Books of Hours

A book of hours is a structured and carefully ordered collection of illuminated prayers tied to the Catholic church calendar. 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. In the middle ages when all books were rare and precious,  the book of hours was a luxury item intended for private use; it was a personal prayer book, in contrast to those larger “shared” liturgical manuscripts of the cathedral and the monastery.

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.

Typical Contents of A Book of Hours

A typical book of hours contains:

  • An excerpt from each of the four gospels (Mathew, Mark, Luke and John) of the Bible’s New Testament
  • A calendar of church feasts.
  • The Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary or the Hours of the Virgin.
  • The Fifteen Psalms of degrees
  • The seven penitential psalms
  • A litany of saints
  • An Office for the Dead
  • The Hours of the Cross
  • Other prayers


The calendar page for May from the Hours of Pierre de Bosredon,France, Langres, ca. 1465 The Morgan Library
The Morgan Library MS G.55_fol_6r Hours of Pierre de Bosredont
The Calendar Page for May

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 illumination, an illustration appropriate for the particular month, either related to a particular saint, or to the conventional seasonal labors associated with the particular month. The feasts are tied closely to local customs and preferences. Although the major saints and feasts were fairly universal, local saints are often included.

Excerpts 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 Hours of the Virgin or The Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary

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

More specifically, 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

The Litaniæ Sanctorum is a prayer which includes invocations to the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit, the trinity, requests for the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Angels (Michael, Gabriel, Raphael), martyrs and saints. After an invocation of the saints, the has a series of supplications that God hear the prayers person(s) praying.
<h4style=”margin: 5px 5px 5px 5px”>The Office for the Dead

This is a prayer for the deceased; it is part of the prayers for  All Souls’ Day (November 2) as well as at other times for the benefit of a specific deceased person.

The Hours of the Cross & Hours of the Holy Spirit

These associate the various hours of the day (typically Matins, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers and Compline) with the events of Christ’s Passion.

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. They may feature the owner’s patron saint, local saints from the region, etc.

Examples of Books Of Hours

Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry

MS 65, Musée Condé, Chantilly, France
Created c. 1412–1416 by the Limbourg brothers

The Da Costa Hours

Morgan Library MS M.399
Illuminated by Simon Bening
Ghent, Belgium c. 1515

The Golf Book

The British Library Add MS 24098
Illuminated by Simon Bening
Bruges, Flanders, c. 1540

Fay-Sallois, Fanny. A Treasury of Hours. J. Paul Getty Museum: Malibu, CA. 2005. Although there’s a short introduction and a glossary, the point of this book are the color photographs of leaves from several 14th and 15th century books of hours.


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. There isn’t a lot of text; the focus is on reproducing the MS, but there are captions and short introductions. This is really an art book.