Image taken from MS.29,
Book of Hours, use of
f.15r, Virgin and Child

Books of Hours
in the Wellesley College Library

The images contained in this website are from five manuscript Books of Hours in the Wellesley College Library's Special Collections. The manuscripts were made in France and the Low Countries and date from the early 15th century to the first quarter of the 16th century. Although the Wellesley manuscripts shown here are modest in comparison to the magnificent Books of Hours one can see in such great libraries as The Walters Art Gallery, the Pierpont Morgan or the Vatican Library, we chose to feature these because they are good examples of the wide variety of decorative styles of the book one could purchase, depending on the wealth, social standing, and literacy of the owner. Whether modest or ornate, every Book of Hours is unique, and each one provides a significant resource for studying the history of religious thought and art. One might well ask, "why have such old books survived the centuries so well?" The answer lies in their use.

Before the invention of printing from moveable type, around 1455, all books were written by a scribe on parchment or paper, though they were not always decorated. Thus, every manuscript is unique, and represents hours of labor in copying alone. For liturgical texts, additional work was often done by flourishers, illuminators and miniaturists, which varied according to the wishes of the buyer. During the late Middle Ages, the Book of Hours developed as a popular devotional text for the laity, who would recite the particular prayer for the hour of the day and time of year according to the ecclesiastical calendar. The accompanying illuminations and miniatures of saints, the Virgin Mary, and Christ were not merely decoration; they provided an opportunity for spiritual reflection and prayer for salvation. Such precious books were treasured by families, and bequeathed to subsequent generations. For this reason, more Books of Hours have survived to this day than any other manuscript books, including the Bible. The five Books of Hours in Special Collections were all the gifts of generous alumnae and friends. Students and faculty consult them frequently, but especially in conjunction with an Art History course taught by Professor Lilian Armstrong, The Beautiful Book. Thanks to the Internet, students in this course may view detailed images from these manuscripts from the privacy of their rooms at any time of the day or night. Nearly 600 years after they were made, digital technology provides the ultimate irony -- precious Books of Hours once meant for private reflection are now available for all to see.

I wish to acknowledge the excellent thesis of Wellesley College graduate Margaret Hadley1, whose careful codicological descriptions are used here.
Ruth Rogers, Special Collections Librarian, Wellesley College

For further reading about Books of Hours see:

  • De Hamel, Christopher. A History of Illuminated Manuscripts. London: Phaidon Press, 1994.
  • Harthan, John. The Book of Hours. New York: Thomas Crowell Co., 1977.
  • Wieck, Roger. The Book of Hours in Medieval Art and Life. London: Sotheby's, 1988

1Hadley, Margaret. Five Late Medieval Books of Hours at Wellesley: Issues of Style, Codicology, and Iconography. Wellesley College, 1997.


Special Collections | Wellesley College Library