Rosshu Book of Hours. Rossdhu Book of Hours

Read detailed information about Auckland Libraries' precious Rossdhu Book of Hours. Books of hours were bestsellers back in the Middle Ages!

View a searchable version of Rossdhu.

View the full 222-page Rossdhu eBook.

See a glossary of terms used in the Rossdhu.

View other medieval manuscripts in the Real Gold: Treasures of Auckland City Libraries online exhibition. 


What is a Book of Hours?

Books of Hours were prayer books popular in the late Middle Ages, from the late 13th to the 16th century. They were intended to be read in private by ordinary people during the course of the day.

Books of Hours centred around a series of prayers addressed to the Blessed Virgin Mary, the mother of Christ. These were known as the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary, or the Hours of the Virgin. Hence the Latin term for the book is Horae (Hours). There are often other prayers and readings in a Book of Hours.

Books of Hours were the bestsellers of the Middle Ages. Devout layfolk wanted to have their own prayerbooks and follow the Church’s programme of daily prayers. People could either buy a readymade Book or commission one. They could choose the prayers they wished to include, the saints they wished to honour, the size and number of illuminated miniatures and initials, and the binding.

Religion and art combined in a popular and appealing mix. Each Book is different and carries with it the story of the taste, status, piety and wealth of its owner. The most famous Books of Hours were the six Books commissioned by the Duc de Berry. Today there still exist more Books of Hours than any other type of illuminated manuscript. There are 13 Books of Hours and 16 single leaves in public collections in New Zealand.


What is the Rossdhu Book of Hours?

Th Rossdhu Book of Hours was made in the Southern Netherlands, probably in Bruges, sometime between 1475 and 1500.

Sir John Colquhoun, Great Chamberlain of Scotland, may have obtained the Book for himself or his wife, Elizabeth Dunbar, while in the Netherlands on business for James II or James III of Scotland. Alternatively the Book may have been bought for their son Robert who was rector of Luss in the late 1460s. In the calendar are entries added after the book was first written, for saints revered in the area of the Firth of Clyde, north of Glasgow. There is also an entry on 6 April 1469 for the dedication of the Chapel of St Mary of Rossdhu, the family chapel of the Lairds of Colquhoun beside the village of Luss.

The Book was bought by Sir George Grey in 1863 and given to the Auckland City, along with 33 other medieval manuscripts and his collection of books and papers in 1882.


Contents of the Rossdhu Book of Hours

The calendar listed the saints commemorated on particular days. Special feast days and local saints are written in red, or with colour and illumination.

Fifteen O’s
Fifteen Orisons (prayers) of Saint Bridget of Sweden. Saint Bridget (1303-1373) was canonized in 1391.

Suffrages in honour of the Trinity and the saints
A series of prayers to particular saints.

Hours of the Virgin (Use of Sarum)
A series of prayers, formally known as the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary. It consists of various combinations of psalms, hymns, prayers, verses and responses to be recited eight times during the day at the canonical hours: Matins, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers and Compline.

Hymns and prayers in honour of the Virgin
Devotions in honour of the Passion (the events and sufferings of Jesus's last days of life). Miniatures often show the agony in the garden of Gethsemane, betrayal by Judas, Christ before Pilate, the scourging, Christ carrying the cross, the crucifixion, the deposition from the cross, the entombment, the resurrection. The Biblical account of the Passion is found in the New Testament in the gospels of Saint Matthew, Saint Mark, Saint Luke and Saint John.

Eucharistic devotions
Prayers offered during the Mass.

Penitential psalms
Psalms on the theme of a sinner seeking forgiveness: Psalms 6, 31, 37, 50, 101, 129, 142.

Psalms of degree
Psalms 120-134, the longest psalms.

A series of prayers to the saints or petitions, followed by OR, “Ora pro nobis” (Pray for us).

Office of the Dead
Psalms and readings to be said around the bier of a dead person. Also recited daily as a reminder of one’s own mortality, or as a protection against dying suddenly and unprepared.

Commendation of Souls
A series of psalms recited after the Office of the Dead.

Psalms of the Passion
Psalms 21-30.

About the pictures and the writing

The book is written on vellum, which is made from the skin of animals. The language of the writing is Latin, and the script gothic. Many of the words are abbreviated. (For example “∫tō” is short for “sancto”). Dark brown ink has been used for the words of the prayers and readings. For titles, chapter headings or instructions, red ink is used. This is called rubrication. Sometime in the 19th century the book was rebound in dark brown morocco leather.


Medieval manuscripts are often described as “illuminated”, meaning embellished with gold and silver, and also luminous colours. These illuminations are found in the first letters of words, borders and pictures.

As well as being decorative and a pleasure to look at, initials and borders help the reader to find the way through a book of tightly written text with no page numbers or punctuation. They play the role of headings and punctuation by marking the start of a new section, and indicating paragraphs, verses, or corrections.

Initials and borders vary in size and ornateness within a manuscript. This hierarchy indicates the importance of the text on this page, in comparison with another part of the same manuscript.


In the Rossdhu Book of Hours there are four types of initial.

1. One and two line initials show the beginnings of verses. They are in gold or blue with penwork in black or red.

2. Two to three line initials indicate more important sections of the text. They are illuminated with burnished gold on a background of pink or blue, decorated with white tracery. Tiny gold dots and ivy leaves extend from the corners into the margins of the page.

3. Four to five line foliated initials are the most ornate. They are found on the most important pages of the book along with miniatures and wide decorative borders. They are in pink or blue, decorated with foliage designs on a gold or coloured background.

4. Six to seven line historiated initials contain little pictures related to the text they begin. For example, the letter “L” shows Saint Lawrence (the patron saint of libraries) with his gridiron at the beginning of a prayer next to him. The “D” (Domine) of the Seven words from the Cross surrounds a picture of the Crucifixion.


Borders of acanthus leaves, flowers and fruit, and the occasional bird surround the pages with miniatures and the text written underneath them. Some flowers, such as cornflower, daisy, campion and strawberry are recognisable today.


Today, the word miniature is usually understood to mean a small painting, often a portrait. In a medieval manuscript, miniatures are illustrations to the text in the broadest possible sense. They can range in size from little scenes found inside an initial to a full page picture with no text.

In the Rossdhu Book of Hours the large miniatures show the Saints, the Passion of Christ, the raising of Lazarus from the dead and the ascent of souls into heaven. The people wear 15th century clothing, whether it is court dress, armour or working dress. The backgrounds are either outdoor landscapes with towns in the distance or interiors.

After the text of a manuscript was written, the illuminator added the borders and initials. Finally, the miniatures were added, usually by a separate skilled artist.



Margaret M. Manion, Vera F. Vines and Christopher de Hamel. Medieval and renaissance manuscripts in New Zealand collections. Melbourne: Thames and Hudson, c1989.


Digitising the Rossdhu Book of Hours

Digitisation of the Rossdhu Book of Hours was carried out by the Heritage Materials Imaging Facility in Wellington. The manuscript was safely cradled under a Cruse CS 185SL450 Sychron Light scanner. Each page was scanned from above using preservation standard light levels and handling techniques. 

Large files were created (600ppi at full size of page) and saved on DVD in tiff format. This allows us to provide high quality digital images without ever having to re handle the original item.



Further reading

There are also many facsimiles of famous Books of Hours.

back to top

© Auckland Council