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Book of Hours

What is a Book of Hours?

A Book of Hours is a personal prayer book containing a calendar and prayers intended for the layperson that was extremely popular from the mid thirteenth to sixteenth centuries (Wieck, Painted Prayers 9). These personal books of prayer were developed from the sixth century Benedictine Order offices (liturgical prayers), celebrating important Christian events (Robb331). These manuscripts began a shift from clerical ownership to the private sector, initially with the noble class and then filtering down first to wealthy merchants and eventually to the general population (Robb 211). The illustrations in the manuscripts created for the lower classes, if they were there at all, were at best simplified versions of the illustrations created for the manuscripts of the ruling class.

Although the illustrations were a devotional tool, the written prayers were the most important. These prayers were a modification of the monastic devotional practices of the time, containing prayers that were to be said at eight specific hours during the day. The title Book of Hours, however, is a misnomer. The prayers weren't really said at particular hour, as we know t hem because the hour o'clock wasn't used. Instead, these prayers were said at times based off the Roman measurement of time which used when activities occurred to define time: Matins (midnight or day break), Lauds (daybreak or the same time as Matins), Prime (6am), Terce (9am), Sext (noon), None (3pm), Vespers (the early evening), and Compline (when going to bed) (Wieck, Painted Prayers 51). Although there are a total of eight hours, two of them, Matins and Lauds, were often said together. The popularity of these devotional manuscripts is difficult to understand today. In a time when the choice was the Bible or the Book of Hours, more people owned the Book of Hours (White). Ownership of the Book of Hours actually may have contributed to the rise in literacy as mothers used the book to teach their daughters. A statue from the time shows St, Ann teaching her daughter Mary to read a Book of Hours (Schweppenstette).

The Contents of a Book of Hours

The exact contents of a Book of Hours varies from one book to another (Diringer 402). Since these manuscripts were often created for one specific individual, his or her tastes and interests could be incorporated in the book's creation. For instance, specific prayers concerning the interests of the recipient could be incorporated into the Book of Hours. Since a lady of the fourteenth-century French court had a special reverence for Saint Louis of France, his special prayers would be included in her book (Robb 332).

Although there seems to be some disagreement about what was normally included in the book, the majority of sources agree that at least the Calendar and the Hours of the Virgin were always included. The calendar, almost always written in French, consists of feast days of martyred saints and important events of the Holy Family (Wieck, Painted Prayers 26; Robb 332). The prayers within The Hours of the Virgin, created by Benedict of Aniane, are the oldest section and the most important part of the Book of Hours (750-821AD) (Wieck, Painted Prayers 51).

The other sections that are generally recognized as regular sections of the Book of Hours are: the Gospel Readings (four short Gospel readings which were normally placed before the Hours of the Virgin) two additional prayers to the Virgin (also before the Hours of the Virgin): the succinct Hours of the Cross, and the Hours of the Holy Spirit (both were found after the Hours of the Virgin and occasionally combined with it), the Litanies in which the devotee would ask the saints to “Pray for us,” (Glenn Gunhouse, Litanies) the Suffrages found near the end of the Book of Hours which were petitions to the saints, the Penitential Psalms which were said with the Suffrages, and the Office for the Dead which were normally located at the very end of the Book of Hours and were said on the eve of a burial or on the anniversary of a death to aid their ascension into heaven (Glenn Gunhouse, A Hypertext Book of Hours).

In addition to the already mentioned parts of the Book of Hours, there are also additional sections. Although they were found at different periods or locations, these sections are not found in most Books of Hours. In fact, these additional sections often indicate the origin of a particular Book of Hours. For instance, the “Hours of S. Catherine” (Diringer 402) and “The Mass of the Trinity” (Diringer 402) are often found in a French Book of Hours, while “The Condemnation of Souls” (Diringer 402) was often located in an English Book of Hours.

The Calendar

The Calendar is the first section encountered in a Book of Hours. Although the Medieval calendar contained the twelve months and seven days of the week as we have today, the manner in which the days were expressed is very different (Glenn Gunhouse, A Hypertext Book of Hours). Days are referred to by the feast on that day, the day on which either saints were martyred or important events for the Holy Family had occurred (Wieck, Painted Prayers 26).

Brown or black ink is used for most of the days in the calendar. The term “red letter day,” indicating a memorable or important day, stems from the Book of Hours since important days were indicated with red lettering instead of the regular brown or black ink (Glenn Gunhouse, Introduction). In some later higher end Books of Hours, blue or gold ink replaced or supplemented the red ink (Wieck, Painted Prayers 26).

The seven days of the week are labeled A-G (Glenn Gunhouse, Introduction). The day that the letter is linked to varies from year to year, moving backwards. In other words, if Sunday is G this year, it will be F next year (Wieck, Painted Prayers 27). This system is still used by the Catholic Church in determining the liturgical year (White).

Although most Books of Hours, like R-MWC's Lipscomb Book of Hours, do not have illustrations in their calendars, some of the more expensive Books of Hours do contain decorations on their calendar pages. Illustrated calendars have images of the labors of the month and/or the zodiac (Wieck, Time Sanctified 45-54). Like the time of day, the Medieval calendar system was based off of the Roman calendar (Wieck, Time Sanctified 45). Instead of numbered days like we have today, the Roman calendar's days were measured in relationship to, by counting backwards from, specific marks in the month (Wieck, Painted Prayers 28-29): Kalends (the 1st), Ides (the 13th-15th), and None (the 9th day before Ides) (Glenn Gunhouse, Hypertext). Reference to these marks is sometimes found in older (Medieval) Books of Hours (Wieck, Painted Prayers 28). Although inaccurate, the Roman numerals on the calendar are supposed to help determine the cycles of the moon and help the reader discern when the ever-changing date of Easter was going to be (Wieck, Painted Prayers 29).

The Gospel Readings

Unlike every other section in the religious manuscript where different experts disagree about the contents, all of the experts agree that the Hour of the Virgin was the oldest and most central part of any Book of Hours. It contained specific recitations for all of the eight hours: Matins (midnight or day break), Lauds (daybreak or the same time as Matins), Prime (6am), Terce (9am), Sext (noon), None (3pm), Vespers (the early evening), and Compline (when going to bed). These recitations consisted of prayers to the Virgin, readings, and psalms that varied throughout the day. Different variations on the readings and prayers were recited during different seasons- common year, Advent, and the “Christmas Season”(Glenn Gunhouse, Hypertext). Most illustrated books had illustrations in their Hours of the Virgin, honoring the life of Mary with scenes from her life. These illustrations were used by the pious to contemplate various stages of Mary's life such as the Annunciation (the angel Gabriel announcement that she would be the mother of God), the Visitation (meeting her cousin Elizabeth), and the Nativity (Jesus' birth in a manger)(Yamamoto-Wilson).

In the fifteenth-century, as the popularity of Books of Hours waned, the Hours of the Virgin were combined with the early twelfth-century version of the rosary to create the rosary as it is known today(Foy). The rosary's Our Father, Hail Mary and Glory Be were easier to say and remember than the prayers in the Book of Hours (Ministries). In addition, this form of worship was open to all the faithful since literacy was not a requirement. The rosary's simplicity of memorized prayers, portability and availability to event the poorest devotee, caused it to overtake the Book of Hours in popularity as a devotional tool (Foy; White). Currently used today by devout Catholics, the rosary uses the elements in Mary's life as defined in the Hours of the Virgin (Foy; Yamamoto-Wilson).

The Hours of the Virgin

The Hours of the Virgin are considered to be the oldest and most central part of the Book of Hours.  There does not seem to be any contradiction of sources on this matter. It contained specific recitations for all of the eight hours (Matins, Lauds…). These recitations consisted of prayers to the Virgin, readings, and psalms that varied through out the day. There were also variations on the readings and prayers during different seasons: common year, Advent, and the “Christmas Season” (Glenn Gunhouse, Hypertext).  Books of Hours that feature illustrations in their Hours of the Virgin.

The Hours of the Cross and The Hours of the Holy Spirit

Hours of the Cross and the Hours of the Holy Spirit are both non-essential parts of the Book of Hours that may take different forms. Both the Hours of the Cross-and the Hours of the Holy Spirit are much shorter than the Hours of the Virgin, and are often combined with the Hours of the Virgin (Yamamoto-Wilson). They are said only seven times a day, as there is no Lauds for either the Hours of the Cross-or the Hours of the Holy Spirit. The Hours of the Cross consists of a hymn, versicle (a short single line of verse) and a response (Wieck, Painted Prayers 79). For the Hours of the Holy Spirit, each hour is on a theme relating to the Holy Spirit and/or the role the Holy Spirit has or will play in the soul's redemption (Wieck, Painted Prayers 80).

The Penitential Psalms

The Penitential Psalms, borrowed from the Jewish faith, are seven psalms used to atone for sins, consisting of Psalms 6, 31,37, 50, 101, 129, and 142 (Glenn Gunhouse, Hypertext). These psalms, allegedly created by King David to atone for his own sins, are used by sinners to beg God's forgiveness for their transgressions (Wieck, Painted Prayers 91). The Penitential Psalms are usually said with the Litanies. After atoning for his or her sins, the penitent, begging God's forgiveness, asks the help of the saints to pray for all sinners and intercede with God.

The Litanies

The Litanies, considered to be an “essential text” (White) to the Book of Hours, consists of petitions to various saints (Glenn Gunhouse, Litanies) starting with Mary and progressing “through the archangels, angels, apostles, evangelists, martyrs, confessors, and virgins” (White). These saints are asked to “ora pro nobis” or “pray for us”(Glenn Gunhouse, Litanies). The Litanies also includes a plea for God to “receive our petition: that the tender mercy of thy piety may mildly absolve us, and all thy servants, whom the chain of sins doth bind.”(Glenn Gunhouse, Litanies).

The Office of the Dead

Unlike the other sections in the Book of Hours, the Office of the Dead was not modified from the office of the Benedictine Order (Wieck, Painted Prayers 117), but transcribed directly into the Book of Hours as specific prayers said by clergy at Vespers, Matins, and Lauds ( Glenn Gunhouse, Hypertext). These prayers were specifically recited the night before burial or on the anniversary of a death (Glenn Gunhouse, Introduction) in an effort to aid the ascension of the deceased soul to Heaven. The Office of the Dead is usually in the back of the book (Wieck, Painted Prayers 117).

The Suffrages

The Suffrages are a collection of prayers to specific saints. These prayers ask for the saint's intercession or protection (as is the case of the guardian angel). The prayers come in a hierarchical order similar to that of the Litanies, starting with a prayer to God or the Trinity and working it's way down through the saints (Wieck, Painted Prayers 109).

Conclusion on the Book of Hours

As time passed, the monasteries lost their exclusive hold on learning, secular workshops developed throughout Europe. As the literacy rate increased, the desire for learning caused the demand for written manuscripts, both clerical and secular, to increase (Schweppenstette). Since the laity (secular) was also devout, the increase in literacy and the increase in capital caused a demand for written prayers for the general population (Schweppenstette). The devotional manuscript or breviary of official prayers said by a religious order had grown so large and cumbersome that it had been divided into two (Foy). Since it was much too complex to create in mass for the laity, these official clerical offices were simplified into Books of Hours to fill the needs of the general population both noble and plebian (Jones; Glenn Gunhouse, Hypertext). Based off the Benedictine hourly prayers, Books of Hours reached their peak in popularity in the thirteenth to sixteenth centuries. Prayers were said at specific times of the day, as the population didn't measure time the way we do. Time was measured in the Roman way by noting daily activities such as rising, eating and going to bed. Originally hand printed, these books could take years to complete and were occasionally done by more than one master (Yamamoto-Wilson). By the fifteenth-century, some Books of Hours were being printed for the general population. Gilles Hardougn is the most famous of these printers (Yamamoto-Wilson). Even the printed books were beyond the means of many (White). The fifteenth-century saw the amalgamation of Books of Hours, especially the Hours of the Virgin, with the twelfth-century rosary, creating the rosary used today. Even though the popularity of the Book of Hours has declined its influence on religion remains. With their highly structured permanent sections and additional individual sections, the Books of Hours added ritual, devotion and security to the religious practices of the day, that can still be found in the formal rituals of the Catholic Church and the rosary used daily by devout Catholics.


Work Cited:

3 Entries Found for Renaissance. 2003. Dictionary.com. Available: http://dictionary.reference.com/search?q=renaissance. April 21st 2003.

Diringer, David. The Illuminated Book: It's History and Production. New York: Fredrick A. Praeger, Inc., Publishers, 1967.

Foy, Felician, O.F.M., and Rose M. Avato. Our Sunday Visitor's 1996 Catholic Almanac. Huntington, Indiana: Our Sunday Visitor Publishing Division, 1995.

Gunhouse, Glenn, Laura V. Blanchard, and Carolyn Schriber. A Hypertext Book of Hours. 2000. The Online Reference Book for Medieval Studies. Available: http://orb.rhodes.edu/encyclop/religion/hagiography/hours/hrstoc.htm. February 1st 2003.

---. Introduction to the Book of Hours. 2000. The Online Reference Book for Medieval Studies. Available: http://orb.rhodes.edu/encyclop/religion/hagiography/hours/hrsintro.htm. March 17th 2003.

---. The Litanies. 1999. The Online Reference Book for Medieval Studies. Available: http://orb.rhodes.edu/encyclop/religion/hagiography/hours/litanies.htm. April 15th 2003.

Jones, Bruce. Manuscripts, Books, and Maps: The Printing Press and a Changing World. 2001. University California at San Diego. Available: http://communication.ucsd.edu/bjones/Books/rise.html.

Ministries, Holy Cross Family. Rosary Explanation and History. 2003. Available: http://www.familyrosary.org/main/rosary-explanation.php. May 2nd 2003.

Robb, David M. The Art of the Illuminated Manuscript. Cranbury, New Jersey: Associated University Presses, Inc., 1973.

Schweppenstette, Frank. Special Research Unit 231 (1986-1999). University of Munster. Available: http://www.uni-muenster.de/MittelalterSchriftlichkeit/Welcome-e.html.

White, Eric Marshall. Book of Hours, and the Bridwell Hours. 2000. Southern Methodist University. Available: http://fll.smu.edu/languages/latin/advent2000/bridwell/bridwell1.html. February 1st 2003.

Wieck, Roger S. Painted Prayers: The Book of Hours in Medieval and Renaissance Art. New York: George Braziller, Inc. in association with The Pierpont Morgan Library, 1997.

---. Time Sanctified: The Book of Hours in Medieval Art History. New York: George Braziller, Inc. in association with The Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore, 1988.

Yamamoto-Wilson, John R. Book of Hours General Information. Website. Sophia University. Available: http://pweb.sophia.ac.jp/~j-yamamo/Hours/index.html. February 1st 2003.


These pages are the work of the students enrolled in Art 238, "Art and Medieval Mentalities," taught by Professor Christine Hamza during the Spring Semester, 2003.

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