Book of hours

van Reynegom Book of Hours
Opening from the Hours of Catherine of Cleves, c. 1440, with Catherine kneeling before the Virgin and Child, surrounded by her family heraldry. Opposite is the start of Matins in the Little Office, illustrated by the Annunciation to Joachim, as the start of a long cycle of the Life of the Virgin.[1]
Image of a Book of Hours
Society of Antiquaries of London) open to an illustration of the 'Adoration of the Magi'. Bequeathed to the Society in 1769 by the Revd Charles Lyttleton, Bishop of Carlisle and President of the Society (1765-8).

The book of hours is a Christian devotional book popular in the Middle Ages. It is the most common type of surviving medieval illuminated manuscript. Like every manuscript, each manuscript book of hours is unique in one way or another, but most contain a similar collection of texts, prayers and psalms, often with appropriate decorations, for Christian devotion. Illumination or decoration is minimal in many examples, often restricted to decorated capital letters at the start of psalms and other prayers, but books made for wealthy patrons may be extremely lavish, with full-page miniatures. Books of hours were usually written in Latin (the Latin name for them is horae), although there are many entirely or partially written in vernacular European languages, especially Dutch. The English term primer is usually now reserved for those books written in English. Tens of thousands of books of hours have survived to the present day, in libraries and private collections throughout the world.

The typical book of hours is an abbreviated form of the breviary which contained the Divine Office recited in monasteries. It was developed for lay people who wished to incorporate elements of monasticism into their devotional life. Reciting the hours typically centered upon the reading of a number of psalms and other prayers. A typical example contains the Calendar of Church feasts, extracts from the Four Gospels, the Mass readings for major feasts, the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the fifteen Psalms of Degrees, the seven Penitential Psalms, a Litany of Saints, an Office for the Dead and the Hours of the Cross.[2]

Most 15th-century books of hours have these basic contents. 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, among other optional texts.


Even this level of decoration is richer than those of most books, though less than the lavish amounts of illumination in luxury books, which are the ones most often seen reproduced.

The book of hours has its ultimate origin in the Psalter, which monks and nuns were required to recite. By the 12th century this had developed into the breviary, with weekly cycles of psalms, prayers, hymns, antiphons, and readings which changed with the liturgical season.[3] Eventually a selection of texts was produced in much shorter volumes and came to be called a book of hours.[4]

Many books of hours were made for women. There is some evidence that they were sometimes given as a wedding present from a husband to his bride.[5] Frequently they were passed down through the family, as recorded in wills.[5]

Although the most heavily illuminated books of hours were enormously expensive, a small book with little or no illumination was affordable much more widely, and increasingly so during the 15th century. The earliest surviving English example was apparently written for a laywoman living in or near Oxford in about 1240. It is smaller than a modern paperback but heavily illuminated with major initials, but no full-page miniatures. By the 15th century, there are also examples of servants owning their own Books of Hours. In a court case from 1500, a pauper woman is accused of stealing a domestic servant's prayerbook.[6]

Very rarely the books included prayers specifically composed for their owners, but more often the texts are adapted to their tastes or sex, including the inclusion of their names in prayers. Some include images depicting their owners, and some their coats of arms. These, together with the choice of saints commemorated in the calendar and suffrages, are the main clues for the identity of the first owner. Eamon Duffy explains how these books reflected the person who commissioned them. He claims that the "personal character of these books was often signaled by the inclusion of prayers specially composed or adapted for their owners." Furthermore, he states that "as many as half the surviving manuscript Books of Hours have annotations, marginalia or additions of some sort. Such additions might amount to no more than the insertion of some regional or personal patron saint in the standardized calendar, but they often include devotional material added by the owner." Owners could write in specific dates important to them, notes on the months where things happened that they wished to remember, and even the images found within these books would be personalized to the owners- such as localized saints and local festivities.[7] By at least the 15th century, the Netherlands and Paris workshops were producing books of hours for stock or distribution, rather than waiting for individual commissions. These were sometimes with spaces left for the addition of personalized elements such as local feasts or heraldry.

Black Hours, Morgan MS 493, Pentecost, Folios 18v, c 1475-80. Morgan Library & Museum, New York

The style and layout for traditional books of hours became increasingly standardized around the middle of the thirteenth century. The new style can be seen in the books produced by the Oxford illuminator William de Brailes who ran a commercial workshop (he was in minor orders). His books included various aspects of the Church's breviary and other liturgical aspects for use by the laity. "He incorporated a perpetual calendar, Gospels, prayers to the Virgin Mary, the Stations of the Cross, prayers to the Holy Spirit, Penitential psalms, litanies, prayers for the dead, and suffrages to the Saints. The book’s goal was to help his devout patroness to structure her daily spiritual life in accordance with the eight canonical hours, Matins to Compline, observed by all devout members of the Church. The text, augmented by rubrication, gilding, miniatures, and beautiful illuminations, sought to inspire meditation on the mysteries of faith, the sacrifice made by Christ for man, and the horrors of hell, and to especially highlight devotion to the Virgin Mary whose popularity was at a zenith during the 13th century."[8] This arrangement was maintained over the years as many aristocrats commissioned the production of their own books.

By the end of the 15th century, the advent of printing made books more affordable and much of the emerging middle-class could afford to buy a printed book of hours, and new manuscripts were only commissioned by the very wealthy. The Kitab salat al-sawai (1514), widely considered the first book in Arabic printed using moveable type, is a book of hours intended for Arabic-speaking Christians and presumably commissioned by Pope Julius II.[9]

Other Languages
Afrikaans: Getyboek
العربية: أجبية
български: Часослов
dansk: Tidebog
Deutsch: Stundenbuch
español: Libro de horas
Esperanto: Riĉegaj horoj
euskara: Orduen liburu
français: Livre d'heures
Bahasa Indonesia: Buku ibadat harian
italiano: Libro delle ore
עברית: ספר השעות
ქართული: ჟამნი
Nederlands: Getijdenboek
日本語: 時祷書
norsk: Tidebok
norsk nynorsk: Tidebok
polski: Godzinki
português: Livro de horas
Simple English: Book of hours
slovenčina: Livres d’heures
svenska: Tidebok
українська: Часослов
中文: 時禱書