Ancient and Early Medieval Prayer – 3: Sources

King David, Vespasian Psalter fol. 30v (British Library, Cotton Vespasian A I; 8th-century)
King David, Vespasian Psalter fol. 30v (British Library, Cotton Vespasian A I; 8th-century)

If one wishes to pray using the old words, the words of the ancient and early mediaeval Christians, where does one go? What are our sources for the prayers and prayer lives of these early Christians and their communities? These are good questions, and I will briefly outline them here. I am currently preparing a list of online prayer resources, so stay tuned!

The period I like to draw upon runs up to the 800s and 900s. Now, I suppose those who wanted the very earliest would want to stop sooner than that, say, at the close of the Patristic period. While that would be an idealised vision of how to seek out early Christian prayers, it is impractical for several reasons. First, the liturgical prayers of early Latin Christianity are sparse before the Carolingians (740s-880s). Second, while we can find structures for the daily round of prayer from the ancient Church (which are very helpful), the arrangement of liturgies and composition of prayers is most visible from Late Antiquity onward, especially the Daily/Divine Office (or ‘Liturgy of the Hours’). Finally, this stopping point is quite arbitrary, as the rich resources of the Central/High Middle Ages are worth examining as well, and I admit it.

Nonetheless, we need the Early Middle Ages to be able to touch Late Antiquity.

So what are the sources for ancient and early mediaeval liturgy?

We begin in the East. Basically, Eastern Christianity is divided into interrelated liturgical families that follow their ecclesiastical divisions. For us Chalcedonians, the most important from the East is what Roman Catholic scholars call the Byzantine rite, descended from Antioch, and including the Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom and that of St Basil the Great.

This is the liturgical heritage of Eastern Orthodoxy and Eastern Rite Catholics (Ukrainian Catholics, Greek Catholics, etc.). Its Divine Office is very closely tied up with monastic spirituality, but this is not necessarily a bad thing. Amongst its ancient and early mediaeval heritage (a great treasure-house!) we find the hymns of Ephraim the Syrian, the Octoechos, the hymns of Romanos the Melodist, the hymns and Great Penitential Canon St Andrew of Crete. Sources chrétiennes has published a ninth-century book of hours from St Catherine’s in Sinai (for those who know Greek and French!).

Greek liturgy also includes the early third-century Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus that provides us with liturgies for baptism and Holy Eucharist (baptismal regulations are also present in the Didache). The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America provides us with liturgical texts for daily prayer, some of which are ancient and early Byzantine as well. The living tradition of Orthodox liturgy is replete with ancient and Early Byzantine prayers.

In the West, our ancient and early mediaeval prayers come to us in a few forms. For collects and other prayers for use in the Eucharist, keyed to the church year, we have three main sacramentaries, each named after a pope although none of them definitively by its eponymous pope: the Leonine Sacramentary (c. 600), the Gelasian Sacramentary (two versions, one mid-600s and one post-750), and the Gregorian Sacramentary (most popular form from Charlemagne’s time, c. 800). We also have the Bobbio Missal, a seventh-century mass-book of Gallic type from northern Italy. These are great sources for beautiful prayers, and we know Cranmer used the Gelasian in preparing the Book of Common Prayer.

Beyond the Eucharist (which is what most secondary sources on liturgy discuss, except [of course] Robert Taft’s The Liturgy of the Hours in East and West), we have access to the hymns of St Ambrose, Prudentius, Venantius Fortunatus as well as various prayers from the likes of St Columba of Iona and scattered amidst the writings of the various Latin Fathers. When the western Divine Office starts appearing in monastic breviaries and lay books of hours in the High and Late Middle Ages, the shape of the Office and the content of much of the prayers drew upon this early period.

In fact, in researching this post I became aware of several sources/areas for the Office in the Early Middle Ages. For example, one of our earliest office books the Antiphoner of Compiègne, from the 870s; images of the manuscript itself are online.  Elsewhere is a book whose title I’d seen but not apprehended, the Antiphoner of Bangor (mid-600s?). From 1079 in Ireland comes the Psalter of Ricemarch – many office books of the Early Middle Ages were Psalters with extra prayers added, to be used according to the custom of the Rule of St Benedict or one’s local monastery. The monastery of Sankt Gall was also a source for liturgical production (e.g. the lovely Alleluyatic sequence, ‘Cantemus cuncti melodum’, is attributed to Notker the Stammerer). Two sources from the early 1000s worth mentioning are Aelfwine’s prayer book (c. 1025), recently edited by Beate Güzel for the Henry Bradshaw Society in 2009 and The Prayers and Meditations of St Anselm, available as a Penguin Classic!

The sources are many, but for the West the earliest liturgical books exist only in Latin; I’ll put something together for them like I did for medieval mystics. If you do get to access these, you will enjoy rich treasures from the storehouse of our forebears in the faith. I promise.

Before I leave the topic, modern books of translated prayers from early mediaeval insular Christianity (‘Celtic’ and Anglo-Saxon) abound. Some of these prayers are genuine, some are not; of those that are not, some are better than others. These prayers have proven very popular of late in the generation of new liturgies, though. I’d like to see what modern liturgists could do if they had available the riches of the earliest sacramentaries, missals, hymnaries, and office books!

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