Monthly Archives: September 2015

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Books of Hours

In richer books of hours, the commissioner would often be depicted kneeling before the Virgin.
[Hours of Catherine of Cleves, c. 1440, Morgan Library & Museum, Image Source]

The twelfth century Europe saw a rise in popular interest,
and indeed a sense of ownership over, the Catholic faith.  Over the next few centuries this
resulted in the rise of foundations of new monastic orders, like the
Cistercians and the beguines, and heresies, like the Cathars.  But it didn’t just lead to sweeping
social movements and new institutions. 
People wanted ways to participate in religion more on their own
terms.  A particular type of book,
known as a Book of Hours, allowed anyone who could afford one to bring a small
piece of religious life into the privacy of their own home.

An image of the Annunciation often marked the beginning of the Hours of
the Virgin.  Also, notice how similar these two pages look.  These two
books came from the same workshop.  It’s likely these pages were copied
from the same template.
[Annunciation, Boucicaut Master, c. 1410, Paris, Image Source]
[Annunciation, Boucicaut Master, Heures de Guise, c. 1410, Musée Condé, Image Source]

The core piece of any Book of Hours was a text known as the
Hours of the Virgin, essentially an abbreviated form of the Divine Office sung
by monks and nuns.  Besides this,
nearly every Book of Hours opened with a calendar of Church feasts, providing
the books owner with the appropriate dates and indicating feasts of particular
importance to the Church or to the person who commissioned the book.

I think my birthday’s on there.
[Calendar page, July, Beaufort Hours, 15th century, British Library, Image Source]

Technically everything else besides two things was optional,
but there are several texts that appear regularly.  The usual order for the most common of these was as follows:

  • Calendar
  • Readings from the Gospels
  • Hours of the Virgin
  • The seven Penitential Psalms
  • The Office for the Dead

Other texts were also frequently included, but varied a bit
more according to what the person commissioning the book wanted.

An example of a printed book of hours.  This one’s Bulgarian.
[Page 31, Yakov Kraykov, “Chasoslov,” 1566, Image Source]

These were books owned by people at many levels of
society.  They ranged from the
fantastically opulent books commissioned individually by the Duc de Berry and
Mary of Burgundy, to mass produced books that were bought and commissioned by
middle class people and may have been the only books they owned.*  They were primarily used as devotional
texts, but they served other purposes as well.  Children learned to read from their personal or family Book
of Hours.  A wealthy young woman
might be given one of these books as part of her trousseau.

The Book of Hours is the most common type of medieval text
to survive today.  They rose in
popularity from the 13th century onwards.  With the advent of printing in Europe, books of hours were
eventually mass-produced, allowing many people, women especially, personal
access to their religion.

*There’s even one manuscript that was made husband and wife
who may have done so because they couldn’t afford to buy one.

Sources/Further Reading:
De Hamel, Christopher. A History of Illuminated Manuscripts. London: Phaidon Press Limited, 1994.
Bell, Susan Groag. “Medieval Women Book Owners: Arbiters of Lay Piety and Ambassadors of Culture.” In Women & Power in the Middle Ages, edited by Mary Erler and Maryanne Kowaleski, 149-187. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1988.
Jewell, Helen M. Women in Late Medieval and Reformation Europe 1200-1550. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.
Books of Hours, Les Enluminures –  Medieval Books of Hours
Books of Hours – University of Texas at Austin
Picturing Prayer, Books of Hours in Houghton Library – Harvard University
Book of Hours – Wikipedia

just go google books of hours or dig through Wikimedia Commons.  There
are so many beautiful examples out there and so many people who may well
have said these things better than me.

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