The Book of the Heart jacket

"A monument of medieval scholarship with profound implications for our understanding of the changing relationship between writing, mind, and what it means to be human at millennium's end. Jager moves easily and brilliantly between the study of ideas, the physical conditions surrounding the passage from scroll to codex, and visual representations of the heart."—R. Howard Bloch, Augustus R. Street Professor of French, Yale University

"Eric Jager has chosen the perfect title for his work: he is concerned, above all, with the identification in medieval writing between the codex and the heart, which together formed a favourite picture for the inward personality.…The Book of the Heart offers a serious exploration of a central symbol of medieval culture, and some interesting perceptions about its importance in the wider world."—Colin Morris, Times Literary Supplement

"Jager studies the concept of the 'self' as its definition changed from classical antiquity to the computer age. …He devotes the greatest part of his fine, readable study to medieval attitudes of the self as text, including an entire chapter on Augustine.…The discussion is much enhanced by superb illustrations."—Choice

"The Book of the Heart provides a fresh perspective on the influence of the book as artifact on our language and culture. Reading this book broadens our appreciation of the relationship between things and ideas."
—Henry Petroski, author of The Book on the Bookshelf

Reading the Book of the Heart from the Middle Ages to the Twenty-First Century
by Eric Jager, author of The Book of the Heart


"Reading" someone's mind, making a "mental note," "turning over a new leaf," personal "character," mental "impressions"—all of these are evocative metaphors for the human psyche and its workings that show how deeply books have shaped our sense of who we are.

The heart has a special role in the history of the self-book metaphor. We still speak of learning texts "by heart," and our word "record" (from the Latin cor) links the heart with both memory (its original meaning) and written documents. Indeed, "the book of the heart" was a common and influential metaphor from antiquity until early modern times. The heart-book metaphor achieved its most vivid and powerful expressions during the Middle Ages, when it was central to the notion of the self in religion, psychology, literature, and art, inspiring the heart-shaped books portrayed in paintings of the late Middle Ages, and even actual heart-shaped volumes containing songs, poems, or prayers.

The fascinating story of this metaphor is the subject of Eric Jager's The Book of the Heart. This exclusive online feature offers a guided tour of the self-book in religion, art, and literature, from the heart-book to the computer-brain, including the stories behind the origins of some of our most beloved Valentine's Day icons.

The First Valentine?

The human heart has symbolized love and passion since ancient times, but only during the Middle Ages did it acquire the familiar shape and meaning it still has today as the universal logo of love that appears everywhere from Valentine cards and candy boxes to bumper stickers and popular songs. Medieval poets enshrined the heart as a symbol of human passion and popularized many romantic metaphors that we now think of as clichés—the "wounded" heart, the "broken" heart, the "stolen" heart, and so forth. By about 1400, artists had given the heart its now-familiar form as a symmetrical red emblem (quite different from the actual physical organ), depicting the "heart" in paintings and other visual art as a gift or token exchanged between lovers.

For example, a French tapestry dating from around 1400, "The Offering of the Heart" (Musée de Cluny, Paris), shows an elegantly attired couple in a pleasure garden, where the man offers his "heart" to a woman as a symbol of his love and devotion to her. This image, in which lovers are shown exchanging a heart, might well be called "the first Valentine," although that honor is often accorded to a love poem by Charles d'Orléans, a member of the French royal family who was held captive in England after the Battle of Agincourt (1415) and who wrote many poems, some addressed to women, about the heart. One poem includes the following lines (as translated by David A. Fein, from Charles d'Orléans):

Because I cannot see you,
My heart complains day and night,
Lovely lady, peerless one of France,
And has charged me to write you
That he does not have all he desires
In the Prison of Discontent.

But the actual custom of exchanging paper hearts or other tokens of love on February 14th probably did not begin until several centuries later, when the medieval notion of romantic love—once limited to only leisured and wealthy aristocrats like those pictured in "The Offering of the Heart"—had been democratized to include people from all walks of life. Gifts and greetings were exchanged between lovers and friends on February 14th as early as the sixteenth or seventeenth century. But the origin of the modern holiday may be dated from the introduction of mass-produced greeting cards around 1840.


The Book of the Heart

The notion of the heart as a "book" containing a person's thoughts, feelings, or memories is one of most prominent forms of heart symbolism in the Middle Ages. In romances, lovers' hearts were inscribed with the name or image of their beloved, while saints' legends celebrated martyrs whose hearts received marks of special divine favor. Clergy were instructed to let their inner scribe copy God's commands onto the pages of their hearts, and ordinary believers prayed for Christ to write the memory of his Passion in their "heart books." Artists portrayed authors holding a heart and a pen, and some late-medieval paintings depicted the sitter as a scribe or reader holding a heart-shaped manuscript codex. Medieval artisans even produced actual heart-shaped manuscript books, some of which still survive.

The metaphor of an inner "book" appears in both classical and biblical tradition and may ultimately go back to ancient Egyptian sources. The classical and biblical metaphors combined in early Christian theology, which pictured the heart (representing the soul, mind, conscience, memory, etc.) as a "book" containing a record of the individual's life—every thought, word, and deed. The book of the heart was known only to God during one's earthly life, but would be opened and read aloud to all at the Last Judgment.

As for its "format," the book of the heart was originally imagined as a tablet or scroll, and not until the birth of the codex (200-400 A.D.) did it assume the familiar shape of the book as we still know it today. The theologian Origen (c.250), for example, still pictured the inner book as a scroll "rolled up" in each person's heart, while Saint Basil (c.329-379) compared the heart to a wax writing-tablet that was erased and rewritten as a result of religious conversion.

Saint Augustine (354-430) was a pivotal figure in the evolution of the book of the heart. His spiritual autobiography, the Confessions, is essentially the story of his heart, and his famous conversion story closely identifies his heart with the codex in particular. Artists would later depict Augustine sitting at his desk with an open book, holding a pen in one hand and his heart in the other.

In later centuries, monks and scholars developed the book of the heart by allegorizing every aspect of the manuscript codex and its uses, from its polished vellum (piety) to its securing clasp (secrecy), and from checking the text for errors (accuracy of memory) to regular daily reading (heart-felt devotion). In clerical culture, the book of the heart usually contained divine truths, devotional feelings, or a personal moral record. According to one twelfth-century scholar, "Each person carries in his heart a written record, as it were, whereby his conscience accuses or defends him." The inner book thus represented not only the unique human individual but also the secret or private self—a crucial contribution to the modern concept of the person.


Picturing the Metaphor

Around 1485, an anonymous Flemish artist (known today as the Master of the View of Sainte Gudule) gave pictorial form to the book of the heart, possibly for the first time ever, in a small, round-topped portrait now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The painting shows a man holding an opened heart-shaped book near a church whose wall is cut away to show a Catholic mass in progress.

The moment pictured in the painting is the Elevation of the Host, the part of the liturgy that directly follows the consecrating words, "This is my body" ("Hoc est enim corpus meum"). The heart-shaped book, aligned with the Host above it, suggests the commemoration and worship of Christ, as reinforced by a visual pun that links the worshipper's heart (cor) to Christ's body (corpus). The heart-shaped book—which is open but illegible—also suggests the unique and hidden self. The Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris holds a heart-shaped Latin prayer book (fifteenth century) similar to the one pictured here.

The same artist painted another, similar portrait, now at the National Gallery in London, which depicts the subject specifically as an author or scribe, as indicated by the pen case and inkwell lying on the nearby ledge or window sill. The reader with the heart-shaped book and scribal tools may suggest the heart as a book of reckoning in which each person keeps his own moral accounts, or the relation of devotional memory ("writing") to recollection ("reading"), or even the individual's responsibility for creating ("writing") and understanding ("reading") his own life. The hint of Renaissance self-fashioning has religious roots in Saint Augustine's notion of "writing" one's own life and "reading" it retrospectively in the light of divine grace.

By the late Middle Ages, the "book of the heart" had become a popular religious notion, as shown by the great fresco of the Last Judgment at the Cathedral of Albi in southern France. Painted in the 1490s, the fresco shows resurrected souls presenting their hearts as "open books" for the final reckoning. Opened wide and worn on each person's chest—"over the heart"—these individual books of reckoning are vivid emblems of the fully revealed inner self.


From Logos to Eros

Compared with the medieval Catholic Church, the secular courts celebrated a very different book of the heart—one filled not with divine commands or moral records but amorous memories and erotic feelings. The inner scribe who "wrote" this more sensual book of the heart was identified not with God, reason, or conscience, but instead with the Cupid, the human lover, or even his lady. And its introspective reader studied the commandments of love, the charms of the beloved, or his own turbulent emotional history.

The romantic book of the heart never wholly abandoned its religious sources (sensual love, after all, was a quasi-religious form of "worship"), and the religious book of the heart often borrowed from its romantic counterpart. But as the book of the heart moved from cloister to court, it tended to reverse the Christian priority of logos to eros. Instead of an interior writing that represented spiritual values and the transcending of carnal impulses, courtly poets and artists openly celebrated a writing on the "fleshly" heart that embodied sexual desires, memories, and fantasies.

The Italian poet Boccaccio, for example, dreamed that his lady opened his heart and wrote her name there in gold letters. Petrarch claimed to carry in his heart "the story of [his] suffering" for his beloved Laura. And Charles d'Orléans wrote about mournfully "reading" his book of the heart and "erasing" from it the pleasant images and memories of times past.

Dante used an even more elaborate book of the heart in the Vita nuova, the story of his love for Beatrice: "In the book of my memory, after the first pages, which are almost blank, there is a section headed Incipit vita nova. Beneath this heading I find the words which it is my intention to copy into this smaller book, or if not all, at least their meaning." Dante then "transcribes" some "excerpts" from his private book of memory (or heart) to an external and public book where others can read them.

A similar idea underlies the scene in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, where Olivia questions Viola (acting as a go-between) about Duke Orsino's professed love for her:

Olivia: Where lies your text?
Viola: In Orsino's bosom.
Olivia: In his bosom? In what chapter of his bosom?
Viola: To answer by the method, in the first of his heart.
Olivia: O, I have read it; it is heresy. Have you no more to say?

The allusions to exegetical "method" and doctrinal "heresy" coyly contrast the amorous book of the heart and its sensual content with a moral or religious book of the heart containing divine truths and modeled on Scripture itself.


The Embodied Book

The amorous book of the heart evoked by secular poets assumed an even more vivid and concrete form in the heart-shaped songs and books produced by late-medieval and Renaissance artisans. A heart-shaped song composed by Baude Cordier (c.1400) survives in the famous Chantilly manuscript containing shaped musical scores. Addressed to a lady, the song begins with a series of compliments and goes on to offer her the lover's heart:

Beautiful, good, wise, pleasing, and elegant lady,
On this very day when the year begins anew,
I make you the gift of a new song in my heart
Which presents itself to you.

More than just a reified metaphor, the heart-shaped song is a script that is fully realized only by its bodily enactment. Here the gesture shown in "The Offering of the Heart" takes the form of a musical performance, as the lover gives his "heart" to his lady by singing the "song in my heart," externalizing the song in the form of words that issue from his "heart" (chest).

The most complete physical embodiment of the romantic book of the heart is the famous heart-shaped songbook known as the Chansonnier de Jean de Montchenu (c.1475). One of several surviving heart-shaped manuscript books containing poems or music, but the only one to contain colored illustrations, this book is now kept at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. As a collection of love poems set to music, this elegant illuminated manuscript in the form of a double heart takes the heart-book metaphor to what seems like its absolute limit. At the same time, it turns the metaphor inside out by making interior and metaphorical writing into literal and external writing once again.


The Modern Book of the Heart

Early modern science and technology further revolutionized the heart-book metaphor. After Gutenberg, the book of the heart was often pictured as a printed volume. And as physicians reduced the heart to a pump, forcing philosophers to relocate the soul or self to the head, the book of the heart was gradually replaced by "the book of the brain." This more cerebral book of the self survived into the twentieth century, when even Freud adapted it to his theories of the psyche, and Jacques Lacan, one of Freud's psychoanalytic successors, directly likened the unconscious mind to the "censored chapter" of a book. Literary authors also adopted it, as when Virginia Woolf, in To the Lighthouse (1927), describes a character's psyche in terms of "the infinite series of impressions which time has laid down, leaf upon leaf, fold upon fold softly, incessantly upon his brain."

The book of the heart was still used in a romantic sense, as in Edith Wharton's 1905 novel, The House of Mirth (recently made into a movie), which describes its heroine, Lily Bart, as "a keen reader of her own heart." And even more recently it has showed up in song lyrics, as in Paul McCartney's hit tune from the 1973 film Live and Let Die, whose opening line goes: "When you were young, and your heart was an open book...."

Popular music also keeps alive many other heart metaphors inherited from the Middle Ages, as shown by recording artists from Sinatra ("I Left My Heart in San Francisco") to Sade ("Somebody Already Broke My Heart"). As for the mind-book metaphor in general, we continue using it in everyday speech whenever we refer to "impressions," "character," and other traces of the old textual self.

But book metaphors are rapidly losing out to newer tropes based on modern media and machines. Already more than a century ago, Kodak gave us "mental pictures" and "photographic memory," while Hollywood has taught us to experience "flashbacks" and to offer our "take" on things. Today, with camcorders and VCRs everywhere, we speak of "replaying" our memories. Or, using the latest high-tech metaphor for the human psyche, the computer, we talk about "mental software," "hard-wired" personal traits, and what is on our "screens."

The computer-brain metaphor originated around 1970 in the cognitive sciences, where specialists now discuss perception and memory in terms of "synaptic circuitry" and "computational cost." With computers in millions of offices and homes, cyberpsychology has entered everyday life as well. And its popularity tells us a lot about who we think we are as we enter the twenty-first century. (See, for instance, the cover of Time magazine for March 25, 1996—a photomontage of a woman's face and a computer circuit-board.)

We still pay homage to the old metaphor, as in the slogan of a recent literacy campaign, "Find Yourself in a Book." But when these words flash onto the TV screen for a few seconds during a station break, they ironically signal not only the book's demise as an actual medium for understanding ourselves and the world, but also its loosening hold as a symbol in our collective imagination. (For more on how the computer/brain model has replaced the book of the heart and other textual metaphors in both popular and scientific psychology, see the article by Eric Jager from the September 22, 2000 issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education, "Books, Computers, and Other Metaphors of Memory.")


From the Book of the Heart to the Valentine's Day Greeting Card

But even as book metaphors in general disappear, the book of the heart still thrives in the form of Valentine's Day greeting cards—the ever-popular "valentine"—sold annually by the millions around the world.

The original book of the heart, in ancient times, was imagined as a pair of wooden tablets filled with soft wax on which a stylus marked characters, or "impressions." The two tablets, attached and folding shut, were known as a "diptych." The book of the heart remained a diptych with the advent of the codex, a bound set of handwritten or printed sheets that also closed down the middle.

When the stylized human heart likewise assumed the form of a diptych in the Middle Ages (as seen in the medieval tapestry linked above, "The Offering of the Heart"), the diptychal heart was combined with the diptychal codex to produce the heart-shaped books seen in late-medieval art and actual book-making (as shown in some of the other linked images above). Here the heart-book metaphor reached perhaps its most perfect embodiment.

Today the book of the heart may have lost its intellectual force to more high-tech metaphors, but in formal and sentimental terms it still lives on in the valentine card, which is also a diptych. The typical valentine contains an image of the heart, along with an amorous message (handwritten or printed, touching or cheesy), and it opens and closes like a book—a book of the heart in miniature. In this popular, mass-produced or hand-made form, breathlessly anticipated by lovers and would-be lovers every February 14, the heart-book is likely to have a very long life indeed.

See also The History Channel's Valentine's Day Exhibit an excellent general overview of the history of Valentine's Day, from the story of St. Valentine and the Roman festival of the Lupercalia to the role that pre-printed cards and lower postage rates played in popularizing the valentine.


Copyright notice: ©2001 by Eric Jager. This text appears on the University of Chicago Press website by permission of the author. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. and international copyright law and agreements, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that Eric Jager and the University of Chicago Press are notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of Eric Jager.

Eric Jager
The Book of the Heart
©2000, 294 pages, 12 halftones
Cloth $39.00 ISBN: 978-0-226-39116-8
Paper $18.00 ISBN: 978-0-226-39117-5

For information on purchasing the book—from bookstores or here online—please go to the webpage for The Book of the Heart.

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