This fourteenth century CE Book of Hours—a type of medieval devotional volume with texts, prayers and psalms, and usually beautifully illuminated—is a carefully constructed piece of devotional narrative offers a guide to Christian history. It begins with the creation of the universe and concludes with a decisive moment in Christian history, the Roman siege of Jerusalem in 70 CE.
On this leaf of the manuscript, the Roman army appears below the battlements of Jerusalem, firing arrows up into the ranks of the Jews above. Amidst the ranks of Jewish soldiers on the lower section of the wall are two women, devouring their own babies in an act of savage desperation. This depiction of infanticide may be derived from Josephus’ story of Mary of Bethezuba, as seen in the Gospel Book of Otto III. Unusually, however, this depiction shows not one but two women consuming their children. This suggests the author may (also) have been influenced by the description of the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem, as recounted in Lamentations: 'The hands of compassionate women have boiled their own children; they became their food in the destruction of my people.'
The horror of the city's destruction by the Babylonians and the suffering of its people were understood by Lamentations and other texts of the period, such as Ezekiel, as just punishment for their broken covenant with Yhwh. For the Christian readership of this fourteenth century book of hours, the cannibalism it represents was the Jews' punishment for killing Christ—a deeply problematic but common Christian accusation against the Jews. The text's caption thus declares that it depicts ‘How Titus and Vespasian the Emperor of Rome destroyed the Jews in the city of Jerusalem for the love of God. And how the women ate their sons and the sons their fathers and the fathers their sons’.
The Sarum in the title refers to the Cathedral of Salisbury, which had its own slightly different liturgy and continues to do so to this day.
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