Bits on the Night Office

A few thoughts on the Night Office, some from the previous post, others not.

On the Patristic Readings

Within the early medieval English system with which I’m most familiar, a regular ol’ weekday ferial Office usually had one nocturn. A nocturn is a hunk of psalms, then a reading broken up by 3 (secular) or 4 (monastic) responsaries. On a weekday, this single nocturn took its reading from Scripture, hearkening back to the Night Office lectionary of Ordo XIII or one of its derivations.

On Sundays and feast days, there were usually 3 nocturns. The first nocturn was often like a regular night, meaning that its reading came from Scripture. The second nocturn had a patristic reading that, in Paul the Deacon’s system at least, was referred to as a sermo and was a general seasonal text from a patristic source or a was a particular sermon about the feast being celebrated. Again, in Paul’s system, Leo and Maximus were often favorite sources (and some of the sermons traveling under the name of Maximus were actually by Caesarius of Arles). The third nocturn was an exposition of the appointed Gospel for the feast. Paul seems to have called this the omeilia or “homily.” [The distinctions we think Paul was trying to draw broke down fairly quickly and the terms “sermo” and “omelia” tended to be used in an interchangeable fashion by the 10th century.] Paul’s go-to guys for the omeilia were Gregory and Bede with some Jerome and Augustine thrown in where warranted (i.e., Augustine’s tractates on John and exposition of the Sermon on the Mount; Jerome from his commentary when a Matthew text popped up with no other texts from Gregory or Bede).

So—on special occasions, there were two patristic pieces in the Night Office, one focused on the season/event, the other on the appointed Gospel text.

Patristic Creep: Office to Mass

Perhaps the greatest conceptual shift in the study of early medieval preaching in the last half of the twentieth century was the recognition of the role of Night Office homiliaries (collections of sermons typically from patristic sources often but not always in liturgical order) within apparently Mass-focused preaching. Determining how patristic homiliaries functioned is tricky. Some, it’s clear, were used for the second and third nocturns of the Night Office. Some were clearly used for spiritual reading in lectio divina. Whether and how they were used at masses in the period is a complicated question with few easy or clear answers.

We can say three definite things about mass preaching in the Late Anglo-Saxon/Benedictine Revival period in England.

  1. There was an expectation that preaching was supposed to happen. English editions of the Rule of Chrodegang require that secular canons (so, priests at cathedrals) preach at least every other Sunday and on feast days. Furthermore, the Canons of Ps.-Egbert which Aelfric quotes in one of his letters on clerical duties states that clergy should preach every Sunday and on major feast days. Manuscript evidence supports these mandates (but says nothing about their fulfillment…) in that Aelfric’s two cycles of Catholic Homilies and supplemental sermons gave preachers texts to read on these occasions. Furthermore, Ursula Lenker’s work has proved to my satisfaction that the Old English Gospels were used by canons for sermon preparation.
  2. It’s clear that Aelfric uses patristic materials from the Night Office and specifically re-purposes them for proclamation at Mass. In a sense, I think the written sermons of Aelfric (in the vernacular) give us a sense of what most of the preachers did. That is, those who were bilingually competent took their homiliary from the Night Office into the pulpit with them and used the Latin as source material for a vernacular sermon, either translating on the fly, or trying to hit the major points in a loose paraphrase. The problem is that not all of the clergy at the time were that competent in Latin—a situation Aelfric bemoans on a regular basis and is the reason for his English homily collections.
  3. Sometimes the preaching had no relation to the Night Office (or the texts at all…). The mass of anonymous vernacular Old English homilies shows quite a bit of disparity. Some are exegetical with patristic sources. Some are composites where a preacher patched several things together. Some are basically direct translations of banned apocryphal works. (What, you think when your preacher starts working off The Shack that this is a new thing? Hardly…)

So—among preachers who cared about passing on orthodox Christian teaching, there was often quite a bit of carry-over between what the clergy and monks heard in the Night Office and what the laity heard at Mass. But that wasn’t necessarily the case and it might have been spotty.

On the Night Office Lectionary

I believe that Ordo XIII and its later evolution into breviaries has had and continues to have a significant impact on how we understand the readings for the Daily Office. In particular, I think we can identify four major characteristics of the “Ordo XIII pattern” that have significance for how we assess any modern Office lectionaries:

  1. Maximum Coverage. The goal of reading was to move systematically through the entire canon.
  2. Yearly Cycle. One of the defining features of the the early medieval pattern is that it demonstrated a clear intent to get through all of Scripture within the space of a single liturgical year. This is one of the points that Cranmer and other Office reformers have consistently gone back to.
  3. Liturgical Coherence. The books read tend to have a seasonal connection with the Church Year. Particular books are read at particular times because the text as a whole has a coherence and significance with the time.
  4. Blocks of Text. In the Night Office, you get a long stretch from a single book. There’s a continuity of narrative or, at least, text. Of the four main characteristics I identify, this is the one that tends to be honored the least in modern schemes. That is, while Cranmer legislated a narrative flow in taking sequential texts from OT, NT, and Gospel works, he divided them up at the start so that the readings were disjointed. So at each Office you read an OT reading, then an NT—the flow was broken up.

There’s no particular point I’m trying to make at the moment about these, I’m just identifying these four characteristics and holding them up for discussion.

One Reply to “Bits on the Night Office”

  1. The first thing that came to me is the dead pan description that I was witness to of two former Sister of the Love of God of sitting in a freezing chapel listening to Augustine of Hippo’s On the Trinity during Prime.
    “It was … illuminating …”

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