. . .
Today I'll tell you somethings I learned about the Book of Hours, a Christian devotional book very popular in the Middle Ages. It is the most common type of surviving medieval illuminated manuscript (the ones the monks did, you know?). Like every manuscript, each book of hours is unique in one way or another, but most contain a similar collection of texts, prayers and psalms, often with appropriate decorations, for Christian devotion. Illumination or decoration is minimal in many examples, often restricted to decorated capital letters at the start of psalms and other prayers, but books made for wealthy patrons may be extremely lavish, with full-page miniatures.
Books of hours were usually written in Latin (the Latin name for them is horae), although there are many entirely or partially written in vernacular European languages, especially Dutch. The English term primer is usually now reserved for those books written in English. Tens of thousands of books of hours have survived to the present day, in libraries and private collections throughout the world.
The typical book of hours is an abbreviated form of the breviary which contained the Divine Office recited in monasteries. It was developed for lay people who wished to incorporate elements of monasticism into their devotional life. Reciting the hours typically centered upon the reading of a number of psalms and other prayers. A typical book of hours contains: a Calendar of Church feasts; an excerpt from each of the four gospels; the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary; the fifteen Psalms of Degrees; the seven Penitential Psalms; a Litany of Saints; an Office for the Dead; the Hours of the Cross and various other prayers.
The book of hours has its ultimate origin in the Psalter, which monks and nuns were required to recite. By the 12th century this had developed into the breviary, with weekly cycles of psalms, prayers, hymns, antiphons, and readings which changed with the liturgical season. Eventually a selection of texts was produced in much shorter volumes and came to be called a book of hours. Many books of hours were made for women. There is some evidence that they were sometimes given as a wedding present from a husband to his bride. Frequently they were passed down through the family, as recorded in wills.
Although the most heavily illuminated books of hours were enormously expensive, a small book with little or no illumination was affordable much more widely, and increasingly so during the 15th century. By the 15th century, there are also examples of servants owning their own Books of Hours.
Very rarely the books included prayers specifically composed for their owners, but more often the texts are adapted to their tastes or sex, including the inclusion of their names in prayers. Some include images depicting their owners, and some their coats of arms. These, together with the choice of saints commemorated in the calendar and suffrages, are the main clues for the identity of the first owner.
By the 15th century, various stationer's shops mass-produced books of hours in the Netherlands and France. By the end of the 15th century, the advance of printing made books more affordable and much of the emerging middle-class could afford to buy a printed book of hours.
As many books of hours are richly illuminated, they form an important record of life in the 15th and 16th centuries as well as the iconography of medieval Christianity. Some of them were also decorated with jewelled covers, portraits, and heraldic emblems. Some were bound as girdle books for easy carrying, though few of these or other medieval bindings have survived. Luxury books could include a portrait of the owner. From the 14th century decorated borders round the edges of at least important pages were common in heavily illuminated books, including books of hours. At the beginning of the 15th century these were still usually based on foliage designs, and painted on a plain background, but by the second half of the century coloured or patterned backgrounds with images of all sorts of objects, were used in luxury books. Second-hand books of hours were often modified for new owners, even among royalty. It was often the only book in a house, and were commonly used to teach children to read, sometimes having a page with the alphabet to assist this. Towards the end of the 15th century, printers produced books of hours with woodcut illustrations. Stationers could mass-produce manuscript books on vellum with only plain artwork and later "personalize" the volumes.