Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index

  • Title: Personified figures of Humility and Pride from Somme le roi
  • Creator: Workshop of Honoré, miniaturist
  • Description:

    This illumination in the upper register presents a juxtaposition of humility and pride. Humility on the viewer’s left is personified as a woman, holding a candle, and in the other hand an emblem of the virtue. She wears a blue gown, a tan cloak with a red lining, a veil, and a crown. Above her head is the inscription “humilite.” She stands on a kneeling unicorn against a background of fleurs-de-lis.

    In the panel to the right of Humility, the biblical king Ahaziah represents pride. Wearing a red gown, a crown, and a tan robe with a green lining, Ahaziah falls from the tower of a castle. The scene comes from Second Kings, 1:2- “Ahaziah had fallen through the lattice in his upper chamber in Samaria, and lay injured; so he sent messengers, telling them, ‘Go inquire of Baal-zebub, the god of Ekron, whether I shall recover from this injury.’” (New Oxford Annotated Bible). The Prophet Elijah then chastises Ahaziah for seeking out Baal over the god of the Israelites and curses the king to die from his wound. Above the scene are the inscriptions “orgueil” (French for ‘pride’) and “occozias” (an Old French rendering of the name Ahaziah).

    Below Humility and Ahaziah are figures embodying related vices. On the left a sinner labelled “le pecheeur” (dressed in the same blue, red, and tan colors as Humility)prays at an altar and on the right a hypocrite wth the label “lypocrite” (dressed in the same colors as Ahaziah and wearing a Jew’s hat) kneels before a bare altar and points toward the sinner.

    This illumination comes from a manuscript of the Somme le Roi, a moral treatise written around 1279 by Dominican monk Laurent d’Orleans for Philippe III, king of France whom Laurent served as confessor and tutor to the royal children. The Somme le Roi became popular among members of the nobility as a guide to penance through its meditation on virtues and vices and its accessible text in French. Many manuscripts were produced in the 1290s under Philippe IV. At least seven of these manuscripts contain the same lavish fifteen-part illumination cycle of virtues and vices, likely prescribed in instructions written by someone in Philippe’s court. The manuscript from which this image was taken (BL Additional 54180) was one of these seven.

    Richard and Mary Rouse argue that BL Additional 54180 was King Philippe IV’s own copy of the Somme le Roi, citing the background of fleurs-de-lis that appears in the image and has no parallel in the other manuscripts. Along with Eric Millar, the Rouses attribute this image to the workshop of the Parisian miniaturist Honoré, who was a well-to-do craftsman who did work for the crown.

    The personification of virtues as women was common in medieval art, and can be traced back to Prudentius’ Psychomachia. Although the virtues in that work are much more warlike than the ones in the Somme le Roi, their personification as women persists. This image of Humility raises the further question how female personifications may have constructed ideas about the feminine gender. While the figure’s attributes of grace, beauty, and modesty capture Humility’s essence, they may also set a standard for young women’s behavior.

  • Source: Wikimedia Commons
  • Rights: Public domain
  • Subject (See Also): Honoré, Miniaturist Humility Lay Piety Penance Personification Philippe III, King of France Somme le Roi, Treatise Vices Virtues
  • Geographic Area: France
  • Century: 13
  • Date: ca. 1295
  • Related Work: Examples from the group of seven manuscripts of the Somme le Roi which have similar, lavish full-page illuminations: Hannover, Niedersächsische Landesbibliothek I.82;
    London, BL Additional 28162 (http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/Viewer.aspx?ref=add_ms_28162_f005v);
    Paris, Bibliotheque Mazarine 870 (http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b84790120/f184.image.r=Mazarine%20870)
  • Current Location: London, British Library, Additional MS 54180
  • Original Location: Paris
  • Artistic Type (Category): Digital Images; Manuscript Illuminations
  • Artistic Type (Material/Technique): Vellum (parchment); Paint; Gold leaf
  • Donor: Layman (?); Possibly King Philippe IV of France
  • Height/Width/Length(cm): 18.5/12.5 [full page]/
  • Inscription: Labels for the different panels: “humilite” [upper left], “orgueil” and “occozias” [upper right], “le pecheeur” [lower left] and “lypocrite” [lower right] (humility, pride, Old French form of the name Ahaziah, the sinner, the hypocrite).
  • Related Resources: Carruthers, Leo M. “Lorens of Orléans and the Somme le Roi or The Book of Vices and Virtues.” Vox Benedictina: A Journal of Translations from Monastic Sources 5, 2/3 (1988): 190-200;
    Kumler, Aden. Translating Truth: Ambitious Images and Religious Knowledge in Late Medieval France and England. Yale University Press, 2011. Pages 180-184;
    Laurent. La Somme le roi. Edited by Édith Brayer and Anne-Françoise Leurquin Labie. Société des Anciens Textes Français, 2008;
    Millar, Eric G. The Parisian Miniaturist Honoré. Faber and Faber Limited, 1959;
    Nugent, S. Georgia. “Virtus or Virago? The Female Personification of Prudentius’s Psychomachia.” In Virtue and Vice: The Personifications in the Index of Christian Art. Edited by Colum Hourihane. Princeton University Press, 2000. Pages 13-28;
    Rouse, Richard H., and Mary A. Rouse. “’Honoré’ and the Papeleu Master: The Dissemination of the Illustrated Somme le roi.” In Illiterati et uxorati: Manuscripts and their Makers: Commercial Book Producers in Medieval Paris 1200-1500, Volume One, Richard and Mary Rouse. Harvey Miller Publishers, 2000. Pages 145-171.