Medieval Manuscript Highlights: Books of Hours at the BPL

opens a new window BPL MS q Med. 172, a Dutch book of hours, ca. 1470, with illuminated miniatures attributed to the Masters of the Zwolle Bible.

The book of hours is a collection of Christian devotional texts that was extremely popular during the late Middle Ages and Renaissance. Each individual copy contains psalms, hymns, readings, and other materials arranged to mirror the monastic cycle of daily prayer and worship known as the Liturgy of the Hours, or Divine Officeopens a new window. However, unlike the various books used by monks and priests in their celebration of the medieval Christian liturgyopens a new window, the book of hours is a personal prayer book. It was made for those outside the clergy, who nevertheless wished to incorporate certain aspects of Church ritual into their own lives. Individual books of hours were therefore designed to facilitate private prayer and to encourage personal reflection; this was often accomplished through the interplay of text and imagery, as in the example at the top of this page.

opens a new window BPL MS q Med. 202, an Italian book of hours, made in 1498, opened to the beginning of the Office for the Dead.

Though these books served a spiritual purpose, they were produced commercially and were generally quite expensive. Nevertheless, among those who could afford to pay, they became essential -- even fashionable -- aids to private prayer, and were produced in vast numbers between the 13th and 16th centuries.

Some measure of their popularity must have been due to the fact that books of hours were made largely to suit individual tastes.  The language, imagery, script, and even the books' contents were all, at least to some degree, variable. In any given copy, the style and overall quality of decoration might reflect personal preference, local tradition, or simply what a particular buyer could afford to either commission or purchase ready-made. Many books of hours are thus unadorned and modest, while others are conspicuous in their luxury, with the finest examples preserving masterpieces of medieval painting and illumination.

MS q Med. 33
opens a new window BPL MS q Med. 33, a 15th-century example made in Flanders. Above, the Hours of the Virgin follow a Flemish hymn added in the 16th century.

Other differences between books of hours arose from the need to accommodate the diversity of regional worship. Within the medieval church, certain aspects of the liturgy were determined, to at least some degree, by local custom, and individual books of hours were made to reflect these variations. Thus, a book of hours intended for the "use" of Rome will differ from a book of hours made for the use of Paris, or Utrecht, or Salisbury. These differences might be reflected in the order and wording of certain prayers or the veneration of local saints or religious events.

Entire cycles of prayer could also be added or excluded based on personal preference, as could a variety of additional texts. These customizations can provide further clues about the origin of specific books of hours and their earliest owners.

Precisely because these books were so frequently personalized, they offer modern readers a kind of window into the varied lives and pious practices of medieval laypersons; as frequent objects of conspicuous consumption sought out by the elite across much of Europe, surviving books of hours also preserve a detailed survey of medieval art and scribal practice.

Further reading:

Picturing Prayer: Books of Hours at the Houghton Library.opens a new window An excellent introduction, with helpful examples of the various individual texts found in most books of hours.

The Book of Hours: a Medieval Bestseller.opens a new window An introductory essay, with examples from the collections at the Met.

Book of Hours: Basic and Advanced Tutorials. opens a new windowDetailed essays on the history and contents of books of hours from Les Enluminures.


Finding books of hours at the BPL

There are 31 books of hours in the BPL's collection of medieval and early renaissance manuscriptsopens a new window. Nineteen of these are bound and are more or less complete. The remaining 12 are fragments only -- mostly single leaves or small sections of books. BPL's manuscript books of hours date from the early 14th century through the end of the 15th century, and were created in Italy, Germany, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Spain, and England.

opens a new window The search string above will retrieve all complete books of hours.

While catalog records for all of the BPL's manuscript books of hours can be retrieved through either of the online catalogsopens a new window, the most immediate way to find records for all of the complete (i.e., non-fragmentary) examples in the collection is to use the following search string, under "advanced search" in the research catalogopens a new window:

  • title: "Medieval and Early Renaissance Manuscripts"
  • AND genre: "books of hours"
  • NOT subject: "early manuscript fragments"

To search for the fragments only, change "not subject" to "and subject." To see a list of both the fragments and complete copies at the same time, delete the subject limiter from the search altogether. Please note, the same strategy will work for other kinds of manuscripts in the collection, including breviaries, missals, antiphonaries, graduals, etc.

opens a new window An illuminated miniature depicting the betrayal of Christ. BPL MS q Med. 105. Book of hours, use of Metz. France, between 1375 and 1400.

Although the BPL's books of hours have not yet been digitized, study images of each individual manuscript are available on requestopens a new window. Study images document bindings, decoration, and scripts, along with pertinent marks of provenance and many other localizing features, including litanies and calendars.

Below is a gallery of sample images showing decorative elements and highlights from the BPL's collections. Click on each thumbnail image to enlarge; right-click on the enlarged image and open it in a new tab to see a full-sized version. Full descriptions for each of the books shown below can be found by doing an "any field"/keyword search for its call number in the research catalogopens a new window

MS q Med. 124. Book of hours, use of Salisbury. England, ca. 1330-1338

MS q Med. 88. Book of hours, use of Rome. Belgium, late 15th century

MS q Med. 81. Book of hours, use of Rennes (the Québriac hours). Rennes, ca. 1430

MS q Med. 131. Book of hours: Office of the Passion and Office of the dead. Italy, ca. 1320-1330

MS q Med. 159. Book of hours in Flemish. Flanders, mid-15th century

MS q Med. 136. Book of hours, use of Rome. Italy, late 15th century

MS q Med. 137. Book of hours, use of Rome. Ghent? ca. 1470.

MS q Med. 242. Book of hours in German. Germany or Austria, late 15th century.

MS q Med. 200. Book of hours, use of Rome. Carpi, Italy, 1498.

MS q Med. 90. Book of hours, in Latin and French. France, 1425-1430.

MS q Med. 89. Book of hours, use of Poitiers, in latin and French. France, 1425-1450.

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