Harry Ransom CenterThe University of Texas at Austin

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Three hundred years of Hours—at a glance

Penitential Psalms. Click to enlarge.

Penitential Psalms. Uriah the Hittite dies in battle at the siege of Rabbah. His death completes King David's adulterous plot to take Bathsheba as his own wife. Overpainted woodcut depicts a scene from 2 Samuel, Chapter 11. HRC BX 2080 A2 1505, fol. F5v. Printed by Gillet Hardouyn, Paris, ca.1510. Latin and French. Leaf size 7.2 x 5.2 in.

For the first 150 years (ca. 1250–1400) of its history, the Book of Hours was an extraordinarily costly object, part work of art and part devotional manual. Kings and princes paid small fortunes for their magnificently decorated and illustrated Books of Hours. Even the more modest versions made for the lesser aristocracy cost the medieval equivalent of several years' pay for an urban craftsman in the building trades. No medieval stationer could stock such an expensive volume. Every Book of Hours was an exquisite object custom made to taste for a patron who paid much of the cost in advance. Indeed, costliness was part of the point, for it drew attention to the wealth and elite status of its owner.

Medieval piety involved substantial elements of public display, and the small but emergent urban bourgeoisie, mostly merchants or upper-tier administrators in the growing royal bureaucracies, naturally sought to imitate their elite role models. So it is not surprising that the Book of Hours became something of a chic devotional accessory, especially for women, an incongruity that occasionally attracted disapproving comment. Eustache Deschamps, the great French poet of the late 14th century, put his satire into verse when he imagined the thoughts of a bourgeois wife who yearns for a Book of Hours "As graceful and gorgeous as me... So the people will gasp when I use it, 'That's the prettiest prayer-book in town.'"

Fifteenth Century

By the early 15th century, improved methods for organizing the work of copyists and illuminators had begun to make the Book of Hours affordable to the small but widening circle of literate and well-to-do commoners. A Book of Hours was still an expensive luxury, but it was a luxury more and more people could afford. A fine Book of Hours from this period might have been sold for the medieval equivalent of several months' pay for an urban craftsman.

The mid- and late-15th century saw a decisive move down-market, as the book publishers of the Middle Ages began what might be called the mass-production of manuscript Books of Hours. Especially in the Low Countries, but also in France, merchants arranged for the writing and illumination of large numbers of nearly identical manuscripts with standardized illustration and decoration. Large quantities of these Books of Hours were made for export, with their content specifically calibrated to match the devotional customs of the target market. These pre-Gutenberg changes in the methods used to produce, export and market manuscript Books of Hours represent important innovations in the book trade, which would have dramatic consequences with the introduction of moveable-type printing presses in the late-15th Century.

Not since classical antiquity had books been made up in quantity and in advance for sale to anonymous buyers. Before the 15th century, books were normally made specifically for an identified buyer who commissioned the work to taste, paid in advance, and waited many weeks or months for the custom-made product. Now any person aspiring to middle-class respectability might walk into a stationer's shop and walk out with an illuminated manuscript Book of Hours for a price as low as the medieval equivalent of a few weeks' pay for an urban craftsman. Even these mass-produced Books of Hours appear luxurious to modern eyes, and they are frequently written on costly vellum.

Most surviving English Books of Hours were actually made in Flanders or northern France, and the vast majority of surviving Books of Hours throughout Europe date from the period of mass production. If their calligraphy and decoration do not quite measure up to the standard of their custom-made ancestors, the mass-produced Books of Hours of the mid- to late-15th century nevertheless offer stunning examples of medieval craftsmanship and are greatly admired by modern collectors. HRC MS 3, whose miniatures from the Suffrages appear in Part II of this series, might serve as a representative exemplar of a Book of Hours that likely was mass produced. The early 15th-century Belleville Hours, whose donor portrait heads Part I of this series and whose calendar images appear in Part II, serves as an example of an earlier, more artisanal, technique of book making.

The Age of Print

<i>The Printer's Skill</i>. Click to enlarge.

The Printer's Skill. This early printed Book of Hours closely resembles its manuscript forebears. Note the hand painted initials, the traditional painted line-fillers, and the redundant ruling lines drawn in red to imitate the scribal art. The page depicts the Suffrages of St. Margaret and St. Barbara, patron saints of pregnant women and hazardous occupations, respectively. HRC BX 2080 A2 1505. Printed by Gillet Hardouyn, Paris, ca.1510. Latin and French. Leaf size 7.2 x 5.2 in.

Books of Hours made a nimble transition to the print age. The first printing press did not appear in Paris until 1470 and in London until 1475, nearly 20 years after Gutenberg printed his famous Bible, but Books of Hours were among the most popular of the early titles. Almost 800 separate editions are known to have been printed in Europe before 1530, far more than any other single title. For much of the early print era, manuscript Books of Hours continued to be written out by hand, but the old scribal art steadily lost ground to the new and much more economical print technology.

Some early printings of Books of Hours might easily be mistaken for their manuscript forebears. Almost all books were printed on paper, but some of the early printed Books of Hours were printed on the far more expensive vellum. In the finer print editions, the outlines for miniatures, capitals, and border decorations were printed on the page from detailed metal plates and then hand-colored or painted—a kind of paint-by-numbers, if you will—to produce striking facsimiles of hand-drawn decoration at relatively modest prices. Indeed, the best examples of these printed Books of Hours are more than a match for the crudely drawn miniatures sometimes appearing in mass-produced manuscript versions. As shown in the example from the Ransom Center's copy of the Hardouyn edition of 1510, faint red ruling lines were sometimes drawn on the printed vellum leaves in imitation of rules drawn by scribes in previous generations.

Gillet Hardouyn Edition Image Set

The Reformation

Effaced Page. Click to enlarge.

Effaced Page. Attempts to adapt the Book of Hours to the religious landscape of post-Reformation Europe sometimes left their mark on the pages of the books. Here someone has marked out an offending indulgence attributed to Pope John XXII (d. 1334) which grants remission from purgatory for a specified period to anyone reciting it with a "devout and contrite heart." HRC MS 7, fol. 108r. Italy, 15th Century. Leaf size 4.5 x 3.2 in.

If the Book of Hours easily adapted to the age of print, the Reformation proved a far more difficult challenge. For almost 300 years, the veneration of Mary, as Mother of God, formed the central purpose for the Book of Hours as a separate class of book—a purpose that did not sit well with the emergent Protestant ethos. Books were valuable objects, perhaps too costly to destroy. But beginning in 1535 Henry VIII issued a series of proclamations requiring that certain items be "erased and put out" of all books of religion.

In an age where possession of an offending book was tantamount to high treason, the injunction was taken seriously. A great majority of surviving Books of Hours from England bear marks of effacement that indicate at least a superficial effort to comply with the royal edict. This vandalized folio from HRC MS 7 pictured alongside shows a commonly used method of defacement—the offending passage had promised the reader several thousand years' remission from purgatory.

The Book of Hours was too strongly rooted in the devotional habits of England to be entirely banned. Ten years after his order to erase the offending passages, Henry VIII issued his own officially sanctioned Book of Hours shorn of many of the traditional elements, such as the the Office of the Dead and the Litany of Saints, for example. It also eliminated miraculous promises, indulgences, and prayers to the Blessed Virgin. For the previous 300 years, the Book of Hours had been written in Latin with the vernacular limited to an optional set of prayers typically comprising less than one-third of the volume. King Henry ended this ancient tradition. His edition is eliminates Latin and is printed exclusively in the English language, bearing the title "Primer," the common name for Books of Hours in Middle English. It was most often printed on paper and sold at prices so low that serving girls in the great houses might own a copy.

Post Reformation

Sarum Primer. Click to enlarge.

Sarum Primer. Title Page. The short reign of the catholic Queen Mary produced this officially sanctioned Primer, the Middle English term for a Book of Hours. It is a cheaply printed edition on paper. The page tells us that the volume was "imprinted at London, by John Waylande at the signe of the Sunne in Fletestrete over agaynste the great Conduit." HRC BX 2090 A2 1555. Printed by John Wayland, London, 1555. Bilingual text in Latin and English. Leaf size ca. 7.5 x 5.5 in.

The Book of Hours made a modest comeback in England during the reign of Queen Mary, the Catholic daughter of Henry VIII who ruled from 1553–1558. Like her father before her, Mary issued an officially sanctioned primer, the so-called Wayland Primer. Whatever may have been Queen Mary's private wishes, the political climate in England ensured that her primer made no radical departure from the version issued by her father.

These images from the Ransom Center's Wayland Primer illustrate the volume's English/Latin bilingual layout and privileged position given the English-language text. The Latin script has been set in smaller type and relegated to the margins. The edition is cheaply printed on paper with few illustrations and would have sold for a few English pennies.

Sarum Primer Image Set

Queen Elizabeth issued the last officially sanctioned English Book of Hours in 1575. But by then the Book of Hours was an anachronism in Protestant England, having been replaced by the Book of Common Prayer. On the Continent however, the Book of Hours continued to be used until well into the 17th century. But by that date, due in part to the Tridentine reforms within the Catholic church, the Book of Hours had long since lost its preeminent position as an aid to private devotion.

The Book of Hours had begun its life centuries earlier as a highly simplified version of the elaborate round of daily prayers set forth in the Psalter and recited by those in holy orders. Starting in the 16th century, the Book of Hours gradually lost ground to an even simpler aid to prayer—the rosary. The set of memorized devotions repeated with the aid of rosary beads was much easier to recite than the eight separate texts comprising the Hours of the Virgin. As the venerable Book of Hours lost currency among the devout, the surviving manuscripts began a slow migration into the hands of the great national libraries and private collections, where thousands of these books endure as treasured reminders of the piety and craftsmanship of late-medieval Europe.

— Russell Hale
(With thanks to Sidney Tibbetts for her translations, transcriptions, and the manuscript expertise necessary for this project)

Read Part I of this series: "Books of Hours at the Ransom Center"
Read Part II of this series: "Inside a Book of Hours"

Further Reading:

Duffy, Eamon. 2006. Marking the Hours: English People and Their Prayers 1240-1570. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Wieck, Roger S. 1988. Time Sanctified: the Book of Hours in Medieval Art and Life. New York: George Braziller, Inc.

Hypertext Book of Hours, English/Latin bilingual text, via medievalist.net.

Images from selected manuscripts in the Ransom Center's collection, via the Digital Scriptorium.

The Book Before Gutenberg, part of a Ransom Center online exhibition..