Introduction

In the Middle Ages, if you had enough money to buy only one book, you would have bought a Book of Hours, a small volume containing the Christian prayers lay people recited at various times of the day. The popularity of Books of Hours marked the advent of two significant social changes: the growth of literacy, and the personalization of religious practice. The ability to read allowed people to practice their religion in their homes, without the constant intermediation of the clergy. Such use established these books as intimate devotional tools.

Sometimes called the medieval "bestseller", Books of Hours could range widely in quality and beauty depending on what the owner could afford. Most of them contained painted pictures, initials, and border decorations (called "illumination") to aid, guide, and entertain the reader of the daily prayers. The illuminations informed the text, encouraging rumination upon the religious images and themes.

Unlike the luxurious manuscripts usually displayed in museums, the Books of Hours exhibited here are more typical of what the average medieval book-owner might have possessed. Some of the most ornate manuscripts seem relatively untouched, as if they were acquired for collection or display. In contrast, Bryn Mawr's books show significant marks of personalization and deep spiritual interaction. In the smudges from the thumbs that turned the pages, in the scribbles in the margins, in addition of prayers to saints who were significant to the individual owner, there are clear signs that these were the books of people who experienced the act of reading them intensely and spiritually.