Book of Hours: a day in the life

Opening page of the Rochester Book of Hours, Drc Z38: the kalends of January

Opening page of the Rochester Book of Hours, Drc Z38: the kalends of January

This is the opening page of a medieval manuscript belonging to the library at Rochester Cathedral. Modest in size, it provides a fascinating insight into the whole culture of devotion that existed in pre-Reformation Britain.

Despite differences in the finer points of Christianity, belief in God was essentially an accepted absolute truth in the western medieval world, and therefore shaped life and society in an everyday way that is sometimes difficult to conceive in the modern mind.

Medieval Europe was almost exclusively Christian and the all-pervading nature of Christianity can be found in visual art, literature, drama and even legal documents from the era. It is very common for a legal document to be dated with reference to the Christian calendar rather than by month and day number; for example, the day after the Feast of Epiphany, rather than the 7th January (Epiphany is show in red in the first image). This reveals that even something as fundamental as the date was shaped by reference to Christianity.

Going further still, the very structure of a day was influenced by religion, which brings us back specifically to Rochester’s manuscript, which is an example of a Book of Hours.   

So, what is a Book of Hours? 

Books of Hours are prayer books mainly used for private devotions. They vary in size from the very tiny to the very large, but, for the most part, they tend to be moderate in size, in order to be easily carried and conveniently used. The smaller size also means the books are more personal, not being big enough to be shared. At 10.5cm x 8 cm the Rochester Cathedral Book of Hours is slightly smaller than the norm. 

From the fourteenth century, Books of Hours became immensely popular with the gentry and richer members of society. Before the advent of printing (Caxton set up his press in Westminster in 1476) manuscript books were costly whether bespoke or readymade, but books with any coloured images were elite and the preserve of the very wealthy.

The name Books of Hours derives from the Latin for horae - Horae beatae virginae or Hours of the Blessed Virgin, also known as the Little Hours/Office of the Virgin Mary. As a devotional text the Hours of the Blessed Virgin originated in the 10th century and are based on the Divine Offices that formed the daily structure in monasteries. Using Books of Hours was a way for ordinary folk to emulate the spiritual devotional day of monks and nuns.

Illuminated Letter D at the office of Terce

Illuminated Letter D at the office of Terce

The monastic day was divided into the eight offices of Matins, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers and Compline. In a monastery these would be regulated according to the hour of the day and theoretically this could also be done away from a monastery with a private Book of Hours, although in practical terms this would mean getting up at 2am.  So as might be imagined, adaptations were made in how these books were used privately. Also, the offices found in the Books of Hours are shorter versions of the fuller monastic services. Another main difference is that the text of Books of Hours is fixed rather than subject to variations according to seasons and feast days.

As the name suggests, Books of Hours all contained the eight offices of the Hours of the Blessed Virgin, but they also have other ‘ingredients’. There is no exact pattern of what is included in Books of Hours, but there are certain common elements that appear consistently across the thousands that survive.

The Rochester Cathedral Book of Hours has a calendar, the Hours of the Blessed Virgin, the Hours of the Cross, Seven Penitential Psalms, Litany of Saints, Office of the Dead and prayers. It also has decorations at the main divisions; ten illuminations in total, of which seven are decorated letters and three are figurative, meaning that they portray an actual thing rather than being decorated with leaves and flourishes. There are some sumptuously decorated Books of Hours with the modes in which they were illuminated depending, in varying degrees, on the artist’s capabilities, a patron’s tastes, general fashion and the amount of money that was involved. Variations included biblical scenes, scenes from medieval romances, personal heraldry and, very commonly, images of the donor in an act of piety; highly decorated books became status symbols as well as devotional aids.

As with all things, despite the fact that all illuminated Books of Hours were expensive, there is variety in the quality of artwork. A noticeable drop in the quality of manuscript art has been noted after the Black Death of 1348-50. The epidemic that claimed 30-50% of Europe’s population has been put forward as a possible reason for that drop in quality; as artist communities were small and concentrated at specific localities it would be easy to lose many specialised workmen at one fell swoop.

Madonna and Child at the beginning of the Hours of the Blessed Virgin

Madonna and Child at the beginning of the Hours of the Blessed Virgin

Deluxe books would have at least eight images of Mary in various narrative scenes, one for each of the offices. While the Rochester Book of Hours has the eight offices defined by illuminated letters, it has just one figurative image of Mary. It is a version of the Madonna and child, and as can be seen, the paint is cracked and some has flaked away. The deterioration of the image and the general dirtiness of the page is evidence that the book was often opened here and that this office of Matins (the first of the day) was a regular point of worship. Sometimes religious images were damaged through devotional kissing; however, as Mary’s face is not the most damaged part here, it is probably not the case with this Rochester book. 

Very little is known about where the book comes from. The text is Latin, with no vernacular writing in any other language, although the nature of the text and images suggest that it is from the 15th century and is probably either French or English. Many books produced specifically for the English market came from book production centres in France, particularly Paris and Rouen.  It has a total of 137 folios (274 pages).

We do not know who owned it; unlike other Books of Hours it does not contain any heraldry or names to help understand its provenance. The book could have been commissioned and created specifically for an individual or could also have been held in a shop’s stock of pre-made manuscripts; sometimes there are clues in the prayers that reveal whether the owner was male or female, depending on the Latin endings that are used.

Skull denoting the beginning of the Office for the Dead

Skull denoting the beginning of the Office for the Dead

Also, often the kalendar of a book may have clues as owners would add particular events or names that were special to them on the relevant dates, but the Rochester book has no such inclusions and no reference to ‘local saints’, which sometimes helps to locate it geographically (for example, reference to St Frideswide would connect the book to Oxford).

Although much is unknown about this Book of Hours, the small size and modest illumination and signs of regular employment infer that it was intended for very personal use as opposed to being a status showpiece, and therein lays its true beauty.

Dr Jayne Wackett

Further Reading:

Eamon Duffy, Marking the Hours: English People and their Prayers 1240-1570 (Yale, 2007)