The Black Hours: In Memory of Lisi Oliver

Special Collections recently lost one of our dearest friends, Dr. Lisi Oliver of the LSU English Department, who passed away unexpectedly on June 7, 2015. An expert in early English law and linguistics, Lisi frequently visited Special Collections with her classes to work with medieval manuscripts and other rare books. Through an electrifying mix of learning and laughter, she never failed to spark her students’ interest. Putting the raw materials of history into their hands was one of her many passions.

In Lisi’s memory, we have acquired a facsimile edition of one of the most remarkable medieval manuscripts ever produced—the Black Hours. Lisi saw the facsimile earlier this year when Giovanni Scorcioni, an Italian bookseller, visited LSU as part of a U.S. tour. Her eyes lit up when she saw it. “That’s the coolest thing I’ve ever seen!” she shouted. We knew we had to get it.

The original manuscript, now owned by the Morgan Library in New York City, was produced in Flanders in the late fifteenth century. Known as a book of hours, it is a collection of Christian prayers to be said at the canonical hours of the day. The book also contains a calendar of feast days. A wealthy layperson, possibly a woman, for whom many books of hours were made, would have used it in his or her private devotions.

Typical of such books, the manuscript contains twelve full-page miniatures depicting scenes from the Bible. This particular book, however, is extremely atypical in that its pages have been dyed black. (Lisi loved to show her students our facsimile of the Codex Aureus of Canterbury, famous for its purple pages, but she said she had never seen black pages.) The manuscript’s text is written in silver and gold, creating a striking contrast similar to a photographic negative. Further decorations in blue, green, white, and gold make this one of the most beautiful and unusual manuscripts ever produced. Although more books of hours have survived than any other type of medieval book, only a handful of black manuscripts are known. They seem to have been associated with death and mourning.

Giovanni Scorcioni was especially sad to hear of Lisi’s passing. “She was one of a kind,” he writes. “We originally ran into each other during the 2012 International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo, Michigan. She was one of three hundred people I met there during the four-day medieval marathon, yet I still clearly remember her enthusiasm and bright smile.”

The two met again in Kalamazoo the following year. “At one point during my long stint at the exhibits, meeting hundreds of people, I heard someone shout ‘Hey, Giovanni!! How are you?’ and then, surprisingly, I received a big hug. I must admit that, at first, I didn’t even remember her name, but her warm smile and welcoming nature was instantly familiar. This was Lisi! She was a radiant human being, so enthusiastic and outgoing, with a unique ability to make you feel like an old friend, even if you had just met her a minute ago. The last time I ran into Lisi was last May, in Baton Rouge. I visited LSU and she treated me to dinner at a typical Louisiana restaurant. It was one of the most pleasant and welcoming evenings of my trip. We had a deal: the next dinner would be in Italy, and this time she would have to be my guest. Sadly, her hospitality will now never be returned. I’m sure many of those who enjoyed her presence and warmth have the same feeling: we all still owe Lisi something, and she’s left us way too early. Goodbye, Lisi!”

Page from the "Office for the Dead"

Page from the “Office of the Dead”

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