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Wish your relatives and friends a Merry Christmas with a selection of inspiring e-Cards with images from the most exquisite illuminated Books of Hours from our friends at Moleiro Editor.

Photo courtesy M. Moleiro Editor

What is a book of hours?

By Carlos Miranda Gacría-Tejedor

Books of hours are a collection of offices and prayers for use by the faithful, particularly laypeople. No two books of hours are identical because the uses of dioceses differ, as do the characteristics of the owners who commissioned them and the workshops that made them. Books of hours stem from the private prayer books – libelli precum – used by laypeople from the early Middle Ages onwards. The earliest books of hours are a combination of the Psalter and the book of hours itself. Originally, the former was the main part of the manuscript and the latter, its appendix which became increasingly important over time until it finally separated from the Psalter.


Books of hours have three divisions in order of importance:

  • Essential elements: the original unit separate from the breviary: the calendar, hours of the Virgin, penitential Psalms, litanies and suffrages of the saints and the offices of the dead.
  • Secondary elements almost always added to the main group: fragments of the four Gospels, the Passion according to St John, the Obsecro te and O intemerata prayers, the hours and office of the Cross, the hours and office of the Holy Ghost, the fifteen joys of the Virgin and the seven entreaties to Our Lord.
  • Accessory elements: the fifteen gradual Psalms, hours in honour of the different saints, miscellaneous prayers, prayers for the Christian day, prayers for mass, St Jerome’s Psalter, the ten commandments and certain less important items.

It is difficult, if not impossible, to establish a typology for regal books of hours. Many of those commissioned by the nobility or high-ranking clergy imitated those made for monarchs or were even more lavish as was the case of those commissioned by Jean, Duke of Berry, to name one of the most important bibliophiles in the late Middle Ages. Whilst there is always a margin of error, a series of characteristics can be pointed out which, whilst not necessarily defining a regal book of hours, may at least apply to the luxury codices in this series.

Mention may be made first of all of certain formal and iconographical elements:

  • The size of the volume: often large, particularly at the end of the 14th century.
  • The use of different inks in the text, particularly blue, gold and red. This characteristic is typical of the French books of hours related to the monarchy from the 14th century onwards.
  • Profusion of miniatures.
  • Abundance of gold, silver and lapis lazuli, which also feature in books of hours made for the high nobility.

Special iconography that differentiates them from other codices, i.e. those books with iconography similar to those made for a king or one of his relations, as is the case of the Hours of Joanna I of Castile, which was related in particular to the Rothschild, James IV of Scotland and the Spinola books of hours.

Regal portraits. Although this may seem to be a decisive element, two aspects that may confuse research must be taken into account. Firstly, a monarch’s portrait could be erased and replaced by that of another. This would usually show that the book was not made for the second owner, who symbolically and actually took possession of the codex, as in the case of the Hours of Charles VIII, whose portrait was replaced by that of his cousin and successor, Louis of Orléans. Secondly, a codex could be made for a member of the nobility and then somehow come into the hands of a monarch who would then erase the portrait of the previous owner.


As in the previous instance, one of the most decisive factors could be coats of arms, blazons and insignias that might help identify the owner of the codex. One must, however, be cautious in this respect since, as in the case of the portraits, these elements were quite often erased and replaced by the arms of the new owner.

Secondly, mention must also be made of internal elements such as a special office used almost exclusively by monarchs or persons related to the French monarchy. This is, to be precise, the office of Saint Louis, as shown in the Hours of Mary of Navarre.

How to use the medieval e-cards service?

Choose one of the e-cards from Moleiro Editor’s Christmas collection and email it to your family and friends for free. Let’s add a touch of distinction, elegance and exclusivity to our greetings this year with this rich selection of medieval illuminations:


1. Adoration of the Magi, f. 35r in The Hours of Henry IV of France (Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris):

2. Nativity, f. 18v in The Hours of Charles of Angoulême (Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris):

3. Nativity, f. 51v (Prime, Hours of the Virgin) in The Hours of Henry VIII (The Morgan Library and Museum, New York):


4. The Nativity, f. 51v in the Great Hours of Anne of Brittany (Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris):

This was an excerpt from Bibliographic Treasures and Medieval Maps by Carlos Miranda García-Tejedor. Our thanks to Moleiro Editor for this text and images. You can learn more about the Book of Hours by visiting their website:


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