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 was the volume from which children learned to read. Wealthy men and women had multiple copies, often richly illuminated, and poorer families bought simple Books of Hours secondhand, or even made or adapted their own. They were evidently among their most precious or intimate possessions, for Books of Hours were mentioned in wills and inventories and passed down through many generations within families, often through daughters. Relatively few people then knew the works of Virgil or Chaucer or other literary texts in any language, and even the Bible was rare in lay hands; but everyone was familiar with Books of Hours. If we are to understand the point of contact between people and the written word in the late Middle Ages, there is no more fundamental text than the Book of Hours.

These books, then, are the source material for Eamon Duffy’s enchanting and engaging inquiry into the private devotions of English men and (very often) women in the late Middle Ages, Marking the Hours: English People and Their Prayers, 1240–1570. Professor Duffy is probably best known for his very successful book The Stripping of the Altars (1992), on the violent destruction of public religious art during the Reformation in England. Now he leads us out from the stately medieval church into the private home, stooping in through the low front door of the house and climbing into the upstairs room, seeking the household’s sole book—perhaps wrapped and hidden in the cupboard beside the bed—and looking between its parchment pages. The medieval owners of Books of Hours often crammed the volumes with notes and additions, supplementary prayers (sometimes in English), family and political anniversaries, souvenirs of pilgrimages, drawings, semimagical charms and incantations, indulgences, pressed flowers, and medicinal recipes. They added or commissioned prayers for peace, safety, good business, virtue, family prosperity, and eventually a Christian death.


Here is an enormous amount of private material, mostly unstudied by social historians, to whom prayer is a sensitive subject, best avoided, and by historians of art and manuscript illumination, who look only at the pictures and who exhibit Books of Hours in glass cases (which of course is not at all how they were intended to be seen). Professor Duffy has peered into the much-thumbed margins and across the flyleaves of the books, seeking the most personal and most elusive of information, which is people’s relationships with God. The history of personal prayer, he writes, is as difficult to document as the history of sex, and for many of the same reasons, for both activities are intensely private and invisible (and sometimes incomprehensible) to nonparticipants. The result is probably the most intimate glimpse possible into medieval social history.

Eamon Duffy is professor of the history of Christianity at Cambridge University. He writes with an understanding and personal experience of religious practice which is beguiling and authoritative. His text is constructed in easy and confiding prose, like an excellent series of spoken lectures, which is how it began, sharing complicated concepts with clarity and intimacy and a genial good humor, without condescension or judgment. It is punctuated with well-chosen plates, both of books and of their medieval settings. Although Professor Duffy knows the world of pre-Reformation England better than almost anyone alive, there is a wonderful sense here of having recently discovered Books of Hours, which bibliographers and collectors have known about for centuries, and his exploration of apparently new-found territory sweeps the reader onward in an excited journey of inquiry.

He opens by asserting that almost eight hundred manuscript Books of Hours survive from the English Middle Ages. Even this is perhaps an underestimate, when we consider the number still in private hands (I have three myself, for example, which he probably does not know about), but he has apparently looked at only fifty or so, and merely a handful of these in detail. It is very unlikely that a larger or more comprehensive survey would in any way alter his conclusions, but this is in no sense a catalog or detailed corpus of all the varied components of the surviving manuscripts. It is an extended essay, not a vast tome, but in its short length it is almost certainly the most informative and readable account of the actual use of Books of Hours ever written.

One conclusion which Professor Duffy was evidently not really expecting, but which recurs in various guises throughout the book, is that many of the supplementary prayers and texts added by medieval owners into their Books of Hours are themselves quite standard, found in similar versions in other copies, sometimes with headings recounting their time-honored credentials and asserting, for example, that they had been sent by Pope Leo to Charlemagne or revealed by the Virgin Mary to a certain holy hermit. These are not private or individual prayers but are presented, at least, as being part of the received Christian tradition.

Even the prayers apparently used by Richard III or Sir Thomas More in their surviving Books of Hours are often disappointingly impersonal and uninformative. Owners collected prayers (and it would be fascinating to know how they did so) but most, it seems, did not compose their own, or they pretended not to have done so. This takes us away from the very individual quality of late medieval prayer, which we might have hoped to find, into a world where the assumed universality of the prayers was part of their virtue. This is an important and rather unexpected conclusion. An interesting example of it occurs in Professor Duffy’s beguiling interpretation of Holbein’s famous drawing of Sir Thomas More and his family in 1527, now in the Öffentliche Kunstsammlung in Basel. All ten people present in the picture are shown holding books. This is often interpreted as being symbolic of a humanistic household, but Duffy suggests, credibly, that the family are at prayer and all are holding copies of exactly the same book, doubtless identical printed Books of Hours, so that all are praying together from the same text at once.

This sense of shared devotion appears elsewhere too. The hour of matins in many Books of Hours begins with a picture of the Annunciation, when the archangel Gabriel appeared to the Virgin Mary in Nazareth and told her that she had been chosen to bear the child who would be the Messiah. The Virgin is usually shown kneeling at her morning prayers, with a book open on a low desk before her. That volume is evidently imagined as being a Book of Hours, and Gabriel is interrupting her as she reads from it. An illustration of a fifteenth-century manuscript’s first owner often appears nearby or even opposite, also kneeling in devotion in similar pose before an identical manuscript laid open for reading.


Imagine this parallel from a medieval perspective. The Annunciation itself took place in the historical setting of the early Roman Empire, in the reign of Augustus Caesar (as in Luke 2:1), and so original users of Books of Hours would doubtless have assumed that the Virgin, like God, spoke Latin, current in ancient Rome. The biblical texts that made up a Book of Hours were almost exclusively taken from the Old Testament, from the Psalms especially, and from Ecclesiasticus, the Song of Songs, and the book of Job, all in Latin. A medieval person might assume without much thought that the very words of the Scriptures that the Virgin herself was using during her own devotions when Gabriel descended could logically have been exactly the same as in a fifteenth-century Book of Hours, even in the same language. If the Annunciation was the most supreme spiritual experience ever granted by God to any member of the human race, then to pray with those identical words brought the person closer to sharing the experience of the Virgin at that ultimate moment of divine favor. Like meditation on the Wounds of Christ by trying to empathize with his suffering (another theme especially common in Books of Hours used in England), so too the recitation of texts which the Virgin Mary herself could have used was in a remarkable way a shared experience which linked the user to divinity.

Beyond the universal and timeless formal texts, which are often the most obviously fingered in surviving Books of Hours, are the personal scribbles and inscriptions on flyleaves and blank pages and margins. Professor Duffy may sometimes have hoped that these would be more revealing than they usually are. Most of his detailed examples are from rich households and grander volumes, such as the Hours of John Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury, where we may assume higher standards of creative literacy than in the families of merchants and craftsmen, who could probably often read familiar texts, more or less, but whose own brief and wobbly additions do not suggest much familiarity with the act of writing. There is one form of inscription that apparently crosses social barriers in an interesting way. It is quite common to find in Books of Hours from England and the Netherlands versions of inscriptions along the lines of “Remember me in your prayers, Anne Boleyn,” or something of that sort. Later owners, booksellers, and museum exhibition organizers will often joyfully take these to be statements of ownership, and will proclaim royal and ducal provenances for books that seem unexpectedly humble in execution.

Professor Duffy does not make that mistake, although he assumes that these inscriptions indicate the presentation of a book, as some doubtless do, such as the injunction signed by Henry VIII in a Book of Hours at Chatsworth, owned by his daughter, Princess Margaret, “Pray for your loving fader that gave you thys boke and I geve you att all tymes godds blessing and myne.” Bequests of books sometimes also asked for prayers after death, such as the will of Anne, Lady Scrope, in 1498, who left a Book of Hours to her goddaughter, Anne Fitzwater, “for a remembraunce to pray for me.” Undoubtedly, too, heads of noble households sometimes distributed Books of Hours to faithful retainers and servants, perhaps with the intent that the recipients would recite the same prayers as their masters or mistresses were doing (the universality of the prayers again), with further hopes to be remembered in the servants’ devotions. All these do occur.

However, most such surviving inscriptions, including many of those quoted by Professor Duffy, are probably little more than autographs gathered by chance meetings. If the king came to your house, or to your employer’s house, or if you met the queen or a great duke, for example, you might well wish to commemorate that experience with a tangible reminder. People clearly brought out their most precious book, usually (but not always) a Book of Hours, which the royal visitor was asked to inscribe. Thus the printed Book of Hours of 1498, now in the Folger Library in Washington, inscribed “Madam I pray yow remember me in youwr god prayers, yowr mastres Elysabeth R,” almost certainly did not actually belong to Henry VII’s queen, Elizabeth of York, whose signature it is; nor did the Book of Hours in the British Library, which she inscribed, “Madam I pray you forget not me, to pray to God that I may have grace of your prayers, Elizabeth the Queene.”

These inscriptions, however, are revealing for two reasons. The first is that they give evidence of dynastic allegiances and devotion to members of the various royal houses, not irrelevant in England which had been torn apart by the Wars of the Roses and civil strife between contenders for the throne. Knowing that a person had met the king or queen was as interesting to people in the Middle Ages as it is to historians today, and the royal family had a certain sacred status. Books of Hours remained in families. Heirs would see and note the noble inscriptions too. The volumes demonstrated loyalty to religion, of course, but they were also vehicles for showing political and domestic alliances. The multiple coats of arms in fourteenth-century Books of Hours, in particular, evidently often represented friendships, real or assumed, rather than direct family membership. Books of Hours were symbols of piety and allegiance, both to God and to the world.

A second reason why such inscriptions are interesting is because they suggest a practice of prayer which is not attested in the conventional texts of Books of Hours. If the injunctions to “pray for me” were carried out, then the person doing so would necessarily have used some form of words that prayer books do not prescribe. This fact alone tells us that the texts in Books of Hours are not the only vehicles of prayer used by the laity in their private devotions, and that there were also other less formal expressions of religious petition, probably so well known that they never needed writing down. Sometimes the language of small children preserves cultural echoes from countless generations ago, and it might be that some distant reflection of pre-Reformation practice still survives in nursery prayers in England today, commonly along the lines of “Pray, God, bless Daddy, Mummy, my brother Tom, and Hector my rabbit, Amen,” or similar variants, which may have descended orally from something like the formula with which medieval owners of Books of Hours prayed for those who had written their names in them. The book did not provide the prayer but it was a reminder to pray.

Books of Hours were both working texts for prayer and talismanic objects in their own right. It is easy to satirize the money lavished on Books of Hours as symbols of status, as Eustache Deschamps did in the late fourteenth century, newly translated here by Duffy:

Get me an Hours of the Virgin,

Matched to my high degree,

The finest the craftsmen can manage

As graceful and gorgeous as me:

Paint it with gold and with azure

With gold clasps to fasten it down,

So the people will gasp when I use it,

“That’s the prettiest prayer-book in town.”

The fact that medieval people did buy such books, however, and that almost every manuscript copy was on parchment, not paper, and was illuminated, usually with pictures, tells us something about the books as objects and not simply as texts. The preciousness of Books of Hours was itself an expression of piety, as owners acquired the best they could afford, rather like a diamond engagement ring today where the size or price is (or is often promoted as being) a reflection of the extent of the purchaser’s devotion. Professor Duffy is good on early printed Books of Hours, a topic that manuscript historians tend to avoid, and it is striking how the first printed versions are often even more richly illustrated than manuscripts and are not infrequently on parchment. Medieval ownership inscriptions can be quaint and naive, but they convey a private attachment and a fear of loss and theft that is tremendously revealing. Professor Duffy quotes one in Cambridge University Library:

Who so ever thys book fynd,

I pray hum have thys in hys mynde,

For huys love that dyed on tre,

Save thys booke and bryng yt to me.

There is another inscription in an English Book of Hours recently in private hands in Denmark that suggests the worst possible punishment for theft, which is to be hanged in the kitchen: “He that stelles thes boke he shalbe hanked apon on hoke behend the kechen dor.” Owners valued Books of Hours in a way that few purchasers of printed books do today; and they personalized them and bequeathed them with extraordinary care.

Professor Duffy is in his element in discussing Henry VIII’s break with Rome in 1534 and its effect on Books of Hours in England. Litanies of saints and prayers for the dead were anathema to the reformers. All references to popes and to Thomas Becket were required to be deleted from books by order of royal proclamations of 1535 and 1538 respectively. Most surviving Books of Hours that were in England at this time do indeed show evidence of these conscientious deletions, and this fact alone, Duffy suggests (and the point has perhaps never been observed before), shows that the volumes were still in religious use throughout the early years of the Reformation.

The value placed on Books of Hours as domestic and dynastic heirlooms, however, may also account for their preservation through this dangerous time. While English medieval missals are relatively rare, for they were unambiguously Catholic and liturgical, Books of Hours may have been benignly tolerated because they were perceived as being little used and unthreatening. Once pruned of their more obvious papist allusions and sometimes enhanced with loyal statements such as “God save the kynge,” Books of Hours could be safely returned to the bedside tables where they continued to serve as family record books and repositories of notes and additions until at least the end of the sixteenth century. Many of the more secular additions on the flyleaves of Books of Hours, such as recipes and charms, may well be Elizabethan, rather than pre-Reformation. Protestant versions of the old Books of Hours, which Duffy calls “Trojan horses” because their deceptive and old-fashioned appearance concealed very new prayers, appeared from 1578 onward. Certain familiar elements of the texts of the medieval matins and vespers were translated and reborn in the Anglican services of morning prayer and evensong, and as such are still in use.

If the one element of Books of Hours which made them so appealing to medieval owners was the universality and timelessness of their texts, which varied little and were shared by all pious people across western Christendom, so too the expressions of eternal human desires and fears are undoubtedly part of their appeal today. Professor Duffy recounts his own experience of finding a medieval note added beside a date in the calendar of a Book of Hours, “My mother departed to God,” and suddenly sharing the loss of his own mother, who had died not long before. I too remember feeling something similar from the standard text in a fifteenth-century English Book of Hours, which I was stumblingly translating as a student in the late 1960s, fresh from the protests and antiwar marches of those days. There was the Latin original of the text still used during evensong in the Anglican Church, “Give peace in our time, O Lord, because there is none other that fighteth for us, but only thou, O God,” and I realized that these same ancient words, which I agreed with, were doubtless read in their Books of Hours by English soldiers seated around the campfire on the night before Agincourt, by sole survivors when the Black Death had destroyed the rest of their families, by the terrified Henry VI as he was encircled by the Lancastrian troops in the Wars of the Roses, and almost certainly by Thomas More in his cell on the eve of his execution. For a moment, I felt I was holding hands with the Middle Ages: “Da pacem domine in diebus nostris,” the text reads, “quia non est alius qui pugnet pro nos nisi tu deus noster.”

This Issue

February 15, 2007