Books of Hours and the Devotion of Women in the Late Middle Ages

By Morgan Kay, May 2001

"Fair daughters, when you get out of your bed, enter into the service of the exalted Lord and begin your Hours. This should be your first deed, the first thing you do. When you say them, say them with a good heart; and as far as you can do not let your mind wander, for you cannot go two ways at once: you will either take one path or the other. . .Holy Writ says that a brief prayer pierces heaven, which should be taken to mean that a short prayer briefly said devoutly from the heart is worth more than great, long Hours said while thinking of other things, or talking about other things while saying your Hours. For the more devoutly you say all these words, the more value they will have, and, in the end, more merit."1

Geoffrey de la Tour, a French knight, wrote these words of advice to his daughters in the fourteenth century. They demonstrate the important place that Books of Hours occupied in the lives of the late Medieval laity, particularly lay women. The piety of lay people in the late Middle Ages, the popularity of the Virgin Mary as an intercessor, the rise in literacy, and the beauty of Books of Hours all combined to make these little devotional books extremely popular.they are over and over again described as the Medieval "best seller."2 Although it is unclear to what extent women could and did use these books as devotional tools, we can be sure that they were especially meaningful to women, and formed an important part of their lives.

Books of Hours, or horae, are one manifestation of the religious devotion of lay people in the late Middle Ages. Beginning in the twelfth century, there was a large movement to reform monasteries, which were accused of having more wealth than piety. New orders such as the Victorines and Cistercians were founded to return to the monastic ideal set out in the beginning of the Middle Ages by people like St. Benedict. These reform movements were mirrored in the lives of the laity--perhaps inspired by the monastic communities, or just caught up in the spirit of reform that was sweeping religious culture, lay people also sought to keep their lives more holy. The mendicant orders--Franciscans and Dominicans--were founded during the twelfth century as well. These orders embraced a life of complete poverty, wandering and preaching. The sermons they gave and the example of vita apostolica they provided had a huge influence on the people to whom they preached.3

The reform impulse spawned several heretical movements as well. Many of them paralleled orthodox movements, such as the Waldensian heresy. Waldensians followed a man named Peter Waldo of Lyons, whose ideals and message were very similar to Francis of Assisi's. Waldo went a step too far by encouraging lay people to preach, so he and his followers were condemned as heretics. There were other similar movements at this time as well, which sought to purify the church and provide a holy life for their followers, but those that had doctrinal differences with the Church were condemned. However, the large number of followers that these heresies had suggest the degree to which the laity were concerned with theological issues and with leading a holy life.4

This was also a time when the clergy were given more prestige within the Church. Church architecture changed.altars were placed against the wall of the church so that the priest had his back to the congregation as he consecrated the bread and wine. Only the priest's hands were allowed to touch the Host, and for the most part, the laity wasn't allowed to drink the wine at all. This was when the doctrine of transubstantiation was clarified, so it was painfully clear to the congregation that the priest was actually touching God, a privilege the laity would never have. All of this made the clergy very holy and mysterious to lay people. It was also commonly acknowledged at this time that the clergy, with their holy lifestyle, were more likely to go to Heaven than the un-ordained. Therefore the laity tried to emulate the clergy as much as possible in their daily lives.5

It appears that, although this trend of lay piety was universal in its appeal, women were particularly affected by it. Women flocked to the new religious movements, both orthodox and heretical. Women were particularly attracted by the mendicant movements, much to the disdain of both the religious and secular hierarchies, who did not want women wandering about and begging. They quickly built monasteries to enclose these religious women.the number of women.s houses founded at this time is huge, and it placed a huge strain on the orders that had to support them. Eventually, the new monastic orders closed their doors to women.they simply could not take care of all of the women who wanted to join them. Women found other ways to express their faith outside of religious orders. Many women became Beguines.they lived lives of poverty, chastity, and service, but they remained in the secular world instead of joining religious orders. Tertiaries, women who were connected to a religious order but led a religious life outside of any convent, appeared for the first time as well. For people who did not commit themselves to a religious life, pilgrimages were also a way of expressing piety.6

There were even smaller ways that people could express their devotion to God. One of the most popular ways was to own a Book of Hours. These books contain prayers, passages from the Bible, and hymns which are to be said at the canonical hours of the day.matins, lauds, prime, terce, sext, none, vespers, and compline. Just as monks and clergy pray at these times of the day, so too lay people could express their piety throughout the day. However, Books of Hours were made by secular book-sellers, not by any religious institution. Thus horae could be far more personal than participation in public worship. They were custom-made, so although there were certain texts that were standard to horae, patrons could also choose certain other texts and prayers to go into their personal books. At a time when the power and prestige of the clergy was rising, the laity welcomed this opportunity for private worship outside of institutional control. Women in particular, who were losing what few ministerial opportunities they had had (nuns hearing the confession of other nuns, preaching, etc.), were glad to have the degree of control over their spiritual lives that Books of Hours offered.7

The vast popularity of Books of Hours attests to the piety of lay people in the late Middle Ages. With the rise of the middle class and the rise of literacy that occurred at this time, more and more people were able to afford and read books, and just about everyone who could own a book owned a Book of Hours. If piety and devotion had not been so important to the laity in the late Middle Ages, Books of Hours would not have gained the popularity they had.

It seems that horae were especially popular with Medieval women. Many types of evidence suggest that they owned them more often than men. Many grooms bought them as wedding gifts for their brides. By examining the wills of men and women, we can see that women often owned Books of Hours, and usually passed them down to their daughters. In fact, a German law code even says that books should be passed from mother to daughter, since women read books more than men do. Women also taught their children to read from Books of Hours, since those were often the only books that families owned. The term .primer. actually comes from the hour of Prime.

One of the reasons Books of Hours were so popular, especially with women, was that the devotions in them were dedicated to the Virgin Mary. One of the most common manifestations of lay piety was devotion to Mary. She became a popular intercessor.people would pray to her, asking her to tell their requests to her son. Women especially found that they could identify with Mary, with the joys and sorrows of her motherhood. New stories about her life abounded at this time, especially in drama.

In the ninth century, a new liturgical service called the Little Office of the Virgin Mary was first put into the Breviary. As devotion to Mary increased, this service became more and more common. Until the thirteenth century, it was often attached to the Psalter, which many lay people owned. Then it was written independently in books that were known as Books of Hours. Each hour of the day represents an event in Mary's life, so the devout reader who recites the hours regularly will relive Mary's life each day, meditating on her feelings, relating to her.

There are usually also prayers to Mary in Books of Hours, which reflect Medieval feelings about her. One of the most affective is the Obscuro Te. This affective prayer, which emphasizes sensory experience, creates an intimate relationship between the reader and Mary. The Obscuro Te is long, but the following excerpts demonstrate the affective and personal quality of the prayer:

"I beseech thee O Holy Lady Mary, Mother of God most full of pity, the daughter of the highest king, mother most glorious, mother of orphans, the consolation of the desolate, the way of them that go astray, the safety of all that trust in thee. . . by the most glorious joys, which thou hadst of thy son our Lord Jesus Christ: and by that holy and most great compassion, and most bitter grief of thy heart, which thou hadst when as thou didst behold thy son our Lord Jesus Christ, made naked before the cross, and lifted up upon the same, hanging, crucified, wounded, thirsting, and the most bitter drink of gall and vinegar put unto his mouth. . . that thou wouldst come with all the Saints and elect of God and hasten unto my help, and my counsel in all my prayers, and petitions, in all my distresses and necessities. . . Hear and make intercession for me most sweet virgin Mary Mother of God, and Mercy. Amen."

The images in Books of Hours were also considered devotional tools, and many of the images are of Mary. These images help the reader to visualize and relate to the life of Mary. Sometimes, the patron of the book is even put directly into the images. In some cases, this implies that the image in the painting is what the reader is imagining. In other paintings, more direct interaction between Mary and the reader is portrayed. A good example of both of these is in the Hours of Mary of Burgundy. On the page facing the beginning of the Obscuro Te in this book is a painting of Mary of Burgundy, reading her Book of Hours. She is sitting next to a window, which opens into a Cathedral, where we see the Virgin and Child. Several women are coming into the church to worship Mary, and Mary of Burgundy is among them. Thus in this image we not only see what Mary of Burgundy is imagining, we also see her interacting directly with the Virgin.

Many of the paintings in Books of Hours portray Mary reading. The most common of these are Annunciation images, where Gabriel comes to Mary as she kneels at an altar, reading. But it is also easy to find pictures of Mary reading during all stages of her life.during the flight into Egypt, at the Crucifixion, even at Jesus. birth. There are many implications of these images. First is the relation of Mary to Jesus as logos, or the Word made flesh. In paintings of the Annunciation, Mary is reading when Gabriel comes to her. It is rather safe to assume that Mary is reading the Bible (the lore that developed around Mary at this time says she knew Scripture well) or perhaps a Book of Hours, despite the anachronism. But in either case, she is reading the Word of God at just the moment when the Word is made flesh through her flesh. Thus an image of Mary reading the Bible, taking the words into herself, making them a part of her flesh, is an allegorical representation of Christ taking on her flesh.

The other implication of these images of Mary reading is that reading is a spiritual exercise for women. Mary and the holy family are used as examples in the Middle Ages of how people should live, of the ideal of holy life. Thus these constant portrayals of Mary with her nose in a book tell us that reading was considered a good activity for women, a way for them to gain the same wisdom Mary is renowned for. But the endorsement of reading goes even farther than that, for it is reading that makes Mary open to the reception of the Word, prepares her spiritually to become the mother of God. All of the images of Mary reading show not only that reading is a good thing for women to do, but that reading is a spiritual exercise that brings the reader closer to God and prepares the mind for revelatory experiences. One image in a Book of Hours demonstrates the extreme implications of this idea. It is a typical annunciation scene, with Mary in blue, reading, surrounded by angels holding banners proclaiming her blessedness, but in this case, the patroness is portrayed as Mary. We know that the patroness was barren, and had been praying for children for many years. The painting suggests that if she reads her Hours regularly, perhaps her prayers will finally be answered.

The images of Mary reading also create a bond between the reader and Mary. Not only is the reader reliving Mary.s life by reading the Book of Hours, but since Mary reads too, readers can identify with her.a community of readers is created through these images. The images also show her kneeling and praying, thus creating a community of prayer as well. Thomas a Kempis recommended identifying with Mary through prayer:

"Before the altar of God and in the presence of the image of the blessed Virgin bare your heads and bow: humbly bend the knee, as if you saw Mary present in the body speaking with the angel, or holding her Son in her bosom: and then lifting up your eyes with good hope of the salvation for which we look, most lovingly implore the help of Mercy from the Mother of Mercy.

Visualization and identification were very important parts of Medieval piety. Since people were encouraged to identify with Biblical characters, we find over and over again that Biblical stories are depicted as if they were happening in the Middle Ages. Mary often wears the height of late Medieval fashion, often reads Books of Hours. Although this seems anachronistic to modern readers, to Medieval readers, it was not only a means of understanding the Biblical characters, but a way of making them universal, easier to communicate with intimately. These images in contemporary settings link Biblical history with the readers. experience.

Although it is quite clear that the laity, particularly women, were quite pious in the late Middle Ages, and that Books of Hours are a reflection of the deep devotion to Mary that many lay women had, the question still remains.did women actually use their horae as they were intended to be used? Did they actually take the time out of each day to recite the prayers in their books as Geoffrey de la Tours and others recommended?

There are several reasons to doubt the regular use of Books of Hours. One is that they were undeniably status symbols. Members of the aristocracy spent fortunes on lavish Books of Hours, which were far too valuable for daily use. Members of the growing bourgois classes bought horae in imitation of the upper classes, as a symbol of their own upward mobility. And people showed off their Books of Hours. They carried them to Church, read them during the service, where no doubt the candlelight glinting off the gold leaf attracted some attention. Eustache Deschamps, a fourteenth-century French court poet, even wrote a poem satirizing how every girl felt the need to own a Book of Hours:

"A book of hours, too, must be mine,
Where subtle workmanship will shine,
Of gold and azure, rich and smart,
Arranged and painted with great art,
Covered with fine brocade of gold;
And there must be, so as to hold,
The pages closed, two golden clasps."

However, I do not believe that the conspicuous consumption involved with Books of Hours is enough reason to discount their use as a devotional tool. Although many horae were very expensive, and would elicit sighs of admiration from anyone who saw them, there are also many Books of Hours that are rather plain. The vast majority of Books of Hours only have a few paintings in them, and although there are many lovely illuminated pages, there are also many pages that contain nothing but plain text, without even so much as a decorated initial. These books are still very beautiful, but they seem to be more useful as a devotional tool than an object of display.

Medieval piety involved public display.just because people did show off their Books of Hours doesn.t mean they didn.t also use them as devotional tools. Public acts of piety, such as giving to charity and going on pilgrimages, were an important part of Medieval religion. Christianity at this time was a religion that focused on artistic treasures, as the lavish decoration of Gothic cathedrals and the devotion to relics demonstrates. But lay people were never allowed to touch these treasures. Women sought their own religious treasures in Books of Hours, beautiful religious objects that they could handle and cherish.

The other major reason for questioning the use of Books of Hours is the level of literacy, especially Latin literacy, among lay women. We can.t know for sure how many people were literate, or to what degree. It is clear that the literacy rate was growing at this time.the middle class had more and more need of reading and writing to conduct their business. Apparently, it was fairly common for wealthy women to learn to read, often from their mothers. However, the laity generally learned to read in the vernacular, not in Latin. Although there are a few exceptions in the sixteenth century, Books of Hours were written in Latin. It is difficult to ascertain to what degree people understood the Latin in their horae. Since a lot of the text of Books of Hours is repeated weekly at Mass, perhaps readers were familiar enough with the text to have a rudimentary comprehension of their Books of Hours. Some astute readers could probably teach themselves enough Latin to read a Book of Hours just by attending Mass and following along in their books.

There is also the evidence of the books themselves. Many Books of Hours show evidence of repeated use.pages bear the marks of hundreds of thumb-turnings, calendars have fallen out.

More Books of Hours have survived to this day than any other type of Medieval book, despite the fact that many were lost or destroyed, and many more were cut into individual pages and sold. By looking at the pages of these books, we can see the forces at work in the lives of their owners: the desire to live holy lives, the affective devotion to Mary, and their increased literacy and wealth. These books spoke especially to women, who were encouraged to be pious and read holy books. They could identify with the motherhood of the Virgin Mary, and they were glad to have a tool of personal religious devotion in a church that increasingly marginalized them.


Amtower, Laurel. Engaging Words: The Culture of Reading in the Later Middle Ages. New York: Palgrave, 2000.

Bell, Susan Groag. Medieval Women Book Owners: Arbiters of Lay Piety and Ambassadors of Culture, in Mary Erler and Maryanne Kowaleski, ed., Women and Power in the Middle Ages. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1988.

Bynum, Caroline Walker. Holy Feast and Holy Fast. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987.

Colish, Marcia. Medieval Foundations of the Western Intellectual Tradition. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997.

de Hamel, Christopher. A History of Illuminated Manuscripts. Boston: D. R. Godine, 1986.

Harthan, John P. Books of Hours and Their Owners. London: Thames and Hudson, 1977.

Leyser, Henrietta. Medieval Women: a Social History of Women in England 450-1500. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1995.

Meale, Carol M. Women and Literature in Britain, 1150-1500. New York, Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Penketh, Sandra Women and Books of Hours in Lesley Smith and Jane H. M. Taylor, Women and the Book. London: The British Library, 1997.

Shinners, John. Medieval Popular Religion: A Reader. Peterborough: Broadview Press, 1997.

Vauchez, Andre. The Laity in the Middle Ages. trans. Margery J. Schneider. Notre Dame: The University of Notre Dame Press, 1993.

Wieck, Roger. Time Sanctified. New York: George Braziller Inc., 1988.

Williams, Marty Newman and Anne Echols, Between Pit and Pedestal: Women in the Middle Ages. Princeton: Markus Wiener Pub., 1994.


1. John Shinners, Medieval Popular Religion: A Reader (Peterborough: Broadview Press, 1997), 321.
2. Roger Wieck, Time Sanctified ( New York: George Braziller Inc., 1988), 27.
3. Marcia Colish, Medieval Foundations of the Western Intellectual Tradition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997), 225.
4. Ibid., 234.
5. Ibid., 245-252.
6. Caroline Walker Bynum, Holy Feast and Holy Fast (Berkely: University of California Press, 1987), 56-57.
7. Andre Vauchez, trans. Margery J. Schneider, The Laity in the Middle Ages (Notre Dame: The University of Notre Dame Press, 1993), 91.
8. Bynum, 14-15.
9. Ibid., 17-18.
10. For a complete list of the possible texts of Books of Hours, see Wieck, Appendix.
11. Christopher de Hamel, A History of Illuminated Manuscripts (Boston: D. R. Godine, 1986), 164.
12. Susan Groag Bell, "Medieval Women Book Owners: Arbiters of Lay Piety and Ambassadors of Culture," in Mary Erler and Maryanne Kowalesky, ed., Women and Power in the Middle Ages (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1988), 160.
13. Laurel Amtower, Engaging Words: The Culture of Reading in the Later Middle Ages (New York: Palgrave, 2000), 27.
14. Sandra Penketh, "Women and Books of Hours" in Lesley Smith and Jane H. M. Taylor, Women and the Book (London: The British Library, 1997), 271.
15. Ibid., 270.
16. Carol M. Meale, Women and Literature in Britain, 1150-1500 (New York, Cambridge University Press, 1993). 130
17.2. Marty Newman Williams and Anne Echols, Between Pit and Pedestal: Women in the Middle Ages (Princeton: Markus Wiener Pub., 1994), 219.
18. In light of this fact, it is particularly touching that in Books of Hours, there are images of Anne teaching Mary to read, and of Mary teaching Jesus to read. See Amtower, 69.
19. De Hamel, 164.
20. Henrietta Leyser, Medieval Women: a Social History of Women in England 450-1500 (New York: St. Martin.s Press, 1995) 224.
21. John P. Harthan, Books of Hours and Their Owners (London: Thames and Hudson, 1977), 13.
22. Matins describes the Annunciation; Lauds, the Visitation; Prime, the Nativity; Terce, the annunciation to the shepherds; Sext, the Adoration of the Magi; None, the Presentation in the Temple; Vespers, the Flight into Egypt; and Compline, the Coronation of the Virgin. See Wieck, 60.
23. Wieck, 42.
25. Amtower 72-73.
26. Bell 168.
27. Wieck, 41.
28. Amtower 66.
29. Penketh, 275.
30. Amtower 66.
31. Amtower, 10.
32. Harthan. Unfortunately, someone recalled this book, so I don.t have it with me at the time of writing this paper, so I can.t tell you the page number. Oops!
33. Amtower 56.
34. Penketh 273.
35. Penketh 273-274.
36. Leyser 225.
37. Amtower, 27.
38. Wieck, 2.
39. Penketh, 269.
40. Amtower, 36.
41. The Artz Hours, which is probably an average Book of Hours, fits into this is very beautiful, but has more utility for devotion than for ostentation. Unfortunately, scholars have for the most part focused on the exceptionally beautiful Books of Hours, such as those belong to the Duke of Berry. They are just now beginning to study average and poor examples of horae. I believe that the more scholars study average Books of Hours, the more they will support the view that horae were used regularly for devotion, not just for display.
42. Wieck, 34.
43. Vauchez, 90.
44. Bell, 162.
45. Penketh, 270.
46. Amtower 36-37.
47. Harthan, 32-33.
48. Wieck, 27.

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