It seems as though I’m going through a whole series of transitions at the moment and this blog is no exception. Inspired by Derek the Ænglican I’ve started a second blog to include all of my late medieval to modern church history, spirituality, and liturgical posts. My new blog is called Selah and it will house, among other things, the distilled prayer project. Although I’ll now be splitting my time between two blogs, in the long run this change will make Heavenfield even more medieval centered. It will also let me do more modernish things on Selah.

If you are wondering what in the world Selah means its an untranslatable Hebrew word found mostly, if not exclusively, in the psalms. It seems to be an instruction to pause, perhaps pause the music, or just to stop, think and ponder, to punctuate the previous stanza. This is a guess of course because no one really knows how to translate it. Sounds like a good title to begin a blog on the psalms.

Hours of Prayer

Sunday someone asked me how many times a day medieval people prayed and I said 7 or 8. I realized that I’m a little fuzzy on what the canonical hours are, their names and what they have been transformed into today. So, this is going to be a short-hand version I hope will be helpful to you and will serve as notes for me. Wikipedia actually seems to have a pretty good summary of the Liturgy of Hours.

Pre-Vatican II and through out the medieval period, the divine hours were:

  1. Matins: night office usually prayed around midnight. Also called nocturns or a vigil.
  2. Lauds: dawn.
  3. Prime: first hour of prayer at about 6 am.
  4. Terce: third hour of the day, about 9 am.
  5. Sext: sixth hour prayer, about noon.
  6. Nones: ninth hour prayer, about 3 pm.
  7. Vespers: early evening prayer, about 6 pm or so.
  8. Compline: upon retiring usually about 9 pm.

This organization was introduced to the western church by John Cassian (d. 435) and popularized by Benedict of Nursia. In Ireland, it appears that John Cassian had a more direct influence on monastic development long before the Benedictine rule came there. Bede describes Bishop Wilfrid and his Abbot Benedict Biscop being instrumental in introducing the Benedictine rule to England in the mid-seventh century. In a contemporary elegy, St Columba of Iona (d. 597) was said to have been a student of Cassian and Basil.

He ran the course that runs past hatred to right action. The teacher wove the word. By his wisdom he made glosses clear. He fixed the Psalms, he made the books of Law known, those books Cassian loved. He won battles with gluttony. The books of Solomon, he followed them. Seasons and calculations he set in motion. He separated the elements according to figures among the books of Law. He read mysteries and distributed Scriptures among the schools, and he put together harmony concerning the course of the moon, the course which it ran with the rayed sun, and the course of the sea. He could number the stars in heaven, the one who could tell all the rest which we have heard from Colum Cille.

Section V Elegy for Colum Cille

Dallan Forgaill (fl. 597), Clancy p. 104 (Gaelic)

This does not mean that Columba actually knew Cassian but that he had studied his writings. Fixing the psalms is establishing the order that the psalms are said in the monastic office. The psalms have always been the primary text of hourly prayer. Cassian was the vital link between east and west. He was a good friend of Patriarch John Chrysostom and transmitted the prayer routine he learned from the desert fathers in Egypt to the West. He established his monastic system at St Victor in Marseilles. His memory was harmed by his attempt to mediate, or find a third way, between Augustine of Hippo and the Pelagians. This led to his being labeled a semi-pelagian after his death. Irish adherence to Cassian’s ways may be the root of many of the false claims that they were Pelagian.

Dallan Forgaill is a Gaelic secular poet, contemporary with Columba. Often a befriender of secular poets, Columba soon became their patron saint. This long elegy has ten sections. This elegy is one of the oldest surviving pieces of Gaelic (Old Irish) poetry. The language is so archaic that later copies of it are glossed so that later medieval Gaelic speakers could understand it.

The Book of Common Prayer recognizes four hours for prayer: morning prayer (a combination of matins and lauds), mid-day prayer, evening prayer (vespers) and compline.


Thomas Owen Clancy, ed The Triumph Tree: Scotland’s Earliest Poetry AD 550-1350. Canongate, 1998.

From Book of Cerne to Books of Hours

Its odd the circuitous route that research sometimes leads you on, or I’m just not very disciplined at staying on topic. Hmmm… well, that’s possible. Anyway, one of the interesting tangents that my study of Bede’s breviate pslater has taken is that breviate psalters are most commonly found in private devotional books and later Books of Hours. This continuity from Anglo-Saxon devotional books, like the Book of Cerne, to late medieval Books of Hours, primarily for the laity, and eventually to today’s Book of Common Prayer (BCP), the prayer book of the English reformation that is still used today, is intriguing.

The Book of Common Prayer is a somewhat odd in the history of prayer books because it is for both corporate and personal prayer. Indeed, even the daily prayer is written in such a way that it can be used corporately. The Book of Common Prayer has many advantages: it is covers all possible needs for corporate liturgy, catechism and historical documents, most needs for private prayer and perhaps above all is an instrument of unity for the Anglican Communion. As such it has had an immense impact on the English diaspora as this one book owned by the laity made it possible to carry the faith around the globe. Today each national church in the Anglican Communion produces their own revised text or uses a historic Anglican version of the BCP. One of the disadvantages of the BCP is that as an Episcopalian instrument of unity planning and executing revisions is an extremely long and arduous process. The current BCP for the US was produced in 1979 and the previous was in 1928. To my mind the greatest disadvantage of changing so slowly is its effect on the BCPs usefulness for private prayer. Anyway, I have digressed too far away from my topic for today. One of the give-aways of the Book of Hours impact on the BCP is the inclusion of a full psalter.

A while back MJ Toswell wrote an interesting paper on the relationship between late Anglo-Saxon psalters and Books of Hours. One of the things I find really interesting is that these late A-S psalters had collects after each psalm (which turns the psalm into a Christian prayer). So it is more of a devotional book than a transcript of one book of scripture.

“the frequency with which a psalter manuscript in the later Anglo-Saxon period concludes with a set of prayers and a litany, itself a formalized prayer, suggests the notion of a short reading (a psalm, easily identified in these manuscripts and clearly punctuated for reading aloud or silently) followed by a prayer. This is, of course, the process underlying the development of private devotional texts, whether in Latin or in the vernacular. (p. 18)

“Although these manuscripts [Books of Hours] varied in size and decoration, they were almost always commissioned by one person for his, or usually her, own use. They included short versions of the Offices for private use, personal prayers and meditations, and selected didactic texts for enlightenment. The texts were often a mixture of Latin and the vernacular. The prayers, meditations and sermons were generally couched in fairly simple terms, and were lavishly illustrated as a further aid to comprehension and for glory.” (p. 20)

Although there are format differences (such as the development of distinct offices), the elements of the Book of Hours are found in the late medieval psalter texts and the Book of Cerne and related texts. I think that is fascinating. Its a shame that the practice of producing Books of Hours has gone out of style.

M. J. Toswell “The Late Anglo-Saxon Psalter: Ancestor of the Book of Hours?” Florilegium 14: 1995-6, p. 1-24