Book of Hours

illustrated manuscript

The Commendation of Souls in Book of Hours  c. 1450 (Use of Sarum), Southern Netherlands, ink, pigment and gold on parchment, CLIFFORD COLLECTION (MANUSCRIPTS)

Books of Hours, prayer books for private devotion, were very popular in Europe from the thirteenth century. This example was no doubt made for an English patron, possibly in Bruges or Ghent, then centres of illuminated manuscript production. This full-page miniature shows the raising of the dead to Heaven, illustrating the text of a sequence of psalms together known as the Commendation of Souls. 

Chertsey Cartulary

open manuscript

Chertsey cartulary  c. 1313–1345 with earlier flyleaves, Surrey, England, ink and pigment on parchment, CLIFFORD COLLECTION (MANUSCRIPTS)

This important cartulary, a compendium of historical and business records, is one of five to survive from the English Benedictine abbey at Chertsey in Surrey. The abbey was dissolved by Henry VIII in 1537 but the volume dates from the abbey’s prime under Abbot John of Rutherwick. It is the abbey’s record of its history, including copies of documents and charters. Some earlier abbey accounts—the only extant examples—were used in the original binding.


illustration of a man and women

Bathsheba and King David in Book of Hours  c. 1400, Northern France, ink, pigment and gold on parchment, CLIFFORD COLLECTION (MANUSCRIPTS)

French Books of Hours often used the biblical story of Bathsheba—wife of King David and mother of Solomon—to accompany a sequence of psalms. David killed Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah, so he could marry her. Bathsheba is often depicted nude and as a temptress. In this Book of Hours, someone has taken their wrath out on Bathsheba, likely with a wet finger, and dissolved the paint.


printed manuscript

Leaf from the Gutenberg Bible, Book of Leviticus, Mainz: Johannes Gutenberg, c. 1453–1455, ink and pigment on paper, OVERSEAS RARE BOOKS COLLECTION

The printing of the Gutenberg Bible was a pivotal moment in the history of the book. It was the first major book printed with moveable type in Europe. About 180 Gutenberg Bibles were printed, on both vellum and paper, yet only around 48 survive, 23 complete. 

Historiated initial

colourful illustration of two men and a horse

Historiated initial of St Martin and the beggar  between 1450 and 1475, Northern Italy (possibly Savoy), ink, pigment and gold on parchment, REX NAN KIVELL COLLECTION (PICTURES)

This illumination—a historiated initial, a scene within a letter—was cut from a large antiphonal, a volume used by medieval and Renaissance choirs.  It shows the fourth-century St Martin of Tours, who shared his cloak with a beggar. The image appears within a letter ‘O’.

Oldest manuscript

detail of and old manuscript

Fragment of a response from a breviary  10th century, England, ink on parchment, REX NAN KIVELL COLLECTION (MANUSCRIPTS)

Over 1,000 years old, this is the oldest manuscript in the Library’s collection. Of English origin, the writing is Caroline minuscule, a rounded script widely used throughout Europe for centuries and favoured for its legibility. Some of these letters, however, are formed in ways more characteristic of earlier British manuscripts.

Legal Document

16th century script

Exemplification of a recovery relating to property in Winterborne, Forde, Laverstock and Stratford  30 June 1596, Westminster, England, ink on parchment, wax, REX NAN KIVELL COLLECTION (MANUSCRIPTS)

In sixteenth-century England, legal documents could be very impressive. Written on parchment, with a wax seal, this deed lays out what was resolved before the Chief Justice of the Court of Common Pleas. Elizabeth was on the throne at the time.

Choirbook fragment

old choirbook

Fragment of a choirbook, known as ‘H6’, possibly used in King Henry VI’s chapel  c. 1430, England, ink and pigment on parchment, REX NAN KIVELL COLLECTION (MANUSCRIPTS)

This is one of a few surviving fragments of a manuscript choirbook believed to have been used in a royal chapel in King Henry VI of England’s reign (1422–1461). Several other fragments have been found in the bindings of books now held in British libraries. Nicholas Spierinck, a Cambridge bookbinder of the early sixteenth century, possibly acquired the choirbook, and used it as binding material.


illustration of jesus and mary

ALBRECHT DÜRER (artist, 1471–1528), BENEDICTUS CHELIDONIUS (author, 1480–1521), Little Passion (Passio Christi), Nuremberg: Albrecht Dürer, 1511, woodcut and letterpress, CLIFFORD COLLECTION (OVERSEAS RARE BOOKS)

This book—which tells of the life and suffering of Christ—was printed within a few years of the Rothschild Prayer Book. Albrecht Dürer is commonly regarded as the most important artist of the Northern Renaissance. His specialty was printmaking, particularly woodcuts, and he was ambitious and innovative in his work.