Books of Hours and the
Transition to Print Culture


Printed Books of Hours in the Gordon Collection

Common elements: more about the books of hours, in both manuscript and print

Life of St. Margaret: digital facsimiles of the manuscript and the print version

About Books of Hours

Containing a standard set of prayers to the Virgin Mary, gospel lessons, and a liturgical calendar, books of hours became bestsellers of the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance. The Little Office (or horae, hours) of the Blessed Virgin Mary was originally appended to the Divine Office, the complex Latin sequence of daily devotional prayers used by priests, monks and nuns, as well as to the Psalter, the anthology of Latin translations of all 150 Hebrew psalms and other related prayers. Well before the beginning of the print era, however, in response to the desires of the laity for guidance in private devotion, the Hours of the Virgin began to be copied and circulated separately, together with the Office of the Dead, the seven penitential psalms and often other prayer cycles. Illuminated manuscript books of hours were costly volumes, owned and often commissioned by nobility and royalty. Early printers quickly realized the commercial value in producing a much larger quantity of profusely illustrated books of hours at a much lower cost, and realized tremendous success in the venture.

Much is often made of the impact of printing on the development and spread of Renaissance philosophy and science as well as of Reformation debate and polemic. While the invention of printing was undeniably a powerful agent of change, the case of books of hours shows us to what degree the printer’s commercial venture could also ensure continuity, particularly in matters of faith. The printing of books of hours made these devotional books accessible to a much larger public – by speeding up production and lowering costs – sustaining a medieval devotional tradition well into the sixteenth century.

The Gordon Collection includes three printed books of hours that represent major stylistic changes in the genre over the course of the sixteenth century. Along with digital facsimiles of those printed volumes, representative images from manuscript hours housed in Special Collections have been included for purposes of comparison. These include a recently acquired fragment of the Life of St. Margaret from a 14th-century French book of hours.

Further Reading

Wieck, Roger S. Painted Prayers: The Book of Hours in Medieval and Renaissance Art.NY: Pierpont Mogan Library, 1997.

---. Time Sanctified: The Book of Hours in Medieval Art and Life. (Includes essays by Lawrence R. Poos, Virginia Reinburg, and John Plummer. New York: George Braziller, 1988.

Internet Resources

Hypertext Book of Hours. This site by Glenn Gunhouse includes an introduction to the book of hours in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance and a hypertext version of the Hours according to the Use of Rome as recorded in The Primer, or Office of the Blessed Virgin Marie, in Latin and English (Antwerp: Arnold Conings, 1599).