Book of hours are a kind of medieval prayer book, known for their dazzling illuminations that burst with colour and charisma. They have been described as the ‘late medieval bestseller’: more books of hours were produced and read than any other book in the period 1300-1500 – including the Bible. There are so many surviving books of hours today that you can buy a single page of one for about the price of a large hardback book. It was the first time that any kind of book had become really popular, even among people who had never had books before.
The name ‘book of hours’ comes from the eight liturgical hours of the day – matins and lauds (daybreak) prime (6am); terce (9am) sext (noon); none (3pm); vespers (sunset); compline (evening). In monastic life, these were the eight hours set aside each day for prayer and devotion. The book of hours was essentially a tool for the layperson to be able to integrate this monastic behaviour into their everyday life. The form of the book of hours echoed that of the breviary, the prayer book used by the clergy. Books of hours thus break down some of the boundaries between the clergy and the laity, allowing the laity to have a special direct connection to God the Virgin Mary, and the saints. This was a period when access to God was mediated through the clergy and the Bible was not available to read. The rood screen even made a barrier between the congregation and the Eucharist. Books of hours transcended the barrier between chamber and church.
All books of hours begin with a calendar with saint’s days. Many calendars include signs of the zodiac or images of the seasons, giving us tantalising glimpses into everyday agricultural life. Another common image from the Office of the Dead was the medieval legend of the three living and the three dead. Three horsemen encounter three decaying corpses on the road, and they reveal themselves to be future versions of the horsemen. The office of the dead would have been read daily – this is a daily reminder of one’s own mortality.
There really was a mass audience for books of hours, from the middling classes upwards. The nobility could own extremely lavish books of hours and several of them. The Duc de Berry owned fifteen books of hours, including the Trés Riches Heures which is unusual in its size and decadence (so unusual it has been described as a ‘freak’ by Christopher de Hamel). There are lots of other examples of extremely opulent books of hours. They were also books for an ordinary, middling household. Children would learn to read from them (some books of hours include alphabets specifically for this purpose) and for many people, a book of hours would be the first and only book they would ever know. Pattern sheets were designed by the master and could be quickly copied. Tracing paper was used, and there are model sheets for all the standard scenes. One Englishman was so proud at having bought a book of hours that he wrote on the flyleaf: ‘he who steals this book will be hung on a hook behind the kitchen door.’
Women formed the greater part of the audience for books of hours, because they were very much objects of the domestic sphere. It was also believed at the time that women needed pictures in order to help them with devotion. The poet Eustache Deschamps critiqued what he saw as women’s vanity when it came to books of hours, claiming that for women, they were little more than luxury status symbols.
“A book of hours, too, must be mine, just as a nobleman desires. Let it be splendidly crafted in gold and azure, luxurious and elegant.”
It is clear that these books were objects of display and wealth, but this underestimates their real importance for piety. The process of visualising prayer was of special importance to the medieval worshipper. The predominance of female ownership – with books given as wedding gifts to brides and inherited from mother to daughter or daughter-in-law – is linked to the cult significance of the Virgin Mary. Mary was seen as the intercessor between God and humanity, and was especially important for women, for whom she was held as a role model. As well as this, the themes of motherhood and grief would have been personal for many female users of books of hours.
It is the Hours of the Virgin- the eight liturgical hours – that form the core of the book of hours. Each of the hours shows a different scene from her life, usually focussing around the birth of Jesus. It is from these little illuminations that out modern imagining of the annunciation, visitation, the nativity and the flight into Egypt largely comes from. They are still a part of our collective imagination, whether or not we are Christian.
‘Women and Books of Hours’ by Sandra Penketh in Women and the Book: Assessing the Visual Evidence Ed. Jane H.M. Taylor and Lesley Smith (London: the British Library, 1997)
Time Sanctified by Roger Wiek (New York: George Braziller, Inc. and The Walters Art Gallery, 1988)
Books of Hours by John Harthan (London: Thames and Hudson, 1977)
A History of Illuminated Manuscripts by Christopher de Hamel (Oxford: Phaidon, 1986)
All my images were taken from Wikipedia