The Murthly Hours is an early example of the Book of Hours, a new kind of prayer book for the laity that made its appearance in France, England and the Low Countries in the 13th century. At this time books of hours were written for wealthy laypeople, more often than not women, as in the case of the Murthly Hours. In the 13th century such books were still a novelty and a comparative rarity, and examples show a great variety in content and decoration. By the later 15th century they were manufactured in vast quantities, particularly in northern France and the Low Countries and, although still expensive, must have been owned by a very large proportion of the better-off members of the laity.
Book of Hours
The contents of books of hours vary but the principal devotions, such as the Hours of the Virgin and the Office of the Dead, were drawn from the liturgy of the monasteries. The 'hours' in question are the night and day hours of the monastic Divine Office (Matins, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers and Compline).
Literacy of the laity
The emergence of the Book of Hours is a symptom of the growing importance of the laity in religious life in the later Middle Ages and of a new emphasis on private devotion. It also provides important evidence for the expansion of secular literacy. The illumination of books of hours often combined the use of pictures as aids to devotion with attractive decoration designed to appeal to their wealthy owners.
Created in Paris
The Murthly Hours consists of two distinct sections: 23 full-page miniatures at the beginning of the manuscript and the devotional texts of the Book of Hours. The Book of Hours section was probably written and illuminated in Paris in the 1280s. It contains a Calendar, the Hours of the Virgin, the Hours of the Holy Spirit, the Penitential Psalms, a Litany of the Saints, the Gradual Psalms and the Office of the Dead. The textual contents show that the manuscript was written for the use of a woman who lived in England, perhaps somewhere in the region of Worcester. She is shown reading her Book of Hours in the initial to the Gradual Psalms on folio 149v. The illumination, which consists of very fine historiated initials introducing the principal texts and richly decorative borders, can be assigned to Parisian illuminators of the 'Cholet Group'. Animals, birds, human-headed dragons or scenes of hunting dominate the lively, amusing and sometimes enigmatic border decoration throughout the Book of Hours.
The 23 full-page miniatures (fols 1r - 23r) were painted by three English artists at about the same time, perhaps in two stages, some time between the 1260s and the 1280s. They represent scenes from Genesis, the Infancy of Christ and the Passion. Originally all the miniatures seem to have been identified for their secular viewers by short captions in French. They are survivors from a much more extensive set of miniatures and were probably originally painted to form part of another manuscript, although they were soon combined with the Book of Hours.
Gaelic charms and other additions
A number of additions were made by or for some of the early owners. The earliest is probably a prayer in French to the Virgin (fol.(ii)v). Other additions show that the manuscript was brought to Scotland, probably in the 14th century and certainly by the 15th century, when obituary notices were written into the Calendar (fol.25v and fol.29v) for Sir John Stuart (Stewart), Lord of Lorne, who died in 1421, and his wife Isabella, Lady of Lorne, who died in 1439. The most interesting and unusual additions made in Scotland are the texts in Gaelic on fol.(i)v and fol.(ii)v. These are very probably the second oldest texts in Gaelic demonstrably written in Scotland and include medical charms.
The manuscript descended from the Stewarts of Lorne to the Stewarts of Grandtully, owners of the lands of Murthly in Perthshire, from which it takes its name. It remained at Murthly until its sale, in 1871, to the antiquarian James Thomson Gibson Craig (1799-1886). On his death, it was again sold, being bought on behalf of John Patrick Crichton-Stuart, third Marquess of Bute (1847-1900), and remained in the Bute family until it was sold to the National Library of Scotland in 1986 following a successful public appeal for funds to make the purchase possible.
The National Library of Scotland was able to acquire the Murthly Hours with the generous assistance of the National Heritage Memorial Fund, the National Art Collections Fund, Friends of the National Libraries, and private and institutional benefactors.
We recommend John Higgitt's book The Murthly Hours: Devotion, Literacy and Luxury in Paris, England and the Gaelic West. It includes the additions, translations and studies of the Gaelic texts by Ronald Black, and presents a full study of:
- the texts and additions
- the miniatures and the illuminations
- the means by which the manuscript reached the west of Scotland.
You will find out more about this book on The Study page.