Books of Hours

Through the generosity of Mrs. S. Eberly Thompson and other donors, Mt. Angel Abbey Library is privileged to be the repository of ten illuminated Books of Hours, as well as of several early printed books of hours and related prayer books.

The Golden Age of Books of Hours

Books of Hours were the books most commonly produced in Christian Europe from around 1250 to 1500 AD. Fundamentally, they were a prayer book which contained a simplified form of the liturgy of the hours said by priests, monks and nuns. The laity wished to share in the liturgy of the hours, and devotion to Mary was at a peak, so it was the office of the Blessed Virgin, found in most breviaries and other office books, that was adapted to lay use. The majority of books of hours were produced in France and the lowlands.

The popularity of such an expensive artifact, hand-written and hand-decorated, rested on the emergence alongside the nobility of a middle class who could afford to purchase and display such a book and who were literate enough to sometimes use it. On the flyleaves they recorded marriages and births; in the margins of the liturgical calendars they noted the anniversaries of deaths of friends and families; and on blank pages they added prayers that they liked. The wealthy could have lavish books made to order with prayers and paintings of their favorite saints; the less affluent purchased more standardized, mass-produced versions. In either case, using their books of hours the laity could pray at intervals through the day -- matins and lauds at daybreak, prime at 6 AM, terce at 9 AM, sext at noon, none at 3 PM, vespers at sunset and compline before retiring -- rendering each portion of their daily round holy and thus approximating the Pauline admonition to pray always. They prayed the psalms, antiphons and orations slowly and probably out loud. They took their books of hours to Sunday mass if the basic mass texts were written in the book. How closely connected were the prayer life of the laity and their books of hours is indicated in the illuminations of the books themselves: over and over at the Annunciation the young lay woman Mary is shown kneeling with her book of hours open.


Some books of hours begin with a calendar listing saints for some or all of the days of the year. Important feasts are indicated in red; if the feasts which are thus rubricated are of local importance only, it helps us pinpoint the area with which the book of hours was originally connected. In some books of hours the calendars are illustrated by the signs of the zodiac and the labors (and some leisure) of the months. The labors are those of rural peasants, which is odd since the books were meant for other classes: January:feasting (or keeping warm); February: keeping warm (or chopping wood, pruning, breaking ground, feasting); March: pruning (or breaking ground); April: picking flowers (or hawking); May: hawking (or riding, courting, making music); June: mowing (or shearing sheep); July: reaping (or mowing); August: threshing (or reaping, winnowing); September:treading grapes (or harvesting grapes, sowing, ploughing); October: sowing (or treading grapes, harvesting grapes, ploughing, thrashing for acorns); November: thrashing for acorns (or slaughtering a pig, slaughtering an ox, baking); December: slaughtering a pig(or, baking, roasting pigs). Could variations help indicate provenance; e.g., would grape harvesting and treading be more likely to be omitted in an English book of hours?

Gospel Lessons

By the beginning of the fifteenth century, the calendar was followed by a gospel lesson from each of the four evangelists, sometimes accompanied by a miniature showing the evangelist or his symbol: John = eagle; Luke = ox; Matthew = angel; Mark = lion. Usually the evangelist is shown writing into a codex, as though he were a medieval scribe;sometimes an incident from the evangelist's life is shown instead.

Hours of the Virgin

At the heart of the book of hours are the hours of the virgin, a series of short offices dedicated to Mary, which parallel the longer offices of the monastic and clerical breviary. Each hour consists of antiphons, psalms, hymns, prayers, verses and responses. For the beginning of each hour there was a standard cycle of illuminations: annunciation, visitation, nativity, annunciation to the shepherds, adoration of the magi, presentation in the temple, flight into Egypt or massacre of the innocents, coronation of the Virgin, or Assumption, etc. The depictions of shepherds provide interesting indications of what painters thought of these rustics. Occasionally this traditional infancy sequence is replaced by a cycle devoted to the sufferings of Christ: agony in the garden, betrayal, Christ before Pilate, scourging, carrying the cross, crucifixion, deposition, burial.

Hours of the Cross, Hours of the Holy Spirit

These two offices may come almost anywhere in a book of hours, but most often they follow the Hours of the Virgin. Each set of offices may be included as an independent cycle running from Matins and Lauds to Compline, or the Matins and Lauds of the Virgin and so forth. These two offices are usually very short, and sometimes do not include all eight hours. The hours of the cross are usually introduced by a crucifixion scene; occasionally there is a series of illuminations, one for each hour. These are like the passion sequence that sometimes accompanies the Hours of the Virgin.

Obsecro te and O intermerata

Many different prayers could be inserted into a book o hours. These two, addressed to Mary, are found most often. The first is often accompanied by a painting of the Madonna, the latter by a pieta. Both prayers are heartfelt, personal addresses of the person praying to Mary. Hence, if the person who commissioned the book wished his or her portrait included, this was a logical place. Also, by noting whether the prayers use masculine or feminine forms, one can get a clue about the gender of the original owner.

Penitential Psalms and Litany

Because of their content and following Cassiodorus, the medieval church designated Psalms 6, 31, 37, 50, 101, 129, and 142 the penitential psalms. These made good penances for confession. The traditional illuminations at the beginning of these psalms were David in Prayer (he wrote the psalms and found many opportunities to be penitent) or Christ as Judge or King of Heaven. Next follows a litany, which addresses various saints with the entreaty "Pray for us." When unusual saints are mentioned they may provide indications about the home city or diocese of the original owner.

Accessory Texts

Owners and manufacturers could introduce any additional prayers they wished. They included: the fifteen (or some other number) joys of Mary; seven requests to the Lord, which are reminders to him of others who have received his mercy; the hymn "Stabat mater" about Mary at the foot of the cross; a prayer to the holy face of christ (Salve sancta facies) which is usually illustrated by a miniature of Veronica; the traditional hours for each day of the week (e.g. Sunday hours of the Trinity; Thursday hours of the Blessed Sacrament) sometimes accompanied by the texts for the corresponding votive mass; the Mass of the Virgin; the seven short prayers of St. Gregory; prayers for use during mass.


These are short prayers to saints. They were often accompanied by a portrait of the saints, who are usually arranged in hierarchic dignity: God, mary, angels, John the Baptist, apostles, martyrs, confessors, women saints. Christopher, Sebastian, Thomas Becket, anthony, Nicholas, Francis, Mary Magdalene, Catherine of Alexandria, Barbara, and Margaret are often included.

Office of the Dead

This office was usually preceded by a single miniature showing a funeral service, where monks chanted over a coffin. This office was the same as that used by clergy, perhaps so that the laity could join in the liturgical offices said for their beloved deceased.

These notes are based on Roger S. Wieck, Time Sanctified: The Book of Hours in Medieval Art and Life New York: Braziller, 1988. (BX 2080 W54).