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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.