A Book of Hours, called in Latin Horae, is a Christian devotional book that was popular in the later Middle Ages. As such it is a medieval illuminated manuscript containing a unique collection of prayers, psalms and texts, often appropriately decorated.
Predecessors of the Book of Hours are:
– the Psalter = a volume containing the Book of Psalms and usually other devotionally material as well such as a liturgical calendar and a litany of the Saints; monks and nuns were required to recite it
– the Breviary = a liturgical book of the Latin liturgical rites of the Catholic Church containing the public or canonical prayers, hymns, the Psalms, readings, and notations for everyday use, especially by bishops, priests, and deacons in the Divine Office (i.e., at the canonical hours or Liturgy of the Hours, the Christians’ daily prayer).
A Book of Hours is usually a much shorter version of the Breviary, often created for women and given to a wife by her husband upon their wedding. It was frequently passed down in families like family Bibles in later times. And, as it was often the only book in the household, it was used to teach children to read.
It is usually written in Latin, though some Books of Hours were partially or completely written in vernacular European languages. The term for a Book of Hours written in English is primer.
Books of Hours were developed for lay people who wanted to incorporate elements of monasticism into their lives. Hence, it is an abbreviated form of the Divine Office recited in monasteries. It typically contains:
– A calendar of church feasts
– An excerpt from each of the four gospels
– 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
– The Hours of the Cross
– Various other prayers
In many examples the decoration of the book is minimal. It is often restricted to decorated capital letters at the beginning of a psalm or paragraph. But in some cases it is extremely lavish. In fact, in the 14th century Books of Hours overtook the psalters as the most common vehicle for lavish illumination. This reflects the increasing dominance of illumination both executed and commissioned by laymen rather than monastic clergy. By mid 15th century a much wider group of wealthy businesspeople and nobility could afford to commission highly decorated, often small books of hours. With the arrival of printing the market crashed. By 1500 they were produced for wealthy collectors only.
Due to their illustrations as well as their spread among laymen as well as the clergy these books form an important source of information about life in the 15th and 16th century as well as about medieval iconography. They might include portraits of their owners, heraldic emblems, miniature cycles of the Life of the Virgin or the Passion of Christ, Labors of the Months, signs of the Zodiac, and secular scenes that played an important role in the early history of landscape painting.