The Book of Hours – A Medieval Bestseller
No other typology of manuscript has survived in such great numbers as the Book of Hours. By the thirteenth century it became the most used prayerbook in western Europe. In this page, we are going to give some basic information to learn more about these beautiful illuminated manuscripts, and discover some amazing miniatures in the process.
The Origin of the name: “Book of Hours”
To understand the reasons why the Books of Hours are called this way, we have to analyze the word: “hour”. It comes from the Greek word ὅρα, later hora in Latin, which indicated “a limited space of time”, or, more specifically, the 3 seasons the ancient Greeks divided the year in. In the middle ages it slightly modified its meaning and started to indicate the more or less exact space of time dedicated to praying or doing business. Ordinary people had the desire to follow the example of monastic orders, which had a routine of rituals and prayers to be observed every day. The Book of Hours had the aim of making them able to do just that.
The Composition of a “Book of Hours”
The Books of Hours are not all alike, and that’s part of the beauty of these manuscripts. There is quite some variety concerning which devotional texts were to be included in a Book of Hours, although some sections were common to all of them. We are going to go through the most common ones.
Detail from the Vanderbilt Hours, f. 74r
With a list of the saint’s days for each month, the Calendar is always at the beginning of the Book of Hours. Important days, such as Christmas or feast days of the Apostles are usually written in red (“Red letter days” comes from here) or gold. The rest of the saints or festivals are in normal black. It is a oftenly decorated part of the manuscript. It’s easy to find illuminated pages of labors of the month or local activities, along with zodiac signs.
Sequences from the Gospels
Usually beginning with and illumination of one of the four evangelist, the Sequences from the Gospels is a part often present in a Book of Hours and is made of extracts from each of the Evangelists. The way they were portrayed is quite standard: Usually sitting at their desk, writing the Gospels, with their attribute (the angel, the bull, the eagle, the lion) next to them. Occasionally you may find Saint John on the Isle of Patmos, where he had a vision of the Apocalypse and wrote the Book of Revelation.
Prayers to the Virgin
Typical of French Books of Hours, the Prayers to the Virgin were usually introduced by representation of a Pietà or a Virgin and Child. In this section we can find two prayers: Obsecro te, with the owner of the book kneeling in an illustration nearby, and O intemerata, usually not illustrated.
Hours of the Virgin
The essential part of any Book of Hours. It is formed by a standard series of prayers along with psalms to be recited at each of the eight canonical hours of the day: Matins, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers and Compline. Usually it is the most heavily decorated section of the manuscript with each Hour decorated by a miniature representing an episode from the life of Mary.
Hours of the Cross and Holy Spirit
Composed by an hymn, an antiphon and a prayer, these Hours are much shorter when compared to the others. Little to no miniatures. The prayers here were used to supplement the standard hourly prayers.
Another core part of the Book of Hours and the section that presents the most various miniatures; usually David is represented, being the author of the Psalms after having committed all the Seven Deadly Sins. The psalms are an outcry of sorrow for the committed sins.
Third essential part of the Book of Hours. The Litany is a cry from help from the Holy Trinity, Virgin Mary, Archangel Gabriel, Michael and Raphael and the Saints. As imaginable, there is small space for decoration in this section of the manuscript.
Office of the Dead
Divided in two parts, Matins for the mornings and Vespers for the evening, the Office of the dead consists in a series of prayers that were originally intended to be said over the coffin, while it was resting in a church. With death being an important aspect of the Medieval period, it is easy to imagine that this section of the Book of Hours is heavily decorated. Skulls, skeletons and Memento Mori are typical of latter Book of Hours. Earlier ones usually present the classic Universal Judgement.
The Suffrages are composed by short devotions with prayers to the Holy Trinity, the Virgin Mary, St. Michael, St. John the Baptist, the Apostles. After follow an almost always unique selection of saints, represented with their traditional emblems. This is a heavily decorated part of the manuscript.
In this page we have barely scratched the surface about these manuscripts. We hope we made you curious and willing to know more about medieval manuscripts in general. Here are some useful reseources where you can continue learning about Book of Hours and find even more links:
Also, remember to visit your local library to find hundreds of books on the matter. Or even, start your own collection. If you would like to read more about Books of Hours, here is what we recommend and what we have used to write this article:
Introduction to Manuscript Studies – An excellent and complete book to start off if new to medieval manuscripts. Complete and informative.
A History of Illuminated Manuscripts – Less technical than Introduction to Manuscript Studies. While being easy to read, it explains many details on how books were used in the medieval period.
Books of Hours (Phaidon Miniature Editions) – Focuses on Book of Hours only, small and with fascinating folios from various manuscripts. Weak on the informative side.
The Hours of Catherine of Cleves: Devotion, Demons and Daily Life in the Fifteenth Century – An impressive book, packed with information about one of the most beautiful Books of Hours.