The book of hours was an illustrated Christian devotional book popular in the Middle Ages. It is the most common type of surviving medieval illuminated manuscript. Like every manuscript, each book of hours is unique in one way or another, but most contain a similar collection of texts, prayers and psalms, often with appropriate decorations, for Christian devotion. Paper was rare and most books of hours consisted of parchment sheets made from the skins of either sheep or goats.

"Illumination", or decoration, is minimal in many early examples, often restricted to decorated capital letters at the start of psalms and other prayers, but books made for wealthy patrons may be extremely lavish, with full-page miniatures. These illustrations would combine picturesque scenes of country life with sacred images. Books of hours were usually written in Latin, although there are many entirely or partially written in vernacular European languages, especially Dutch. The English term primer is usually now reserved for those books written in English. Tens of thousands of books of hours have survived to the present day, in libraries and private collections throughout the world.

Beginning in the 14th century, decorated borders around the edges of  important pages were common in heavily illuminated books, including books of hours. At the beginning of the 15th century, these were still usually based on foliage designs, and painted on a plain background, but by the second half of the century, colored or patterned backgrounds with images of all sorts of objects, were used in luxury books.

As many books of hours are richly illuminated, they form an important record of life in the 14th to 16th centuries, as well as the iconography of medieval Christianity. Some of them were also decorated with jeweled covers, portraits, and heraldic emblems.

Flyleaves of some surviving books include notes of household accounting or records of births and deaths, in the manner of later family bibles. Some owners had also collected autographs of notable visitors to their house. Books of hours were often the only book in a house, and were commonly used to teach children to read, sometimes having a page with the alphabet to assist this.

The typical book of hours is an abbreviated form of the breviary which contained the Divine Office recited in monasteries. It was developed for lay people who wished to incorporate elements of monasticism into their devotional life. Reciting the hours typically centered upon the reading of a number of psalms and other prayers.

A  book of hours contains the Calendar of Church feasts, extracts from the Four Gospels, the Mass readings for major feasts, the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the fifteen Psalms of Degrees, the seven Penitential Psalms, a Litany of Saints, an Office for the Dead and the Hours of the Cross.

The book of hours has its ultimate origin in the Psalter, which monks and nuns were required to recite. By the 12th century this had developed into the breviary, with weekly cycles of psalms, prayers, hymns, antiphons, and readings which changed with the liturgical season. Eventually, a selection of texts was produced in much shorter volumes and came to be called a book of hours. During the latter part of the thirteenth century, the Book of Hours became popular as a personal prayer book for men and women who led secular lives. It consisted of a selection of prayers, psalms, hymns and lessons based on the liturgy of the clergy. Each book was unique in its content, although all included the Hours of the Virgin Mary, devotions to be made during the eight canonical hours of the day, the reasoning behind the name 'Book of Hours'.

Many books of hours were made for women. There is some evidence that they were sometimes given as a wedding present from a husband to his bride. Frequently they were passed down through the family, as recorded in wills.

By at least the 15th century, the Netherlands and Paris workshops were producing books of hours for stock or distribution, rather than waiting for individual commissions. These were sometimes with spaces left for the addition of personalized elements such as local feasts or heraldry.

The style and layout for traditional books of hours became increasingly standardized around the middle of the thirteenth century. The new style can be seen in the books produced by the Oxford illuminator William de Brailes who ran a commercial workshop (he was in minor orders). His books included various aspects of the Church's breviary and other liturgical aspects for use by the laity. He incorporated a perpetual calendar, Gospels, prayers to the Virgin Mary, the Stations of the Cross, prayers to the Holy Spirit, Penitential psalms, litanies, prayers for the dead, and suffrages to the Saints. The book’s goal was to help his devout patroness to structure her daily spiritual life in accordance with the eight canonical hours, Matins to Compline, observed by all devout members of the Church.

This page features a small collection of my favorite garden and nature illustrations from books of hours and other medieval manuscripts, mostly drawn in the 15th century. A large collection of medieval manuscript images, covering all subjects (especially Mary), will be created for  the graphics directory for those who collect digital vintage medieval art.




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