close to impossible. One reason for the lack of objective evidence of beguines’ books is the absence of libraries in their communities. Miller explains that these communities refrained from establishing libraries because they “did not recognize communal ownership of property” (Stabler, Now She Is Martha 202). Another reason is that there is no surviving evidence of the Parisian beguinage producing books or manuscripts (202). Miller believes that book ownership among beguines was more popular than evidence suggests. Walter Simons believes that beguine-owned books outside and inside Paris “were fragile items of personal property and highly movable objects, easily transferred along ties of family or friendship” (101). 

Narrowing the field to specifically Parisian beguine-owned Books of Hours proves even more difficult. The wills of some beguines confirm the mobility of these books. For example, Martine Canu, in her will, gifted hers to a fellow beguine, Guillamette la Patite, who then passed it to a woman named Robinette. Miller explains the uncertainty of Robinette’s position as a beguine. However, Robinette was then “free to pass the book on to someone outside the community” (Beguines of Medieval Paris 109). This exchange is the only testamentary evidence of Parisian beguines passing a Book of Hours. While a few other wills suggest similar book transfers, the evidence specifically for Books of Hours is not concrete.  

However, outside of Paris, according to Virginia Reinberg, “beguines from fourteenth-and-fifteenth-century Tournai owned books of hours” (61). Reinberg explains that religious women in Paris left their “books of hours to nuns, beguines, and ‘dear friends’” (75). Therefore, even though there is no surviving beguine-owned Book of Hours in Paris, ample evidence suggests their ownership both within and beyond the city. Since beguines did not take vows, they could leave the beguinage any time. Books of Hours were highly movable objects; therefore, since beguines and Book of Hours moved in and out of beguinages, it is challenging to identify a book as specifically a beguine’s book. 

While we currently lack a physical Book of Hours owned by a beguine in Paris, their existence is undeniable. Exploring Book of Hours owned by beguines in communities outside of Paris could offer insights into what one owned by a Parisian beguine might have looked like. 

What does this mean for the Hargrett Hours?

The Hargrett Hours at the University of Georgia continues to be a mystery. The addition of several unrelated saints’ days, the different scribes writing different sections, and the minimalist style of the book makes us wonder for whom the book was actually written. However, if we view this Book of Hours through the lens of a beguine, some of these questions begin to make more sense.

Left: Athens, Georgia, University of Georgia, Hargrett Library,  MS 836 , f. 18v. Right: Baltimore, Walters Art Museum, MS W.99, fol. 73r

Since beguines were on the fringes of society, as widows and lower-class women, it makes sense that the Hargrett Hours does not have a lot of decoration. Decorations and illuminations (as well as other images, large or small) all cost extra when commissioning a prayer book. A beguine would not have a lot of spare money since they were of a lower class, which meant that their prayer books would often be less decorated. The images above are from the Hargrett Hours (left) and another fifteenth century French manuscript (right). The manuscript on the right is from the Walters Art Museum. It is a good comparison for our Book of Hours, since the two have remarkably similar descriptions. They were made around the same time (the fifteenth century), were associated with Paris, and were written in Latin and French. Since the two manuscripts were made around the same time and for the same place, they are a good pair to compare and contrast in terms of appearance and page layout.

The left image is one of the most decorated pages in the Hargrett Hours, and it is not very elaborate. It has a rinceaux border (gold ivy leaves) and some large initials, but those are very common in Books of Hours. The image on the right was for a much wealthier family, since it has the large half-page miniature, a special border, and dragon designs in the corners. Our manuscript has no illuminations (unless they were cut out) and no small drawings of animals or people. Through these images, it is clear that the Hargrett Hours was made for someone with less money, and therefore, it is less decorated. 

Additionally, beguines were of an interesting religious class, since they were not associated with a particular religious order, as nuns would be, and had more freedom with their religious observances. While women in Louis IX’s beguinage would have had some affiliation with this saint and the feast days at his church, Sainte-Chapelle, they may not have been totally devoted to one church. They may have had their favorite saints, or saints from their hometown that they revered. Therefore, the odd assortment of saints and feast days in the calendar of the Hargrett Hours could make sense if it was owned by a beguine. They were not specifically tied to one area and could pick and choose which saints they wanted to add into their personal calendar.

Finally, there is a very interesting section in the Hargrett Hours; in one prayer, there is a lone feminine ending to one of the words. However, it is surrounded by two other masculine endings. It could have been intentional or it could have simply been a scribal mistake in the book, but further research is required to fully understand what this means, if there is actually an answer. Either way, this lone ending gives our prayer book a small connection to pious women.

While there may be many Books of Hours that were owned or commissioned by beguines, we have yet to find many. In the future, more research is needed into beguines and these manuscripts to understand what kinds of books were owned by nuns and beguines. Hopefully, this may shed some light into the origins of the Hargrett Hours.


Cohen, Meredith. The Sainte-Chapelle and the Construction of Sacral Monarchy : Royal Architecture in Thirteenth-Century Paris. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015. 

Labarge, Margaret Wade. Women in Medieval Life : A Small Sound of the Trumpet. Hamilton, 1986. 

Miller, Tanya Stabler. The Beguines of Medieval Paris : Gender, Patronage, and Spiritual Authority. The Middle Ages Series. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014. 

Miller, Tanya Stabler. “What’s in a Name? Clerical Representations of Parisian Beguines (1200-1328).” Journal of Medieval History 33, no. 1 (January 1, 2007): 60-86. doi:10.1016/j.jmedhist.2007.01.005 

Reinburg, Virginia. French Books of Hours: Making an Archive of Prayer, c. 1400-1600. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2012.

Simons, Walter. “‘Staining the Speech of Things Divine’: The Uses of Literacy in Medieval Beguine Communities.” In The Voice of Silence: Women’s Literacy in a Men’s Church, edited by Thérèse de Hemptinne and María Eugenia Góngora, 85–110. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols Publishers, 2004. doi:10.1484/m.mcs-eb.3.3595.

Stabler, Tanya Suella, and Santa Barbara/History University of California. Now She Is Martha, Now She Is Mary: Beguine Communities in Medieval Paris (1250–1470). 2007. University of California-Santa Barbara, PhD Dissertation.  Dissertation Abstracts International.