Sunday, September 15, 2013

The Book of Hours

by Carol McGrath


Amongst my favourite treasures of the Middle Ages are the Books Of Hours. They really belong to the High Middle Ages but have an earlier history also. The very first Book of Hours has been attributed to one, William de Brailles, of Oxford, between 1230 and 1260. Throughout the rest of the period we know as the Middle Ages this little decorated book of prayers, A Book of Hours, was a favourite with everyone in Western Europe. In other words it was 'the' medieval bestseller. Now, they are an invaluable resource for researchers of the period 1230 until the end of the fifteenth century because they give a fabulous insight into the daily life of the Middle Ages. They are also very valuable.

Boucicant Book of Hours

They began as an addition to the end of the Psalter in the early Middle Ages. The name Book of Hours is associated with the Benedictine hours of the day. The medieval hour was actually an inexact space of time that was allocated to religious or to business duties. It derives from the notion that the monastic orders specified particular prayers and rituals which were to be observed eight times a day.

Therefore, the objective of the Book of Hours is to encourage the secular world to emulate the monastic programme of daily devotion. The Book of Hours was a book of private prayer and meditation owned by ordinary people. They were, for instance, often read in bed each morning, a notion that I find enchanting because they must have been beautiful to look upon just as you wake up-and I am not a religious person!

Book of Hours known as Bruges

The manuscript for a Book of Hours is divided into sections. The core of the Book of Hours is known as 'Hours of the Virgin'. This set of psalms and prayers is designed to be used in honour of the Virgin Mary at each of the canonical hours of the day. Matins-2 a.m., Lauds-5a.m., Prime, before daybreak, Terce, 9a.m., Sext- noon, Nones- 2p.m., Vespers- sunset, and Compline- 7p.m.

There will always be a calendar showing saints' days and four short readings from the Gospel at the front of the book. Preceding the hours of the Virgin there usually are two prayers to the Virgin.

After the Hours of the Virgin there would be the Hours of the Cross and the Holy Spirit, usually short with a hymn, an antiphon and a prayer. Then there are Seven Penitential Psalms with the Litany and the Offices of the Dead. Coming to the end of the book there might be the Fifteen Joys of the Virgin and finally the important Invocations of the Saints.


If the patron is wealthy ( the books were commissioned) the book's pages could be emblazoned with initials in gold and colours and often with miniatures and decorative borders. Miniature originally came from the Latin word, minium, the red pigment used to emphasise initial letters.

The term 'Red Letter Day' derives from the practice of writing important saints' day in red ink within the calendar section of the Book of Hours. Borders became more elaborate through time. By the end of the fifteenth century they contained fabulous naturalistic animals and flowers.

Miniatures, too, developed to contain successive episodes from Biblical stories. And of course, occasionally, the owner of the book would be painted within a miniature. The notion of a Primer as a first reading book comes from the hour of Prime and the Book of Hours. It indicates just how important and widely used these small lovely little books became!

Torture of St Apollonia circa 1400

  The Calendar
  • lists the saints days for each month
  • festivals such as Christmas, feast day of the Virgin Mary
  • local saints written in gold, red or blue
  • local events such as consecration of churches, deaths of important people in the diocese
  • each month may occupy two pages with illustrations showing the occupations of the month and the zodiac signs.
Sequences of the Gospels
  • Hours of the Virgin
  • Office of the Dead
  • secondary texts such as prayer to the Virgin
  • readings from the Gospels usually extracts from Matthew, Mark, Luke and John accompanied with pictorial attribute such as eagle for John, lion for Mark, angel for Matthew and ox for Luke. 
Penitential Psalms and office of the Dead
  • King David usually is depicted in illustrations as he had an adventurous life, thus the illustrations are varied.
  • Office of the Dead has two parts, Vespers and Matins and often miniatures show the last judgement. Later the illustrations varied and often included skeletons prancing with spears. The prayers were said over coffins!

Hell from the Du Barry Book of Hours

The most highly illustrated section after Hours of the Virgin would be the Memorials of the Saints. The section opens with prayers to the Trinity followed by prayers to the Virgin Mary, St Michael, St John the Baptist and finally a collection of local and popular saints. Like the Gospel saints, they too have their own particular emblems.  There are too many to list here, but who can ever forget St Catherine and her wheel!

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Carol McGrath is the author of The Handfasted Wife published by Accent Press, 2013, paperback and for e readers.

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