Book Review: French Books of Hours: Making an Archive of Prayer, c. 1400-1600 (Virginia Reinburg)—By Jenny Bledsoe

Virginia Reinburg. French Books of Hours: Making an Archive of Prayer, c. 1400-1600. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012. 312 pages (HB). $103.00. ISBN: 9781107007215.

In her recent book French Books of Hours: Making an Archive of Prayer, c. 1400-1600, Virginia Reinburg aims to offer “a full account of the book of hours as a book – how it was acquired, how it was read to guide prayer and teach literacy, and what it meant to its owners as a personal possession” (i). While Reinburg limits her focus to manuscripts of French provenance, many of her conclusions about medieval and early modern French Books of Hours (or horae) can be applied to Books of Hours of other regions as well. Stressing the generic complexity of the Book of Hours, Reinburg illustrates the multiple ways in which medieval people used these texts, as devotional tools and guides at home or at mass, as primers for teaching their children to read, and as special gifts to friends or family members. The subtitle of the book – “making an archive of prayer” ­­– encapsulates the historical value of the Book of Hours as well as the novel purpose it served for medieval Christians. As the first relatively affordable way for medieval lay people to own Scripture, it provided the laity with enhanced access to a variety of ways to pray, supplying texts previously not readily available to those not in religious orders. Reinburg labels the Book of Hours as “an archive of prayer” in two senses: “the book of hours is an archive of the religious past for us, but it was also an archive of prayer for owners of books of hours themselves” (5). The author situates the bestselling prayer book within medieval social and religious history, and in particular within the “culture of intercession” prevalent in medieval and early modern France where “all exchanges and relationships were reciprocal” (4). Through her nuanced approach, Reinburg illustrates that the book existed in both an individual and collective setting, with the prayers derived from the collective experience of liturgy and the books often owned as a shared familial possession.

Reinburg builds on previous studies of Book of Hours in a more theoretical mode than many earlier works which focus on the illuminations in manuscripts, ownership of Horae, and individual deluxe manuscripts. Such studies include Roger Wieck’s art historical surveys Painted Prayers: The Book of Hours in Medieval and Renaissance Art and Time Sanctified: The Book of Hours in Medieval Art and Life, as well as more recent works on the nature of medieval devotion, including Sarah McNamer’s Affective Meditation and the Invention of Medieval Compassion and Jennifer Bryan’s Looking Inward: Devotional Reading and the Private Self in Late Medieval England.[1]

French Books of Hours features two parts: “A Social History of the Book of Hours” and “An Ethnography of Prayer.” The social history section includes three chapters, entitled “Culture and commerce,” “Owners and their books,” and “Prayer book and primer.” The ethnography half of the book is also divided into three chapters: “Words and rites,” “A fragment of religion,” and “Prayer to the Virgin Mary.”

Because the Book of Hours has not been studied exhaustively, Reinburg spends the first chapters of her book describing the organization, provenance, and production of Horae. This information can be found in previous studies such as Roger Wieck’s survey, Time Sanctified, produced in association with the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore, Maryland. Reinburg does, however, enhance her background narrative with numerous examples – both quotations and illustrations – from manuscripts she studied. Such examples provide depth and interest to the otherwise standard background information, which includes an account of the evolution of the production, contents, language, and ownership of Books of Hours in France from the late fourteenth to early seventeenth centuries. The author carefully highlights the evolving relationship between Latin and the vernacular during this period. Before 1300, “the type of language mixture common in France might be called diglossia, because of the hierarchical relations between Latin and the vernacular” (86). However, as French gained greater prominence, the society morphed into a multilingual one in which Latin and vernacular languages were used interchangeably, and thus it became appropriate and desirable to use French more frequently in Latin prayer books. Continuing the first part of the book – her social history of the Book of Hours – in the third chapter Reinburg introduces the reader to the multipurpose nature of such books, which were used as both a guide to prayer and a primer for literacy. As prayer books, Horae “recorded religious practice,” “provided a liturgical framework for practice,” and functioned as “a personal script for prayer” (109). With great familial and social significance, “in all but the most scholarly families … the book of instruction [for learning to read] was probably the book of hours” (101). Confronting a common thesis, Reinburg problematizes the frequent presentation of Books of Hours as tools primarily for individual, self-reflective devotion. This generalization is often the result of the brevity of general overviews of Books of Hours, such as Roger Wieck’s two studies: Time Sanctified and Painted Prayers. Reinburg’s book devotes itself to interpretation of the cultural context of the texts, and thus she presents the Book of Hours in a new light as a family possession which thus encompassed both collective and individual engagement.

In the second part of the book, Reinburg seeks to elucidate an ethnography of prayer. In the fourth and most innovative chapter, the author utilizes performance and ritual theory in order to describe the dual nature of prayer as speech and as rite. She identifies and describes three primary types of prayer found in Horae: colloquy-style prayer, contract-style prayer, and the charm. Incorporating theoretical studies of speech, performance, and rhetoric, Reinburg draws on Mikhail Bakhtin to claim that speech is inherently dialogic in order to highlight the conversational aspect of many prayers in Books of Hours. Reinburg defines colloquy-style prayer as conversational, although “relatively formal”; this type of prayer includes “an invocation, followed by a request for assistance” (149). Second, contract-style prayer “has a legal inflection, and the notion of mutual obligation between the devotee and God or a saint,” and reflects seigneurialism in late medieval and early modern society (154-55). Finally, Reinburg defines the charm as a prayer containing primarily liturgical language, often including repetition and rhythm; charms often combined gesture with speech, drawing out the ritual dimension of prayer (160-61). Reinburg’s observations are significant given that many previous studies focus on the art historical analysis of Books of Hours or instead on the analysis of one or only a few manuscripts, as mentioned above. Alternatively, Reinburg analyzes the texts of numerous Horae in a systematic way in order to provide readers with a window into the medieval usage of the books and their significance to the evolution of medieval religious practices. Reinburg further highlights the multivocality and dialogic nature of prayer by presenting and analyzing textual examples from prayers in chapters five and six.

The book’s strengths lie in the author’s familiarity with numerous manuscripts and extensive reference to a number of different theoretical schemes. Reinburg employs classic religious studies texts; ethnographic studies of prayer and religious language; and performance, speech-act, and ritual theory to provide a profound study of the devotional, social, and ritual meaning of Horae. While the thirty-nine illustrations do not appear in color, they are well reproduced and well-chosen, illustrating common features found in many Books of Hours. One of the book’s weaknesses originates from the seeming necessity to start from the beginning in a study of Books of Hours. While the Book of Hours is widely known as a medieval bestseller, many scholarly studies do not analyze the book in a multi-layered manner as Reinburg does, with the typical study limiting itself to rather basic descriptions of the illustrations, contents, and provenance without attention to the book’s nuanced social and devotional significance. As Reinburg notes, previous authors have often referred to medieval ownership of Horae as conspicuous consumption, ignoring the significance of the texts in devotional and familial realms. While Reinburg is clearly familiar with earlier studies and their faults, she also does not take for granted that her audience possesses basic knowledge about Books of Hours, and thus spends a great deal of space outlining the history of ownership and production, material which has been addressed before. The inclusion of numerous examples and quotations from individual manuscripts can distract from the key arguments of the book, but overall they are welcome illustrations of common features. In all, Reinburg treats the Book of Hours in an innovative light, illustrating the rich variety of these medieval bestsellers and showing the many ways medieval and early modern people read these books, the multivocality of their prayer, the interaction between collective and individual engagement with the texts, and the multiple practical usages of the books for both devotion and literacy. Given its wide-ranging conclusions about the evolving nature of prayer, this book will be useful to medieval and early modern scholars in a number of fields, including religion, literature, art history, and history. Reinburg’s book should prove accessible to advanced undergraduates and useful to those broadly interested in the history of spirituality, emotion, and prayer, especially as regards the emergence of individual devotion.


Jenny C. Bledsoe earned her bachelor’s degree in English Literature and Religious Studies from the University of Tennessee and her master’s degree in Religion, Literature, and Culture from Harvard Divinity School. She is currently completing a PhD in English at Emory University, with a specialization in high to late medieval religious literature and a particular interest in the didactic goals, pastoral concerns, and models of holiness inherent in hagiography and devotional literature. Contact Jenny at jcbleds@emory.edu or through her website.


[1] Roger S. Wieck, Painted Prayers: The Book of Hours in Medieval and Renaissance Art (New York: George Braziller, in association with the Pierpont Morgan Library, 1997); Wieck, Time Sanctified: The Book of Hours in Medieval Art and Life (New York: George Braziller in association with the Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore, 1988); Sarah McNamer, Affective Meditation and the Invention of Medieval Compassion (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010); and Jennifer Bryan, Looking Inward: Devotional Reading and the Private Self in Late Medieval England (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007).

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