Skip to main content

Illuminated guide to Christian prayer

Illuminated guide to Christian prayer

A breviary is a book that contains references to the liturgical texts and chants to be used for the Liturgy of the Hours. This page comes from a fifteenth-century manuscript breviary that probably belonged to the Augustine monastery of Nieuwe Nonnen in Amsterdam, dedicated to Saint Denis.

The monk who was reading this page could follow the order of the Liturgy of the Hours for the Paschal Vigil. It is written in Latin and contains a passage from the very beginning of the section for the Temporale, the liturgical cycle based on the Easter date. This cycle included Palm Sunday, Pentecost, Lent, and all of the other movable feasts celebrated according to the full Paschal moon.

The red parts of the text (known as ‘rubrication’) help the reader to navigate the text and usually indicate a specific time (e.g. Paschal vigil, Vespers, Compline, etc.) or the kind of material that is to be sung or recited (e.g. antiphon, hymn, chapter, etc.).

It was customary, in the Middle Ages, to save space on the page by using abbreviations. They are marked by small lines above the abbreviated parts of the words - e.g.: oēs = omnesspiritū spiritum – dots and/or apostrophes when the word is truncated – e.g.: ȳ. hymnicōplet’ completorium -, and other punctuation marks such as double dots (diaeresis) – e.g.: ä antiphona.

This manuscript enables us to reconstruct the liturgy followed by the monks of a specific monastery. This text refers to the Paschal vigil and, in particular, to two prayer times: Vespers, around sunset before supper, and Compline, before bedtime. The other Canonical hours, after Compline, were Lauds around midnight, Prime at dawn, then Terce, Sext, Nones, and Vespers again.

Reference: MS 8, Breviary Manuscript (14- -?), Medieval Manuscripts, Newcastle University Special Collections, GB 186.

Potential research ideas

The breviary could prompt theological research. For example, you could try to find out about aspects of devotional manuscripts and how they impacted on the religious experiences of laymen. Or, you could explore ideas and practices around religious piety. However, there are other directions that research could take. The breviary is illustrated so you could choose to focus on the illuminations. What do you think they say about visual culture in the Middle Ages? Often, medieval manuscripts are illustrated with depictions of fantastic or mythological beasts so you might want to explore whether these illustrations were created for entertainment or whether they carry symbolism. Another direction your research could take is a look at manuscript culture. How were medieval manuscripts made? Was it only devotional manuscripts that were created, or, were other subjects written about in this form? Do we have any evidence relating to the ways in which manuscripts were distributed? And used by their owners? Did owners customise their manuscripts in the ways that printed books would later be customised, for example, through annotation, doodling, etc.?

Selected background reading

  • Hughes, A., 1982. Medieval manuscripts for mass and office: a guide to their organization and terminology. Toronto; Buffalo: U of Toronto P. – A guide to liturgical manuscripts.
  • Valerntine, L.N. 1965. Ornament in medieval manuscripts: a glossary. London: Faber & Faber. – A guide to illuminations in medieval manuscripts.
  • Edwards, A.S.G., 2002. Decoration and illustration in Medieval English manuscripts. London: British Library. – Ornamentation and illustration in English medieval manuscripts.
  • Rudy, K.M., 2016. Piety in pieces: how medieval readers customized their manuscripts. [Online] Available at: (Accessed 17/07/2020). – Ways in which scribes and owners added material to their manuscripts.
  • De Hamel, C., 2018. Meetings with remarkable manuscripts. London: Penguin. – European medieval manuscripts.

What can I find here in Special Collections?

What can I find elsewhere?

Interested in Medieval manuscripts?

The breviary belongs to a small collection of Medieval Manuscripts. These manuscripts include theology, science and poetry. For example, we have a fifteenth-century manuscript with the Triumphs of Francesco Petrarca [i.e. Petrarch] in volgare which was the dialect of Latin that was used in Florence. It closely resembles the modern Italian language that is spoken today.

One of the most extraordinary medieval manuscripts in Newcastle University Library’s Special Collections is found in the Robinson (Philip and Marjorie) Collection: the Petre Gradual. It is a fourteenth-century miniated (i.e. rubricated) manuscript with notated music and later additions. It was recently rediscovered and sung in Newcastle after centuries of silence.