Books of Hours: Scripture Content

I’m taking a quick break from posting on the images of the Books of Hours to say a little about the scriptural content of the books. This is, of course, one of the “protestant” questions about the BOH—how much “pure” Scripture was contained within these quintessentially catholic devotions in the late medieval period.

Again, levels will vary based on what items are included. That having been said, here’s a run-down based on Leroquais’ categories:


Little Hours of the BVM: [Matins] Pss 95, 8, 19, 24 (Ps 51 was printed here in the Sarum books as well as a Lenten alternative to the Te Deum); [Lauds] Pss 93, 100, 63, 67, 148-150; Dan 3:34-67 (Benedicite); Luke 1:68-79 (Benedictus) [Prime] Pss 54, 117, 118; [Terce] Pss 120-122; [Sext] 123-125; [None] Pss 126-128; [Vespers] Pss 122-126; Luke 1:46-55 (Magnificat); [Compline] Pss 13, 43, 129, 131, 130; Luke 2:29-32 (Nunc Dimittis)

The Penitential Psalms: Pss 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, 143

 Office of the Dead: [Placebo] Pss 116, 120, 121, 130, 138, 146; Luke 1:46-55 (Magnificat); [Dirige] Pss 5-7, 25, 27, 40-42, 51, 65, 63, 67, 148-150, 30, 142; Job 7:16-21; 10:1-12, 18-22; 13:23-28; 14:1-6, 13-16; 17:11-15; 19:20-27; Isa 38:10-20 (Song of Hezekiah); Luke 1:68-79 (Benedictus)


Sequences: John 1:1-14; Luke 1:26-38; Matt 2:1-12; Mark 16:14-20

John’s Passion: John 18:1–? (I’ve found the incipit, but the three books I’ve looked at don’t contain it…)

Hours of the Holy Spirit: TBD?

Hours of the Cross: TBD? (For these two, I haven’t found any clear references. When I turned to one of the books to glance at the Psalms of the Holy Spirit office I found what looked like the incipit of Ps 1—but not the rest of it. Where would that be? I can’t imagine you’re only supposed to use the incipt. I think these two will require some additional investigation…)

Accessory Texts

The Gradual Psalms: Pss 120-143

The Commendations: Pss 119, 139

Psalter of (Ps.) St Jerome: Extracts  from all of the psalms, but containing Ps 51 in its entirety.

Psalms of the Passion: Pss 22-31:5

Initial Thoughts

Clearly, there are a lot of psalms going on! Not all of them, but certainly most. Furthermore, there’s a certain amount of repetition going on. (Note the overlap between the Vespers & Nones of the BVM with the Gradual Psalms.) This is a reminder that specific sections were used for specific devotions—no page turning was needed to flip to a psalm contained elsewhere in the book.

In terms of non-psalm content, there’s not a whole lot; there are extracts from Job for the Offices of the Dead and then the bits from each Gospel. As far as bits go, though, they’re not bad choices: we get the pre-existent Christ from John, the Incarnation from Matthew and Luke, the promises of the Post-Resurrection Christ from Mark, and the Passion itself from John. Again, as we see in the creeds and elsewhere, there is an emphasis on the narratives that relate to the core doctrines—less on teaching materials.

The English prymers tend to follow these selections. Some of the early protestant works add in quite a few more biblical canticles, though. There’s one very interesting outlier that deserves additional study: while the psalms in the protestant Marshall and other books mirror those of the classic catholic books, the psalm choices of Bishop Hilsey in his moderately catholic work are quite different. I don’t know why yet…

3 thoughts on “Books of Hours: Scripture Content

  1. Michelle Ziegler

    The Psalter of St Jerome is Bede’s Breviate Psalter (or abbreviated psalter). I don’t think Jerome was actually associated with these exercises. There is also one in the Book of Cerne (9th century). Alcuin was involved in spreading this practice in Gaul.

    The early ones do not have a set text, presumably done by or for the person the book was made for. Its an interesting exercise to make a breviate psalter, sort of a spiritual rorschach test. It would be interesting to do them about a decade apart and see how they change.

  2. Derek Olsen

    I’ve wondered what role Bede’s version played here—there was a breviate psalter floating around attributed to Jerome and as I recall, I’ve checked, and it’s not the same text as I know from Bede. Again—transmission issues loom large in the manuscript age… I’ll check into this more closely.

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