Book of hours

Book of hours

A book of hours is the most common type of surviving medieval illuminated manuscript. Each book of hours is unique in one way or another, but all contain a collection of texts, prayers and psalms, along with appropriate illustrations, to form a reference for Catholic Christian worship and devotion.

The Latin name for a book of hours is "horae", the English one "primer". Books of hours were usually written in Latin, although there are some examples entirely or partially written in vernacular European languages. Several hundred thousand books of hours have survived to the present day, scattered across libraries and private collections throughout the world.

The typical medieval manuscript called a book of hours is an abbreviated breviary, the book containing the liturgy recited in cloistered monasteries. The books of hours were composed for the lay people who wished to incorporate elements of monasticism into their devotional life. Reciting the hours typically centered upon the recitation or singing of a number of psalms, accompanied by set prayers. A typical book of hours contained:

* The Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which included the fifteen Psalms of Degrees;
* The Office for the Dead, which included the seven Penitential Psalms;
* The Litany of Saints

Most books of hours began with these basic contents, and expanded them with a variety of prayers and devotions. The Marian prayers "Obsecro te" ("I beseech thee") and "O Intemerata" ("O undefiled one") were frequently added, as were devotions for use at Mass, and meditations on the Passion of Christ.


Originally the prayers in a book of hours were private ones but by the 12th century they had become routine liturgical ones in the monasteries. After the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215, laymen also become interested in them. Many of them were made for females. After the 1340s and the Black Death, the lay interest of these prayer books increased further.

Although it is often believed that only the royalty, nobility, and the rich could afford to have their personal book of hours, in fact the earliest known example seems to have written for an unknown laywoman living in a small village owned by a monastery near Oxford in about 1240. It is smaller than a modern paperback but heavily illuminated on major initials, with a few full-page miniatures. Sometimes the books included prayers specifically composed for their owners or adapted to their tastes or sex, including adding their personal names to suitable prayers. Some of the surviving ones include portraits of their owners, and often their coats of arms. These, together with the choice of saints commemorated in the calendar, if one is included, are the main clues for the identity of the first owner, in the absence of a provenance or inscriptions.

By the 15th century, various stationer's shops mass-produced books of hours in the Netherlands and France. By the end of the 15th century, the advance of printing made the books more affordable and sometimes even commoners and servants could afford to buy one of the printed, unbound books of hours for their own use, leading them to become more popular than Psalters.


As many books of hours are richly illuminated, they form an important record of life in the 15th and 16th centuries as well as the iconography of medieval Christianity. Some of them were also decorated with jewelled covers, portraits, heraldic emblems, numerous illustrations, textual illuminations and marginal decorations. Many were bound as girdle books for easy carrying. Many, like the "Talbot Hours" of John Talbot, 1st Earl of Shrewsbury, include a portrait of the owner, and in this case his wife, kneeling in adoration of the Virgin and Child. Large miniature cycles often covered the Labours of the Months, decorating the calendar, the "Life of the Virgin" in eight scenes decorating the "Hours of the Virgin", which were sometimes decorated with the Passion of Christ instead.

The amount of money the books of hours represented made them also important status symbols that the wealthy wanted to have whether they were pious or not. Wealthy people also sometimes competed at trying to outdo each other with decorations of the books they commissioned. The books were also often passed along as gifts to favoured children, friends and servants and even as signs of dynastic allegiances. A mother could pass her book on to her eldest daughter, and the same book could pass along in the same family for centuries. Various queens gave books to their favoured ladies in waiting.

Long-lived books of hours could also be modified for their new owner. After defeating Richard III, Henry VII gave Richard's book of hours to his mother, and she modified it to include her name. Many surviving books have numerous handwritten annotations, personal additions and marginal notes but some new owners also commissioned new craftsmen to include more illustrations or scripts. Sir Thomas Lewkenor of Trotton hired an illustrator to add details to what is now known as the "Lewkenor Hours".

The pages of books with a less glorious fate could have been just used for notes and scrap paper. Flyleaves of many surviving books include notes of household accounting or records of births and deaths. Some owners had also collected autographs and remembrances of visitors.

Towards the end of the 15th century, printers produced books of hours with woodcut illustrations. Stationers could mass-produce manuscript books on vellum with only plain artwork and later "personalize" them with equally mass-produced sets of illustrations from local printers.

ample books of hours

One of the most famous books of hours, and one of the most richly illuminated medieval manuscripts, is the "Très Riches Heures" painted sometime between 1412 and 1416 in France for John, Duke of Berry.

The "De Brailes Hours" was made around 1240. It is the earliest surviving English book of hours and includes four portraits of its first owner.

The Rothschild Prayerbook

"The Rothschild Prayerbook", use of Rome, was made c. 1505 and is only three and a half inches thick. Louis Nathaniel von Rothschild owned it but Nazis confiscated the medieval Rothschild Book of Hours immediately after the March 1938 German annexation of Austria from members of the Viennese branch of the Mayer Amschel Rothschild family. Through the efforts of Bettina Looram-Rothschild, the niece and heir of the owner, the government of Austria returned the book and other works of art to her in 1999. It was sold for Ms Looram-Rothschild by Christie's auction house of London on July 8, 1999 for £8,580,000 ($13,400,000), a world auction record price for an illuminated manuscript.

The Connolly Book of Hours

"The Connolly Book of Hours", was produced during the fifteenth century and is an excellent example of a manuscript Book of Hours produced for a non-aristocratic patron. It was the subject of a 1999 volume by Timothy M. Sullivan, et al, that documented and contextualized all the illuminated leaves in the book.

ee also

*Canonical hours



*"The Oxford Dictionary of Art" ISBN 0-19-280022-1
*Duffy, Eamon, "The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England 1400-1580" (Yale, 1992) ISBN 0-300-06076-9
*"The Hours of Mary of Burgundy" (facsimile edition, Harvey Miller, 1995) ISBN 1-872501-87-7
* Eamon Duffy - "A Very Personal Possession" ("History Today" November 2006)

External links

:General information:
* [ Thomas Merton's Book of Hours; Catholic Bestseller available from Ave Maria Press]
* [ Seven Sacred Pauses by Macrina Wiederkehr; available from Ave Maria Press]
* [ A Hypertext Book of Hours; full texts and translation]
* [ Museum of the Book, The Hague. Explanation and many examples illustrated]
* [ Late Medieval and Renaissance Illuminated Manuscripts - Books of Hours 1400-1530] - An excellent guide containing tables describing all the various uses; also with original Latin texts and high-resolution photographs of many books.
* cite web |publisher= Victoria and Albert Museum
title= A Masterpiece Reconstructed: The Hours of Louis XII
work=Prints & Books
accessdate= 2007-08-27

:Full turn the pages online individual manuscripts:
* [| The Sforza hours] Turn the pages of the Sforza Hours at the British Library (May require software loading, and time).
* [ Book of Hours (Ms. Library of Congress. Rosenwald ms. 10)] From the Rare Book and Special Collections Division of the Library of Congress. [ The same in pdf format.]
* [ MS Richardson 7. Heures de Nôtre Dame] at Houghton Library, Harvard University.

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