Seeking Intercession: Books of Hours and A Prayer to St Margaret of Antioch


Books of Hours, or Horae, couple image and text and provide a window into the devotional life of the laity, which is something that is frequently difficult to grasp. Prayers to the saints are especially telling of the devotional desires of the laity, as such prayers illustrate that medieval Christians both requested from saints intercession before God and imitated their holy deeds. Roger Wieck, an art historian who has written extensively about Books of Hours, emphasizes the way in which Horae illustrate the evolution of Christian devotional life in the later medieval period: “As artifacts of a devotion based upon reading by the laity, they betoken a movement … towards a mode of religious experience that expressed itself, at least in part, in the personal, private actions and internalized mentality of believer” (Wieck, TS, 38).

 An Introduction to Books of Hours

Mimicking the divine office of the clergy, Books of Hours, or Horae, were small prayer books used by wealthy lay people. Containing a variety of Latin prayers, Horae were more frequently produced than any other book, including the Bible, in the late Middle Ages (Wieck, TS, 27). “Picturing Prayer,” an online exhibition of Books of Hours in Harvard University’s Houghton Library, provides additional information about Books of Hours as well as electronic facsimiles of a number of Horae manuscripts.

The contents vary, but a typical Book of Hours contains the following texts (Wieck, TS, 27-28):

1. A calendar of feast days

2. Four Gospel lessons

3. The Hours of the Virgin

4. The Hours of the Cross and the Hours of the Holy Spirit

5. Two prayers to the Virgin: “Obsecro te” and “O intemerata

6. The Penitential Psalms and Litany

7. The Office of the Dead

8. Numerous suffrages, which are short prayers to the saints includes a standard 16th-century text of an early printed Book of Hours.

 Saints in Books of Hours

As outlined above, prayers to the saints, or suffrages, usually appear as one of the last sections in a Book of Hours. The accompanying illustrations are one of the most common places for book owners to be represented – perhaps with their favorite (or patron) saint – in their Horae. A typical suffrage to a saint includes four parts: an antiphon, a versicle, a response, and an oratio (Wieck, PP, 109). The number and type of saints included in a Book of Hours varied according to regional popularity and the owner’s preferences. According to Roger Wieck, saints “always retained more of their humanity and thus their approachability” than Christ or the Virgin, and as a result medieval people appealed to them for intercession between themselves and God (Wieck, PP, 109). Suffrages “are usually arranged in an order reflecting the celestial hierarchy of heaven”: God, the Virgin, Michael the archangel, John the Baptist, the apostles, male martyrs, confessors, female virgin martyrs, and then widows (Wieck, TS, 111). Thus, prayers to the virgin martyr St Margaret often appear near the very end of a Book of Hours.

 Harvard, Houghton Library, Ms Lat 160

In iconography, St Margaret is represented most commonly as emerging from the dragon holding a cross or making the sign of the cross with her hands. Additionally, many of the illuminations in Books of Hours show golden rays of light or even a dove descending from an upper corner, symbolizing the moment at which St Margaret is visited by an angel.The sample suffrage to St Margaret featured here appears in Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University, Houghton Library, Ms Lat 160, fols 162v-163r. A complete facsimile of the manuscript is now available online. The Book of Hours manuscript is written in a Gothic textualis script, dates to 1500-10, was likely produced in Paris or Rouen, and has a liturgical use of Paris.

Houghton Library, MS Lat 160, fol. 162v-163r, photo taken by author

Transcription (underlined letters indicate an expansion of an abbreviation)

De sancta


reta. A(ntiphon).



Christi mar-

gareta vir-

ginum ge-                                        [begin fol. 163r]

ma preciosissima virtute supernorum

clara audi preces nostras coram te

fusas fac nos iungi eternali choro

precibus ergo tuis adesto calamitati-

bus nostris quibus undique premi-

mur. V(ersicle). Ora pro nobis beata

margareta. R(esponse). Ut digni efficia-

mur promissionibus Christi. Oremus.

(Oratio.) Deus qui beatam mar-

garetam virginem

tuam ad celos per martirii

palmam pervenire fecisti con-

cede quesumus ut eius exem-

pla sectantes ad te pervenire

mereamur. Per Christum do-

minum nostrum. Amen.


Concerning St Margaret.

Antiphon: You, the glorious virgin of Christ, hear our prayers in your presence, as the most precious jewel, a pearl/Margaret, with the gleaming strength of the heavenly. Make us to be joined together with you in his presence in an eternal chorus with your prayers, thus be near (to us) in our misfortunes with which we are pressed on every side.

Versicle: Pray for us, blessed Margaret.

Response: As we are worthy to be made by the promises of Christ.

Oratio: God, who made your blessed virgin Margaret come to heaven through the palm frond of martyrdom, grant to us what we seek as by following her examples we earn the right to approach you. Through our lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

In this prayer to St Margaret, the sources for the text derive primarily from liturgical celebrations of the saint or from the Hours of the Virgin. The antiphon features the phrase “gemma pretiosissima,” which appears in 2 Sam 12.30, 1 Chr 20.2, and 2 Chr 9.9-10. St Margaret is also called a “virgo gloriosa” in several hymns for her feast, including Analecta Hymnica, v.15, nr.200, p.220; v.29, nr.221, p.111; v.33, nr.151, p.132; and v.33, nr.154, p. 136. “Iungitur choro caelesti” appears in a hymn for St Margaret for use at Vespers, found in Analecta Hymnica, v.43, nr.387, p.232. And, in his Golden Legend vita, Jacobus de Voragine calls St Margaret a “pretiosa gemma” (Jacobus de Voragine, 400). Portions of the text of the versicle and response derive from the Compline office of the Hours of the Virgin. I was unable to find a direct source for the oratio, but it bears similarities to the second oratio of Lauds in the Little Hours of the Virgin in Paris, BnF, Ms Lat 10482, which – like other orationes to saints – begins with “Deus qui de beate” (Baltzer, 476).

While St Margaret is best known for slaying a dragon with the sign of the cross, suffrages to her in Horae rarely (if ever) mention this aspect of her hagiography. Instead, this prayer and others focus on the saint’s intercessory power and her influence as a spiritual role model for her devotees. Just as Books of Hours provided a new, more direct interaction with Scriptural and liturgical texts, the suffrages to saints contained in Horae likewise offered medieval Christians – and especially lay people – an intercessory channel through which to communicate with God.

 Works Cited

Analecta Hymnica. Eds. C. Blume, G.M. Dreves, and H.M. Bannister. 55 vols. New York:  Reprinted by Johnson Reprint Corp., 1961.


Baltzer, Rebecca A. “The Little Office of the Virgin and Mary’s Role at Paris.” In The Divine Office in the Latin Middle Ages: Methodology and Source Studies, Regional Developments, Hagiography. Eds. Margot E. Fassler and Rebecca A. Baltzer. Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2000. 463-84.


Jacobus de Voragine. “De Sancta Margareta.” In Legenda Aurea. Ed. Th. Graesse. 3 ed. Breslau: Koebner, 1890. 400-03.


Wieck, Roger S. Painted Prayers: The Book of Hours in Medieval and Renaissance Art. New York: George Braziller, in association with the Pierpont Morgan Library, 1997.


—. Time Sanctified: The Book of Hours in Medieval Art and Life. New York: George Braziller, in association with the Walters Art Gallery, 1988.

Jenny C. Bledsoe

Jenny C. Bledsoe is a PhD student in English at Emory University. Jenny specializes in high to late medieval religious literature, with a particular interest in the didactic goals, pastoral concerns, and models of holiness inherent in hagiography and devotional literature. She holds a B.A. in Honors English Literature and Honors Religious Studies, with minors in Latin and History, from the University of Tennessee (2011) and an M.T.S. in Religion, Literature, and Culture from Harvard Divinity School (2013).

Jenny is a co-editor of Hortulus: The Online Graduate Journal of Medieval Studies, and has two recent journal articles published in Medieval Sermon Studies and the Journal of Medieval Religious Cultures.

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3 Comments on “Seeking Intercession: Books of Hours and A Prayer to St Margaret of Antioch

  1. Fascinating post Jenny.

    I’m also reading about the material culture of lay piety in medieval England, but about funerary monuments instead of Books of Hours. It’s another, related body of evidence that also emphasizes intercessory prayer. I can recommend two books by Nigel Saul for a window into these objects: the first is his book _Death, Art, and Memory in Medieval England: The Cobham Family and their Monuments, 1300-1500_ (Oxford UP, 2001), which focuses on a gentry family and its cadet branches, particularly the sumptuous brasses at Cobham Church/College in Kent. During the later 14th century, the family systematically took over the chancel of the church and started burying their dead by the altar, where the priests would be reminded to pray for them during each mass they celebrated. This book is still only in hardcover as far as I know and is too expensive to buy, but I’m sure Hodges has it.

    A smarter investment for the graduate student is Saul’s later survey _English Church Monuments in the Middle Ages: History and Representation_ (Oxford UP, 2009), which systematically treats types of monuments and the classes of those commemorated (knights, ecclesiastics, lawyers, etc). You can get it for about $30 on Amazon (I think I got it during OUP’s fall sale last year). If you’re interested in the material culture of lay devotion, especially as it relates to intercession, this is material definitely worth learning about, too.

    • This is great Jenny. And thanks John Paul for these excellent resources. @Jenny, can you say anymore about the role of the Book of Hours in the movement of affective spirituality? How might these books have been used as meditations and can you recommend additional reading on that subject?I have several students writing on this subject, as we’ve been reading Rolle and Julian of Norwich in Early British Literature.

  2. Thanks to John Paul for the comment and the suggestion for further reading.

    Melissa, in Britain, affective spirituality is generally thought to emerge in fourteenth- and fifteenth-century vernacular (Middle English) meditations on the Christ’s passion. Several recent studies explore the affective aspects of late medieval devotional literature: Jessica Brantley, Reading in the Wilderness: Private Devotion and Public Performance in Late Medieval England (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007); Jennifer Bryan, Looking Inward: Devotional Reading and the Private Self in Late Medieval England (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008); and Sarah McNamer, Affective Meditation and the Invention of Medieval Compassion (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010).

    In my master’s thesis, I am actually arguing that such affective models existed earlier than the fourteenth and fifteenth century. In particular, I am examining the thirteenth-century texts of the Ancrene Wisse Group (which includes the Ancrene Wisse, the Katherine Group, and the Wooing Group). So far, I have found that the lives of Sts Juliana of Nicomedia and Margaret of Antioch (both in the Katherine Group) both include many instances in which the reader is encouraged to *feel* the suffering of Christ and of the saint; this is particularly true in the portions of the texts in which the saints pray to God. So, it seems to me that prayer texts were particularly conducive to affective spirituality, of feeling one’s close, emotional relationship to God. All of these meditative, affective texts (including Books of Hours) betoken a movement towards a more inward, individualized devotional life.

    It is also important to note that Anselm of Canterbury, in his meditationes, paved the way for interiorized, late medieval affectivity. And Anselm, of course, influenced the Cistercians, including Bernard of Clairvaux, who famously appealed to the “book of experience” as a source of authority beyond Scripture in his third sermon on the Song of Songs. So, while many conclude that affectivity emerged in late medieval vernacular texts, the impetus really came from much earlier Latin prayers and sermons, and even appears in high medieval (13th c.) vernacular religious literature such as the Katherine Group.



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