A book of hours is a Christian devotional text which contains an assortment of prayers, psalms, religious texts, and selections from Christian liturgy. Books of hours were extremely popular during the Middle Ages, and may well have been the most widely produced books in medieval Europe. Today, such books are relatively rare, but hundreds of extant medieval books of hours can be found on display in museums, for people who wish to examine these remarkable texts in person.
The content of a book of hours would have varied, depending on who owned it and when it was produced. Essentially, the book of hours was designed for lay people who wanted to integrate religious practice and monastic prayer into their daily lives. Typically, the front of a book of hours included a liturgical calendar making major feasts and holidays, followed by prayers, gospel readings, stories, and other devotional texts. The “hours” in the book of hours were the Hours of the Virgin, prayers said at eight set points during the day.
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Before the advent of the printing press, each book of hours was hand written and decorated by hand as well. Only the wealthiest members of society could afford these devotional books, and they often dueled with each other to commission the finest books of hours. The illustrations in these illuminated manuscripts could get quite lavish, as could the decorations on the binding, and some people even requested customized content such as special prayers written just for them. The showier one's book of hours was, the more Christian devotion one was presumed to have.
Life in the Middle Ages was difficult for people of all classes, and religious faith was often strengthened through periods of adversity. Many people wished to devote themselves to Christian prayer, and books of hours made this easier. A number of bookshops and scriptoriums capitalized on the craze, producing low-cost versions for members of the lower classes which became even more affordable with the rise of the printing press.
Classically, the text in a book of hours would be in Latin, although some versions in various European dialects were also produced. Books of hours ran the gamut from painstakingly illuminated versions for the upper crust to generic printed editions without illustrations for members of the lower classes. Generic or not, books of hours were considered to be family treasures, with many families writing important events like the dates of births and deaths into their books of hours to personalize them.