Books of Hours

Books of Hours

Books of Hours

Books of Hours

Excerpt

The Book of Hours was the standard book of popular devotion in western Europe during the late Middle Ages and Renaissance. Essentially it contained a series of short services, the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary, designed to be recited at different times of the day and night. These services first appeared during the 10th century and two important early copies, written in England shortly before the Norman Conquest, are preserved in manuscripts now in the British Library. During the late 12th and early 13th centuries the Little Office, originally used by members of the religious orders and by the clergy, became more widely popular and was frequently appended to copies of the psalter, which was at that time the universal choice of private prayer book. The earliest independent Books of Hours date from the middle of the 13th century (see 39) and thereafter this type of manuscript rapidly became very fashionable, especially in France and the Low Countries. During the 14th and 15th centuries copies were made in their hundreds to suit all tastes and pockets, ranging in quality from magnificently illuminated masterpieces, individu­ally ordered by the wealthy and great, to modestly written small volumes with little or no decoration. The text is even occasionally found in the form of a prayer roll. The invention of printing widened the market still further and, particularly in France, the decades on either side of 1500 saw the production of a flood of Books of Hours, many of them decorated with superb woodcuts and engravings and a few adorned with hand-painted miniatures and borders. It is with justification that the Book of Hours has been described as the biggest best-seller of its age.

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