Did You Know...?*

Some fun facts about books of Hours from my reading this week:
  • Books of Hours are the single most common type of illuminated manuscript to survive from the Middle Ages, as well as the single most common type of manuscript to contain biblical texts, primarily psalms and readings from the Old Testament and the Gospels.
  • Although most people in the Middle Ages would not have read "the Bible", everyone who could read would have known the psalms and lessons contained in the books of Hours.
  • Books of Hours are sometimes also called "primers" because they would have been the first book that one learned to read. Books of Hours for children typically begin with the ABCs.
  • Although the Offices in books of Hours were originally designed for use by monks and nuns, most books of Hours were owned by lay people, particularly women.
  • There was never an "official" version of the book of Hours. Although most books of Hours contain at a minimum the Hours of the Virgin and the Office for the Dead, the particular version of the Offices varied from region to region (Use to Use), and no two books of Hours contain precisely the same arrangement of items.
  • Some of the things that a book of Hours might include, in addition to the Hours (a.k.a. Little Office) of the Virgin and the Office for the Dead: a Calendar, lessons from the Gospels (John 1:1-14, Luke 1:26-38, Matthew 2:1-12, Mark 16:14-20), the Hours of the Passion, the Hours of the Holy Cross, the Hours of the Holy Spirit, the Hours of the Trinity, the Hours of Holy Wisdom, the Penitential Psalms (6, 31, 37, 50, 101, 129, and 142) with Litany, the Gradual Psalms or Song of Ascents (119-133), Suffrages or prayers to the saints, the Marian prayers "Obsecro te" and "O intemerata", the Fifteen Oes of St. Bridget, the Fifteen Joys of the Virgin, the Five Joys of the Virgin, the Seven Requests to Our Lord, the Seven Last Words of Our Lord, the "Salve sancta facies", the Athanasian Creed, the Psalms of the Passion (22-29), the Commendation of Souls, the Psalter of St. Jerome.
  • Most books of Hours were made in France, particularly Paris, Bourges and Tours, or the Low Countries, particularly Ghent and Bruges.
  • One of the largest collection of books of Hours is housed at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore (almost 300 manuscript books). The British Library in London, the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, and the Bibliothèque nationale in Paris have over 300 manuscript copies each. The Koninklijke Bibliotheek in The Hague has nearly 200 books of Hours.
  • One scholar (Christopher de Hamel) has estimated that there may be still tens of thousands of manuscript books of Hours extant. You can even buy them (or bits of them) on eBay. Or, for the more cautious purchaser, here.
  • The oldest extant book of Hours copied for use in England (British Library MS Add. 49999) was designed and painted in Oxford by the professional illuminator William de Brailes sometime around 1240.
  • Most books of Hours are in Latin, but many of even the earliest contain rubrics (i.e. instructions for saying the prayers) in the vernacular (most often French).
  • In the later fourteenth century, Geert Grote (d. 1384) translated the Hours of the Virgin, the Holy Cross, Eternal Wisdom, and the Holy Spirit, along with the Office for the Dead, the Penitential Psalms and the Litany into Dutch. Over 800 manuscript copies of this Dutch translation survive. One of them is in the library at my university (MS 347).
  • The most luxurious books of Hours were made on commission for members of the nobility, but by the fifteenth century, mass production had made books of Hours affordable for even merchants and artisans.
  • Book owners typically marked their books with their names or, if they were of the nobility, their coats of arms. Many books contain curses against theft and/or promises of reward if the lost book were returned.
  • Books of Hours were often given as gifts by bridegrooms to their brides and bequeathed as part of their inheritance by mothers to daughters.
  • Families used the calendars in books of Hours to record the death days of their loved ones (so as to remember to pray for them).
  • Owners often had portraits of themselves painted in their books of Hours, showing themselves kneeling in prayer before the Virgin and her Son or seeing, as if in a vision, the events in the life of the Virgin and Christ.
  • Owners added to their books by copying additional prayers into the pages the original copyists had left blank or by pasting additional pictures, typically woodcuts, onto the page. Some owners even sewed the badges they had collected on their visits to various pilgrimage sites into their books.
  • Some books of Hours have pictures and texts that have been worn away from kissing.
  • Others contain medicinal charms and may even themselves have been used as charms.
  • The more expensive books of Hours were often bound not with leather but velvet or silk. Such covers would have gilt and jeweled clasps and pearl-studded spines on which to hang the necessary bookmarks.
  • Books of Hours might be stored in specially-made boxes or sewn into fine-leather or silk bags (chemisettes). These chemisettes would also help protect the book when it was in use, as here in Jan Van Eyck's painting of the Virgin from Ghent.
  • Books of Hours were some of the first books to be printed. More than 1600 editions of Hours were produced before 1530, most of these in France.
  • The earliest printed book of Hours with a date was issued by the Parisian printer Anthoine Vérard in 1485. According to Mary Beth Winn, Vérard went on to publish more than 70 editions by 1510.
  • Between 1557 and 1589, the Antwerp-based printer Christophe Plantin published some 64 editions of books of Hours, nearly two editions per year. Karen Bowen has studied these books.


  1. So are you saying this is the earliest documented instance of scrapbooking? If so, I think we have identified natural funders for your research...


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