One of the manuscripts held at Saint Meinrad Archabbey, a partner in the Peripheral Manuscript Project, is an illuminated personal prayer book (a book of hours), most likely dating from the early 15th century. Its 164 vellum leaves, about 180 mm x 120 mm, contain a calendar of feasts and saints, the Hours of the Virgin, Seven Penitential Psalms, collections of prayers for different occasions, the Office of the Dead, and a Life of St. Margaret of Antioch in Old French verse. Some of the text is in Latin, some in old French. The book is modestly decorated with gold initials and 14 small illustrations, mostly from the life of the Virgin and the infancy of Christ. The only border decorations are elaborate floral and leaf patterns surrounding the illustrations. A descriptive bibliographer who analyzed the book in 1979 did not think highly of the illustrations. The bibliographer wrote that “the illustrations are far from being fine examples of manuscript illumination. Perspective is lacking, human figures are drawn with a certain stiffness, [and] no great attention is given to the details of a scene.” Nevertheless, the less refined style of the illustrations conveys naïve wonder and energy that lends them a certain charm.
The history of the book is for the most part unknown. A list of births from about 1495 to 1505, which begins on the last folio and continues on an inserted paper flyleaf at the beginning of the book, allows us to place the book in northwest France for those ten years. During that period it was owned by the Huchet de la Bédoyère family of Talensac, Brittany. The manuscript’s next known location is the attic of the rectory of St. John’s Church in Indianapolis in 1979. About the intervening 475 years we can only wonder, but one interesting and plausible speculation is that it was brought to America by Father Simon Bruté. Father Bruté was born in 1779 in Rennes, about ten miles from Talensac. His father was a wealthy printer to the King and Parliament. Father Brutè immigrated to the United States and in 1834 became the first bishop of the Diocese of Vincennes, which originally served Indiana and the eastern third of Illinois. The diocesan seat was moved to Indianapolis in 1898. Bishop Bruté brought an extensive personal library with him to Indiana, much of it originating from France. This prayer book could have been part of this collection.
When the book was discovered by the Diocese of Indianapolis in the late 1970s, it was sent to Special Collections at Indiana State University and then to the University of Chicago to be studied. This resulted in an article on the book in the French journal Mémoires de Bretagne by Sharon Anne Pocock, then a University of Chicago graduate student in French language and literature. This article came to the attention of a gentleman in Brittany, Abel du Longbois, who sent a letter to the Diocese of Indianapolis about the continued existence of the Huchet de la Bédoyère family. M. du Longbois had been a bridge partner of the late Marquise de la Bédoyère. In 1986 the Diocese of Indianapolis donated the book to Saint Meinrad Archabbey.
By Daniel Kolb, Library Director, Saint Meinrad Archabbey, Seminary and School of Theology