A book of hours is a structured and carefully ordered collection of illuminated prayers tied to the Catholic church calendar. In the middle ages when all books were rare and precious, the book of hours was a luxury item intended for private use. Books of hours are descended from psalters, collections of the psalms, and breviaries, collections of prayers, that were tied to the canonical hours used in monastic life. The book of hours first appears in the thirteenth century, and were exceedingly popular right through the middle of the fifteenth century, when they began to be printed, and hand-colored and illuminated. You will also see books of hours referred to via the Latin term horae
Often books of hours are in both Latin and a “vulgar” language like French, Spanish, English, Dutch or German. Most of the prayers and the psalms would be in Latin, with occasional references to local saints and feast days, for instance, in another language. The use of “local” prayers and feast days celebrating particular saints help scholars determine the provenance of a particular MS.
A typical book of hours contains:
- A calendar of church feasts.
These are tied closely to local customs and preferences. Although the major saints and feasts were fairly universal, local saints are often included. These calendars are perpetual; that is, they are cyclical, and may be used for any year. Dates are rarely numbered; instead they are counted, using old style markers like the ides (a day in a month between the 13th and 15th, depending on the month) and counting dates between feasts (fourth Sunday after Lent). The actual calendar part is a list, with important “major” feasts marked in red (hence the expression red letter day). Often there’s an illuminated, an illustration appropriate for the particular month, either related to a particular saint, or to the conventional seasonal labors associated with the particular month.
- An excerpt from each of the four gospels (Mathew, Mark, Luke and John) of the Bible’s New Testament
Typically these passages are tied to the major feast days’ masses, and form the core of the lesson for that mass. A common selection would be Christmas (John), the Feast of Annunciation (Luke), Epiphany (Matthew) and the Feast of the Ascension (Mark).
- The Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary or the Hours of the Virgin.
The Hours of the Virgin consists of Latin prayers and psalms to the Virgin Mary. They were intended to be said or sung throughout the course of the day at the canonical hours of Matins, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers and Compline. They are typically illustrated with scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ.
- The fifteen psalms of degrees
(Psalms 120–134; 119–133 in the Septuagint and the Vulgate versions of the Bible)
- The seven penitential psalms
(Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, and 143; psalms 6, 31, 37, 50, 101, 129, and 142 in the Septuagint and Vulgate versions of the Bible)
- A litany of saints
- An Office for the Dead
- The Hours of the Cross
- Other prayers
The additional prayers in a particular book of hours depended on the era, the place, and the person the book was made for.
Plummer, John. The Hours of Catherine of Cleves. George Braziller Inc.; Revised edition. September 2002.
Alexander, J.J.G. The Master of Mary of Burgundy: A Book of Hours for Engelbert of Nassau ( Bodleian Library, Oxford). George Braziller Inc.; 1st edition (November 17, 1970). This is a facsimile of one of the last illuminated manuscripts for Engelbert of Nassau, a courtier in the Netherlands who served under Charles the Bold to Philip the Fair. Not a lot of text; the focus is on reproducing the MS, but there are captions and short introductions.