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Modern Society and Books of Hours: Exploring Meditation and Mindfulness

Mary of Burgundy reads her Book of Hours in front of a window sill. (The Hours of Mary of Burgundy. Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, cod. 1857, ff.14r-15r.)
Mary of Burgundy reads her Book of Hours in front of a window sill. (The Hours of Mary of Burgundy. Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, cod. 1857, ff.14r-15r.)

Medieval miniatures are decorative pictures found in Books of Hours that can reveal so much about religious practices and beliefs in the Middle Ages. After spending a couple of days studying the miniature found in the Book of Hours of Mary of Burgundy, I’ve learned quite a lot about medieval ideologies and the significant role that Books of Hours played in the daily life of a devout laymen. However, my aha! moment as a student happened when I realized how understanding a miniature, like the one above, can encourage good meditative habits in the lives of modern day people. I know this sounds crazy now, but it will all make sense in a minute.

I imagine that life for a working person in the Middle Ages was not too different from the busy life we experience today. The average working person spent a large portion of their time at work, thus leaving little time to practice their religion devoutly. However, society in the Middle Ages encouraged and truly insisted upon the practice of prayer and meditation in order to become close to the divine. Books of Hours were objects that allowed the reader to engage in meditative and prayerful activity. People believed that meditative reading was closely linked with devotion and reformation (Sterponi, 670). This means that medieval reading of a devotional text was not just a habit or a hobby, but rather a spiritual experience.The medieval ideology, lectio divina (it means divine reading), was a three step process that incorporated reading, meditation, and prayer into one devotional activity. In the late Middle Ages, the practice of lectio divina was no longer exclusive to life among monks as it had been for centuries before. There were several features of Book of Hours that allowed the reader to practice lectio divina:

1) Books of hours were a compilation of prose and verse, consisting of prayers, hymns, psalms, and scriptures. The content prompted the reader to engage with the text in order to experience dimensions of the divine (Sterponi, 677). People were not mindlessly reading books of hours. The benefit of these prayer books came from the reader’s contemplation and mediation of the text. By the 14th century, it was preferable to “pray silently with the heart, than only with words and without thought” (Saenger, 146).

2) Books of hours are illuminated with miniatures that function as more than decoration. Although they are beautiful and awe-inspiring, these pretty pictures pack a lot of meaning behind them: “these large miniatures do not strictly illustrate the adjacent text; rather they comment on it and expand its meaning, thereby offering the reader further suggestions for meditation” (Sterponi, 677)

3) The devout reader was expected to stop eight times a day to read a different section of the Book of hours. It was common for laymen to follow a simpler daily routine, where prayer happened three times a day. Most people also supplemented “mental prayer and meditation” into their routine (Pantin, 415).

Let’s take the miniature from the Hours of Mary of Burgundy as an example. Mary of Burgundy is seated in front of her window sill, and she is reading her sacred book of hours (we know it’s scared because she’s using a cloth to hold it). Inside her window is a divine scene of Mary of Burgundy and other women standing around Virgin Mary and baby Jesus. When I first looked at this miniature, I noticed the architecture of the church. I mean look at the perspective used! The illuminator intentionally gave the image lots of depth to symbolize spiritual depth experienced during meditative reading. The light that shines through the windows in the church is indicative of the divine dimension in the picture. Just as the light shines through the windows of the church, the image of baby Jesus and Mary shines through Mary of Burgundy’s window as a “spiritual light.” The spiritual light coming from the inner frame separates the inner frame from the outer frame, through the distinction of mortal and divine time. The inner frame reflects a heavenly and divine place that exist independently of the world in the outer frame. This can be proven by looking at the direction of the shining lights in the church. Dr. Alan Farber’s essay explains how the sun that shines through the windows is coming from the north, which was an impossibility in the northern hemisphere. Since the shining light can’t be a light that exist in the real world, the inside scene undoubtedly exist in a spiritual realm. Basically, Mary of Burgundy is only able to connect with the divine through the devout and meditative reading of her Book of Hours. This miniature not only reflects the goal of many devout laymen, but it also comments on the benefits of lectio divina. The picture, essentially, reaffirms and encourages what the text is prompting the reader to do (pray and meditate to the divine).

Okay, so you’re still wondering what this miniature and a book of hours has to do with modern society. You know how the internet is bogged down with articles, blog posts, and e-books that set out to teach people how to practice mindfulness and meditation? Well I think it is safe to say that there is a general understanding in modern society that incorporating mindfulness and meditation into your daily routine will improve your quality of life. Meditation and mindfulness is often encouraged on college campuses to help alleviate anxiety and stress in staff and students. There is a Huffington Post article that highlights some of the benefits of adding a meditative practice into the daily routine of a college student. Better meditative practices sound nice and all, but if you have ever tried to practice mindfulness or meditation, surely you know how difficult it is to quiet your mind. Generally, modern culture encourages a “can’t stop, won’t stop” environment, where there is little time to waste on slowing down your life to enjoy quiet introspection. I believe that medieval ideologies and practices can encourage introspective activities in people today. We, as a society that is always busy, can learn a lot about the benefits of meditative practices from miniatures such as Mary of Burgundy’s.


Farber, Alan. “Introduction: Mary of Burgundy.” Introduction: Mary of Burgundy. SUNY Oneonta, n.d. Web. 03 Oct. 2016.

Herreria, Carla. “Why Students At Elite Colleges Are Turning To Meditation.” Huffington Post. N.p., 23 Mar. 2016. Web. 1 Oct. 2016.

Pantin, W.A. “Instructions for a Devout and Literate Layman.” Medieval Learning and Literature. N.p.: n.p., 1976. 398-422. Print.

Saenger, Paul. “4. Books of Hours and the Reading Habits of the Later Middle Ages.” The Culture of Print Power and the Uses of Print in Early Modern Europe (n.d.): Web.

Sterponi, Laura. “Reading and Meditation in the Middle Ages: Lectio Divina and Books of Hours.” Text & Talk – An Interdisciplinary Journal of Language, Discourse Communication Studies 28.5 (2008): 667-89. De Gruyter Online. 29 Sept. 2008. Web. 26 Sept. 2016