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Primetime: An illustrated guide to Books of Hours

What follows is an online version of an exhibition previously on display in the Upper Library from October to March 2015. The exhibition was curated by Tessa Shaw.

All images are copyright The Queen’s College and may not be reproduced without permission.

Introduction to the exhibition

Primetime, the title of this exhibition, stems from the link that Books of Hours had with literacy and their role as important timekeepers for their owners.
In essence Books of Hours highlighted certain times of the day, month and year when prayers were to be said. Importance was also attached to Books of Hours as they accorded their owners status. They were often the only book a lay family possessed and most literate adults learnt to read from a Book of Hours. They were called ‘Primers’ or ‘Prymers’ in late Middle English and we use this word today to mean books which teach children to read.

The exhibition will cover the following and will use examples from the collections held at The Queen’s College Library:
• The historical context of the birth of the ‘medieval bestseller’.
• What is a Book of Hours?
• Development of the Books of Hours from illuminated manuscript to mass production.
• How was a manuscript Book of Hours produced?
• Animals in Books of Hours.
• Why and in what way were Books of Hours defaced?
• Modern day Book of Hours – an example of an adaptation.

Book of Hours, Use of Sarum, in Latin and English; with inserted Dutch miniatures

Written in England probably in the second quarter of the fifteenth century. The full page miniatures were probably inserted at a later date, painted in the style of the Netherlandish Masters of Otto van Moerdrecht. Given to Queen’s College by Hugh Todd an Old Member of Queen’s after 1678 and before 1723. MS 210.

MS 210
What is a Book of Hours?

A Book of Hours is a prayer book which, according to custom, included a cycle of prayers dedicated to the Virgin Mary. There were prayers for specific hours of the day, days of the month, weeks and seasons as well as a liturgical calendar which is a list of feast days in chronological order. There might be a multi-year almanac and quite possibly the seven Penitential Psalms. Books of Hours could be personalised with a wide variety of other prayers devoted to favourite saints or personal concerns. They are consequently an extension and reflection of the people who commissioned them. They also accorded their owners a social status in relation to how sumptuous the illumination was; indeed coats of arms were often included as part of the illumination. The Book of Hours never received official sanction from the Church and as a result were never produced in a standardized form.

The historical context of the birth of the ‘medieval bestseller’

The four horsemen of the apocalypse – famine, war, pestilence and death - reigned supreme in fourteenth-century Europe. It was against this background - which stretched across 250 years - that the Book of Hours became hugely popular with lay Christians who sought greater participation in devotional life in order to transcend the realities of everyday existence. The Book of Hours became known as the ‘medieval bestseller’ as it was the most popular book of the later Middle Ages. More of these books were created than copies of the Bible.

Book of Hours. Use of Bourges, in Latin and French.

Written ca. 1460-70 probably in Bourges, central France. Lapis lazuli, a semi-precious stone, was pulverized to make a durable pigment called ultramarine, a deep blue colour, which is clearly visible in the miniature depicting the Annunciation to the Shepherds. Lapis was brought to Europe in medieval times from mines located in Badakshan, now a province of north-east Afghanistan. The mineral was probably imported into Europe mainly by way of Venice, the principal port for trade with the East. MS 405.

MS 405 Annunciation with sheep
Development of the Books of Hours from illuminated manuscript to mass production

The earliest recorded English Book of Hours was produced in 1240 for a laywoman near Oxford. Books of Hours evolved from simple religious texts to beautifully illuminated manuscripts of considerable historic and artistic importance. At their most modest they contained little more than basic text and rubricated initials, perhaps with some ivy fronds and marginalia. At their most lavish - and to reflect the social and financial stature of the commissioning patron - they were highly decorated with miniatures, using gold leaf and costly pigments. When printing became widespread after 1450, Books of Hours were mass produced by the press with woodcuts replacing the illuminations. The lavish, illuminated manuscripts have survived in considerable numbers while the mass produced printed versions have survived in smaller numbers.

Hore beate Marie. ad ritum ecclesie Sarisburie[n]sis

Printed in Paris in 1521. There is evidence of a clasp plate and fitting with the remnants visible on the fore edge of the back board. Sel.d.10.

Sel.d.10 title page
This prymer of Salisbury use is set out along withhout ony serchyng

Printed in 1555 in Rouen, France. A good example of a mass produced Books of Hours prevalent at the time. The red and black print provides emphasis on the different sections adding to the overall simplicity of use. The woodcut illustrates October which is likened to the sixtieth year of life with an exhortation that man should retire and ‘lyve quietly after his travayle’ (below, centre). Sel.d.82.

The primer in English and Latin. Thou shalt haue none other goddes but me Printed in London in 1544

The primer was authorised by Henry VIII. Woodcuts were used after 1450 and replaced illuminations. Printers shared woodcuts to be more cost effective thereby
widening their potential audience. The image here, or a variant of it, is likely to be seen in many other Books of Hours of the period. Books of Hours were very often small so that they could fit in a pocket, making them highly portable. Sel.d.66.

Hore beate Marie ad vsum ecclesie Sarisburiensis

Printed in Paris in 1530 by Francois Regnault, who by the date this book was printed owned his own press and printing materials. He was well known for his liturgical printing and particularly those produced for sale in England. In addition to liturgical use Books of Hours were often illustrated with signs of the zodiac, as can be seen here. Each body part is linked with a planet or a sign of the zodiac. Medical astrology was not a new concept and had been in existence from at least the first century AD. Sel.D.15.

Sel.d.15 showing signs of the zodiac
Why and in what way were Books of Hours defaced?

Thomas à Becket’s martyrdom was a common choice in depictions of the saint in illuminated Books of Hours and scenes of his death often included the gory details. In accordance with Henry VIII’s prescription of 1538: ‘the service, office, antiphones, collects, and prayers in his name shall not be read, but razed and put out of all the books.’ Henry VIII also required that ‘his images and pictures through the whole realm shall be put down and avoided out of all churches, chapels, and other places.’ The illustration provides an example of this type of defacement. MS 349 was probably written in Flanders and commissioned for a member of the English Bourchier family and some pages, such as those illustrated here, have as part of their original decoration the heraldic ‘Bourchier knot’ in gold. The central blue device has been carefully erased. The device might have been a water-bouget (a device for carrying water) playing on the family name Bourchier. However more likely is that it was an emblem such as the Yorkist fetterlock indicating intermarriage with a member of a Yorkist dynasty. There would then be good political reason to subsequently erase it.

MS 349 defaced
How was a manuscript Book of Hours produced?

Medieval scribes usually wrote their Books of Hours on parchment or vellum. The pearly, translucence of the parchment (the skin of a lamb, goat or calf) was achieved by careful scraping, thinning and polishing. A single Book of Hours might use eight to ten of these hides. Once the hides had been prepared they were cut to page size and margins either side were marked with small pinholes. Lines were then inscribed across the page linking the pinholes which were used as the layout for the scribes and illuminators.

A scribe would use a reed or feather quill pen to write on the parchment using an ink derived from carbon soot or gall nuts. Gall nuts (the nodules produced by certain insects living in oak trees) were crushed and mixed with iron salts, making an ink which turned brown after exposure.

The illuminator, a specialist very distinct from the scribe, used a repertoire of visual motifs to decorate the manuscript. The complexity of the decoration largely depended on the cost of the commission and could range from decorated letters and simple borders to elaborately painted floral patterns and miniatures. Miniatures - taken from the Latin ‘minum’ a red pigment used in paint rather than the small size of the image - enhanced the book with narrative and symbolic scenes. They divided the book up and also acted as devotional icons for prayer in their own right.

MS 349 flowers
Book of Hours, Use of Sarum, in Latin and English

Written in England in the third quarter of the fifteenth century, perhaps in London. Probably acquired by Queen’s College in the late seventeenth century.

Alum tawed (type of leather) supports have been laced in suggesting the brown leather cover is contemporary with the text block. The boards are missing probably due to worm and rodent damage. Use of Sarum refers to a particular form and order of divine worship which originated in Salisbury (Sarisburium) England. MS 207.

MS 207 showing binding damage
Animals in Books of Hours

Books of Hours, and those at Queen’s are no exception, feature animals prominently. The images below are taken from MS 349, a Flemish Book of Hours dating from the late fifteenth-century (not on display in this exhibition).

It is possible that the scribes who became bored of writing line after line of text added bizarre animals to alleviate their tedium and these feature alongside the work of the illuminator. Several examples are displayed here taken from a range of Books of Hours in our collections. One resembles a kangaroo playing a piano but given that the text is from the late fifteenth-century and that Australia was not sighted till 1606 (let alone kangaroos discovered!) this is something of a mystery.

MS 349 Probably not a kangaroo...
Modern day example – A child's Book of Hours

Little is known about the authors of this book. Constance Irving described herself as an ‘art teacher and painter’ in the 1911 census and went on to design fabrics for William Foxton. Her husband and co-author, William Noel Irving, was a Sergeant in the Royal Army Medical Corps where he designed posters for the 3rd London General Hospital and acted as art-editor for the hospital’s Gazette.

Reviews of the book from 1920 are positive. The Spectator review says it is “written in pleasant rhythmical verse” and notes that it differs from other children’s books at the time due to its heavy cardboard design and brown-paper colour letterpress. The Tablet (International Catholic news Weekly) saw it as a suitable Christmas gift for children and liked its “rich deep colours” and the fact the heavy boards “will not lend themselves to easy destruction by little hands”.

The book originally sold for 12 shillings and 6 pence. Today it is being sold for anything between £75 and £408.

A child's book of hours