Books of Hours


Folio 16v of W.721 at the Walter’s Art Museum.

Books of hours were devotional prayer books meant for laypeople in the Middle Ages. Thousands of these books survive, which Wendy A. Stein notes in her article at the Metropolitan Museum of Art website is a testament to their popularity in the Middle Ages. Indeed, books of hours were created and distributed more than any other book, and that’s why so many of them survive in library and museum collections to this day. Although similar in content, each book of hours was unique in its own way. However, they all contain the Hours of the Virgin (from which the books get their name). These hours were devotional prayers meant to be read and repeated at each hour of the day.

Folio 17r of W.721 at the Walter’s Art Museum.

In addition to the Hours of the Virgin, books of hours have several other parts, and one book of hours may have a few or a couple dozen of these parts, such as calendars, gospel lessons, psalms, prayers to saints, or hours of the Cross. Calendars served to enumerate church feasts and often included additional information related to a regional or patron saint. Owners of these books of hours could also add dates of events they’d like to remember, and each book of hours often reflected the life of whoever commissioned it and whoever used it. Books of hours were elaborately decorated and would serve as a layperson’s primary devotional text.

The Latin manuscript W.721 belonged to a Spanish male who lived during the 15th century. This set of pages – 16v and 17r – follow the calendar and Athanasian Creed  in the manuscript and they introduce the Hours and Masses for each day of the week. The following leaves contain the descriptions and instructions of both.


Folio 32r of MS Richardson 42. Book of Hours (use of Paris). Lauds (a morning prayer) illustrated by the Visitation. The Virgin Mary and St. Elizabeth encounter one another and realize they are both with child.

Just as there were regional differences between books of hours, there were regional differences in their liturgy and their rites. The use of Rome, or Roman Rite (rites romanus), was developed by the Bishop of Rome and was (and is) used widely across Europe. It is assumed to have evolved out of the earliest Christian rites (of the first few centuries) which were based on the account of the Last Supper. Another rite, the use of Sarum – also called the Sarum Rite or Use of Salisbury – was popular in England and features a much more “elaborate splendor” of ceremonial compared to the Roman Rite. The calendar was identical to the the Roman ecclesiastical calendar with added local feasts. The use of Paris originated in France in the 14th century and contained the Fifteen Joys of the Virgin, the Seven Requests, and a prayer to the True Cross.