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Repetition in Books of Hours

Mary holding Baby Jesus in the Connolly Book of Hours. Credit to Boston College University Libraries fir borrowed use.
Mary holding Baby Jesus in the Connolly Book of Hours. Credit to Boston College University Libraries for borrowed use.


I’m interested in my research to find if there is a specific  reason for repetition in books of hours and Catholic prayers from the Middle Ages. I’m using the Hours of the Virgin in the Connolly Book of Hours as a reference point, as they all begin with the same prayer phrasing. Through this blog post, I hope to explore why repetition was so important to medieval Catholicism. I am going to explore examples of repetition in other religions before Catholicism and how repetition is used in modern religion today. This is a short, general survey of repetition in religion, using the Connolly Book of Hours as a launching point. I think that a broad understanding of repetition in human religion can help us understand the specific nature of Medieval Catholicism.

Repetition of words and phrases is very common in human interaction. Our favorite characters have catch phrases,  we use words to identify with a group, and we use repetition in conversation and literature for effect. Repetition is used in religious hymns as can be seen in the title and chorus of “Holy, Holy, Holy.” Repetition is one of the most common and recognizable patterns of human communication.

When repetition crosses religion it takes on a very ritualistic theme. Repeating the words on a schedule empowers the words and affirms the congregation’s faith. In my own church we have a schedule of the service in which we repeat the Apostles Creed, the Doxology, and the Lord’s Prayer every Sunday. For me, the words become more real in my life, and more powerful each time I repeat them. This ritualistic schedule of prayer and rite is apparent in religions around the world before and after Christianity. The ritual of repetition increases the sense of community and connection to the Faith.

Books of Hours were used by medieval people to guide their prayers and acted as a channel to reach God. I believe that these books were also key to the culture of Medieval Europe as they encouraged and enforced the standards of the community. A great example of this is the use of female Saints in women’s books of hours to show the normative roles they were expected to perform in society. The prayers in these books often differed but they usually begin with a prayer phrase that is repeated over and over within the volume.

In the Connolly Book of Hours each hour of the virgin except the hour of Vespers begin with the Gloria Patri and a few other repeated phrases of call and response.  The scribe repeats these words thirteen times and the reader is supposed to pray them.  The words are repeated in a format similar to Mass. Even as the reader prays these words alone, they are compelled to feel Christian community as there are others reading the exact words in their own books of hours elsewhere.

The use of repeating words in timed prayers is not unique to the Christian faith. The ancient people of Cyprus were known to repeat specific prayers so that the words of adoration were constantly before their gods.(1 p331) The Biblical Psalms often repeated phrases of adoration, and the Pharisees prayed the Psalms publicly. The Christian rite of repeated prayer grew out of this Jewish tradition. Possibly the most famous modern prayer repetition is the daily prayers of the Muslim Faith. Five times a day, Muslims are called to pray as a congregation. Much like scheduled, repeated prayer in books of hours, this ritual builds the religious community and affirms the faith.

Repetition is common in many religions because humans readily identify with it. As I have stated above, it is one of the primary affirmations of community for people. An anecdotal example of this is my uncle in South America. He was hiking in Chile and happened to see a person wearing a Georgia Bulldogs shirt. He instinctively called out “Go Dawgs” to this absolute stranger. What happened next was surreal. They talked to each other and found out they both attended UGA at the same time and had repeated the associated phrases with the Bulldogs every Saturday in the fall. They talked about their backgrounds and my uncle found out that his new friend had my last name. He asked where this person grew up and he named the small rural town my dad grew up in. Unbeknownst to my uncle he had met my second cousin from the other side of my family! This connection would never have been made if they had not both learned to repeat the phrase “Go Dawgs” at the sight of UGA apparel.

The power of repetition was not lost on the people who wrote books of hours. Indeed, they intentionally used repetition to strengthen their faith, encourage the community of the saints, and to further its reach. Through the ages this has been a very successful strategy. There are very few people in the western world who cannot finish the phrase “Our Father who art in Heaven” as the Lord’s Prayer has often been repeated to us in church, media, and conversation. My mother, who hasn’t attended a Latin mass in decades, can still recite the Gloria Patri despite not knowing any other Latin. Her liturgical literacy of the Gloria Patri is exactly the goal of these repeating prayers.

Ultimately, the repetition of prayers results in increased literacy of religious phrasing. The reader picks up on important repeated phrases, and can begin to decipher the text. This is so successful that centuries later, I was able to spend five minutes with the Connolly Book of Hours and determine that the words scribbled  in Latin on this page were the Gloria Patri even though the scribe was real sloppy. All it took was figuring out one word and I could understand five lines of text. This repetition led medieval people reading the text to be able to recognize at least the key parts of the prayers. As their literacy of the repeated parts they know increased, they could figure out more and more of the text in their book of hours.

Repetition of words and phrases is a very common speech pattern. It has been used by many religions and is very common in Catholic practice. Specifically repetition is used in books of hours to heighten the sense of community in the Catholic World and to help highlight the important parts of prayer. Repetition in books of hours can help the reader gain better literacy and connect themselves mentally with Catholics all over the world. Repetition is a very interesting and important part of the study of books of hours.

1) Papantoniou, Giorgos. Religion and Social Transformations in Cyprus. Leiden: BRILL, 2012. Print.