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book of hours

The Oxford Companion to the Book

book of hours 

A devotional book centred on the Hours of the Virgin, a series of prayers to be said at the eight canonical hours (Matins, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, Nones, Vespers, and Compline). Its core text, the Hours of the Virgin (known also as the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin), was modelled on the Divine Office, the cycle of prayers said at the eight appointed hours throughout the day and night by clergy and members of religious orders.

  • 1. Origins and development

  • 2. Centres of production and ‘Use’

  • 3. Illumination, miniatures, and other decoration

  • 4. Women owners and indications of reading

  • 5. From bespoke MSS to mass circulation

1. Origins and development

The Hours of the Virgin perhaps originated as early as the mid-8th century, and was established by the 10th century as an abbreviated version of the Divine Office for monks and canons. During the 12th century the text gained popularity with a broader audience, including lay men and women, when it was often attached to the *psalter, then the most popular type of book for lay devotions. In the 13th century the book of hours (known in Latin as Horae, and in English as Primer) emerged as a stand-alone book, and by the mid-13th century it exceeded the psalter in popularity among elite lay *patrons. It gained prevalence throughout Europe, but particularly in northern regions. Most books of hours are in Latin, but examples written in vernacular languages, either whole or in part, also survive.

In addition to the Hours of the Virgin, books of hours normally included additional texts, which could include a *calendar of saints’ days; extracts from the Gospels; prayers to the Virgin (especially ‘Obsecro te’ and ‘O intemerata’); Hours of the Cross, the Holy Spirit, the Trinity and the Passion; the Seven Penitental Psalms (Pss. 6, 31, 50, 101, 129, and 142); a litany of saints; the Office of the Dead; and memorials to saints known as Suffrages. The earliest surviving stand-alone English Hours MS is the De Brailes Hours (BL Add. MS 49,999), *illuminated by the Oxford limner W. de *Brailes for an unknown female patron c.1240.

2. Centres of production and ‘Use’

The origin, or more often the destination, for a book of hours is often indicated by variations in its calendar, litany, and the text itself. This liturgical orientation of the hours’ texts is known as its ‘Use’; the most common Use in England was ‘Sarum’ (which originated at Salisbury). Uses of Bangor, Hereford, Lincoln, and York were also known in England and Wales. Other common Uses were Rome, Paris, and those of particular religious orders, particularly of the mendicants. Books of hours were often produced in one place for use in another. For example, many Sarum hours were made in Paris, Rouen, and Flanders for English patrons. Some of these MSS were de luxe bespoke copies, while others were made speculatively for export or for the domestic market. One such book is a richly illuminated Sarum hours made in northern France c.1430 and owned by Sir William Oldhall of Naford (BL Harley MS 2900).

The book of hours appealed to owners on a number of grounds. Most significant of these was its devotional focus on the Virgin Mary, whose cult attracted ever-greater fervour during the Middle Ages, and especially from the 12th century. The book of hours can be seen as both a cause and a consequence of the intensity of Marian devotion, with its rise to popularity reinforcing the Virgin’s central position in the devotional culture of the later Middle Ages. Additionally, books of hours offered a range of adaptable texts, and very often images, that could structure and support their owners’ devotions every day of the year. Contents were modified to reflect the liturgical orientation, aesthetic preferences, and wealth of their owners.

3. Illumination, miniatures, and other decoration

Books of hours range in visual embellishment, from plain, workaday copies to super-de luxe volumes illuminated by the greatest artists of the period. The quality and quantity of illuminated books of hours make them an essential source for the history of painting in Europe from the 13th century through the 16th century. In illuminated books of hours, the calendars frequently included images of the signs of the zodiac and the labours of the month, the latter depicting seasonally appropriate activities (e.g. feasting in January, warming by the fire in February, pruning in March). Each of the eight Hours of the Virgin is normally prefaced with a narrative scene, either relating the Infancy or the Passion of Christ. Fully painted and gilded borders enriched many, and sometimes even all, of the pages of the most luxurious volumes. Other texts could be prefaced with an appropriate image, ranging in scale from a *historiated initial to a full-page miniature (see miniature (1). Such images helped readers to navigate their books, but more importantly offered their owners a meditational focus. The remarkable miniature in the Hours of Mary of Burgundy (Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Vienna, Codex Vindobonensis 1857, fo. 14v), made c.1470–75, reveals the transcendental possibilities of the hours’ combination of text and image. The miniature shows a woman (possibly Mary of Burgundy) absorbed in the pages of her hours in an intimate, probably domestic setting; through the window behind her, she is seen having a visionary encounter with the Virgin and Child under the soaring vaults of a Gothic cathedral.

The margins or *borders of books of hours, particularly those made in France, England, and the Low Countries, were also often embellished with playful or even mildly subversive imagery (see border decoration). A small hours (BL Stowe MS 17, fo. 38r), measuring no more than 9.5×7cm, made in Liège c.1310–20, includes numerous such images, including one satirical portrayal of a barefoot nun dancing wantonly to the cacophony produced by a friar sawing away at a bellows with a distaff. The margins of a French book of hours of the 1320s, now divided between New York and London (Pierpont Morgan Library, MS M 754 and BL Add. MS 36,684), teems with apes, birds, skeletons, and hybrids parodying the solemn devotional imagery in the accompanying miniatures.

4. Women owners and indications of reading

Books of hours range in size from minute to substantial, but most are about the size of a paperback novel, suited to personal use and quite portable. Both men and women owned books of hours, but their place in female devotion is particularly noteworthy. Collectively, they offer an indication of the development and character of female literacy and piety. Portraits of women in these MSS, and in other contexts as well, often show them holding or using books of hours.

The image of a queen (possibly Queen Isabella) watching the elevation of the host under a canopy in the Taymouth Hours, c.1325 (BL Yates Thompson MS 13, fo. 7r), includes a depiction of a book of hours resting on a prayer bench before her; this image hints at the difficulty of distinguishing between public and private devotions in the role of a book of hours. Although many aspects of the book of hours were devised for private, even solitary use, some standard elements (such as the Office of the Dead) could also function in a more public context. A noteworthy example of the longevity of the hours as a symbol of elite piety is the austere portrait in oil on panel of Lady Margaret Beaufort (1443–1509), mother of King Henry VII of England, in the dress of a chaste widow and holding an open hours MS (Christ’s College, Cambridge). Books of hours often contained the portraits and heraldry of their patrons; such images were frequently placed in the Hours of the Virgin at Matins, the first canonical hour of the day. Through the use of such imagery, books of hours served to record and promote the identity of their patron(s) and their dynastic allegiances.

Many hours MSS include evidence of use, including inscriptions, additions, removals, and alterations. The most common additions were notes of the obits of family members, which were inscribed in the calendar, presumably with the intention that the deceased be remembered in the prayers of the living on the appropriate date, perhaps with a recitation of the Office of the Dead. The book of hours was thus a point of connection between the living and the dead, lessening the agonies of purgatory for both. Books of hours were sometimes refurbished to a greater or lesser extent as they passed from one owner to the next. The complex history of the *Sforza Hours, for example, begins in c.1490, when the MS was started for Bona Sforza, duchess of Milan. Following the theft of many of its pages from the workshop of its illuminator, Giovanni Pietro Birago, and Bona’s death in 1503, the book remained in an unfinished state for nearly 30 years. In 1517 Margaret of Austria, who had inherited the book in 1504, commissioned scribes and the Netherlandish illuminator Gerard Horenbout to complete it. Other changes to books of hours may be the result of post-medieval interventions. For example, as part of the suppression of the cult of St Thomas Becket by Henry VIII in 1538, it was ordered that images of and prayers to the saint be destroyed; the subtle scratches across images of Becket in many books of hours show signs that, in England, this injunction was obeyed in practice, if not always in spirit.

5. From bespoke MSS to mass circulation

The most celebrated book of hours is undoubtedly a MS illuminated for Jean, duc de *Berry by the *Limbourg brothers, who devised a programme of illustration of unprecedented scale and invention. Left unfinished at the death of Jean and at least two of the brothers in 1416, the book is known to posterity by its apposite inventory description, the Très Riches Heures (Chantilly, Musée Condé, ms. 65). The vast majority of books of hours, however, were at the lower end of the scale. From the early 15th-century, hours MSS were produced on a mass scale that prefigured, or even ushered in, the age of print. These printed hours were sometimes enhanced with *woodcuts, pasted in and often coloured; especially in the early years of the printing press, devotional prints were sometimes also included in MS hours. Owners could thereby adapt their hours books for their own purposes.

The printing press made books of hours accessible to those of relatively modest means from the second half of the 15th century; nonetheless, elite patrons continued to commission de luxe illuminated MS copies. Not merely a focus for devotion, books of hours could also function as expressions of fashion, wealth, social status, and conspicuous piety. Although the early bindings of most books of hours no longer survive, some of those that do reveal that the outside of a high-quality book of hours could be a sumptuous declaration of the book’s value. The book of hours of Bonaparte Ghislieri (BL Yates Thompson MS 29)—which includes miniatures by a number of the most prominent Italian artists of c.1500, including Perugino and Amico Aspertini—has an especially elaborate later binding of cut *leather over *silk, with miniatures and medallions on the upper and lower boards.

While elite patrons indulged their taste for MS Hours, enterprising publishers capitalized on the widespread demand for these books. MS and *incunable books of hours survive in great numbers; indeed, the total amount of surviving copies in public and private libraries has never been calculated. In the aftermath of the Reformation, the de luxe book of hours became an object of desire for collectors, and in some instances an assertion of Roman Catholic faith.

Alixe Bovey


J. Backhouse, Books of Hours (1985)Find this resource:

E. Duffy, Marking the Hours (2006)Find this resource:

J. Harthan, Books of Hours and their Owners (1977)Find this resource:

R. Wieck, Time Sanctified (1988)Find this resource: