Introduction to the Book of Hours

(extracts from the catalogue of the exhibition Sacred Time: The Book of Hours from the Middle Ages to the Present Day, Bruce Peel Special Collections Library, University of Alberta, June 3 - September 9, 1996)

Origins of the Book of Hours

The Book of Hours did not appear as an identifiable class of book until the thirteenth century. Before that time, Christians wishing to say a daily round of prayers had to seek guidance from some other type of book.

The Jews of the pre-Christian era had an authoritative source of devotional verse in the Book of Psalms, which, they believed, had been composed by King David. Christians adopted this book for their own use, and the "Psalter" soon became their main devotional text as well.

Monks and nuns recited the Psalms according to guidelines laid out in monastic rules. According to St. Benedict:

The Psalter with its full number of 150 Psalms [should] be chanted every week, and begun again every Sunday at the Night Office. For those monks show themselves too lazy in the service to which they are vowed, who chant less than the Psalter (together with the customary canticles) in the course of a week, since we read that our holy Fathers strenuously fulfilled that task in a single day. [Rule of St. Benedict, chapter 18]

Over the centuries, the Psalms were provided with a number of supplementary texts. It became customary, for example, to frame the Psalms with "antiphons" -- brief passages that helped to bring out the Christian significance of the old Jewish texts. The antiphons were joined by a variety of prayers, canticles, hymns, readings from the Bible, and dialogues. These disparate elements were arranged in a repetitive structure that varied in its details depending on the time of the day, the day of the week, and the season of the year. A liturgical calendar was used to keep track of the days and the seasons, and rubrics were employed to indicate exactly what words were to be said when. The result was a new and more complex book known as the breviary.

In the Gothic period, and especially in the thirteenth century, there was a strong desire on the part of lay people to imitate the devotional practices of monks and nuns. The breviary was far too complex for use by lay people, however. A simpler book was therefore developed which, though resembling a breviary, was far less variable, and therefore easier to use. This new type of book was the "Book of Hours."

The Structure of a Book of Hours

All Books of Hours begin with a liturgical calendar listing the feast days of the Church year. The calendar is followed by short extracts from each of the Four Gospels, and then by the text that defines the Book of Hours -- the Hours of the Virgin. These are made up of eight sets of devotional prayers to Mary, modelled on the "Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary" in the breviary. The Hours of the Virgin are followed by other sequences of hours, usually including the Hours of the Cross and the Hours of the Holy Spirit, and sometimes also the Hours of the Passion, or a set of hours devoted to a particular saint. A standard Book of Hours also includes an Office for the Dead, which would be said on the Feast of All Souls, through the night before a burial, or on the anniversary of a loved-one's death. The Book of Hours is completed by the Seven Penitential Psalms, litanies, and prayers to the Virgin and various saints.

The Calendar

The calendar used in Europe during the Middle Ages followed a system developed originally by the ancient Romans. In the Roman system, the year was divided into twelve months, as it is in the modern calendar, but the days of the months were not numbered consecutively as they are today. Instead, three key days were identified by name: Kalends (the 1st), Ides (the 13th or 15th, depending on the month), and None (the ninth day before Ides). All other days were related to these two, by saying, for example, "today is the second day before the Ides of March."

One important difference between the Roman system and the one employed during the Middle Ages was that medieval Europeans superimposed on the Roman calendar a list of the Christian feast days. The twenty-fifth day in the month of December, for example, was equated with the Feast of Christ's Nativity ("Christmas"), the fourteenth of February was called "St. Valentine's Day," and so on. [see the Online Calendar of Saints Days]

The most important feast of the Christian year was Easter, the day of Christ's resurrection. The date of Easter varied from year to year depending on the relationship between the cycle of the sun, the cycle of the moon, and the cycle of the week. Other feast days (like Ash Wednesday), whose date was tied to the date of Easter, also varied from year to year.

These "movable" feasts, together with the "stationary" feasts commemorating other events in the life of Christ, were arranged by the Church so that they corresponded roughly to the order in which they appeared in the Biblical account of Christ's life. As a result, the feast days of the Christian Church recapitulated the life of Christ, in compressed time, once each year.

The Seasons

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven [Ecclesiastes 3: 1]

The feast days celebrating the major events in the life of Christ (his birth, death, resurrection, and ascension) were set within longer periods of time known as "seasons" or "times" (tempores). The feast of Christ's Nativity (Christmas) was preceded by the season of Advent, which, because it had to include four Sundays, varied in length from year to year. The feast of the Nativity was followed by a period running to the feast of Epiphany (Jan. 6), and popularly known as "the twelve days of Christmas." The Christmas season, broadly speaking, extended all the way to the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin (Feb. 2), making it a season of forty days. Easter Sunday was preceded by another forty-day period known as Lent (forty-six days including Sundays). Lent began with Ash Wednesday, and ended with Holy Week, in which the Church memorialized the events of Christ's Passion (the Entry into Jerusalem, the Last Supper, the Betrayal and Arrest, the Crucifixion, and the Burial). The Feast of Christ's Resurrection (Easter Sunday) was followed by a fifty-day season known as Pentecost, which culminated with the feast commemorating Christ's Ascension.

The Cycle of the Week

Six days thou shalt work, but on the seventh day thou shalt rest [Exodus 34:21]

According to Jewish and Christian belief, the cycle of the week was established by God himself at the beginning of time. Creation, as described in the Book of Genesis, began on a Sunday, and was completed on a Friday. God rested on Saturday (the "Sabbath"), and a new week began on the next day, which was another Sunday. Whereas the special seventh day of the Jews is Saturday, Christians celebrate Sunday, the day on which Christ is said to have arisen from the dead. For Medieval Christians, the cycle of the week represented not only the cycle of days during which the world was created, but also the events of the week in which Christ was arrested, tortured, killed, and resurrected.

The Calendar in Books of Hours

The kind of liturgical calendar that we find in a typical Book of Hours is identical to that used in church missals or monastic breviaries. The days of each month are identified not by number, but by the feast celebrated on that day by the Christian church. Some indication is always given as to the relative importance of each feast in the calendar, the usual practice being for most feasts to be written in black or brown, and for feasts of special importance to be written in red (the so-called "red-letter days").

Each day is identified by a letter from A to G. These letters identify which days are Sundays in any given year. Roman numerals (from i to xix) mark the new moons, and aid in the calculation of the date of Easter.

The Hours of the Day

Seven times a day do I praise thee [Psalm 119: 164]

The Jewish practice of saying prayers seven times a day was adopted by Christians as the basis for their own daily round of prayers. The system developed gradually, but had already achieved what was to become its definitive form by the mid-6th century, when it was incorporated into the rule of St. Benedict:

That sacred number of seven will be fulfilled by us if we perform the Offices of our service at the time of the Morning Office [Lauds], of Prime, of Terce, of Sext, of None, of Vespers and of Compline, since it was of these day Hours that [the Psalmist] said, "Seven times a day do I praise thee." [Rule of St. Benedict, chapter 16].

The hours were completed by a "Night Office" (or Matins), in accordance with verse 62 of the same Psalm: "At midnight I will rise to give thanks unto thee." The resulting eight hours made up the liturgical, or devotional day.

Matins was considered to be the first of the eight devotional hours; the medieval day, therefore, began in the middle of the night. Dawn was celebrated with the office of Lauds (the "Morning Office"). In summer, when the nights were very short, Lauds might follow Matins very closely. St. Benedict advised only a short interval between the two, "during which the brethren may go out for the necessities of nature" [Rule of St. Benedict, chapter 8]. To allow for a longer period of sleep, Matins was sometimes postponed until daybreak, and said together with Lauds, or moved to the afternoon or evening of the previous day. The hours of Prime and Terce followed Lauds at intervals throughout the morning, and Sext was said at noon. The office of None was recited in the mid-afternoon, Vespers at sunset, and Compline in the evening, just before retiring.

The hours of devotion just described had little to do with the hours of a clock. Their timing was determined not by the regular ticking of a machine, but by the rising and setting of the sun, and by the biological necessities of eating, sleeping, and excreting.

After the Book of Hours

During the course of the 15th century, an alternative form of devotion gradually came to rival the Book of Hours in popularity. This new form of devotion was the "rosary" -- a systematic way of saying prayers aided not by the text of a book, but by the sequence of beads on a string. The devotions of the rosary were simpler even than those of the Book of Hours, consisting almost entirely of the "Hail Mary," the "Our Father," and the "Glory be to the Father," which were repeated from memory over and over in set numbers indicated by the beads. There was no longer any variation in what was said from hour to hour, or day to day, or season to season. All that changed was the "mystery" born in mind while saying the rosary. Many of these mysteries are the same as those depicted earlier in the illustrations of the Book of Hours (mainly sequences of events from the Infancy and Passion of Christ).

By the late 16th century, the Book of Hours had lost its pre-eminent position as a tool of private devotion. In England, however, the Hours found a new life as part of the "Primer" -- a compendium of everything that a good Christian ought to know. The primer (which may have taken its name from the Hour of Prime) was used to teach children the basic precepts of the Christian Church, and the term eventually came to be used for any introductory instruction manual. The texts of the Hypertext Book of Hours are taken from one of these English printed books, The Primer, or Office of the Blessed Virgin Marie, in Latin and English (Antwerp: Arnold Conings, 1599).

Further reading

  • Backhouse, Janet. Books of Hours. London: British Library, n.d)
  • Harthan, John. The Book of Hours. New York: Park Lane, 1977.
  • Kren, Thomas, ed. Renaissance Painting in Manuscripts: Treasures from the British Library. New York: Hudson Hills, 1983.
  • Plummer, John, with the assistance of Gregory Clark. The Last Flowering: French Painting in Manuscripts, 1420-1530. New York: Pierpont Morgan Library, 1982.
  • Wieck, Roger S. Time Sanctified: The Book of Hours in Medieval Art and Life. With essays by Lawrence R. Poos, Virginia Reinburg, and John Plummer. New York: George Braziller, 1988.

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