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Books for Devotion: Books of Hours

Books of Hours

Books of Hours


The Book of Hours was by far the most popular book of the Middle Ages. It profoundly shaped Christian life, bringing a structured sanctity to each day of the year. Designed for private devotion to Christ, the Virgin Mary, and particular saints at appointed times of day, its Latin prayers offered Christian lay people a uniquely personal source of spiritual fulfillment and hope for salvation. Custom made to respond to regional and personal preferences, richly illuminated Books of Hours were prized possessions that often functioned as wedding presents and status symbols, but the fact that many fine examples show evidence of heavy use suggests that their spiritual function was taken seriously.

Although Books of Hours varied considerably in their contents, the essential texts included: (1) the Calendar of feast days; (2) the Hours of the Virgin, which consisted of psalms and other prayers repeated daily during the canonical hours of Matins, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, and Compline; (3) the Seven Penitential Psalms, which asked for God’s forgiveness; (4) the Litany of Saints, which invoked saintly prayers on one’s behalf; (5) the Office of the Dead, which provided prayers for the departed during the vigil preceding burial; and (6), the Suffrages of the Saints, which offered devotions to specific saints. Additional texts often included four Gospel Lessons, two prayers to the Virgin Mary called "Obsecro te" and "O intemerata," and other short Offices such as the Hours of the Cross and the Hours of the Holy Spirit. Some Books of Hours included the fifteen Gradual Psalms, prayers for the sick, and various prayers attached to indulgences.

Most of the texts that comprised the Book of Hours, including the Hours of the Virgin, had been attached to certain Psalters in the thirteenth century. Along with other elements taken from the Breviary, they soon came to form an independent prayer book used specifically by the laity, apparently in emulation of the complex daily devotional practices of the clergy. The popularity of Books of Hours spread dramatically during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and it became increasingly the vogue to commission beautiful illuminations depicting the Infancy of Christ to accompany each hourly reading, along with other devotional images. Such manuscripts were especially popular in France, Flanders, Italy, and England, and a great many of them were owned by women.