"When a visitor has seen all the sights of a town, the streets and squares, museums, galleries and churches, he has seen something of a country and has begun to to know it. But he does not yet know it's people. He cannot comprehent a nation until he has seen its books" - Miloslav Bohatec, Illuminated Manuscripts (Prague, Artia, 1970), 9.
The Three Books of Hours held at Utah State University
The Three Books of Hours held at Utah State University Special Collections and Archives from left to right: Rosarium Beatae Virginis Mariae (Book of Hours: Use of Rome), De Villers Book of Hours, Liege Book of Hours.

Among the many precious books that reflect the medieval countries of Europe, their people, religious and social practices are the Books of Hours, a popular form of prayer book which came into use in the 13th century and continued through the early modern period.

The Book of Hours receives its name because it contains eight sections of prayers meant to be said at various times throughout a twenty four hour period. At each appointed time the reader accessed written prayers, hymns or other readings which would help the reader to “secure salvation” for him or herself, and for loved ones in purgatory[1].

The manuscript originally emerged  as part of the psalter (a medieval book of psalms) with extra writings of devotion to the saints, the Office of the Dead and the eight canonical hours, namely matins, lauds, prime, terce, sext, none, vespers and compline. While the psalter had been used mainly by the clergy, books of hours were more frequently used for the personal use of nobles who could afford the price of the illuminations.

With each reading, the mortal sinner was metaphorically led through the life and sufferings of Christ, connecting with the story via the vivid illuminations which coincided with the most important parts of the narrative.


Miniature depicting King David in prayer.
Miniature depicting King David in prayer, Liege Book of Hours.

Starting as hand-crafted, elaborate manuscripts, they were fit to be called “the late medieval best seller.”[2]  Their popularity was so great that “all literate people, and some who couldn’t read aspired to own one.”  Books of Hours served a unique role as “liminal objects, bridges between ecclesiastical rituals… and the pious layperson.”[3]  Although being important objects of and tools for devotion, they belonged to the laity, not to the church. They were “the layfolk’s companion to the mass,” and therefore uniquely not subject to clerical restrictions.[4]  These personal prayer books were free to be constructed and used according to the wants and needs of their owners and producers.

Page Written by: Elisabeth Cropper

Edited by: Elisabeth Cropper and Branson Roskelly


[1] Leaves of Gold: Treasures of Manuscript Illumination from Philadelphia Collections, “Introduction to Books of Hours”, Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Philadelphia Area Consortium of Special Collections Libraries. Web. 2001. Last visited December 2015. View at: http://www.philamuseum.org/microsites/exhibitions/leavesofgold/galler/boh/index.html

[2] John Harthan, The Book of Hours: With a Historical Survery and Comentary (Crown Publishers, 1977),  9.

[3] Kathleen Ashley,  “Creating Family Identity in Books of Hours,”  Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 32.1 (2002): 151

[4] Diarmaid MacCulloch, Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years (New York: Penguin Group, 2009), 566