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, almost certainly made for a Parisian owner.

The calendar confirms Parisian ownership — but complicates everything else. Most calendars from Parisian Books of Hours are composite, including a saint on every day. Our calendar, on the other hand, is not composite. The saints and religious feasts it includes mostly aligns with standard Parisian calendars, but it also contains feasts distinctive to both Notre Dame Cathedral and the royal chapel, Sainte-Chapelle. This is an atypical conjunction of church-specific holy days, one that we have not yet found replicated in any other calendar. Further muddying the waters, the calendar contains written liturgical grading — extra notation added to each feast day signaling the level of pomp to be used in that day’s church services. Typically, written grading is found in calendars designed to be used by priests, canons, monks, or nuns — not everyday laypeople. We have yet to identify a context in which written grading in a calendar that includes church-specific feasts for two separate churches makes complete sense. One possible explanation that we have explored is that the manuscript was owned by a beguine. Beguines were laywomen who dedicated themselves to God without taking formal orders, like a nun, and who lived in compounds rather than nunneries. Parisian beguines were formally overseen by the chaplains of Ste-Chapelle, which could explain the calendar’s fixation on the royal chapel. Similarly, a member of a “third order” (laypeople who dedicated themselves formally to God and lived in community), like a beguine, is one possible user of a mismatched liturgically graded calendar like the Hargrett Hours. The proposition is tempting, but ultimately unprovable.

The suffrages also confirm this Parisian provenance while complicating our understanding of its owner’s spiritual priorities. The manuscript includes suffrages to distinctive Parisian saints: Genevieve, Germain of Paris, and Fiacre. It also contains a remarkable set of female saints, including not only expected legendary virgin martyrs like Kathrine and Apollonia, but also the reformed prostitutes Mary Magdalene (common in Books of Hours) and Mary of Egypt (unusual), as well as the female members of the Holy Family, Jesus’s immediate kin: Anne, the mother of Mary (who receives two suffrages); Mary’s half-sisters Mary Jacobus and Mary Salome (highly unusual); and the Virgin Mary herself, who receives two French prayers after her Latin suffrage. The presence of both a pair of reformed prostitutes as well as Jesus’s female family members may suggest a female owner who was herself a mother or at least sexually active. Additionally, this emphasis on the Holy Family is echoed by the fact that the suffrages contain all twelve of the disciples, unusual but not unprecedented in Parisian Books of Hours. 

The presence of the Holy Family and all twelve disciples — both atypical features of Parisian Books of Hours — suggests an owner with significant biblical literacy. Such biblical literacy is also supported by the sequence of texts in the Hargrett Hours related to the Passion of Jesus: the auxiliary prayers, gospel extract, and the Long Hours of the Passion. While a fascination with Jesus’s sufferings during his Crucifixion is a staple of late medieval devotional culture, the students tasked with researching the use of gospel passages about the Passion in Books of Hours note that “ten of the fifteen full John 18-19 manuscripts [surveyed by them] have qualities that speak to a very high level of biblical literacy.” Such a deep interest in the Biblical texts about the Passion and people who surrounded Jesus suggests a learned male owner. We cannot rule out a married or once-married female owner, but she would have been a remarkable woman in fifteenth-century Paris. 

The texts of the Hargrett Hours point to a distinctive individual with some need for a liturgical calendar; a rich engagement with the Passion of Christ; an interest in Jesus’s close companions in life, including his female family members; and an investment in reformed sinners. This is indeed a remarkable concatenation of spiritual interests and needs. Equally distinctive 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.