A Book of Hours was the essential guide to devotion for a literate Catholic layman of the late Middle Ages, from the late 14th century to the early 16th. Its content was essentially liturgical, but selected with the reality of a layman’s practical, spiritual and intellectual ability for prayer in mind.
Almost every Book of Hours included a calendar listing major feasts of the sanctoral cycle. Four gospel pericopes, one for each Evangelist, followed. After them came Obsecro Te and O Intemerata, two thorough prayers for heavenly intercession, the former addressed to the Blessed Virgin Mary and the latter to both her and the Apostle John.
The longest and most important section was the Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary, comprising the same eight hours that were prayed by monks and clerics on Marian feasts. The Seven Penitential Psalms, the Litany of the Saints and the Office of the Dead followed.
Less essential, but still common, were the Office of the Holy Ghost and the Office of the Holy Cross, the Gradual Psalms, suffrages for various saints and miscellaneous devotions derived from the experiences of medieval mystics, such as the Fifteen Oes of St. Bridget and the Verses of St. Bernard.
The breadth and variety of the texts in a Book of Hours were equaled in its artwork. The calendar pages usually had pictures of the labors of the months. A more elaborate and theologically subtle set of images showing the Old Testament prophecies fulfilled in the Apostles’ Creed and the preaching of St. Paul illustrated the calendar in some splendid manuscripts of the late 14th century. Portraits of the Evangelists accompanied the pericopes, and an image of the Virgin and Child often appeared before the Obsecro Te.
The eight canonical hours of the Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary were each preceded by a scene from the Virgin’s life: the Annunciation at Matins, the Visitation at Lauds, the Nativity of Christ at Prime et cetera. A picture of David and Bathsheba often appeared before the Penitential Psalms; one of the Last Judgement, or of Job on the dung heap, or of the legend of the Three Living and the Three Dead often appeared before the Office of the Dead.
Some manuscript Books of Hours rank among the greatest masterpieces of art ever produced. Their astounding beauty and precious materials may mislead some to think that all Books of Hours were items of rare luxury, owned only by the sort of noble patrons whose names (Jeanne d’Évreux, Jean Duc de Berry, Catherine of Cleves, Mary of Burgundy) art historians now attach to the most famous.
While no illuminated manuscript could be called cheap, most Books of Hours were in fact owned by men and women of no extraordinary means. The Digital Scriptorium is an excellent online database of scanned pages from illuminated manuscripts, containing many examples of these more typical Books of Hours.
Such a book might have been the only book a common family owned, and it might have been passed down though several generations, but it was nonetheless theirs, not a thing reserved for aristocratic homes.
Books of Hours are among the most common artifacts to survive from the Middle Ages, a testament to their widespread popularity. Many are strikingly similar, suggesting that they were produced on speculation, in quantity, by professional illuminators working from pattern books or model sheets.
Given that such demand existed for Books of Hours, and that they were already being produced in quantity to meet it, it is unsurprising that the first generations of European printers made them as well. In the late 15th and early 16th centuries, Paris was the center of their production.
Books of Hours designed, typeset, printed and bound in Parisian workshops served the faithful across Europe; their makers modified their content to match the liturgical uses of Rome, Rouen, Sarum, Braga and other cities. They even published vernacular translations, such as this Portuguese-language edition from 1500:
The colophons and printers’ marks in these books identify many of the men who created them. The illustrators, printers and booksellers active in Paris at this time worked in various collaborations, each member having some creative influence. The best-known and most prolific partnership was that of Philippe Pigouchet (printer and artist) and Simon Vostre (bookseller), which began in 1488 with a Book of Hours for the Use of Rome.
A few years ago, I visited the Newberry Library in Chicago to examine a copy of this book. As I leafed through its vellum pages, taking notes on its content, the reasons for the success of Pigouchet and Vostre became obvious. First, the artistry of its metalcut illustrations is outstanding. Its creators also understood that a large part of the appeal of a Book of Hours is its comprehensiveness. They not only included all of the standard prayers and pictures listed above, but surrounded every text block and large illustration in the book with a full border composed of small square or rectangular pictures.
Some of these pictures are drolleries, ornamental vines, or secular scenes. But most form series of illustrations that summarize (or entirely represent) the content of other religious books. I saw in the margins the Seven Virtues trampling personifications of their opposite vices; the Seven Sacraments; the relics of the Passion; the entire life of Christ in pictures, and the entire life of Mary as well (told in considerable detail; the Dormition and Assumption alone have ten illustrations). The stories of Job, of Susanna and the Elders and of the Prodigal Son appear in full. I saw the Dance of Death, and all fifteen signs of the end of the world.
Later editions produced by the same men during their partnership of eighteen years included marginal illustrations of the Seven Sibyls, the Psychomachia, and the complete Biblia Pauperum. A man who purchased one of these books purchased an entire library.
Such a wealth of content is unmatched even in the greatest manuscript Books of Hours. Printing technology made such complex books affordable to produce. A set of several hundred stock illustrations in metalcut could adorn thousands of copies of hundreds of editions published over the course of decades. Worn-out blocks could be replaced, and new ones added to the set, with relatively little expense.
Vostre and Pigouchet shared the same artistic impulses as other medieval artists: to deplore emptiness, to include always more. Their work demonstrates that there is nothing inherent in printing technology that requires printed books be simpler than manuscripts, or reduced to the gatherings of unadorned pages filled with blocks of uniform text that we have come to accept.
Artists, printers and booksellers contemporary with Vostre and Pigouchet created similarly rich Books of Hours. Those published under Thielman Kerver’s imprint are similar also in their content, format and style:
Antoine Verard operated one of the first printing presses in Paris; he was responsible for the earliest known printed Book of Hours anywhere, a small and simply illustrated volume issued in 1485. In the following decade, he oversaw the creation of a series of large, lavish Grandes Heures for the uses of several cities:
François Regnault introduced Italianate decoration, much of it based on Classical architecture. Many Books of Hours published under his imprint were made for the Sarum Use and sold in England. St. Thomas More owned one, in whose margins he wrote his famous prayer: “Grant me thy grace, good Lord, to sett the world at nought…”
The Books of Hours, the media of so much artistic treasure and the vehicles of so much prayer, seem to have died with the Middle Ages. Protestants, of course, rejected them along with the religion they expressed. In Catholic Europe, the inconformity of the family heirlooms with the Tridentine liturgical reform probably caused many to fall into disuse. New devotional and catechetical books, more attuned to the priorities of the Counter-Reformation, and more strictly overseen by clerical censors, busied the publishers of that era instead.
I myself know of no new Book of Hours, either manuscript or printed, made since the sixteenth century. I consider that a great poverty.