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Saturday, June 20, 2009

The Book of Hours in the Middle Ages

Books in the Middle Ages were precious things. They were expensive to create and handwritten (up until the printing press). Each book was created by a craftsman and therefore unique.

Most people didn't own books. The nobility however could afford to purchase books and one book they typically owned was a Book of Hours. A Book of Hours was a popular devotional text of the laity (non-clergy).

Because the book was so important to the people of the Middle Ages, I wrote a scene where my hero Eaduin buys just such a book from a traveling book merchant for his new wife, Vérité. As this was a typical practice - new husbands gifting a new wife with a Book of Hours, I thought it was a good addition to the story.

The text usually contained a calendar, a sequence of Gospels, the prayer Obsecro te and the prayer O intemerata. The book also contained the Hours of the Virgin and may also contain the Hours of the Cross and the Hours of the Holy Spirit. The book would complete with the Penitential Psalms, the Litany, the Office of the Dead, and finally the Suffrage of the Saints.

The Hours of the Virgin had the same names as the Offices of the liturgy and usually appeared in a standard sequence with specific images associated with each hour. By reciting these prayers at particular times of the day, people could connect with the Virgin Mary and contemplate their religious duties and devotions privately. Sometimes they took the book with them to mass, following along as the Priest read the Psalms or other texts.

Early Books of Hours were written on vellum - calf skin. Books ranged from very fine to poor quality depending on the quality of the vellum, how well the calligraphy was done, how many images were included and how much color used. If one was very rich, gold leaf could be added for extra embellishment. The finer the cover used to bind the book, the wealthier the owner. If such a book was commissioned new, the owner would spend as much as he could afford to show off his wealth in a pious manner.

To tell a fine book from a poor one, look first at the binding then at the vellum. If the book is bound with fine leather which is tooled and the calf skin pages are smooth and white, it is likely a fine book. Remember, an animal skin has a hair side and an inside. The finest books utilized the finest vellum which had been scraped so carefully it was often difficult to tell which side was the hair side. If there are few holes or imperfections in the skin, it is a better quality book, too.

The more color used, the more images used, the more money was spent to create the book. A consumer who wished to purchase such a book would also have looked for text in dark black ink or vivid red ink. Special days such as Saints days, were always written in red, hence the phrase which is still in use today - "red letter day." Another point a consumer would have noted was the use, or lack of use, of abbreviations. Long words took up a lot of space and filled precious vellum. If words were spelled out in full, then the original purchaser of the book was willing to pay for the extra vellum.

One other thing I found interesting when I researched was that a while the prayer text of Book of Hours was written in Latin, there might be words in the commonly spoken language of the area within the decorated page borders or images. That way even if the owner of the book did not have a strong grasp of Latin, they might still gain something from the book if they read their native language (which would have been Norman French during the time of my book).

These fascinating texts were part and parcel of everyday life for those of the nobility. They were given as gifts to spouses or children and when a person died, their Book of Hours was often included in an inventory of personal items which might then be willed to a particular loved one.

As print came into play in the early 1500s, these books became more available to the middle classes. While the images were not unique in these "mass produced" books, they could be personalized in a wide variety of ways. Purchasers could choose which woodcut prints to include, whether to have additional coloring and gold leaf added and they might be able to purchase a finer vellum because printing might bring down the overall cost. They could also personalize such a book with the binding. In the later middle ages, the bindings of these books were often jewel encrusted.

These books formed the background of daily life for individuals in the Middle Ages. I first researched this information back in graduate school in 2002. These images were taken by me of two French Books of Hours from the University of Iowa Library Special Collections department. It was fun to be able to use this knowledge in my writing.

To learn more about these fascinating and special religious texts, check out these books:

Alexander, Jonathon J.G. Medieval Illuminators and Their Methods of Work
Backhouse, Janet. Books of Hours
DeHamel, Christopher. A History of Illuminated Manuscripts
Harthan, John. The Books of Hours
Wieck, Roger S. Painted Prayers: The Book of Hours in Medieval and Renaissance Art
Wieck, Rogers S. Time Sanctified: The Book of Hours in Medieval Art and Life


Evangeline Collins said...

Hi Francesca!

Very interesting post. I would have never considered how the lack or inclusion of abbreviations could affect a hand-written book's value. The books you pictured are truly works of art!

Gwynlyn said...

As always, highly informative and thought provoking. Thanks.

Francesca Hawley said...

Thanks for stopping by to comment. The graduate college class I took was fascinating and the opportunity to handle books created in the late 1400s and early 1500s was really amazing.

Savanna Kougar said...

That was absolutely fascinating. I can see how THE BOOK OF HOURS was used in your story.

Francesca Hawley said...

Thanks for the comment. I really kept the book stuff to a minimum but it is relevant to the middle ages. Books were rare and expensive so it was kind of cool to throw that bit of info into the story.

Carol L. said...

That was an amazing post and very interesting to read. The thought of touching and holding something from the 14 or 21500's is incredible. Thank you so much. The pictures were beautiful.
Carol L.

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