Harry Ransom CenterThe University of Texas at Austin

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Inside a Book of Hours

This is the second in a three-part series exploring Books of Hours, medieval prayer books designed for laymen. The first part of the series outlined the historical context for the emergence of the Book of Hours as a distinctive class of text and provides an introduction to the subject. This installment takes a look inside a Book of Hours and illustrates the some of the more common elements of these books with images drawn from the Ransom Center's manuscript collections.

Although their contents varied widely depending on the date and place of production, most Books of Hours possessed certain common elements. The most important and frequent of these elements are described here.

Hours of the Virgin. Click to enlarge.

Hours of the Virgin. Matins. Annunciation. Mary receives the message from the angel Gabriel that she has been chosen to be the Mother of God as the Dove of the Holy Spirit descends from the right. HRC MS 6, fol. 15r, France, mid to late 15th century. Latin, calendar in French. Leaf size 6.2 x 4 in.

Hours of the Virgin

The set of devotional texts that gives its name to the Book of Hours is called the Hours of the Virgin. It generally appears about a third of the way into a Book of Hours, and it is almost always written in Latin, a language understood by few laymen in the late Middle Ages. If a Book of Hours has only a few illustrations, they are often found in this section.

The Hours of the Virgin itself consists of eight separate devotional texts, one to be recited at each of the eight canonical hours of the day. These texts are a vastly simplified version of the complicated round of prayers and verses recited eight times a day by those in holy orders, thereby allowing the lay users of a Book of Hours a share in the pious rituals observed in a monastery. From an early date, image sequences began to accompany the Hours of the Virgin.

The images used for each of these eight hours never reached a truly standard form, but they generally trace in chronological order an assortment of events from the life of the Blessed Virgin. These are the images frequently associated with each of the canonical hours, whose precise moment of celebration varied with the seasons:

  Hour   Time Of Day   Miniature
  Matins   the wee hours   Annunciation– Angel Gabriel greets Mary
  Lauds   dawn   Visitation– Mary visits Elizabeth
  Prime   mid-morning   Nativity– Birth of the Christ child
  Terce   late morning   Annunciation– Angels appear to the shepherds
  Sext   noon   Adoration of the Magi– Magi come to see the Christ child
  None   mid-afternoon   Presentation in the temple– Mary presents the Christ child
  Vespers   sundown   Flight into Egypt– Mary & Joseph flee Herod as directed in a dream
  Compline   late evening   Coronation of the Virgin– Mary crowned Queen of Heaven

Hours of the Virgin Image Set

Calendar. Click to enlarge.

Calendar. January. Feasting. Calendar images often depict labors (typical work or other activities) associated with each month, as in this example from the Belleville Hours. The third column lists feast days, with red ink denoting the most important feasts. The golden numbers and dominical letters listed in the first two columns permit the skillful user to calculate the date for Easter and other moveable feasts on the religious calendar. HRC MS 8, fol. 3r. France ca. 1425 with modifications ca. 1450. French and Latin. Leaf size 4.9 x 3.4 in.


A type of perpetual calendar appears in the first pages of almost every Book of Hours, but you may not recognize it as such. Here, for instance , is an example from the month of January. Medieval calendars generally record the days of the month not by consecutive numbering—as in modern calendars—but by the religious feast celebrated on that day, together with the ancient Roman system of ides, nones, and kalends. Red ink marks the most important of the feast days, a custom that is echoed in the modern phrase "red letter day." The calendar often provides valuable clues to the origin of a Book of Hours because local feast days in the Middle Ages were highly variable from one region to another.

A few of our modern holidays, such as Christmas and Valentine's Day, preserve a reminder of the medieval system for marking time, but every day was a saint's day somewhere in medieval Europe. The men who in 1415 fought alongside Henry V at Agincourt may not have known they were battling the French on a calendar date called October 25 (N.S.). But all would have known they were fighting on Saint Crispin's Day, a feast day which always falls in late October, exactly seven days before All Saints' Day.

Most Books of Hours lack calendar illustrations, but when present, they are almost always small and depict signs of the zodiac or, more commonly, the kinds of work or activities common to the month, as shown in this set of calendar images from the Belleville Hours.

Calendar Image Set

Office of the Dead. Click to enlarge.

Office of the Dead. Man inters shrouded corpse as priest recites the Office of the Dead. Priest casts a sidelong glance toward the black shadow of death lurking at his left side. HRC MS 4, p. 188. Mid-15th Century. Latin and French. Leaf size 7.3 x 5.2 in.

Office of the Dead

The series of famines, plagues, and wars that ravaged much of Western Europe during the 14th century left its mark on the Book of Hours. Unlike other elements that were simplified and abbreviated for use by laymen, the Office of the Dead contains the full text of the church's official prayers for the dead. Almost all Books of Hours include this rather long section which usually appears toward the end of the volume and rarely contains more than a single miniature, as in this example from HRC MS 4.

The illustration accompanying this section normally portrays one of the ritual parts for a medieval funeral. The image from HRC MS 4 shown here depicts a priest reciting the Office of the Dead over a shrouded corpse, perhaps the most common scene appearing in this section of a Book of Hours. In the Middle Ages, corpses generally were buried in a shroud and without a coffin.

St. John on the Isle of Patmos. Click to enlarge.

St. John on the Isle of Patmos. John writes his Gospel as his attribute, the Eagle, holds his pen-case; HRC MS 5, fol. 13r. France, mid-15th Century. Latin and French. Leaf size 6.1 x 4.3 in.

The Gospels

Books of Hours frequently contain a section with readings from each of the New Testament Gospels, often with a miniature depicting the relevant apostle. The readings found in Books of Hours are very often extracts from the gospel texts included in the official Mass recited on four of the Church's major feast days: Christmas Day, the Feast of the Annunciation, Epiphany and the Feast of the Ascension.

As in the examples shown here, the illustrations frequently present the evangelists at work writing their gospel onto a scroll or codex and using the implements employed by medieval scribes. The traditional symbol, or attribute, of the evangelist often appears in the illustration, as in these examples from the Ransom Center collections.

The illustration for St. John nearly always shows the apostle seated on the Isle of Patmos—as in this example from HRC MS 5—where Christian tradition holds that he composed the Book of Revelation. The remaining illustrations normally show the relevant apostle working in a scriptorium or study.

Gospels Image Set

Suffrages. Click to enlarge.

Suffrages. John the Baptist pointing to the Lamb of God. John the Baptist wearing hair garment, kneels beside water while holding a book and indicating towards the Lamb of God (symbol of Christ); HRC MS 3, fol. 93v. Flanders, late 15th Century. Latin and Flemish. Leaf size 6.1 x 4.1 in.


This section of a Book of Hours includes antiphons and prayers addressed to popular saints and often seeks their protection from particular harms or dangers. For example, the prayer to St. Sebastian, the patron saint of plague victims, often seeks special protection from that dreaded pestilence.

Not all Books of Hours include a section dedicated to the Suffrages but, when present, the section usually appears near the end of the volume. The section normally presents the commemorated saints in accordance with a strict traditional hierarchy: The Virgin Mary comes first, followed by the Archangel Michael and St. John the Baptist. Next come the suffrages for the apostles, followed by male martyrs. Female martyrs come next in the hierarchy, followed by widows at the bottom of the hierarchy and, therefore, at the end of the Suffrages section.

The illustrations accompanying the Suffrages vary enormously from exemplar to exemplar. Often, a few favorite saints receive an image while the other saints make do with just a prayer as in the example from HRC MS 3. But many Books of Hours include no images in the Suffrages section. In exceptional cases, the Suffrages receive profuse illustration.

Suffrages Image Set

Prayers to the Virgin

The Obsecro te ("I beseech thee") and the O intemerata ("O immaculate Virgin"), two prayers addressed to the Blessed Virgin, are present in nearly all 15th-century Books of Hours. Each of these prayers is written and recited in the first person and makes a plaintive appeal directly to the Virgin Mary for aid and intercession with her Son. The prayers are sometimes personalized, with the name of the book's original owner inserted into the text or the accompanying illustration. The Obsecro te specifically asks that death not come suddenly or unexpectedly, a plea that may have provided some comfort against the toll of plague and war that afflicted late-medieval Europe.

An image depicting the Virgin Mary at prayer, usually with her Son, symbolizes Mary's role as intercessor in these prayers and is the traditional image for this section. As shown in the example from HRC MS 6, the Virgin is sometimes pictured alone next to the Obsecro te prayer. The Prayers to the Virgin have no fixed position within a Book of Hours, but often the prayers are placed between the Gospel Lessons and Hours of the Virgin.

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 Samuel 2, 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.


A Book of Hours often contains one or both of two well-known cycles of Psalms: the Seven Penitential Psalms and the Gradual Psalms (Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, and 143 and Psalms 120–134, respectively, in the King James Bible).

These and other Psalms were so well known to medieval worshipers that each Psalm is often indicated only by its incipit, or opening line. The reader is expected to recite the remaining lines from memory.

When the Penitential Psalms include miniatures, they often open with a scene from the life of King David—a bad example of adulterous behavior but a comforting model of repentance and forgiveness—as in these wonderfully illuminated images from an early example of a printed Book of Hours.

Psalms Image Set

The Litany. Click to enlarge.

The Litany. Invocations to God, the Blessed Virgin and assorted saints, each followed by the abbreviation "or", the Latin incipt for "ora pro nobis" ("pray for us"). HRC MS 4, p. 174. Mid-15th Century. Latin and French. Leaf size 7.3 x 5.2 in.


One or more litanies of the saints normally follow the Penitential Psalms. In a litany, the reader invokes, one by one, a long list of favorite saints, martyrs, confessors, and holy virgins, ending each phrase with the Latin words ora pro nobis ("pray for us"). Economy-minded scribes often abbreviated this common ending with the letters "or," as in the pictured example from HRC MS 4.

— 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 III of this series: "Three hundred years of Hours—at a glance"