The Myroure of Oure Layde is a fascinating text from our English heritage that opens a window into how liturgical piety was taught and fostered in late Sarum England. An anonymous work written in late Middle English some time in the middle of the 15th century, the Myroure was composed to teach the Brigittine Sisters of Syon the basics of praying their Offices and what the Latin texts of the Offices meant in English. This kind of instructional writing is perfect for cross-cultural work; because most of the women going into the convent did not read Latin and had no prior knowledge of the Latinate traditions, the author spells out things that are normally left assumed and unsaid. Thus we gain an even greater insight into the piety practiced by those who lived within the world of the Sarum liturgies.
Some of what we find is common-place; some is new and fascinating; some reveals notions we consider odd; others are directly contrary to our understandings of healthy spirituality. Nevertheless, I find this work a remarkable aid both as a manual of instruction and as a foil of our current assumptions, a work that spurs me to think more deeply about our current practice and application of liturgical spirituality.
The work falls into three major parts. This is how the author describes its structure:
First, I have compiled a little treatise of 24 chapters where I discuss the shape of the divine service, when and where and in what manner it ought to be said or sung and especially of your holy service [i.e., the Brigittine version]—how heavenly and graciously it was ordained and made. This treatise is the first part of the book. The second part is of your seven Offices according to the seven days of the week. The third part is your masses. (from the First Prologue)
The language of the Myroure isn’t terribly difficult for those who are used to late Middle English; I figure if you can handle Chaucer you shouldn’t have much problem here. The prepositions and some of the conjunctions have shifted meaning a bit and you have to watch for false friends in the nouns and verbs (e.g., “let” means “prevent” rather than “allow” and so on). In the interest of readability I’ve transcribed some chapters into Modern English which I’ll post here. Here’s an initial chunk—more to follow…
(NB: I read this into the computer with my voice recognition software; I think I’ve edited out the various oral/aural oddities such things create, but there may be a few strange constructs left which I’ll correct as you or I find them.)
Chapter 14: that the hours of this holy service ought to be sung and said in cleanness of conscience
Many things pertain to the manner of singing your hours. First, they should be said with a clean conscience. For if any earthly lord loves to have servants around him who are honest and clean in all their governance and array, how much more is it appropriate for the Lord of Lords to have his servants clean without the filth of sin, especially those called to be continually occupied in his holy praise? Therefore the prophet David says: Deo nostro sit iocunda decoraque laudacio. That is, to our God be given joyful and fair praising. Here “fair and joyful” are properly set together, for no soul may truly “joy” in the praise of God unless it be first made “fair” and cleansed from sin.
Therefore he who is remorseful in conscience over deadly sin and yet says or sings God’s service sins in the saying. However if he left it unsaid, he would sin yet more grievously – what should he then do since he sins both in the doing and in the leaving? This is what he should do. He ought to repent of his sin and fully intend to shrive himself and amend his life and then meekly humble himself before God, seeking his forgiveness. Then, trusting in our Lord’s mercy, he shall say his service with sorrow of heart, with meekness and fear. He should not think that he is in deadly sin when he is contrite and sorry for it.
Regarding this situation, you have a notable example in St. Maud’s revelations both for the divine service and for communing. Suppose a man sets to clean his house knowing that a lord is coming. If he cannot finish the job due to a lack of time and cannot cast all of the dirt out before the lord’s arrival, then he will sweep it all up together into a corner and cast it out afterwards. Just so, when a person goes to divine service or to communion and feels begrudging in his conscience, if he cannot get his spiritual father to shrive him, then he ought to sorrow his sins in his heart by contrition, and shrive himself to God and so sweep it into a corner of his mind until he may get his confessor and, trusting in our Lord’s mercy, go to his service or to his communion. This is to be done at all times and for all sins for the divine service. It is also to be kept in your communing for such daily defaults or negligences which you are not sure if they are deadly or not. But if anyone knows himself to be in mortal sin, he should not be communed until he is shriven. Also with divine service, if any feels the remorse of deadly sin, knowing well that it is deadly sin, if he may easily get to his confessor before he begins the service, you should be shriven before and take his penance for true shrift by mouth with absolution following greatly lightens the soul and gives comfort and hope of forgiveness whereby he may the more freely and devoutly praise God in his holy service when he feels himself clean and sure in conscience.
Chapter 15: that the heart ought to be kept at the time of these holy hours from distraction and thinking of other things
The second thing that belongs to the due manner of saying or singing this holy service is the stable keeping of the heart and the mind so that you may give all your attention to it and to nothing else in that time. For as St. Bernard says, we should not at the time of the Lord’s service occupy our minds with the holy Scriptures nor any other thing—no matter how good it might be. How much more, then, should we beware that we do not let our mind run upon idle and vain things during the time of this holy service. For just as bodily food is not profitable unless it is well chewed in the mouth and swallowed to the stomach, so this holy service, unless it is well chewed in the mind and sorely felt in the heart, does not feed the soul sufficiently. Therefore St. Bernard says that it profits little to sing only with the voice or to say only with the mouth without the attention of the heart. As Isidore says, prayer belongs to the heart not the lips, for God takes heed of the heart and not the words.
Therefore they who say their service yet occupy their mind with other things are like a man who pays his debt with false money that seems to be gold or silver on the outside yet is copper or brass within that does not satisfy his lord to whom he pays it but rather provokes him to displeasure. For he who willfully and intentionally occupies his mind at the time of these holy hours with other things and does not take heed of what he says or sings, or if he—willfully and without need—is distracted by hearing, seeing, or in any other way to anything that draws his mind and attention from the service that he says, although he may sing or say all the words, in this way he does not pay his debt truly and please God thereby, but offends him and sins grievously. Accordingly, he should do penance for it, then say the same service again with better attention. (Now the doing of penance mentioned here and in other places after, we should understand as the repentance of the heart and shrift as well as fulfilling such penance as his spiritual father enjoins upon him.) It remains in the confessor’s discretion to enjoin a penance for the man’s negligence and to enjoin him to say the same service again or another thing instead in this case and in the same fashion what follows after as seems most needful for his soul’s health. Nevertheless if he has said the same service again before he came to shrift, then he shall not be enjoined to say it again; rather he shall have penance only for his first mis-saying.
However, he who addresses his heart to God at the beginning of his service with the will and purpose to keep his mind stable even if it happens that after word by negligence or frailty he’s distracted in his thoughts from what he says apart from his first purpose if he does not abide willfully and such thoughts after he has perceive them but turns his mind again to his service and is sorry for it, then he is not bound to say that service again. But it is good that he should humble himself and acknowledge his negligence in shrift either generally or particularly as the matter arises.
Chapter 16: what causes distraction of the mind in time of God’s service and what remedies are to be used against it
Concerning these matters, you may see that it is important to work on the keeping of the mind in the time of these holy hours and to be fully aware of all occasions that might cause any scattering or distraction of your attention. Therefore you should understand that there are four things that cause much instability of heart in God’s service.
The first is busyness and occupation before the service about bodily or worldly or vain things. As Isidore says, when the mind has been applied to such worldly, idle, or unlawful thoughts by hearing or speaking or thinking or in any other way and then proceeds directly to prayer or to God’s service, thoughts and images of the same things will come to his mind and stop his entry into devout prayer that the heart may not freely dress up itself to heavenly desire nor abide within that which the tongue says or sings.
The remedy against this hindrance is that a man should work not only in service time but at all times to guard and to stabilize his mind in God and to keep himself from idleness and vanity in thought in word in hearing in saying and in other ways. If he is need fully occupied with any worldly or outward business from which he departs before the service begins he should labor by some devout exercise of prayer, meditation, or reading to gather and to stabilize his mind and so to make himself ready beforehand as the wise man bids and says: Ante orationem prepara animam tuam, that is, before prayer make ready your soul. If, for instance, someone would harp or make other minstrelsy before the King, he would be busy to make ready his instruments beforehand. How much more ought we to make ready the harp of our heart when we should sing or say the melody of our Lord’s praise?
The second thing that causes distraction of mind in God’s service is negligence of guarding the heart in the time of the same service which is rotted by long and evil habits and so the frail and wretched soul is bound and born down that it cannot stir up itself from wandering and vagrant thoughts that it is accustomed to just as a man who runs downward from a high hill cannot stop himself after he has started until he comes to the bottom. Similarly they who have used their heart to run downward where it will upon earthly or vain things, they cannot easily restrain it were stabilize it. For evil habits, as St. Augustine says, bind a man and as a burden bear him down.
This wandering of mind is caused by the dullness and heaviness of heart or else by sloth through which a dullard does not wish to work about the guarding of his own heart until he has fallen into such evil habits that he cannot lightly break away from them. Therefore the remedy against this must be a contrary sharpening of fear or quickness of hope until the soul is so disposed. For he who is lighthearted and vain of conditions needs in this case to use his mind profitably in thoughts of the fear of his death, of his doom, and of pains beholding thereby the peril in which he stands if he continues recklessly in such wanderings of mind unto his death which shall come, he knows not how soon. This fearful beholding often and deeply used and continued may, in a short time by grace, make him restrain and gather together his flowing thoughts from all vanities. But, they that are disposed to great heaviness and dullness need in this case not only to sharpen himself with dread but also to the hold the great goodness and charity of our merciful Lord and his presence and of his holy Angels in the time of the service and so to quicken up their heaviness and learn to delight themselves in our Lord and so to establish the mind in him as the prophet says: Delectare in domino, et dabit tibi petitiones cordis tui. That is, delight in our Lord and he shall give you all the your heart will ask or desire. For he who feels true delight in him, desires nothing but him in whom he may have all that he needs.
The third thing that causes distraction in prayer and God’s service is the malice of the fiend, who is most busy to prevent them who give themselves to develop prayer and to the praise of God. For it burns him and wounds him sore that though he allow us all to have some peace in other times, as soon as he sees it turned for prayer and go to God’s service, he runs and works with all his might to bring worldly or vain were evil thoughts or business to mind and so to scatter the heart from devotion and to make him lose the fruits of his prayer. For as St. Bernard says the more effectual and helpful that prayer is, if it be done as it off, the more evilly and busily the malicious enemy labors to prevent it.
The remedy against this is to make upon your breast secretly and continually in such times the token of the cross with strong and steadfast faith. Patiently and perserveringly work to guard and to hold your mind upon our Lord and upon that which you say or sing. You shall feel that the thief shall flee away as if he were smitten with the staff as St. James says: Resistite diabolo, et fugiet a vobis. That is, withstand the fiend and he shall flee away from you. That if any give heed to his stirrings at the beginning and play with such wandering thoughts as he works to put in his mind, then he will take hold of him and bridle him in his evil way and lead his heart to as much lewdness as he can. Therefore beware and inwardly guard and drive him away at all times.
Chapter 17: of them who are vain or troublesome in time of God’s service and hinder both themselves and others
But this malicious serpent when he sees that he is thus chased off from many and driven away seeks to enter again by another way. For then he attempts to get hold in someone whom he may stir to make some vain cheer or sign or token whereby one or another or sometimes many are moved to some manner of dissolution and so distracted from the sadness of inward devotion. Another he stirs to make some wayward token or to do something conversely whereby others are hindered in their minds and troubled and so their spirits are driven from quietness of devotion into anguish and painful grudges. Then unless they hasten themselves yet quicker to their armor and begin to give battle to such vain or troublesome stirrings and work to gather and hold their mind together as I said before else the subtle enemy will enter into them again. Therefore such vain or cumbersome people are the fourth cause that makes distraction in God’s service. They are the fiend’s children and fulfill his desires that he may not bring about by himself as our Lord says to them in his gospel: Vos ex patre diabolo estis, et desideria patris vestri vultis facere. That is, you are the children of your father the fiend and you will do the desires of your father.
If the king were at table with his servants around to serve him, or if he were in the field to fight and his knights were with him to war for him, or if he had laborers in his vineyard or in his garden, and there came one and made his servants and his knights and his laborers to be scattered and to fly from his service – should not such one be called a traitor to the King and be put to death? How much more perilously are they traitors to God who through vanity or trouble cause distraction to others in his holy service and make the minds of his true knights and laborers be scattered?
These are bad companions for they prevent the common profit of all their fellowship. Like thorns and briars that will not allow the wheat that grows among them to bring forth fruit but as soon as they grow up they oppress or strangle it and bear it down. So these folks when God’s servants attempt to grow up by holy desires and devotion in his service, they with their vanity and trouble pull down their minds and prevent them. Therefore it is good that such thorns beware of what our Lord says by the prophet: Spine congregate igne comburentur. That is, thorns gathered together shall be cast into the fire and burnt.
The remedy against this is that the givers of such occasion be sadly blamed with all diligence of charity until they amend for thus the prelates of the church are charged by the common law as I have written about.
Another remedy is that all who are occupied in our Lord service be fully wary and busy to keep their sight and all their outward wits from all occasions that they take no heed of anything but only of that holy service that they have in hand. They should take no occasion or bring in no tidings to the heart to occupy their mind at all except that in all their bearing they keep the sadness of religious discipline. Such somber and sad outward keeping, if it be done in truth and not feigned, helps much to that inward stability of the heart as the Scripture says: Religiositas custodiet et iustificabit cor. That is, religiousness shall guard the heart and make it righteous.
This is delightful – thank you!
Looking at that from outside, as it were in several senses, two things strike me quite strongly, the first being the occasional use of what one might loosely call feudal analogies, about services or dues owing to a lord (and I wonder if the Alfredian translation of Gregory’s Pastoral Care might be behind that somehow, since its author liked a similar trick), but the second being a word that doesn’t occur, which is “she”. You could never tell that this text was intended for female religious by what’s quote here! I suppose that this is an effect of, somewhere, translating from an ungendered Latin third person, but it’s noticeable that the translator never thought to vary from the male. Are we, well, sure that the translation was originally done for women?
Yes, Jonathan, there are quite a lot of those courtly analogies—they’re part of the Myroure’s rhetorical profile (along with numbered lists, citations from authorities, and edifying spiritual tales). It makes we wonder if we have a glimpse here of the class of the intended readers.
The gender thing struck me as odd as well. It is clear from the rest of the work that it is intended for women religious. Some of the earlier chapters make that clear as does the transmission history. I’m tempted to give into the occupational hazard of positing source documents to wonder if the body of the text wasn’t adapted from a more gender-generic text which assumed a male audience or even if the English editor didn’t borrow material from an earlier work intended for men.
I’ll also say that linguistically, I’m a bit out of my time-period—since I’m used to much older English than this, I don’t know if it can be properly assumed or not that the ME “man” is gender-specific or whether it was used as a gender-neutral indicator.
That last had just struck me on reading the second of these posts, too, in the which excerpt the gender of the reader is much more clearly acknowledged. That difference does make me wonder whether this section rested on some other source, but I suppose that without knowing that about ME one can’t say that that source would likely be Latin. Thanks for the response; a minor question mostly settled!