Monday, 29 April 2013

Some Medieval Bidding Prayers

I came across the following prayers among an assortment of texts published in The Lay Folks Mass Book; or, The manner of hearing mass, with rubrics and devotions for the people, in four texts, and Offices in English according to the use of York, from manuscripts of the Xth to the XVth century, a volume edited for the Early English Text Society in 1879 by Thomas Frederick Simmons. The whole book can be read online here. The Lay Folks' Mass Book is a fascinating fifteenth-century text in rhyming English verse, which guides the lay reader through the form and prayers of the Mass; the prayers I'm posting today aren't part of that text, but were published in the same EETS volume to add some contemporary context. I found little trace of them on the internet, so I thought I'd post and translate them here.

The prayers all originate from York. This one dates to c.1405 (in case your Middle English is a bit rusty, my translation follows):

3e sal mak your prayers specially till our lord god almighti and til his blessyd moder mary and till all the haly court of heuen for the state and the stabilnes of al halykirk. For the pape of Rome and al his cardinals and for the archebishop of York and for al ercebischops and bischops and for al men and women of religion and for the person of this kirke that has your saules to kepe and for all the prestes and clerkes that has serued or serues in this kirk or in any other. And for al prelates and ordiners and al that halykirk reules and gouerns that god len thaim grace so for to reuel the popil and swilk ensaumpil for to tak or scheu thaim and thaim for to do thare-after, that it may be louing unto god and saluacyon of thaire saules.

Also 3e sal pray specially for the gode state of this reume for the kyng and the quene and for al the peris and the lordes of this lande that God send loue and charite thaim omang and gif thaim grace so for to reule it and gouern it in pes that it be louing to God and the comons un-to profet.

Also 3e sal pray specially for tha that lely and trwly payes thare tendes and thair offerandes til God and halykirk and for al that other does that God thaim amende.

Also 3e sal pray specialy for thaim that this kirk first biggid and edefied and al that it up-haldes and for all that thar-in findes boke or chales vestiment lyght or towell, or any other anourment whare-wit godes seruys es sustend and for thaim that halybred gaf to this kirk to day and for thaim that first began and langest haldis on. And for al land tilland and for al see farand and for the wedir and for the fruyt that es on erthe, that the erthe may bring forthe his fruyt cristen men to profet. And for al pilgrymes and palmers and for al that any gode gates has gane or sal ga, and for thaim that brigges and stretes makes and amendes that god grant us parte of thare gode dedes and thaim of oures. Also 3e sal pray for all our parischyns whar-so thai be on land or on water that god saue thaim fra al missaunters and for all wymen that er with chield in this parische or in any other, that God delyuer thaim with joy and gife the child cristendom and thaim purificacion. and for al that er sek and sary that god almighthi conforth thaim and thaim that er in gode lyfe that God hald thaim thare-in. For tham that er in dette or in dedly synne or in prison that God bring tham out thare-of.

For tham and for us and for al cristen folke for charite says a Pater-noster and a aue.

Deus miseratur nostri et cetera.
Gloria Patri.
Kyrie eleyson. Christe eleyson. Kyrie eleyson.
Pater noster.
Et ne nos.
Saluos fac servos tuos, et ancillas tuas, Deus meus.
Esto eis Domine turris fortitudinis.
A facie inimici.
Domine, Deus virtutem.
Et ostende faciem.
Domine exaudi orationem.
Dominus vobiscum.
Ecclesiæ tuæ preces, Domine.
Deus, qui caritatis.
Deus a quo sancta desideria.

Also 3e sal pray specialy til oure lady saynt mary that sche becum oure auoket and at sche pray for hus specially till hir dere son.

And also 3e sal pray specialy for the breder and the sisters of saynt petir minster of york and of sant jon of beuerlay and of saynt wilfryde of rypon and for al that 3e er halden un-to and for al that God wald 3e prayed for says a Pater noster and ave.

Ave regina cælorum.
(In tempore Paschali: Regina cæli, lætare)

Post partum virgo.
Famulorum tuorum.

Also 3e sal pray specialy for our fader saules and our moder saules and for oure god-fader saules and oure god-moder saules and for oure brether saules and oure sister saules and for oure eldir saules and for al the saules of whame the bodis es berid in this kirk or in this kirk-3erde and for al saules that in purgatori godis mercy abydes and for al cristen saules of whame we have had any god of says specialy a Pater-noster and ave.

The manuscript in which this prayer survives is now at Harvard, and there's a description of it here. The language of the prayer is not difficult but there are some phrases which are not quite obvious; by its very nature a prayer like this is repetitive and paratactic, and in the translation which follows, I haven't tried to smooth out those features:

You shall make your prayers especially to our Lord God Almighty and to his blessed mother Mary and to all the holy court of heaven for the state and the stability of all Holy Church. For the Pope of Rome and all his cardinals, and for the Archbishop of York and for all archbishops and bishops, and for all men and women of religion, and for the parson of this church who has the care of your souls, and for all the priests and clerks who have served or serve in this church or in any other. And for all prelates and ordinaries and all who rule and govern Holy Church, that God may grant them grace to rule the people, and to set and show such an example for the people that they may follow it, for the praise of God and the salvation of their souls.

Also you shall pray especially for the good estate of this realm, for the king and the queen, and for all the peers and the lords of this land, that God send love and charity among them and give them grace to rule it and govern it in peace, that it may be for the praise of God and the profit of the commons [i.e. 'benefit of the people'].

Also you shall pray especially for those who loyally and truly pay their tithes and their offerings to God and Holy Church, and for all who do otherwise, that God may bring them amendment.

Also you shall pray especially for those who first built and constructed this church, and all who support it, and for all who provide for it books, chalices, vestments, lights and cloths, or any other ornament whereby God's service is sustained; and for those who gave the holy bread for this church today, and for those who first began this and have the longest maintained it.

And for all tillers of the land and mariners on the sea, and for the weather and the fruit that is on the earth, that the earth may bring forth its fruit for the benefit of all Christians. And for all pilgrims and palmers, and all who have gone on holy journeys or who shall go; and for those who make and maintain bridges and roads, that God may grant us a part in their good deeds, and them in ours. Also you shall pray for all our parishioners, wherever they may be on land or on water, that God may protect them from all misfortune; and for all women who are with child in this parish or in any other, that God may deliver them with joy and give christening to the child and purification to the mother. And for all who are sick and sorrowful, that God Almighty may comfort them, and for those who are in a good state, that God may preserve them in it. For those who are in debt or in mortal sin or in prison, that God bring them out thereof.

For them and for us and for all Christian people, for charity, say a Pater noster and an Ave...

Also you shall pray especially to Our Lady St Mary, that she may become our advocate and that she pray especially for us to her dear Son.

And also you shall pray especially for the brothers and the sisters of St Peter's Minster, York, and of St John of Beverley, and of St Wilfrid of Ripon, and for all to whom you are beholden, and for all for whom God wishes you to pray, say a Pater noster and Ave.

Also you shall pray especially for our fathers' souls, and our mothers' souls, and for our godfathers' souls and our godmothers' souls, and for our brothers' souls and our sisters' souls, and for our ancestors' souls and for all the souls whose bodies are buried in this church or in this churchyard, and for all souls who in Purgatory await God's mercy, and for all Christian souls of whom we have received any good, say especially a Pater noster and an Ave.

Three further prayers can be found here; they're very similar to this one, as you might expect, but with some interesting additional phrases (for instance, the second talks about the 'fair fellowship of heaven'). An illustration of how consistent the form is can be provided by another English prayer, composed almost four hundred years earlier, again in York:
Wutan we gebiddan God ealmitigne, heofena heah cyning, and Sancta Marian, and ealle Godes halgan, þæt we moton Godes ælmihtiges willan gewyrcan þa hwil þe we on þyssan lænan life wunian þæt hy us gehealdan and gescyldan wið ealra feonda costnunga, gesenelicra and ungesenelicra, Pater noster.

Wutan we gebiddan for urne papan on Rome, and for urne cyning, and for [ur]ne arcebisceop and for [ur]ne ealdorman, and for ealle þa þe us gehealdað frið and freondscype on feower healfe into þysse halgan stowe, and for ealle þa þe us fore gebiddað binnan angelcynne and butan angelcynne, Pater noster.

Wutan we gebiddan for ure godsybbas and for ure cumpeðran, and for ure gildan and gildsweostran, and ealles þæs folces gebed þe þas halgan stowe mid ælmesan seceð, mid lihte and mid tigeðinge, and for ealle þa þe we æfre heora ælmessan befonde wæron, ær life and æfter life, Pater [nost]er.

Bidde we...
For Þor[fe]rþes saule bidde we Pater noster, and for micel mere saule, and for ealle þa saula þe fulluht underfengan and on Crist gelyfdan fram Adames dæge to þisum dæge, Pater noster.
A translation:

Let us pray to God Almighty, high king of the heavens, and St Mary, and all saints of God, that we may perform the will of God Almighty as long as we dwell in this fleeting life, that they may protect and shield us from all temptations of the enemy, seen and unseen. Pater noster.

Let us pray for our Pope in Rome, and for our king, and for our archbishop and for our ealdorman, and for all who maintain peace and friendship for us on the four sides of this holy place, and for all who pray for us among the English and outside the English nation. Pater noster.

Let us pray for our sponsors and for our godfathers, and for our guildsmen and guild-sisters, and all the prayers of the people who seek this holy place with alms, with lights and with tithes, and for all from whom we have ever received any good, during life or after our life.

We pray...
We pray a Pater noster for Thorferth's soul, and for many more souls, and for all souls who have received baptism and have believed in Christ from the days of Adam until this day. Pater noster.

This prayer is from the York Gospels (York, Minster Library, Additional 1), a beautiful volume which belonged to the great law-maker and homilist Wulfstan, Archbishop of York, who died in 1023. The book was made in Canterbury c.1000 and went to York in c.1020, probably as a gift to Wulfstan from Cnut and Queen Emma. In York, further texts were added to the gospel-book - some of Wulfstan's own homilies, surveys of lands and other possessions belonging to the archbishop, Cnut's famous 1020 letter to the English people, and these bidding-prayers. Such an assortment of religious, legal and political texts is not at all uncommon in this period; the administrative texts gain greater authority and permanence from being copied into a sacred book.

This point is an interesting one to remember when thinking about bidding prayers, because they are always - even today - the moment in a public religious service where the sacred and the secular meet, or jolt against each other. It's this mixture of the specific and the general which makes bidding prayers like these so fascinating; the form and phrasing is consistent, but the referent is always changing. Both these prayers pray for the king, but 'the kyng' of 1405 is not 'urne cyning' of the Old English prayer (the king most associated with the earlier manuscript is Cnut, and it's fascinating to wonder what might have been the substance of prayers for him, the young Viking Wulfstan was helping to turn into a Christian monarch; but this prayer was probably added a little later in the eleventh century, and so the king here might be a Norman conqueror rather than a Danish one). The meaning of the prayer is therefore context-dependent in a way belied (but also facilitated by) by the non-specific language.

In the prayers quoted here, you can trace the particular concerns of a community at York in much more than the tinge of northern dialect - especially in their petitions for the nearby communities to whom they were bound by mutual obligations of prayer. It was the duty of religious communities to pray for their benefactors, and these prayers take that very seriously. This was one of the aspects of the texts which most struck me, as someone who has (usually in a spirit of patient scepticism) listened to many a bidding prayer - I've never heard anything comparable to the prayers for those who built the church and found for it 'books, chalices, vestments, lights and cloths'. Perhaps we take those things for granted now in a way our medieval forebears could not; but I was at a service of Evensong recently at Binsey (an isolated medieval church near Oxford used only in the summer months) where the visiting vicar scrambled around for candles, one stalwart parishioner had to go in search of hymn-books, and the organist was a newcomer who volunteered on the spur of the moment. It all felt quite impromptu, a strange contrast to the venerable solidity of the 500-year-old words which made up the service. The spirit of this bidding-prayer, that we should be grateful for the people who make such worship possible, seemed very appropriate.

Personally, I never appreciated the importance of remembering benefactors until I came to Oxford, which, like many older educational institutions, recalls its 'founders and benefactors' most enthusiastically. Chaucer's Clerk of Oxford 'bisily gan for the soules preye/Of hem that yaf hym wherwith to scoleye', and so do we today: college graces and chapel prayers include a rota of named benefactors, and their portraits adorn our walls. My school didn't have founders or benefactors (unless you count the British state!), and it was only when I had been exposed to this kind of corporate piety for a few years that I realised there can also be a personal element for people fortunate enough to hold scholarships and prizes. I had never previously thought of myself as having benefactors, either, but in those terms my own (unwitting) patrons include a seventeenth-century lawyer named William Hulme, the medievalist Dorothy Whitelock, and mostly recently an American philanthropist who made his millions in the banking industry; and then there are my 'godsibbas', not to mention the many people who have given me books over the years! I wish I'd realised earlier what a debt of gratitude I owe to such people; education too is something we take for granted in a way our ancestors could not, even just one or two generations ago. Acknowledging the debts we owe our benefactors is a feature of pre-Reformation religion which greatly appeals to me: it's one of the aspects of medieval religion which is often called superstitious, as if it makes too simplistic an equation between monetary gifts and prayer, but when looked at in another light it can promote a profoundly grateful and humble attitude to those who have benefited us by their generosity.

The other feature of this prayer which particularly struck me is the idea of remembering those who are buried in the church where the prayer is being said. In any land which has been continuously occupied for thousands of years, you're never far from someone's grave, whether you can see it or not. A dense and ancient city like York, where churchyards are squeezed in among chainstores, is truly 'bone-littered ground', and every church has its walls crammed to overflowing with monuments to long-dead people who once worshipped there. It's easy not to notice them, to be oblivious; I know I often have been. Whether or not you believe that the souls of such people are in need of prayer, it's good to think upon them once in a while. All this offers a kind of specific, personal, local approach to religion which, as I've increasingly felt over the past few years, can be extremely powerful: it provides roots, stories, explanations for our presence in the places where we live, links us with the ground we walk on and the people who have walked there before us. To belong to one place, to love one little space of earth, does not have to narrow the limits of your mind; it can produce the opposite effect, in enabling you to become part of a community not bounded by time. These prayers pray 'specially' for their own place, their own people, but for everyone, too - for them and us and all. I'm glad to remember that in such communities, formed by the institutions I've been part of in my life, I have benefactors, patrons, predecessors, brothers and sisters - and much to be grateful for.

In that spirit, the pictures in this post are all from the churchyard of the church where I was christened.


Anonymous said...

You made me think how many benefactors I have in how many ways, and how few of them I remember yearly, never mind daily. Very humbling.

Clerk of Oxford said...

I'm glad - that was how I felt when I read these prayers. Humbling indeed.