2012 December Book of Hours

The Salisbury Primer (1514)

Worth’s edition of an early sixteenth-century Book of Hours, the Hore beatissime virginis Marie ad legitimum Sarisburiensis ecclesie ritum (Paris and London, 1514), was inherited by him from his father, John Worth (1648-1688), Dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin. It is one of a very small number of Roman Catholic devotional works in the Worth Library, all previously owned by John Worth.


Worth’s copy was bound in the late seventeenth century with a Latin Psalter, printed in 1516 and sold by the same printer, Franz Birckman. It was natural to combine the two works, not only because they were products of the same shop, but also because Books of Hours and Psalters had much in common. Indeed many early manuscript Books of Hours may be found in Psalters. The colophon of Worth’s copy states that it was printed on 12 July 1514 at Paris for Franz Birckman and sold at his shop in St Paul’s Churchyard in London. Birckman, a native of Cologne, was a major importer of foreign texts into London in the early sixteenth-century. With connections in Paris, Antwerp, Cologne and London, he was well placed to do this, and, as Christianson (1999) notes, such connections made Birckman a key figure in the pricing of imported books, given his knowledge of their value in markets beyond England. After his death c 1530, his son (also called Franz) and his nephew John, continued to import books into England.

Worth’s copy was one of twelve editions of Books of Hours produced in this way for the English market by Birckman, with two editions in 1514 alone, true testimony to the enduring popularity of Books of Hours for all sections of society. While popular from their beginnings in the first half of the thirteenth century, they had, until the advent of print, been the preserve of the wealthy, their ownership often regarded as a status symbol, the books themselves passed on from one generation to the next as an object of family record. The advent of print changed all that. Birckman was producing this book during the high point of demand for Books of Hours, the period 1480 to 1520 when they were early modern best-sellers. At this time, depending on the complexity of the text, a basic Book of Hours might be bought in Paris for a few sous, or in London for 3-4 pence. Eamon Duffy (2006) records that before 1530 there were c 120 separate editions of Books of Hours printed for the English market alone.

Virginia Reinburg (2012), in her study of French Books of Hours during the period 1400 to 1600, points to the varied uses of such books. They were a prayer book for the laity, bridging church liturgy and familial prayer; they might act as a primer for literacy; they could provide inspiration for an individual’s intercessory prayer. Certain liturgical offices became more popular than others: Worth’s copy, with its emphasis on the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Passion and the office of the dead, is entirely characteristic of the most popular early sixteenth publications emanating from Paris at that time. The popularity of the Little Office is hardly surprising, given Mary’s role as an intercessor to her Son, and many of the accompanying ‘Suffragia’ were intercessory prayers, either to Christ, Mary or individual saints. Many of the latter were depicted in small woodcuts preceding prayers to them. We see here an image of Michael the Archangel, doing battle with the devil, an image very popular in the later Middle Ages.


Apart from such small woodcuts, the text is heavily illustrated throughout, with no less than 21 main woodcuts in all and only two of these being re-used: the crucifixion and the title-page of Mary in glory. Such images, particularly the woodcuts preceding each ‘Hour’, were vitally important, providing as they did an aide memoire to the biblical text, which could serve as the basis for meditation. As Reinburg (2012) notes, their placement at the start of each Hour also helped the reader find his or her way around the book, a necessary guide since Books of Hours were divided into a plethora of sections. Worth’s copy is divided into the following parts, most being preceded by a woodcut illustration. His text begins with a calendar of saints’ days (essential for the reader in order to plot their prayer timetable). This was followed by a ‘canon for letynge of blode’, with an image of the Zodiac man. The accompanying text made it plain that ‘Thys present table showete dayly in what sygne and degree of the zodiake that the mone ys in which synes haue respecte to xii parties of mannyes bodye and answeringe to the xii sygnes of the forseyed zodiake as more playenly apperethe in tis ymage here after folowynge.’


The inclusion of this text might at first seem strange but it is a fairly common device in late medieval and early modern European Books of Hours – readily seen in one of the most famous manuscript versions of them all, the early fifteenth-century Très riches heures du Duc de Berry. Like Jean, Duc de Berry’s magnificent manuscript, Worth’s far simpler printed text follows on with readings from the Gospels, in Worth’s case, the nativity story. This, in turn is followed by accounts of the Passion and prayers. Then begins the well-known cycle of the Virgin, with each ‘Hour’ preceded by a woodcut: Matins begins with the annunciation, Mary busy reading a Book of Hours as the Angel Gabriel appears. The accompanying opening words of the text, set the scene, not only for the meditation on the annunciation, but also for the entire prayer endeavour in a Book of Hours: ‘Lord, open my lips, and my mouth shall proclaim your praise. God, come to my assistance’.


Following on from Matins, Lauds is preceded by a depiction of the visitation of Mary to her cousin Elizabeth; Prime is illustrated by the nativity scene, while Terce is depicted by the angels appearing to the shepherds; Sext shows the Magi adoring Jesus, Nones the coronation of the Virgin, Vespers the flight into Egypt and Compline, the presentation in the Temple. A large section on prayers to the Virgin follows, including a depiction of the rosary. These, in turn, lead to prayers to individual saints, such as Brigit and Gregory. Closely connected with all is the theme of the Passion – a woodcut of the crucifixion is used not only near the start of the work but also during the Virgin’s Hours and during a section on the Passion.

The proliferation of Books of Hours which the introduction of print encouraged, points to an interiorization of devotion, a moving away from the communal medieval norms of the Roman Catholic Church to a more personal style of worship. Eamon Duffy (2006) reminds us that though the emphasis was on the personal, this did not necessarily mean a rejection of the basic liturgies of the Roman Church, liturgies on which the Books of Hours were founded. He has rightly pointed to the fact that Books of Hours were not only read in private but also in communal settings, and that many prayers were standard throughout the numerous editions flooding Europe in the early sixteenth century. However, while this is true, it should also be remembered that purchasers of Books of Hours often chose to construct their own versions from the various sections on offer, adding in some prayers and leaving others out. This was not the only way a Book of Hours became an intensely personal book: many owners wrote on their copies. It is these personal annotations which make the Books of Hours so fascinating and  Worth’s copy is no exception to this: while it does not bear any annotations by Edward Worth himself, and only his father’s signature, it clearly bears much earlier annotations in two hands.


It is clear that one of these early readers was a supporter of the Henrician reformation: in the above illustration the word ‘pope’ is studiously deleted. There is also one classic deletion in Worth’s copy which points to a re-imagining of the Book of Hours during the Henrician reformation: both the image and prayer to St Thomas Becket has been crossed out. The career of Thomas Becket (1120?-1170), Henry II’s troublesome archbishop of Canterbury, was not something which Henry VIII wished to be reminded of, given his own troublesome relations with the Roman Catholic hierarchy. In November 1538 a royal proclamation banning controversial marginalia had specifically singled out Thomas Becket as someone who should no longer be included in liturgical works. This was among the first steps taken anywhere to try and control the context of the Books of Hours, since prior to the 1530s such texts were not deemed as requiring censorship in any form. In catholic circles, it was only after the Council of Trent that Rome decided to intervene to established their own ‘revised standard version’. By that time, in England, such books had become markers for recusancy, their printing numbers consequently falling off. Exactly why John Worth, a Church of Ireland Dean of St Patrick’s cathedral in Dublin and a son of Edward Worth, (d. 1669), a Church of Ireland Bishop of Killaloe, collected this text is unknown.



Christianson, C. Paul. (1999) ‘The Rise of the London Book Trade’, in Hellinga, Lotte and Trapp, J. P. (eds), The Cambridge History of the Book in Britain, vol.III.1400-1557 (Cambridge), pp. 128-147.

Duffy, Eamon (2006), Marking the Hours.English People and their Prayers,1240-1570 (Yale).

Erler, Mary C. (1999), ‘Devotional Literature’, in Hellinga, Lotte and Trapp, J. P. (eds), The Cambridge History of the Book in Britain, vol.III.1400-1557 (Cambridge), pp.495-525.

Hoskins, Edgar (1901) Horae beatae Mariae virginis :or, Sarum and York Primers, with kindred books, and Primers of the reformed Roman use, together with an introduction (London).

Reinburg, Virginia (2012), French Books of Hours.Making an Archive of Prayer,c.1400-1600 (Cambridge).


Text: Dr Elizabethanne Boran, Librarian of the Edward Worth Library.

Scroll to Top