A book of hours is a prayer book containing those prayers that a good Christian should say at the right hours of the day, and on the right days of the year, in the late Middle Ages. These prayers were to be said at seven or eight "hours" a day (Psalm 119:164), and they consisted of psalms with antiphons, readings with responsorials, hymns and praises.
This is just as boring as it sounds, and it appears that the booksellers of the day agreed, because the books are often filled with illustrations. There are often large images to introduce each section of the book, typically scenes from Jesus' birth, life and death, but even more intriguingly there is a myriad of puzzling, little vignettes in the borders of the books.
Towards the end of the 1400's the printed books of hours were introduced, and these where even more filled with an abundance of little woodcuts. The pictures in the borders could be flowers, birds, fabulous animals (picture further down to the left) or just nonfigurative ornaments. Other times, and this was particularly true for the printed books, the books contained long cycles of a Christian/religious nature: Biblia Pauperum, The Revelation of St. John, The Life of Tobit, The Life of Jesus, The prodigal son, The trials of Job, Christian virtues (pictures to the left and right), the 15 signs of the Apocalypse, sibyls, The Destruction of Jerusalem, The Triumph of Caesar, or the subject of this section: Dances of death.
One thing that holds true for all these border illustrations is that the relationship between them and the contents of the books (i.e. the prayers) was very — shall we say — marginal. Just like the little drawings in the borders of Mad Magazine, these drawings live their own separate lives.
Take for instance the picture in the top, left corner: Death attacks a pope with a large dart. But is this supposed to be a specific person, or a pope in general? If so, why only the pope? If this is intended to be a dance of death, then why aren't there more images in this cycle? It's not unusual to show Death attacking a group of persons from all walks of society, but in this case there's only the pope and the cardinal together with three nondescript servants. Why isn't there an emperor, and why are there so many skulls in the background? Does the action take place in an ossuary?
Looking at the text doesn't help. This concrete example was taken from the calendar-section (the month of November), but the same woodcut has been used in many other places. Especially, of course, to introduce The Office of the Dead.
At other times it's an open question if you really want to know what's going on:
In spite of the invention of the moveable type, books were still outrageously expensive. They were not "popular" in the sense that everybody owned a copy, but on the other hand, the number printed was great, and to the extent that people even had a book this would typically be a book of hours (although it might not have been as lavishly decorated as the samples we are studying here).
In the book Understanding Popular Culture: Europe from the Middle Ages to the Nineteenth Century we can read some astonishing numbers:
In 1528, bookseller Loys Roger had 98,529 copies of livres d'heures in his shop out of a total of 101,860 books;
in 1545 his colleague Guillaume Godard possessed a stock of 263,696 books of which 148,717 were liturgical works.
So the livre d'heures represents the basic market for publishing in the 16th century,
because it attracted at the same time the notables and the "popular" readers,
for whom it was the most frequent and often the only purchase.
(Chapter IX, Popular Cultural Uses in Early Modern France, by Roger Chartier, page 240. See external link.)
These impressive figures are backed up by the Bibliothèque nationale de France: The information about Guillaume Godard's voluminous stock of nearly 150,000 books of hours comes from an inventory taken in connection with the death of his wife: »En 1545, d'après l'inventaire dressé à la mort de sa femme Geneviève Baudry, Guillaume Godard possède plus de 263 000 volumes, dont environ 150 000 livres d'heures«.
The great number of books in store among these two relatively "small players" must be held up against the great number of editions. In Paris alone during the first 120 years, 1,775 different editions of books of hours were published, and their great success was partly due to these small illustrations in the margins.
When Books of Hours came to be printed, in the late fifteenth and the sixteenth centuries, their pictures, made accessible to an even wider market, insured their meteoric success.
(Between 1480 and 1600 there were some 1,775 different Horae editions printed.)
This success was initially due in part to the cycles of small border vignettes with which the printers of Books of Hours were able to embellish their products. This was a selling point, and they knew it; printers often boasted about their pictures on their title pages.
(Roger S. Wieck, Painted Prayers, The Book of Hours in Medieval and Renaissance Art, 1997, page 22 bottom)
As can be seen, the subject is enormous. In this section, the emphasis will lie with the Parisian printers in a small period which we might loosely define as "the year 1495 and a few decades forward."
We will in particular look at publishers like Simon Vostre, Philippe Pigouchet, Nicolas Higman, Guillaume Godard, Thielman Kerver and Gilles and Germain Hardouyn, but will avoid the thorny questions of who was working for whom, who were competing with whom, and who borrowed the woodcuts from whom (or for that matter: whether they were even woodcuts, or were cut in metal).
And naturally we will concentrate on that small fraction of the material that pertains to dances of death and The Office of the Dead.
The first section in this series is about The Office of the Dead.
A good place to start studying books of hours is The Hours of Catherine of Cleves. Not only does this book probably have more eye-candy per square inch than any other book in the Universe, but you can zoom in on the pictures, or click "About this page" to get an explanation for the motives.
A site that specialises in weird illustrations in Medieval books: discarded image|discarding images.