by Kara Krewer
Books of Hours are, in short, medieval prayer books. They were incredibly popular, and thousands of them have survived to this day. A Book of Hours is defined particularly by its inclusion of the Hours of the Virgin, a set of eight devotions that focus on the life of Mary and are intended to be read at set times of the day. The Hours of the Virgin is based on an abbreviated version of the Divine Office recited by clergy, and was used by medieval laypeople (anyone who wasn’t clergy) to practice devotion in their own homes. If you were a medieval European layperson and were lucky enough to own one book, it was likely a Book of Hours. This was because books were extremely expensive to produce.
High quality paper was difficult to come by in medieval Europe. The printing press wouldn’t be invented until 1440, so making a book was a painstaking process. Each page was made from sheets of treated animal skin called parchment. All the text had to be handwritten by a scribe, and all the illustrations (also called miniatures) were hand-painted by an illuminator.
Today we take it for granted that religious texts are readily available and often even free. But a medieval layperson owning a book as long as the Bible would have been nearly unheard of. Such a long book would have been cost-prohibitive for anyone, even some churches, except for the most wealthy. Many middle-class laypeople could afford one book, however, and that was most often a Book of Hours. Because it might be the only book someone owned, a Book of Hours was made to be used in many ways.
Books of Hours include extra texts alongside the Hours of the Virgin. They typically included a calendar that marked feast days and the agricultural work to be performed each season, and an Office for the Dead, prayers which would be read to help the soul pass through purgatory. They also might include other texts like parts of the Gospels, the Hours of the Cross, some penitential psalms, litanies, and/or suffrages (a group of prayers to saints). Children would be taught to read using Books of Hours, family trees might be written down in their pages, and they would be passed down as heirlooms. A Book of Hours would have many uses beyond a prayer book. It would serve as a kind of Farmers’ Almanac, a part of funerary rites, a primer, and a form of wealth to leave one’s children.
The illustrations in a Book of Hours might be the only kind of artwork a person owned. Illustrations served three primary purposes: organization, devotion, and beauty. Large, painted capital letters (called decorated initials), paintings, and headers in red ink (called rubrications) would help readers know when the next paragraph or section started. A reader might meditate on, touch, or even kiss an image of Christ or Mary. And of course, some illustrations, such as intricate borders around text, were primarily there for an aesthetic purpose. Some Books of Hours were even decorated in gold leaf to make the illustrations particularly extraordinary, making them what are called “illuminated manuscripts.” You may have seen some of these illustrations from medieval manuscripts. If so, there’s a good chance you were looking at a picture from a Book of Hours.
Not all Books of Hours were filled with ornate illuminations, however. Book of Hours were as diverse as their owners and ran the gamut from a bare-bones text to highly-personalized one made to the specifications of the owner. While a member of the nobility might have a Book of Hours that was gilded on every page, someone from a lower class might have only a handful of illustrated initials in their book. Some books were made in an assembly-line style process and had only the basic texts. Others might have the owner’s family name written into a prayer. Because each one was made by hand, no two Books of Hours were alike.