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What is a Book of Hours?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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A book of hours is a Christian devotional text which contains an assortment of prayers, psalms, religious texts, and selections from Christian liturgy. Books of hours were extremely popular during the Middle Ages, and may well have been the most widely produced books in medieval Europe. Today, such books are relatively rare, but hundreds of extant medieval books of hours can be found on display in museums, for people who wish to examine these remarkable texts in person.

The content of a book of hours would have varied, depending on who owned it and when it was produced. Essentially, the book of hours was designed for lay people who wanted to integrate religious practice and monastic prayer into their daily lives. Typically, the front of a book of hours included a liturgical calendar making major feasts and holidays, followed by prayers, gospel readings, stories, and other devotional texts. The “hours” in the book of hours were the Hours of the Virgin, prayers said at eight set points during the day.

Before the advent of the printing press, each book of hours was hand written and decorated by hand as well. Only the wealthiest members of society could afford these devotional books, and they often dueled with each other to commission the finest books of hours. The illustrations in these illuminated manuscripts could get quite lavish, as could the decorations on the binding, and some people even requested customized content such as special prayers written just for them. The showier one's book of hours was, the more Christian devotion one was presumed to have.

Life in the Middle Ages was difficult for people of all classes, and religious faith was often strengthened through periods of adversity. Many people wished to devote themselves to Christian prayer, and books of hours made this easier. A number of bookshops and scriptoriums capitalized on the craze, producing low-cost versions for members of the lower classes which became even more affordable with the rise of the printing press.

Classically, the text in a book of hours would be in Latin, although some versions in various European dialects were also produced. Books of hours ran the gamut from painstakingly illuminated versions for the upper crust to generic printed editions without illustrations for members of the lower classes. Generic or not, books of hours were considered to be family treasures, with many families writing important events like the dates of births and deaths into their books of hours to personalize them.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By David09 — On Dec 19, 2011

@miriam98 - I get your point, but many people do in fact link aesthetics and spirituality. That’s why we have monuments and cathedrals with stained glass windows and painted ceilings, not to mention paintings themselves.

People do have a tendency to think that outward appearances matter in religious expressions. The nobler the expression, the deeper the religious sentiment is, in their opinion.

Devotionals nowadays are like big family heirlooms. Who has not seen the house with the huge Family Bible as a coffee table piece? There’s nothing wrong with having such a Bible that is decorative. I don’t think that you can assume that a lavish table piece is a sign of spirituality or superficiality, either way.

By miriam98 — On Dec 18, 2011

I’ve never seen a book of hours or any such liturgical text, but I am struck by the fact that these were considered decorative symbols of spirituality among the wealthiest.

The idea that there was a connection between how beautiful your little book of hours was and how spiritual you were seems, at least to me, to be somewhat strange. What does aesthetics have to do with spirituality?

I would hope that people who owned these volumes truly tapped into the spirit of their faith rather than relying on the outward adornments to provide them with a sense of security.

By DentalFloss — On Dec 17, 2011

@Denha- while I don't know how easy it would be to do what you suggest, I do think you have a point. Very few things these days are one of a kind; books, movies, and music recordings are all so easily reproducible now, and art of any kind is often in the form of prints of older work, at least most places I go. Originals are not as common or as valued, which I think is unfortunate.

A girl at my university was studying illuminated texts as her art major, and I thought that was so cool. Hopefully more people will work to bring back that tradition in some way.

By Denha — On Dec 17, 2011

Books of hours and other illuminated texts are such treasures. I know that these days we are beginning to think, in many parts of the world, that e-books can replace written text; I would argue that illuminated texts show how wrong people are.

These books represented hours upon hours of work by master craftsmen. Maybe if we put that much love into more of the things we use today, there would be more appreciation.

By andee — On Dec 17, 2011

If you have ever had the chance to see an original book of hours, you would realize how beautiful and unique they are.

I was able to see one of these in a museum and words alone cannot describe how beautiful and intricate they are.

They are also highly sought after by collectors because they are so rare and beautiful. Most of the book of hours art is highly detailed and ornate.

Some of them are also known as red-letter day books. The scribes would often indicate which holy days were most important by dark red ink.

Not only are the outside of these books unique and special, but what is on the side is even more enlightening.

I know I could never afford to have one of these genuine books, but this is something I have a lot more interest in since I really saw what they looked like and learned some of the history behind them.

By Mykol — On Dec 16, 2011

There is a book called 'The Book of Hours' that I bought for my mom. This book is a compilation of prayers and writings written by a Trappist Monk several years ago.

Many of the liturgies and psalms would be similar to those written by the people of the Middle Ages. These are the kind of inspirational writings that helped many people get through these tough times.

Today it is easy to be overwhelmed by the choices of devotionals and prayers we have to help us. I am sure something as simple as a little book of hours for someone during this time was very treasured.

My mom was thrilled to get this book, as it reminded her of many liturgies she remembered when she was a girl.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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