This digital collection features Books of Hours in both manuscript and printed form, spanning several centuries from Rare Books and Special Collections at the McGill Library.

Beginning in the 13th century, Books of Hours were the most popular prayer books intended for the laity. Bestsellers until the 16th century, these books of private devotion developed in a variety of ways with both texts and illustrations reflecting regional differences in liturgical practices, languages and artistic styles. People learned to read with Books of Hours. For this reason, they were called primers in English and were often given as wedding presents.

Books of Hours first appeared in Quebec while it was still New France. They were read by the laity and also by the Jesuits themselves, as described in the Relations des jésuites of 1653. The Hospitalières, the nursing sisters of Quebec, frequently requested them from their benefactors in France for the salvation of the patients’ souls. Unfortunately, none of these copies seem to have survived.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, these devotional books found a new vocation, becoming collectibles due to the renewed interest in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance during the Romantic era. Whether complete or fragmentary, Books of Hours now arrived in Quebec through inheritance or purchases in Europe.

A number of Books of Hours were acquired by public institutions in Quebec through private donations as well as under a purchasing policy that encouraged public education. Thus, in the 1920s and 1930s, Gerhard R. Lomer, one of McGill University’s first librarians, launched an innovative project to create a small museum of the book inside the library open to the general public, to present a brief history of manuscript and printed books as well as the iconography through the centuries.

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Credits: Montreal Museum of Fine Arts / Musée de beaux-arts de Montréal for permissions to use texts prepared by Brenda Dunn-Lardeau et Richard Virr for the 2018 exhibition: Resplendent Illuminations: Books of Hours from the 13th to the 16th Century in Quebec Collections / Resplendissantes enluminures : Livres d’Heures du XIIIe au XVIe siècle dans les collections du Québec.