On the Virtues of Books of Hours


Book of Hours, 14th century, © CNRS-IRHT, Bibliothèque de Rennes Métropole, MS 1511 ff.186v-181v (52)

Time–with its mysterious elasticity–has always been a source of fascination to me. It runs through one’s fingers like water one day only to plod along with the all vim of a dead wristwatch the next. As a little girl, when I wanted to wear myself out at night and fetch unwilling sleep, I would lay in bed trying to imagine what time meant to stars and worlds which had come into being all those eons ago. Was everything felt as “now” to them, or did they feel the weight of millenia moving over and about them as they stretched themselves in space? Did they feel the drift of their sister stars away as the years marched on, or was the movement so slow they did not notice until one day such vast expanses lay between them that by the time the messages of light arrived, they would be long dead?

One. Yes, I  was a strange child. Two. Bad natural science and even worse physics.  Be warned, parents: this is is what comes of feeding a steady diet of PBS science and nature programs to children with an inveterate habit of anthropomorphizing.

Confronted by the vagaries of time–constructed reality on the one hand and existential steam engine on the other–we humans attempt to order, organize, and schedule as we can in order to shore up our sense of control over the manifestly uncontrollable. At least, we do so until we come to such days as we live in now. It’s not that some of us aren’t as busy–or even busier–than we’ve ever been, but something beyond the mere uncertainty of the future feels different right now, as if time were oceanic and we are drifting–not adrift, but drifting–on the surface of something we cannot understand much less control.

This would be a good time to pull out your Book of Hours if you’re fortunate enough to have one of these beautiful and practical little medieval manuals filled with prayers for private devotions. The early 15th-century Belles Heures of Jean de France, Duc de Berry (Cloisters) seen below is one of the celebrated with its delicate spectacular ivy trailing over nearly every page and its celestial blues.

The Hours included in this manuscript as well as those of more humble specimen were a modified form of the liturgy of the Divine Hours itself a modification of the ordering of the Day with prayer as established by St. Benedict in the sixth century.  Some of the most beautiful codices produced in the Middle Ages were Books of Hours, a testament to the value placed upon their importance by those who commissioned them. The sheer number of them that remain from thirteenth-sixteenth centuries testifies to their practical importance in ordering the day with petitions, invocations of divine and saintly power, praise, and blessing.

Rather than go on at length about either the utility or glory of Books of Hours–and there is much that has been written  I offer up the the modern poet Elizabeth Jennings’ “Notes for a Book of Hours” from Song for a Birth or a Death (1961). As Jennings was a keen observer of art, it would have been interesting to see what kind of art she would have imagined filling her book of hours. In the absence of such instructions, I use one of my favorites, the Coëvity Hours the praises of which I have sung before. Jennings’ poems are, I think, the perfect modern expression of the human desire to express in art and song the troubling wonder and perplexed longing (however joyous) which rises when mystery beckons.

St Michael CBL w 082 9v

St Michael (looking rather more cuddly than martial). Coëtivy Hours, CBL W 082 f.9v (49)

Notes for a Book of Hours


Kneeling to pray and resting on the words
I feel a stillness that I have not made.
Shadows take root, the following light is laid
Smoothly on stone and skin. I lean toward.
Some meaning that’s delayed.

It is as if the mind had nervous fingers,
Could touch and apprehend yet not possess.
The light is buried where the darkness lingers
And something grateful in me wants to bless
Simply from happiness.

The world dreams through me in this sudden Spring.
My senses itch although the stillness stays.
God is too large a word for me to sing,
touch upon my spirit strums and plays:
What images will bring

This moment down to words that I can use
When not so rapt? The hours, the hours increase.
All is a movement, shadows now confuse,
Darkening the soft wings of the doves of peace,
And can I tame or choose?


I have to start the whole thing from the source,
Go back behind the noisy tower of tongues,
Press on my words new meanings, make my songs
Like breath from uncontaminated lungs
Or water from a new-found water-course.

Not to convince you, that is not my aim,
Simply to speak and to be gladly heard.
I have the oils, the waters, but the name
Eludes me still. Within a single word
I want the christening, the flowering flame.

Coevity Hours, VBL W 082 f 141r

Portrait of Prigent VII de Coëtivy in prayer as the Archangel Michael and other angels battle demons. Coëtivy Hours, CBL W 982 f.141r (p47)

Men had it once who carved far out of sight
Demons and angels, all anonymous;
Skill was another name for pure delight.
My angels must convince, be obvious.
I must create the substance and the light.

The cosmic vision fades. Within my mind
The images are laid, books on a shelf
Dusty and old. I only need to find
Some way to show the struggle in myself —
The demons watchful but the angels blind.


In the cool cloisters and the choirs I hear
The open-handed words, the pleading psalms.
The chant is sober and it soothes and calms
Though what the words depict is full of fear;
I gather all the shadows my arms.

I cannot sing but only hear and trace
The meaning underneath the echoes, wait
For the resumption of a scattered state.
Such concentration screwed into my face —
Can it reflect an inner mood of grace?

What do they think who kneel within these stalls,
Young, old, white, black? The world outside still gropes
Not for a paradise but for its hopes
Come true in time. The chanting sinks and falls —
The great bell silent, none to pull the ropes.


            The sound is ordered, cool.
I heard somebody say
Once that the liturgy is diffused
Theology. I think they meant the way
The music and the words are used,
Austere yet beautiful.

             A world of dogma can
Within these hours be pressed.
Both day and night are counted by
The times of exhortation and of rest.
The psalms can both rejoice and sigh,
Serve every need of man.

              I need to make my own
Great book of hours, record
Matins and lauds, prime, terce and vespers,
With no authority but my own word.
The psalms are loud with truth; in whispers
I mark my hours alone.


For a brief introduction to Medieval prayer books generally see Eleanor Jackson’s article for the wonderful British Library’s blog.

Images from the Coëtivy Hours and Bibliothèque de Rennes Métropole, MS 1511 are from Miniature Masterpiece: The Coëtivy Hours. Chester Beatty Library, Dublin. Impress Printing Works, 2018.

Elizabeth Jennings, “Notes for a Book of Hours,” The Collected Poems, Carcanet Press, 2012, pp.93-95.

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