Reading habits haven’t changed that much then, according to art historians

With people the world over worried about the development of reading habits, whether we read traditional books, self-published books or e-books, or not at all, there are those fearing that reading is becoming a dying art. But a recent study into the reading habits of medieval Europeans have revealed that we are not so different from our ancestors, and neither are our reading habits.

Kathryn Rudy, an Art History lecturer at the University of St Andrews recently embarked on a project of analysing several 15th and early 16th century prayer books from Europe in order to discover more information about the reading habits of our medieval ancestors. Of course, these books couldn’t tell exactly how much the books were read, or how often people spent time sitting down with a glass of wine and a good book, but Ms Rudy was able to tell what portions of the books particularly interested those that were living at the time, thanks to the darkness of thumbed pages.

The pages that were the dirtiest turned out to be the most read, while those that were clean meant that they were of little interest to medieval readers and were probably not read so much. Just like us, then, the study revealed that readers were worried about illnesses, and the books that were studied showed that the most popular pages were about the plague, and a particular prayer that was said to ward off the disease was also very well read.

In another nod to modern times, Rudy said that pages containing prayers for personal redemption as opposed to that of other people were eagerly delivered in the past.

Of course, the simple reading of a prayer book is not as common in modern times, especially as in the past, according to Rudy, personal health and religion were one and the same, and so in order to remain in good physical health many people would spent the modern equivalent of tens of thousands of pounds on prayer books. Now, where we might pay a visit to the doctor, those living in medieval times might prefer to say a prayer at key prayer times throughout the day.

One last similarity between our modern reading habits and those of our ancestors, is the art of falling asleep while reading, as Rudy said that a particular prayer earmarked for reading in the early hours of the morning showed clear signs of putting the reader to sleep. Those particular prayers had clearly been thumbed through heavily for the first few pages, but the following pages were cleaner, and showed that the readers did not finish, and most likely all fell asleep at the same point. So if you fall asleep when reading, don’t worry, it’s an old family trait!

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