The book of hours is a Christian devotional book popular in the Middle Ages. It is the most common type of surviving medieval illuminated manuscript, Books of hours were usually written in Latin, although there are many entirely or partially written in vernacular European languages, especially Dutch. The English term primer is usually now reserved for books written in English. Tens of thousands of books of hours have survived to the present day, in libraries, 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. The Marian prayers Obsecro te and O Intemerata were frequently added, as were devotions for use at Mass, 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 cycles of psalms, prayers, hymns, antiphons. Eventually a selection of texts was produced in much shorter volumes, many books of hours were made for women. There is some evidence that they were given as a wedding present from a husband to his bride. Frequently they were passed down through the family, as recorded in wills, the earliest surviving English example was apparently written for a laywoman living in or near Oxford in about 1240. It is smaller than a modern paperback but heavily illuminated with major initials, by the 15th century, there are also examples of servants owning their own Books of Hours. In a court case from 1500, a woman is accused of stealing a domestic servants prayerbook. Very rarely the books included prayers specifically composed for their owners, some include images depicting their owners, and some their coats of arms. These, together with the choice of saints commemorated in the calendar, eamon Duffy explains how these books reflected the person who commissioned them. He claims that the character of these books was often signaled by the inclusion of prayers specially composed or adapted for their owners. Furthermore, he states that as many as half the surviving manuscript Books of Hours have annotations, such additions might amount to no more than the insertion of some regional or personal patron saint in the standardized calendar, but they often include devotional material added by the owner. By at least the 15th century, the Netherlands and Paris workshops were producing books of hours for stock or distribution and these were sometimes with spaces left for the addition of personalized elements such as local feasts or heraldry. The book’s goal was to help his devout patroness to structure her daily life in accordance with the eight canonical hours, Matins to Compline
Book of hours, Paris c. 1410. Miniature of the Annunciation, with the start of Matins in the Little Office, the beginning of the texts after the calendar in the usual arrangement.
Even this level of decoration was more rich than that of most books, though less than the lavish amounts of illumination in luxury books, which are those most often seen reproduced.
A full-page miniature of May, from a calendar cycle by Simon Bening, early 16th century.
The lavish illusionistic borders of this Flemish book of hours from the late 1470s are typical of luxury books of this period, which were now often decorated on every page. The butterfly wing cutting into the text area is an example of playing with visual conventions, typical of the period. (Among the plants are the ''Veronica'', Vinca, Viola tricolor, Bellis perennis, and Chelidonium majus. The butterfly is Aglais urticae. The Latin text is a devotion to Saint Christopher).