Books of Hours: Devotional and Decorative Practices

written by Katie Funderburg

Developing out of increased veneration of the Virgin Mary that occurred throughout Western Europe in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, Books of Hours are devotional texts that allowed the average person to model their daily approach to worship after the ordained clergy. The genre receives its name from the organizational structure of the book, which contains liturgical readings for each of the canonical hours of the Divine Office: Matins, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, and Compline. In the following centuries, Books of Hours would become the most frequently copied text, and was often the only book a family would own. Spanning the transition from manuscript to print technology, Books of Hours not only provide extensive insight into medieval illumination but also illustrate the development of a genre across evolving materials forms. The Rare Book & Manuscript Library is home to several examples of both manuscript and print Books of Hours whose elaborate decoration and intriguing content invite closer inspection.

A scan of a page from the Lyte book of hours that shows saint Margaret emerging from a dragon's stomach.

A richly detailed manuscript version of the text, the Lyte Book of Hours, created circa 1390, features full page illustrated miniatures like this depiction of Saint Margaret emerging from the belly of the dragon. Named for the Lyte family, who inscribed generations of names into the front page of the book, this Book of Hours exemplifies how readers altered and engaged with the text. In the Calendar section—the typical start to Books of Hours that lists out the saints’ days—the month of December shows only minuscule flakes of red ink where the name of St. Thomas Becket should be, reflecting Henry VIII’s desire for the archbishop of Canterbury to be forgotten. Also, at one point the Latin shifts to indicate female ownership, with the text referring to the reader as the Lord’s “handmaid”.  These physical and textual changes, although minor, demonstrate the ongoing customization that was common for Books of Hours. Call number: Pre-1650 MS 0076

Title page of the Heures de Nostre Dame book of hours

An excellent example of how early Books of Hours were made to look like manuscripts, the title page of the Heures de Nostre Dame features a printed image that was filled in with pigment by hand. Although the book was printed by Antoine Chappiel, the illustration was carried out by the French printer and illuminator, Germain Hardouyn, whose own printer’s mark graces the title page.

A page from the Heures de Nostre Dame book of hours

Throughout the text manuscript illumination is used by Hardouyn to create the impression of a justified text block, filling in any spaces that would make the right side of the text appear jagged. Like in a manuscript Book of Hours, illuminated initials are used to guide the reader through the passage. The large margins of the page signify the high quality (and price) of the book, indicating a preference for aesthetics over reducing costs by fitting more words onto the page. A less lavish Book of Hours might have text running all the way to the outer edges of the page. Additionally, the book was printed on vellum rather than paper, which indicates the printer’s intention for this Book of Hours replicate the luxury of a manuscript edition rather than a mass-produced printed copy. Call number: Incunabula 264.02 C28ho150-

To learn more about the genre, take a look at the Book of Hours LibGuide, which provides resources for secondary research, describes typical sections within Books of Hours, and gives a finding aid for the Books of Hours housed at the University of Illinois Rare Book & Manuscript Library.

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