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 The Book of Common Prayer has many advantages: it is covers all possible needs for corporate liturgy, catechism and historical documents, most needs for private prayer and perhaps above all is an instrument of unity for the Anglican Communion.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


11 thoughts on “From Book of Cerne to Books of Hours

  1. This is interesting. Liturgy mainly leaves me cold as a topic, and so I tend to glaze slightly at your abbrev. psalter stuff, though it’s fascinating to see someone working in such depth all the same. But this gets to the ordinary man of the Middle Ages a bit more. How people prayed should be a bigger topic. Maybe it is, and because it looks like liturgy I’m ignoring it…

  2. I think from the time these private devotional books begin in the 8th century — if the Liber Hymnorums are the origins — they they become pretty common in what ever class of society owned books. Judging by the Books of Hours they would likely have been among books owned by people who may have owned only one or two books. It would not have been uncommon for people to only own a bible and a book of hours, and later a bible and Book of Common Prayer.

  3. Jonathan is right that the question of how people prayed should be a bigger topic, but the problem (at least in the early period) is that it’s a very difficult question to answer. It’s difficult, in the early period, to define what “private prayer” looked like, especially as pertains to the “ordinary man of the Middle Ages.” There are prayers in Old English from the early 10th century onwards, but I don’t think we can say with any degree of certainty that they are truly “private” prayers in the same sense that later Books of Hours are “private.”

  4. I guess should probably add that if you picked up a Book of Common Prayer without knowing anything about the Episcopal Church or Church of England, you might not be able to tell that it is also intended for private prayer. It is all written so that it can be used in corporate situations. Yet it is also supposed to be all that an individual would need.

  5. I guess that’s my point, Michelle. We know that Books of Hours were intended for private devotion only because of our knowledge of the manuscript context. Because we often don’t have such information about the MSS in which early, seemingly private, prayers are contained, we can’t say as much about their intended use. And the BCP is a good example. The prayers contained therein can be used for private prayer, but it would be a mistake to claim that, simply because some of the prayers are non-liturgical and make use of first-person singular pronouns, those prayers must be private prayers. Does that make sense?

  6. Yes, it does. Yet, if a book contains very few or no liturgical prayers then wouldn’t it follow that it is likely to be for private use.

    Secondly, any prayer can be used for either personal or corporate use by changing its pronouns and the tense of the verbs on the fly, as the BCP calls for. I agree that the pronouns can tell you what it is primarily to be used for, as the BCP is, I think, primarily corportate.

  7. I think you’re right. If a MS contains little to suggest liturgical use (and if the prayers are apparently private, i.e., contain singular pronouns) that we can assume that it likely had a private use.

    But in the Anglo-Saxon period, at least, that’s not very often the case. Aside from the 9th-century private prayerbooks (Cerne, et al), most prayers are found in MSS with varied contents, often a psalter to which prayers have been added. Because we know that psalters had both private and corporate uses (at least in a monastic setting), it’s not entirely clear whether the prayers contained therein were intended solely for private use.

    And some of these prayers challenge our notions of what devotion looks like anyway. Lots of OE prayers are very long, spanning 10 or more folios. How were these texts used? Were they “prayed” in the sense we might use that term? Were they for meditative reading? And if so, who were the likely users of such a text? I’m not saying that these texts are not “private prayers,” just that we might need to define our terms a bit.

  8. Those psalters with prayers added or a litany is exactly what Toswell was talking about as leading up to the Book of Hours.

    I picked up a book a while ago (Give us Grace: An Anthology of Anglican Prayers, 2004, Christopher Webber,ed.) that collected Anglican prayers from now back to the Reformation and you would be surprised how long those early prayers are. Some of them go on for 2-3 pages of type. Perhaps it would be useful to look at some of those prayers and work backward to the OE ones. How long would 10 folios be in modern type?

  9. But what were those early modern prayers really used for? I guess what I’m getting at is that I have a hard time imagining such a long prayer being “recited” in private devotion in the ways we might expect. Were they read aloud? Were they internalized in some way?

    When Aelfric, for example, provided a set of prayers for “those who don’t know Latin,” (in Cambridge, UL Gg 3.28) they were very short, sometimes little more than a sentence of two. Similarly, in a text providing directions for private devotion in London, BL Cotton Titus D.xxvi–xxvii, a sample prayer is included which is only 44 words long. My guess is that these are the kinds of prayers that were really “used” in most private devotion. The longer prayers (and the longest ones are around 1500 words–probably 4-5 pages in modern type) seem more like literary compositions than utilitarian prayers. And yes, I realize that there’s no good reason to make that distinction as strongly as I do. 🙂

  10. Well, I don’t know enough about the Reformers or those times to say what they were used for. The anthology I mentioned may give some indication. Some of them used “I” enough to think they were personal what ever the venue. Anyway, all I’m saying is looking into this might give clues about only a couple centuries earlier.

    Aelfric could also be ‘talking down’ to people who don’t know Latin thinking that if they are that uneducated, then they couldn’t handle something longer. 🙂

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