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.
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
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.
An 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.
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.
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.
Plummer, John. The Hours of Catherine of Cleves. George Braziller Inc.; Revised edition. September 2002.