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University Library, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Books of Hours: Understanding the Sections of Books of Hours

A guide to the Books of Hours at the Rare Book and Manuscript Library

Sections in a Book of Hours

Although the  sections often appear in Books of Hours in the following order, the content and arrangement of the texts varied widely depending on when, where, and for whom it was created. A Book of Hours might only feature the Hours of the Virgin and not the Cross or Holy Spirit, or might contain all three as well as additional prayers and suffrages. 

Calendar: Virtually all Books of Hours begin with a calendar section that informed the reader of saint's days and allowed them to calculate important movable liturgical events such as Easter. Families would often record the anniversaries of births, deaths, and marriages in the calendar. Because the calendar could be customized to emphasize local saints, it can sometimes be used to help determine where the Book of Hours was made. Occasionally, the Hours of the Cross and Holy Spirit were integrated into the Hours of the Virgin, resulting in a "mixed" Book of Hours.

Hours of the Virgin: The heart of the Book of Hours, the Hours of the Virgin are a series of devotional texts organized by the hours of the divine office: Matins, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, Compline.

Hours of the Cross: Follows the same canonical hours as the Hours of the Virgin, except that there is no Lauds. The Hours of the Cross is often much shorter than those of the Virgin because there are no Psalms. Each hour focuses on sequential moments in Christ's Passion, reflected through the verses of the hymn. 

Hours of the Holy Spirit: Also follows the same canonical hours as the Hours of the Virgin, except that there is no Lauds. The Hours of the Cross is often much shorter than those of the Virgin because there are no Psalms. Each hour focuses on different attributes of the Holy Spirit, reflected through the verses of the hymn and a final stanza invoking the Holy Spirit's aid in achieving eternal salvation. 

Penitential Psalms: The Seven Penitential Psalms (6, 31, 37, 50, 101, 129, and 142) were thought to be written by King David as atonement for his sins. The psalms could be contemplated to help the reader avoid sin or ask forgiveness as well as a means of reducing the time the soul of a departed family member or friend would spend in purgatory. 

Obsecro Te and O Intemerata: Two special prayers to the Virgin that appear in nearly all Books of Hours. They are known by their incipits (opening words): “Obsecro te” (I beseech you) and “O intemerata” (O immaculate Virgin). Written in the first person singular, the prayers address the Virgin directly in especially plaintive tones. 

Litany: The litany is a listing of saints who are asked to pray for the reader.

Office of the Dead: A series of prayers meant to help the souls of loved ones reach heaven, the Office of the Dead is spread over the hours of Vespers, Matins, and Lauds. Matins features nine lessons from the Book of Job, which embody the anguish felt by those suffering in Purgatory.

Suffrages: The suffrage section memorializes the saints while presenting them in hierarchical order: God or the three Persons of the Trinity always begin the Suffrages, followed by the Virgin, the archangel Michael, and John the Baptist (the last two prominently positioned because of their importance as judge and intercessor, respectively, at the Last Judgment). The apostles appear next, followed by male martyrs and confessors (non martyr saints), female saints and virgin martyrs.


Sections of the Lyte Book of Hours

Inscription Page

A precursor to the family Bible, marriages, birth and death dates, as well as ownership inscriptions can frequently be found in Books of Hours. This Book of Hours was owned by the Lyte family, and retains a significant amount of marginalia detailing how members of the family interacted with the book. Because the manuscript was trimmed at some point after its creation, text close to the edge of the page has been lost.



Found at the beginning of most Books of Hours, the calendar section allowed the book owner to keep track of the extensive list of saint's days, so that the proper person could be prayed to on the correct date. Additionally, calendars could be used to locate where a Book of Hours was made due to the inclusion of local saints.  The KL is an abbreviation of the word kalends (the Latin term for the first day of the month), which the English word calendar is derived from.

Text from the Suffrage Section

Addressing St. Anne, this page from the suffrage section depicts a combination of French (Burgundian) borders with English (Bohemian) foliages and initials, which developed into Lancastrian illumination style that was popular from the reign of Richard II to Edward IV.

Illustration from the Suffrage Section

An ornate depiction of Saint Margaret and the Dragon, this illuminated image from the Lyte Book of Hours was a popular illustration in many Books of Hours despite being apocryphal. As customizable objects, Books of Hours permitted owners to draw from non-cannonical sources to fulfill their devotional needs. Since the books were primarily owned by women, many of these apocryphal images featured female saints and the Virgin Mary.