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Book of Hours, The 'Playfair Hours'

  • Object:


  • Place of origin:

    Rouen (made)
    France (made)

  • Date:

    ca. 1480s (made)

  • Materials and Techniques:

    Ink, pigments and gold on parchment. Leather binding over pasteboards.

  • Museum number:


  • Gallery location:

    On display in the Scottish Design Galleries, V&A Dundee

Books of hours were books of private devotion intended for the laity. This type of book appeared in the mid 13th century in Western Europe and continued to be popular until the 16th century. It took its name from the fact that it contained a composite text called the 'Little Hours of the Virgin', consisting of hymns, psalms, antiphons, etc. celebrating the glory of the Virgin. They were divided into seven 'hours', from Matins to Compline, meant to be said at different times of the day. A book of hours contained numerous other sections such as a calendar, passages from the Gospels, prayers to the Virgin, Christ, the Trinity and many saints, the Penitential Psalms, but also the Office of the Dead, meant as a daily memento mori.

This example dates from the late 15th century and was written and illuminated in Rouen (Normandy). The Use of the Hours of the Virgin and the Office of the Dead is that of Sarum, showing that it was intended for use by someone in or from the British Isles. The presence of Scottish saints in the calendar appended to the book indicates that the intended owner was Scottish. It was still in Scotland in the 19th century when it came into the ownership of the Playfair family, of Saint Andrews, hence the name it was given.

Physical description

Foliation: parchment. i-ii (16th-century parchment), iii-iv (19th-century parchment) + 203 + v (as ff.iii-iv), vi-vii (as ff.i-ii) ff.

Number of lines: 19 lines.

Language: Latin.

Script: lettre bâtarde.

Textual content:
ff. 1r-12v: Calendar, completely full, mostly of Sarum aspect.
ff. 13r-17v: Gospel pericopes (John 1:1-14; Luke 1:26-38; Matthew 2:1-12; Mark 16:1420).
ff. 18r-22r: Prayer to the Virgin.
ff. 22v-24v: Seven Spiritual Joys of the Virgin.
ff. 25r-26v: Prayers to the Virgin.
ff. 27r-31r: Seven Earthly Joys of the Virgin and prayers.
ff.31v-35v: Prayer to the Virgin with hymn.
ff. 37r-79v: Hours of the Virgin, Use of Sarum, with the Hours of the Cross appended. Suffrages.
ff. 80r-99v: Penitential Psalms, with Gradual Psalms, litany and prayers.
ff. 100r-124v: Office of the Dead, Use of Sarum.
ff. 125r-138v: Commendation of Souls (Psalms 118, 138 and prayers).
ff. 139r-144r: Psalms of the Passion.
ff. 144v: Suffrage to the sacrament.
ff. 145r-148v: Prayers for the Sacrament.
ff. 148v-151v: Prayers.
ff. 152r-165r: Psalter of St Jerome.
ff. 166r-167r: St Bernard’s Psalter.
ff. 167r-167v: Suffrage to St Francis.
ff. 168r-171v: Prayers.
ff. 172r-182v: Suffrages to the saints.
ff. 183r-v: Prayer to Christ.
ff. 184r-191v: Fifteen O’s of St Bridget.
ff. 192r-192v: Seven prayers of St Gregory.
ff. 193r-194v: Prayers.
ff. 194v-195v: Christ’s 7 last words.
ff. 196r-203v: Gospel according to St John.

Decoration: 24 miniatures in the calendar, one at the head of recto and the sign of the Zodiac on each verso. Full-page miniatures (ff. 36r, 80r, 100r, 169r), half-page (ff. 13r, 18r, 22v, 25r, 31v, 44r, 59v, 64r, 67r, 69v, 72r, 74v, 125r, 138v, 152r, 170v, 174v, 176r) and small miniatures (ff. 144v, 149r, 149v, 150r, 150v, 167r, 168r, 172r, 173v, 177v, 178v, 179v, 180v, 181r, 182r, 202r). All on grounds of brushed gold with naturalistic sprays of flowers or fruit. Borders with leaves, flowers, berries and acanthus on burnished gold.

(1) 1820s, England. Spine covered with calf and tooled in gold with horizontal bands of ornament.
(2) mid-16th-century, France. Calf over pasteboards, covers tooled in gold.

Place of Origin

Rouen (made)
France (made)


ca. 1480s (made)

Materials and Techniques

Ink, pigments and gold on parchment. Leather binding over pasteboards.


Length: 466 mm closed, Width: 299 mm closed, Depth: 40 mm closed

Object history note

I In the nineteenth century owned by ancestors of the Rev. Dr Patrick M. Playfair of St Andrews, who sold it in June 1918 on behalf of the Scottish Red Cross.
Donated in 1918 by Sir Otto Beit (1865-1930).
Former number assigned by the library: L.475-1918.

(1) Written and illuminated in Rouen in the 1480s, for a Scottish owner probably resident in France.
(2) On the front pastedown and f.i recto, a 1564 inscription refers to the owner as 'dame Charlote'.
(3) Heraldic arms, clumsily painted, on a shield within a laurel circle suspended on a blue rope with gold-tasselled ends (ff. ii verso). The arms may be post-16th century.
(4) Inscribed in an 18th-century French hand 'Lemaire 8.j d'.
(5) In England by the 1820s, as suggested by the binding.
(6) Collection of the Rev. Dr Playfair of St Andrews, said at the time of acquisition by the V&A to have been within the family since ca. 1835-1845. Sold by him in 1918 for the benefit of the Scottish Red Cross, on the confition that it become national property.
(7) Bought by Sir Otto John Beit (1865-1930) and presented tothe V&A in 1918.

Descriptive line

Manuscript, Book of Hours, Use of Sarum (the 'Playfair Hours'), Rouen, ca. 1480s.

Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)

Victoria and Albert Museum. Review of the principal acquisitions during the year 1918. London, 1920, pp. 30-31, with two plates.
p. 9, no. 47
McRoberts, Rev. D.Catalogue of Scottish medieval liturgical books and fragments. Glasgow, 1953.
Watson, R. The Playfair Hours. A late fifteenth century illuminated manuscript from Rouen. London, 1984.
part 2, pp. 315-316.
Randall, L. M.C.Medieval and Renaissance manuscripts in the Walters Art Gallery. vol. II, parts 1 and 2, France 1420-1540. Baltimore, 1992.
p. 156, no. 147
Alexander, J.J.G. Medieval illuminators and their methods of work. New Haven and London, 1992.
pp. 66-67
Watson, R. Illuminated manuscripts and their makers. An account based on the collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum. London, 2003.
vol. 1, pp. 322-329, cat. 56.
Watson, R. Western Illuminated Manuscripts.Victoria and Albert Museum. A catalogue of works in the National Art Library from the eleventh to the early twentieth century, with a complete account of the George Reid Collection. London, 2011.


Parchment; Leather; Ink; Pigments; Gold




Manuscripts; National Art Library; Medieval and renaissance; Books of Hours; Books

Production Type



National Art Library

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