The Books of Hours (Latin: Horae; English: Primer) represented a class of devotional manuals popular among medieval Catholic laity. Though their contents were relatively variable, each Book typically contained a detailed Calendar of Saints, a series of Marian devotions (modeled on the Canonical Hours followed by monastic orders), and a catalog of other prayers. These various devotional passages were typically recorded in Latin, with the inclusion of any vernacular tongue being a relative rarity.
As these texts were often the central objects in a lay follower's personal piety, they were highly prized possessions. Among the upper classes, this meant that they were often sumptuously decorated with jewels, gold-leaf, hand-painted illustrations, and (less frequently) with portraits of their owners. Even the less affluent would often save up their minimal earnings in order to purchase their own copies of the texts, though necessity often forced them to opt for inexpensive, block-printed editions. The ubiquity of these Books of Hours among fourteenth, fifteenth and sixteenth century Christians has made them the most common type of surviving Medieval illuminated manuscript.
In the ninth and tenth centuries of the Common Era, monastic piety underwent a number of gradual changes, especially in the area of liturgical expression. Most notably, various devotionally-motivated renunciants championed the modification of the Divine Office (also known as the Canonical Hours), a well-established system of prayers and readings scheduled for various periods during a typical day, which included the following observances: Vigils (the "Night Office") or Matins (prayers occurring before sunrise), Lauds (prayers commemorating the sunrise), Prime (first of the "Little Hours" of midday prayer), Terce (second of the "Little Hours"), Sext (third of the "Little Hours"), Nones (fourth of the "Little Hours"), Vespers ("Evening Prayer"), Compline ("Night Prayer"). Those who wished to adapt this system urged their co-religionists to build upon the existing calendar by including both a memorial vigil and various Marian prayers. Both of these modifications, while initially localized in the congregations of their supporters, eventually became the liturgical status quo, leading to the modification of existing prayer manuals and devotional calendars:
"… the Primer [or, more properly, its monastic antecedent] was constituted out of certain devotional accretions to the Divine Office itself which were invented first by the piety of individuals for the use of monks in their monasteries, but which gradually spread and came to be regarded as an obligatory supplement to the office of the day. Of these accretions the Fifteen Psalms and the Seven Psalms were the earliest in point of time to establish themselves generally and permanently. Their adoption as part of the daily round of monastic devotion was probably largely due to the influence of St. Benedict of Aniane at the beginning of the ninth century. The "Vigiliae Mortuorum," or Office for the Dead, was the next accretion to be generally received. Of the cursus or Little Office of the Blessed Virgin we hear nothing until the time of Bernerius of Verdun (c. 960) and of St. Udalric of Augsburg (c. 97l); but this form of devotion to Our Lady spread rapidly. … In these provision was probably made only for the private recitation of the Office of the Blessed Virgin, but after the ardent encouragement given to this form of devotion by St. Peter Damian in the middle of the tenth century many monastic orders adopted it or retained it in preference to some other devotional offices, e.g., those of All Saints and of the Blessed Trinity, which had found favour a little earlier."
With this gradual modification of monastic religious practice came an eventual adoption by the laity, who viewed their ecclesiastical counterparts as spiritual exemplars par excellence. This ritualized means of dedicating one's life to God soon swept into the mainstream in upper class Europe, with a popularity that could be attributed to a number of related factors, including the lay instruction provided by the fraternal orders, the religious reforms of the Fourth Lateran Council, the idle hours experienced by the aristocracy (especially affluent noblewomen), and the mortal fear inculcated by the Black Death (and other epidemics). In this religious climate, "[g]rowing numbers were interested in the pursuit of a serious interior religious life, enough of them literate to create a market for religious books designed to cater for their needs. Books of Hours were the most important manifestation of this expanding devotional literacy."
Given the exorbitant costs associated with hand-copied texts, this devotional path (and the prayer texts undergirding it) were originally only available to the royalty, the nobility, and the rich who could afford to purchase a personal Book of Hours. This cachet, based as it was on both spiritual and pecuniary exaltation, caused these texts to be revered by their owners as personal treasures. In subsequent years, the ubiquity of these texts among the upper classes eventually made them accessible to the more moneyed members of the merchant classes, a gradual democratization that was completed with the advent of modern printing. Indeed, the proprietary access to sanctity that was initially promised by the Book of Hours was abruptly quashed in the fifteenth century, when advances in printing technology placed affordable editions of the texts within the financial means of commoners and servants. At the same time, this general availability, coupled with the religious ferment that enveloped Europe for the next several centuries, combined to remove the Book of Hours from its place of primacy in personal spirituality, allowing it to gradually be eclipsed by various other prayer books (both Catholic and Protestant).
The influence of these texts can still be seen, albeit obliquely, in the etymology and definition of the word "primer." Though today used to denote any variety of instructional text, it was originally the British term for the Books of Hours. The modern definition, with its educational connotations, arose due to the fact that the majority of literate individuals during the Middle Ages learned to read by following the daily devotions required by the calendrical text.
As noted above, the Book of Hours was originally a portable version of the Divine Office—a calendrical index of days and times, corresponding to a listing of appropriate Biblical texts (typically Psalms) for recitation at each canonical hour. Indeed, the typical medieval version was an abbreviated breviary (a book containing the liturgy recited in cloistered monasteries), which was adopted by pious lay people who wished to incorporate elements of monastic devotion into their spiritual lives. Reciting the hours typically centered upon the recitation or singing of a number of psalms, accompanied by a selection of prayers. A typical Book of Hours contained:
While most Books of Hours began with these basic contents, they were often expanded with a variety of additional prayers and devotions. The Marian prayers Obsecro te ("I beseech thee") and O Intemerata ("O undefiled one") were frequently added, as were devotions for use at Mass, and meditations on the Passion of Christ.
In addition to these orthodox, religious contents, many lay devotees also used their Books for less overtly spiritual ends. The majority of surviving texts contain notes and marginalia, whose contents run the gamut from personal prayers and composition homework, to shopping lists and autographs.
Moreover, the prized nature of these texts often led to their personalization through the inclusion of decorations, painted portraits, and prayers specifically composed for their owners or adapted to their tastes or genders. To this end, one common method used by scribes was to ink their customer's name into any suitable prayers, which turned the finished tome into a concrete relic of their piety.
As many Books of Hours are richly illuminated, they form an important record of life in the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries, as well as preserving many tropes from the iconography of late medieval Christianity. In addition to the artistry of these images, some of these texts also featured more ostentatious decorations in the form of jeweled covers, portraits, heraldic emblems, textual illuminations and marginal decorations. The financial outlay required to obtain one of these texts made them important status symbols in noble society. This made them ideal objects to bequeath to loved ones, as they possessed spiritual, financial, and emotional worth. Indeed, they were often passed along as gifts (or inheritances) to favored children, friends and servants, and were even used as signs of dynastic allegiances. Eventually, this era of sumptuous overproduction came to an end, as the conclusion of the 15th century saw printers producing Books of Hours with woodcut illustrations. Using this technique, stationers could mass-produce manuscript books on vellum with only plain artwork and later "personalize" them with equally mass-produced sets of illustrations from local printers.
Regardless of the specifics of their production, the Books of Hours were central to much of the era's personal piety. As a result, their physical format tended to reflect this fact, with the majority of the tomes constructed with the concerns of portability in mind—to this end, some were actually bound as girdle books for portability and ease of use.
One of the most famous books of hours, and one of the most richly illuminated medieval manuscripts, is the Très Riches Heures, painted sometime between 1412 and 1416 for John, Duke of Berry. It is thought by many to be the quintessential example of the genre, while also being the single most influential illuminated text of the fifteenth century. As in many other cases, the composition of the text and the painting of the images was an intensely collaborative process, making the successful execution an act of synthetic (as well as artistic) genius:
While [the artists] were given increasing scope to express their talents in elaborate and innovative full-page paintings, both books indicate that they were required to adhere to the instructions of an advisor, who was responsible for the selection of the texts and for the overall plan of their illustration. Various changes to the lay-out of the pages in the course of production reveal that the artists also worked closely with the scribe.
The Rothschild Prayerbook was scrivened ca. 1505 and is only three and a half inches thick. Louis Nathaniel von Rothschild owned it but Nazis confiscated the text immediately after the German annexation of Austria in March 1938, purloining it from members of the Viennese branch of the Mayer Amschel Rothschild family. Through the efforts of Bettina Looram-Rothschild, the niece and heir of the owner, the government of Austria returned the book and other works of art to her in 1999. It was sold for Ms Looram-Rothschild by Christie's auction house of London on July 8, 1999 for £8,580,000 ($13,400,000), a world auction record price for an illuminated manuscript.
The Connolly Book of Hours, was produced during the fifteenth century and is an excellent example of a manuscript Book of Hours produced for a non-aristocratic patron. It is of most interest to scholars for the in-depth analysis that it received at the hands of Timothy M. Sullivan and Rebecca M. Valette, who documented and contextualized all its illuminated leaves in their book Reflections on the Connolly Book of Hours (1999).
All links retrieved June 16, 2016.
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