Books of hours were the best sellers of the Middle Ages, but their contents and the religious practices they were formulated to guide are all but lost to today’s public. The FAQs that follow are intended to give the reader some background for Book of Hours: The Beguilement of Brother Alphaios.
Under the “resources” tab, you will also find two historical timelines that reference popes and kings and other select figures of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. While my contemporary characters in Book of Hours are entirely my creation, the key historical figures were real. I have, of course, created circumstances and actions for them that are wholly from my imagination. I developed these timelines during my early drafts to help me understand the context and influences of the times.
FAQ: What is a ‘Book of Hours’?
A book of hours is a prayer book used by Roman Catholic laity during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. It is an abbreviated and less complex version of the ‘breviary’ used by priests and other ordained clerics to order their daily lives. It is organized around ‘The Hours of the Virgin’, with eight daily prescribed times of prayer (see below). Today, perhaps Vespers remains the best known.
Books of hours also typically contain readings from the four gospels (the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John), a calendar of Holy Days and Saints’ Days, the Hours of the Cross, The Hours of the Holy Spirit, The Penitential Psalms, and the Office of the Dead.
Books of hours were first made by monasteries for the religious instruction of the faithful. They became popular when colored pictures–illuminations–were added to them, and a thriving book trade developed. Not all books of hours were decorated, but as they became more common, patrons could meet with booksellers and choose which saints they wished to celebrate, which bishop or cardinal or member of royalty they wanted to honor with a picture or portrait, and which decorations they would like on each page. Booksellers maintained samples of calligraphy and pictures from previous books of hours through which buyers could browse. Once the details were agreed upon, the bookseller would contract with scribes for the text and painters for the illuminations. Illuminators would use the pictures and borders the booksellers showed them as ‘exemplars’ for their own work. Books of hours could thus be ‘customized’ for buyers. Books with more decorations, brighter colors (and thus more expensive paints), and especially more silver and gold, became highly valued symbols of wealth and social status.
Until the printing press came into common use, books of hours were made by hand by scribes, both in monasteries and in the secular marketplace. Not surprisingly, as soon as the use of the presses grew, the number of books of hours increased sharply and their costs fell dramatically. Books of hours became the best-selling books of their time. Most were written in Latin.
Books of hours from the Middle Ages contain many miniature works which compare quite favorably to the larger-dimension paintings by artists known as the masters of their time.
FAQ: What are the ‘Hours’?
Canonical Hours, also known as the Divine Hours, comprise the daily schedule for Catholic priests and members of some Catholic religious orders who are required to conduct carefully prescribed prayer services. The three major hours are Matins, Lauds and Vespers.
The Offices include prayers, readings from the scriptures and liturgical poetry, the Psalms and responsorial hymns. The specific content varies based on the annual religious calendar and is contained in books called ‘breviaries’ constructed for this purpose. The Offices are as follows:
Matins: The only nocturnal prayer in the Canon, it was historically recited around 3:00 a.m. Following Vatican II in the 1960’s, the calendar was revised to permit it to be combined with another prayer of the day.
Lauds: The first of the daytime Offices, celebrated at 5:00 a.m., followed by breakfast.
Prime: Recited after breakfast, and followed by a work period.
Terce: Celebrated at 10:00 and followed by a work period.
Sext: The midday (noon) Office, followed by lunch, meditation and rest
None: Celebrated at 3:00 p.m., followed by a work period.
Vespers: One of the major hours, recited from 5:00 to 6:00, followed by the evening meal, reading and meditation.
Compline: Recited at 8:00, followed by sleep.
( * Times used in this novel may vary somewhat from actual religious orders. Here, the fictional Order of St. Ambrose also combines Matins with Lauds. In addition, the minor hours of Prime, Terce, and None are celebrated privately by monks and priests rather than together in a group.)
FAQ: What is an illuminated book?
During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, illumination was the process of decorating books with colored pictures and designs using paints and inks. Originally, illumination referred only to the use of gold (leaf or crushed) and silver (crushed) to embellish and add luminosity. Over time it became more generally used to describe any colored decoration in an ancient book.
Because of their size–in books often no larger than modern hardcovers–illuminated pictures are often referred to as miniatures. Painted pictures and patterns were also used to decorate the margins of the books, to place borders around the text, and to create oversized and elaborate capital letters (versals), usually at the beginning of paragraphs. Finally, they were used to decorate spaces within the text, such as interspersing text with crosses or fleur de lys.
The open spaces in versals such as ‘D’s and ‘P’s were often ‘inhabited’ or ‘historiated’: An inhabited versal is one with a portrait in the open space; a historiated versal is one with a painted picture in the open space which tells a story.