The One and Only Book

It is difficult to know whether a medieval “Book of Hours” is really a book at all in the modern sense. It looks like a book and it contains texts and usually pictures, and most surviving copies are now kept on shelves in modern libraries. In the Middle Ages, however, it had the principal purpose of focusing the mind on devotion rather than conveying a single text or narrative. A Book of Hours was likely to have been the only volume in the possession of its owners, and it might well have been acquired by inheritance rather than by purchase. Much of its text was in Latin, a language that many people did not fully understand. It would probably have been kept wrapped up in textile, and it might sometimes have served part of its purpose without even being opened.

A Book of Hours was a layperson’s prayer book. Its core text comprised psalms and short prayers and biblical quotations intended to be recited aloud, probably under the breath, mostly in private, at each of the eight traditional monastic “hours” of the day, which were matins (before dawn), lauds (at daybreak), prime, terce, sext, none, vespers (in the evening), and compline (before retiring to bed). There is ample evidence that many people did indeed perform such devotions piously and regularly. Each of the eight sections occupied only a few pages and could be spoken easily in several minutes. In addition, most Books of Hours also contained calendars of saints’ days, psalms of penance and mortification, the Office of the Dead, which both commemorated those already departed and was a reminder of the imminence of one’s own death and funeral, and invocations and prayers addressed to saints and to the Virgin Mary.

With rare exceptions, this was all written in Latin. There were slight local variations, known as the “use” appropriate to particular dioceses or regions, but generally the text was absolutely standard in western Christendom, and was almost identical from England to Bohemia and from Holland to southern Italy. They were copied by hand, manu scriptum, usually by professional scribes, or were sometimes produced less expensively on printing presses from the 1480s onward. Many Books of Hours were illuminated, and the most famous examples, such as those made for the Duc de Berry or Catherine of Cleves, include some of the finest paintings of the late Middle Ages.

Most, however, were straightforward little volumes, intended for use at home in the most intimate circumstances, and huge numbers of fifteenth- and early-sixteenth-century Books of Hours still survive. Even now, they have not entirely disappeared from the antiquarian book trade, and medieval Books of Hours can still be found for sale. They are represented profusely in libraries and museums across Europe and America. No one reads them now, but their pictures are some of the most famous of the Middle Ages.

In the fifteenth century probably millions of people knew the texts of the Book of Hours by heart. It …

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