Books of Hours

A medieval best-seller bought by scores of ordinary people, the Book of Hours takes its name from the prayers recited at home during eight different times or hours of the day (Matins, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, and Compline). Although many Books of Hours are today housed in museums and libraries, Books of Hours still exist on the market in greater number than any other type of medieval manuscript.

Books of Hours are remarkably varied. Everyday versions were sometimes written on paper with modest ornamentation. Deluxe versions were nearly always copied on fine parchment and richly illuminated with precious gold leaf and lapis lazuli. Kings and queens, princes and princesses, doctors, lawyers, merchants, housewives, and even children, who learned to read from them, owned Books of Hours. Wealthy women often received illuminated Books of Hours as dowry presents. Recording in them milestones of family history, they passed them down from generation to generation as heirlooms.

Different texts and illustrations are typically found together in Books of Hours. Recited in honor of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the core of the manuscript, the Hours of the Virgin, is illustrated with the Christmas story, made up of charming scenes from the early life of Christ. Other sets of readings include the Hours of the Cross and the Hours of the Holy Spirit. Psalms of penance open with a miniature of King David in prayer. Recited at funerals, an Office of the Dead usually begins with a miniature of a funeral. A calendar prefaces each Book of Hours. Listing the important feast days throughout the year, calendars frequently include pictures of the Signs of the Zodiac and the Labors of the Month, activities common to a particular time of year. Suffrages, or prayers to special saints, were a way of tailoring each book to its owner (Margaret for protection against pregnancies, Apollonia for dental problems, Christopher for travelers, Luke for physicians and artists, and so forth).

Every Book of Hours is unique. Texts vary from town to town, region to region, and their liturgical content is referred to as "use" (Use of Rome, Use of Paris, Use of Rouen, etc.). Simple manuscripts without much personalization were probably available from the off-the-shelf stock of stationers in the larger towns, while lavish versions in which the texts and pictures were selected with a particular owner in mind were commissioned often at great expense. One of the most lavish and famous examples is the Tres Riches Heures of John, duke of Berry.

Further reading:

Roger Wieck, Time Sanctified: The Book of Hours in Medieval Art and Life, New York, 1988.

Roger Wieck, Painted Prayers: The Book of Hours in Medieval and Renaissance Art, New York, The Pierpont Morgan Library, 1997, 1999, second printing.

A Hypertext Book of Hours: site by Glenn Gunhouse with English and Latin texts from a Book of Hours, c. 1599

(Hypertext also available in the Online Reference Book for Medieval Studies, ORB)

An introduction and tutorial on Books of Hours (excellent) by Erik Drigsdahl from CHD (The Center for Handskriftstudier i Danmark)

The Tres Riches Heures web site with on line pictures of its full pages.