Medieval Books of Hours were manuscript devotional texts. The two most significant words here are “manuscript” and “devotional”; both of them remind us that the contents of these books were largely based around the desires of the people who commissioned them or the sense of the market by those who produced them. Therefore, in considering both the Books of Hours and the prymers that developed from them, we need to gain a sense of what elements were typical, and what sort of devotional material was expected.
One of the resources that will help us get a sense of this terrain is the landmark study of the Books of Hours conducted by Abbe Leroquais, Les livres d’Heures. Manuscrits de la bibliothèque nationale in three volumes. Not having this readily to hand (or the thousand or so bucks on hand to pick it up off the used market), however, I rely on John Harthan’s work, The Book of Hours, for Leroquais’s classifications of contents:
The Abbe Leroquais established a basic classification of the contents of Books of Hours. Three elements are distinguished: essential, secondary, and accessory texts. The essential texts are those extracted from the Breviary: the Calendar, the Little Office or Hours of the Virgin, the Penitential Psalms, the Litany, the Office of the Dead, and the Suffrages of the Saints. Like the Breviary, the Book of Hours in its turn attracted further texts which extended its devotional scope as well as increasing the variety of its contents.
These secondary texts comprise the Sequences, which are the passages from the four Gospels in which the Evangelists Matthew, Mark, Luke and John describe the coming of Christ; the account of the Passion given in the Gospel of St John; two special prayers to the Virgin which enjoyed great popularity, the Obsecro te (‘I implore thee’) and O intemerata (‘O matchless one’); a number of shorter alternative Offices, the Hours of the Cross, of the Holy Spirit and (less often) of the Holy Trinity; the Fifteen Joys of the Virgin; and the Seven Requests to the Saviour.
Even this substantial addition was not enough to satisfy the yearning for devotion among the laity. It was increased by Leroquais’ third element, the accessory texts. These comprise more extracts from the Psalter, and miscellaneous prayers. The Fifteen Gradual Psalms (also present in the Breviary in this form) and the Psalter of St Jerome represent a further appropriation of the inexhaustible riches of psalmody. The Gradual Psalms comprise numbers 119-33 [Vulgate numbering], the short and beautiful psalms sometimes considered to be those recited by Jewish pilgrims ‘going up’ (gradus, a step) to Jerusalem. The Psalter of St Jerome is an anthology of 183 verses from the Psalms compiled for the use of the sick by an unknown writer but traditionally associated with St Jerome, the translator of the Bible into Latin and author of three versions of the Psalms. The miscellaneous prayers were of widely diverse character. Many were of venerable antiquity, going back to the prayer books (libelli precum) of Carolingian times. Most were anonymous, but some were attributed to major saints or Fathers of the Church to give them status and perhaps greater efficacy.
The arrangement of a ‘typical’ Book of Hours is given below. Only the essential and secondary texts are included. It must always be remembered that no two manuscript Books of Hours are exactly alike. Except for the Calendar at the beginning, the order of the seperate parts was never fixed, and the number of texts included could vary as much as their position in the Book.
- Sequences of the Gospels
- The prayer Obsecro te
- The prayer O intemerata
- Hours of the Virgin
- Hours of the Cross
- Hours of the Holy Spirit
- Penitential Psalms
- Office of the Dead
- Suffrages of the Saints
(Harthan, The Book of Hours, 14-5)
As a practicing medievalist without access to the text of Leroquais, I immediately grant his specific grouping of elements a conditional status accounting for time and place. Even the most cursory glance through the holdings of the BN (which, to be fair, is all I’ve given it…) notes that there appears to be a predominance of Books of Hours from the Diocese of Rouen. We will thus note but bracket the possibility that Leroquais’ assessment of contents might reflect local use and may differ from English norms—either Sarum or York.
Duffy in his Marking the Hours: English People and Their Prayers is wisely reticent on the exact contents of the French and English books that he surveys, remarking on the development of the form “All the earliest books contain the Little Hours of the Virgin, but their consistency ends” (Duffy, Hours, 10). In speaking of the 15th century hours and their proliferation with the advent of printing he allows himself to become a bit more specific and, indeed, produces a list that accords well with the observations of Leroquais:
All these people, then, high and low, aristocratic and plebeian, were using the same book. That book contained a standardised selection of psalms, antiphons, hymns and prayers arranged for recitation in honour of Mary at each of the eight monastic divisions or hours of the day. To these ‘hours’ of the Virgin were added the Office for the Dead or Placebo et Dirige (Vespers, Matins, and Lauds for the dead), the short Hours of the Cross, which in books for the English market were usually inserted between the Hours of the Virgin, the long Psalm 118 (119) called the Commendation of the soul, the seven Penitential Psalms and the Litany of the Saints, the fifteen Gradual Psalms, and a series of individual ‘suffrages’ or short prayers to saints, especially to the Virgin Mary. These made up the core contents of the Book of Hours, which by the later fifteenth century had expanded to become a compendium of popular devotions. By then most included also a series of devotions (with accompanying illustrations ) to the Trinity, the Wounds, the Passion and the Veronica or Holy Face of Jesus, prayers to the Virgin such as the popular prayers beginning Obsecro Te and O Intemerata, hymns to and about Mary, such as the well-known poem on the Passion, the Stabat Mater, or the Marian hymn against the plague Stella Coeli extirpavit. Many also included eucharistic devotions like the Anima Christi (‘Soul of Christ, sanctify me, Body of Christ, save me…’), designed to be recited at Mass, and almost all contained the shortened version of the Psalter known as St Jerome’s Psalter, which included almost 200 verses from the psalms including the whole of Psalm 50 (51), the Miserere, and which normally carried a prefatory legend which guaranteed the user protection against the devil and untimely death (Duffy, Hours, 28).
Note that Duffy includes the Commendation among the standard contents, agreeing (against Leroquais’ essentials) with what I’ve seen in the English sources.
We gain an even clearer picture of the types and variety of what Leroquais dubs secondary and accessory materials when we look at the survey in Hoskins’ introduction on English Books of Hours:
Six primers of the thirteenth century which are known to exist show that taking one book with another the Primer uniformly contained (a) A Kalendar, (b) The Hours of the Virgin from Purification to Advent, (c) The seven penitential psalms, (d) The Litany of the Saints, (e) The Office for the dead, (f) The Psalms of commendation, (g) the fifteen or gradual Psalms, and (h) The prayers of St. Bridget commonly called the 15 Oes; while one Primer or another has, “Hore de S. Trinitate,” “Hore de passione,” or, “Heures de Nun Jesu,” “Hore de S. Johanne Baptista,” “Hore de S. Katherina,” “Hore de S. Spiritu,” Rubrics in French, and pictures with prayers on the sacred mysteries (Hoskins, Horae, xi).
The list gets even more interesting and diverse as we go later and make the language jump into English:
The contents of thirteen Primers in English of the end of the fourteenth and the beginning of the fifteenth centuries which are known to exist are the Hours of the Virgin from Purification to Advent with the Hours of the Cross, a Kalendar, the Seven penitential psalms, the Fifteen or Gradual psalms, the Litany, the Office of the dead, the Psalms of commendation, devotions to the Virgin, the psalm De profundis, Psalms of the passion, A Christian man’s confession, Misereatur, Pater Noster, Ave Maria, Credo, the Ten commandments, Six manners of conscience, Seven deadly sins, Five witts outward and inward, Seven works of mercy bodily and ghostly, Seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, Seven words, Sixteen properties of charity; together with instructions on many of the above subjects, and the words of Paul (Hoskins, Horae, xiv).
My sense is that a fuller investigation will prove and make explicit what seems nascent here: the Latin books—and Latin texts within mixed-language books—consist primarily of the standardized liturgical devotional material; the shift into vernaculars (notably French and English for the scope of my curiosity) introduces not only additional devotional material but a greater influx of catechetical contents.