Harry Ransom CenterThe University of Texas at Austin

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Books of Hours at the Ransom Center
Saint Catherine and the Belleville Arms. Click to enlarge.

Saint Catherine And The Belleville Arms. Portraits of the owners are present in some Books of Hours. Here, the Belleville family heir prays to St. Catherine, patron saint of the University of Paris and also of virgins and nuns. Note the Belleville family crest at the foot of the page. The leaf shows signs of wear, suggesting frequent reference to this section. The Belleville Hours, HRC MS 8, fol. 51r. France ca. 1425 with modifications ca. 1450. French and Latin. Leaf size 4.9 x 3.4 in.

Vespers. Click to enlarge.

Vespers. Flight into Egypt. Mary cradles the Christ Child as Joseph leads the Holy Family to safety, and an idol falls in the background, HRC MS 6, fol. 53r. Leaf size 6.2 x 4 in.

This is the first in a three-part series exploring the contents and history of Books of Hours.

Pestilence, famine, war, and death: The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse were close companions to life in the 14th century. The Church was compromised by political corruption and worldliness, and the pope resided not in Rome, but at Avignon, where he remained a virtual pawn to the king of France. During this calamitous phase of European history, a devotional text called the Book of Hours emerged as a medieval bestseller. Ten of these volumes reside in the Harry Ransom Center collections.

A Book of Hours is a prayer book designed for laymen, a compendium of psalms, Bible verses, hymns, antiphons, and prayers for private devotional use. The book takes its name from a text called the Hours of the Virgin, a set of eight daily prayers meant to venerate the Virgin Mary. During a 250-year period beginning in the late 13th century, these little volumes—for they are almost always small enough to fit easily into the pocket of a modern jacket—were produced in greater number than any other single text.

The Book of Hours first appeared as an identifiable class of text in the mid-13th century, became an item of conspicuous consumption in the 14th century, was mass-produced by a veritable army of scribes and illuminators in the 15th century, and was printed in hundreds of editions in the early 16th century. These Books of Hours were prayer books, but they were always much more than that, for they became something of a medieval status symbol for those wishing to join the ranks of the literate, well-to-do middle class. For much of its history, a Book of Hours was the only book a lay family was likely to possess, and most literate adults had learned to read from a Book of Hours. They were called "Primers" (sometimes "Prymers") in late Middle English, a word whose modern meaning—a book for teaching children to read—stems directly from one of their frequent uses in medieval Europe.

Large numbers of Books of Hours were made for women, but the Book of Hours was not viewed by contemporaries as a distinctively "woman's book." Warriors from the gentry and noble classes frequently carried their personal Book of Hours on campaign. To give one example, the formidable John Talbot—immortalized by Shakespeare as "warlike and martial Talbot"—had his prayer book with him in 1453 when he was killed at the Battle of Castillon in Gascony, where his personal Book of Hours fell into French hands.

The look and feel of a Book of Hours

The Ransom Center's Belleville Hours manuscript (HRC MS 8) measures slightly larger than 4-3/4 by 3-1/4 inches in size, much smaller than a modern paperback. It is a small volume, but typical for a Book of Hours.

Books of Hours are fairly short as books go, rarely longer than the Old Testament Book of Psalms, but they vary enormously in content and in length, as well as in decoration. Because the Book of Hours never received official sanction from the Church, the book never achieved a truly standard form. Although custom required that every copy include a version of the eight-prayer Hours of the Virgin, medieval booksellers—or stationers—freely added or subtracted texts to suit local devotional customs. Modern scholars closely examine these textual and decorative variations for clues about the geographic origin of a Book of Hours and its date of production. A typical Book of Hours might have 150–250 leaves (300–500 pages), but scribes generally left broad margins on three sides of each page for decorative borders, which allowed little room for text. The Belleville Hours runs about 50 words per page.

Books of Hours are renowned for their illumination, miniatures, painted capitals, historiated initials, and decorative borders. Some Books of Hours have lavish decoration, but many others display little or none. The Belleville Hours includes 39 full-page miniatures and 12 smaller calendar images. But in rare cases a Book of Hours might contain 100 or more images. Several Books of Hours at the Ransom Center have 10 to 20 images, but a few are limited to the occasional decorative border or multi-line colored capital.

Medieval scribes usually wrote their Books of Hours on parchment or vellum, the supple, almost silky, skin of a calf or lamb, which had been carefully cleaned, thinned, scraped, and polished to a pearly and opaque, nearly white, color. A single Book of Hours uses eight to ten of these hides. The vellum used for the finest Books of Hours is nearly as thin as paper, and it was much more costly. Paper was a high-value commodity in 14th-century Europe, but vellum probably cost three to five times the price of paper.

Although they were books for laymen, Latin is the dominant language found in most manuscript Books of Hours, an unsurprising choice for a devotional book produced in an era when the Church wrote and recited its official liturgy only in Latin. Few laymen in the Middle Ages were literate in any language—and fewer still read or understood Latin. Some Books of Hours do include prayers in one of the emergent vernacular languages of Europe, but these passages seldom account for more than one-third of the text. Some scholars maintain that the images often found in Books of Hours were at least partially intended as an aid to comprehension for readers who were not fully literate.

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

Read Part II of this series: "Inside a Book of Hours"
Read Part III of this series: "Three hundred years of Hours—at a glance"