My ancestors’ books, pt. 1: Prayer

June 28, 2011

I spent the previous weekend house-sitting for my parents and used the opportunity to rummage through a certain drawer full of old books in their attic. Said books mostly date to ca. 1880-1940 and once belonged to my forebears (from both my mum’s and my dad’s side of the family). They passed into my parents’ possession after the last of my great-grandparents died, because, I believe, among all of their siblings both my mum and my dad are the ones with the greatest interest in old books so it just seemed natural that they should have them.

I’m not sure if I mentioned this before, but I grew up in the easternmost part of Austria, just off the Hungarian border, in an area that up until recently had always been a) rural, b) poor, and c) Catholic. To show you how Catholic, let me pass on this little story my grandma once told me: For complicated historical reasons, one of the neighbouring villages – but really just that one – is not Catholic but Protestant. They have, of course, their own church which was built in the mid-19th century in the Romanesque Revival style and is rather pretty on the outside. So when my grandma was a kid (we’re talking late 1930s/early 1940s here), she would just have loved to see what that church looked like inside. However, she never dared to actually look into it. Why? Because the Catholic priest in our own village had told her and her classmates in school that if they even so much as peeped through that Protestant church’s door, they’d go straight to hell.

What I’m trying to say is that those books in my parents’ drawer come from a time and place where eternal damnation was still considered a viable threat and where the parish priest was the highest authority in the village. Add to that the fact that due to the region’s socio-economic structure the general level of education was pretty low, and you won’t be surprised to hear that my ancestors only ever possessed a small handful of books and that most of those were prayer books.

As you can see from the above photos, some of those prayer books are quite fancy, though, and must have cost a considerable amount of money, at least by the standards of small farmers and village artisans like my ancestors who were always struggling to make ends meet, anyway. These expensive books must have been considered something of a treasure, then, and it’s only fitting that the books with the most elaborate bindings and decorations, while apparently worn by age, show little or no signs of actual use.

There are however other, more basic prayer books in the collection, too, and it looks as though these are the ones that were actually used in the daily religious practice…

But it’s not just worn out covers, broken spines, thumbed and withered pages that show how intensely certain books have been read and used. Many of them are also stacked with, shall we say, bookmarks: Small printed cards and leaflets with texts of prayers and indulgences, images of saints and popes…

… remembrance cards commemorating deceased family members, souvenir cards commemorating visits to important local pilgrimage sites like Mariazell or Maria Schutz:


But then, that’s not all there is. Some of those books contain other, less expected “bookmarks”…

(To be continued)

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