Books of hours are often characterized as the “bestseller” of the Middle Ages. As a genre, they certainly enjoyed enormous, even unprecedented popularity, becoming the prayer book of the laity, monarchs and merchants, lords and ladies, alike.
Its popularity, however, was restricted to certain parts of Europe: primarily France, England and the Netherlands. Elsewhere in Europe, for example, in German-speaking lands, Central Europe and even Italy and Spain, where other types of prayer books retained their dominance, it remained relatively rare.
Not all books of hours were illustrated, but they are best known today for their decoration, which can range from the routine in examples mass-produced for the commercial market to the spectacular, as in such famous examples as the Très Riches Heures of Jean, duc de Berry, one of the most famous manuscripts of the entire Middle Ages, or, to take an example that's part of this digital resource, the De Buz Hours.
The sheer number of books of hours that survive make them an indispensable source not only for the study of late medieval piety and prayer, but also for the history of late medieval art.
Books of hours provide a fairly continuous, dense record of well-preserved medieval painting in numerous locales and centers where most monumental painting, whether murals, stained glass, or panel painting, has been lost. They are also the site of tremendous iconographic inventiveness, with most manuscripts displaying at least some idiosyncratic features that set them apart and open them to interpretation and analysis.
Accessing These Materials
The Picturing Prayer resource provides easy digital access to 16 manuscript books of hours.
The digital resource also explains the standard units in each manuscript and allows users to view pages from different books of hours side by side.
Other books of hours are available via HOLLIS.
The Houghton Library collection of medieval and Renaissance manuscripts is divided into a number of shelf classifications, including language and subject classifications MSS Dutch, Eng(lish), Fr(ench), Ger(man), Gr(eek), Ital(ian), Judaica, Lat(in), Port(uguese), Span(ish) and Syriac. Please remember that these are both language and subject classifications. There are also four named collections: MS Riant, Richardson, Typ(ography), and Widener.
Many of these manuscripts were part of a city-wide exhibition in 2016, Beyond Words: Illuminated Manuscripts in Boston Area Collections. Entries in its catalog represent the latest scholarship on these manuscripts by internationally renowned scholars.