The Medieval Book of Hours: A Devotional Text in the Middle Ages

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Fifteenth Century Book of Hours

Each Book of Hours, because it was created individually, was unique. A simple Book of Hours, for example, belonging to a monk or nun would be fairly plain, with perhaps a decorated letter at the beginning of a paragraph or prayer. A Book of Hours for a wealthier person, for example a king or queen, would contain detailed and lavish illustrations, often decorated with silver and gold.

The Purpose of a Medieval Book of Hours

A Book of Hours was usually written in Latin, the language of the medieval Christian Church and the language in which all prayers were said. The book laid out a shortened form of the daily breviary, the church services recited in a monastery each day. Anyone reading a Book of Hours was echoing the devotions of their monastic brothers and sisters, whilst still being able to live a secular life.

The book could contain information on the many church feasts and saint’s days, a litany of saints, the Office of the Dead and psalms and Gospels. The prayers contained within the book could be adapted to suit the needs and preferences of the user, for example, someone with a particular devotion to the Virgin Mary might request the book to contain The Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

The Breviary in Medieval Times

A breviary was a shortened version of the full monastic day which became popular in the twelfth century, as monasticism was at its height. Both men and women wished to imitate the devotion of monks and nuns and reciting a Book of Hours daily was one way to do this, and to feel close to the religious men and women who were also saying these prayers.

The most ornate Book of Hours would be heavily decorated with jewels, silks and heraldic emblems, to display the wealth of their owner. From the fourteenth century, it became common for the borders of the pages of a Book of Hours to be decorated with religious symbols and images from nature, such as leaves and flowers. If a Book of Hours passed into new ownership, for example, after a death in the family, it was often over-painted or over-written by its new owner, in order to personalise it.

Famous Books of Hours in Europe

Thousands of examples of Books of Hours exist across Europe, as these were often prized possessions, passed down through the generations and even mentioned in wills.

The Bedford Hours is at the British Library and the Petites heures de Duc du Berry (fifteenth century) is at Musee Conde in Chantilly, France.