Books of Hours, and the Bridwell Hours

Eric Marshall White, Ph.D.

Curator of Special Collections

Bridwell Library


It is fashionable to call the "Book of Hours" the best-seller of the late Middle Ages, but it was far more than that. It profoundly shaped late-medieval life -- indeed, it brought a structured sanctity to each day of the year. Designed for private devotion to the Virgin Mary and the saints at the appointed times of day, it was comprised of Latin prayers, psalms, hymns, and lessons that provided Christian lay people with unprecedented spiritual fulfillment and hope for salvation. Whereas the Bible lay at the foundation of each reader’s beliefs, the Book of Hours was read, re-read, memorized, and cherished like no other book in history.

Serving as a digest of beneficial devotional readings, the Book of Hours appealed to its readers precisely because it was made just for them. Such books not only offered lay Christians a simple selection of texts excerpted from the liturgy of the clergy, but they were customized for regional and even personal preferences. Although the Church itself never officially prescribed or controlled Books of Hours, the lay people treasured them as an essential part of everyday life. It did not hurt that they often were illuminated with miniatures and floral borders, bringing color and joy to a world in which the experience of images was a rare treat. Although some books exhibited extreme artistic refinement, most maintained a balance between opulence and affordability. Therefore, even though any Book of Hours represented a major expenditure, the majority were attainable by anyone who was well-born or well-employed. Indeed, some cynics have suggested that Books of Hours served mainly as wedding presents, picture books, and status symbols. This is belied by the fact that many fine examples were read to pieces, and that others were made with little or no decoration for modest budgets. If someone could afford to have only one book, it usually was a Book of Hours.

Although Books of Hours varied considerably in their contents, the essential texts are as follows: the Calendar of Christian feast days; the Hours of the Virgin, which consist of different devotions to be recited during the eight canonical hours of the day; the Seven Penitential Psalms; the ancient Litany of petitions to the saints; the Office of the Dead, for the commendation of deceased souls; and the Suffrages of the Saints. The secondary, non-essential texts are four brief 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. Other accessory texts might include the fifteen Gradual Psalms (119-134), the Psalter of St. Jerome (an anthology of verses for the sick), and additional prayers.

The texts that comprise the Book of Hours were first used in the liturgical service book known as the Breviary, which contained the Divine Office (with the complete Psalter) for the entire liturgical year and included the Officium parvum Beate Marie Virginis (Little Office of Our Lady), or the Hours of the Virgin. During the early thirteenth century this shorter collection of readings and prayers became a popular appendix to the Psalter, and by the middle of that century it had separated itself from the Psalter, along with other elements of the Breviary, to exist independently as a prayer book used specifically by the laity. The popularity of such Books of Hours ("horae" in Latin) spread dramatically during the fourteenth century, and although the invention of the printing press may have put some illuminators out of work, the countless printed editions of the Book of Hours reflect their undiminished vogue even unto the Reformation. However, with the advent of both Protestant and Catholic reforms concerning the cult of the Virgin and the veneration of saints, the traditional prayers and petitions lost much of their devotional urgency. Today, the medieval glory of these manuscripts lives on in the flesh within the world’s great libraries, museums, and private collections, and it seems certain that the Book of Hours will remain a "best-seller" via handsome facsimiles, calendars, greeting cards, CD-ROMs, internet website pages, and whatever comes next.