Hargrett Hours: Questions of Provenance

Authored by Cynthia Turner Camp

Books of Hours could be highly individual volumes, and those marks of individuality can often be used to identify the person or families who owned the book. Although all Books of Hours contained core texts — like calendars, the Hours of the Virgin, and the Office of the Dead — they also frequently included prayers that held special meaning for their original owners. Owners would personalize their Books of Hours as they could afford it, including their coats-of-arms or commissioning portraits of themselves venerating Mary or their favorite saints (Reinburg 68-71). In special cases, they might order bespoke prayers written especially for themselves (see examples in Scott-Stokes). Female owners might have the scribe update the prayers’ language, transforming Latin nouns that referred to the speaker as male (such as peccator, “sinner”) into female nouns (peccatrix, the female form of “sinner”). Individuals might add significant events, such as the death of a family member, to the calendar. In France especially, families would use their Books of Hours as a place to record births, deaths, and marriages, much as early American families used their bibles for this purpose (Reinburg 62-67). And of course people would write their names in their books (Reinburg 54). Many Books of Hours can therefore be provenanced with greater or lesser accuracy through these personalized features.

The Hargrett Hours, unfortunately, includes no such features. (There is an eighteenth-century addition, including a name, on fols. 80r, but we have yet to decipher that addition fully.) In order to identify the place it was made and the kind of person for whom it was created, we must instead interpret its decoration and contents, especially the makeup of its calendar and the idiosyncratic prayers it contains. From its style of handwriting and rinceaux decoration, it is clear that the Hargrett Hours is a French Book of Hours from the mid-fifteenth century. It was almost certainly made for a Parisian owner; its suffrages include distinctive Parisian saints, and its calendar shares most feast days with standard Use of Paris calendars. However, the calendar also diverges in critical ways from those typical of Parisian Books of Hours created for lay owners. In particular, the calendar includes the feast of the Dedication of Sainte-Chapelle, a hint of some connection to the royal chapel. The Hargrett Hours’ intense focus on the Passion of Christ — in its auxiliary prayers, gospel extracts, and the Long Hours of the Passion — is similarly distinctive, as is its extensive catalogue of suffrages. Equally distinctive, this time unexpectedly so, is the conjunction of the book’s singular textual contents and its limited decoration. The original owner commissioned specific (and sometimes rare) prayers for their book, but they were not willing or able to pay for elaborate borders and miniatures, as many book owners did. Although we will never be able to name the individual who ordered this book, we can develop a robust profile of their spiritual priorities, and perhaps position them within a particular Parisian milieu.


Scott-Stokes, Charity. Women’s Books of Hours in Medieval England. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2006.

Reinburg, Virginia. French Books of Hours: Making an Archive of Prayer, c. 1400-1600. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012.