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.


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