Little Hours and Lay Devotion

A few random thoughts coming together here…

Books of Hours and prymers were the pre-eminent expressions of lay devotion in the pre- and early Reformation period. As I’ve written before, these books had quite a variety of things in them but the key elements tended to be Little Offices—most invariably the Little Hours of the BVM and the Hours of the Dead, frequently one or more of the Little Hours of the Cross, Passion, Holy Spirit, All Saints or Trinity—psalms, litanies, and invocations of the saints.

I want to spend a little bit of time on the Little Hours.

Medieval devotion went in a variety of directions, but there was always at least one strain that looked to monastic models. The first liturgical books in the hands of the laity were psalters. Psalters deserve a number of posts dedicated to them, but for the moment, I’ll go with a quick and dirty overview. A liturgical psalter contained more than psalms. Containing the variable material outside the ordinary of the Daily Office, it contained the psalms, a number of canticles, sometimes hymns, and the additional devotions of the monks used before, after, or between the main offices. This is where we see the Little Offices appearing.

In the early medieval period—so, we’re talking AD 700-900—devotions to particular persons and doctrines began to appear in the continental monasteries. Their form varied, but generally, they were modeled on the regular choir Offices (Matins, Lauds, Prime, Terce, etc.)  except that they tended to be shorter, use fewer psalms, and have fewer variable elements. These were recited in addition to the regular choir Offfices. As the Benedictine rule became normative throughout the lands under Carolingian sway as interpreted by Benedictine of Aniane and his comrades, and as the Cluniac ideal of the choir-based monk spread concurrently, these offices popped up all over the place. It was through their incorporation into the psalters, that they spread into lay hands and became features of lay devotion.

Completely skipping over lay use of psalters and the transition into books of hours, as we enter the hey-day of books of hours in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, we notice some patterns. Out of the many versions of the Little Offices of various sorts, there has been a certain amount of consolidation and simplification. That is, the Little Office of the BVM and the Office for the Dead have moved to a central position, others have receded a bit.

Take the Hours of the Holy Spirit as an example… There are 11th and 12 century Hours of the Little Spirit that are full-fledged offices in their own right.  Thus, the offices outside Matins have an opening, a verse from the Veni Creator Spiritus, a variable psalm with antiphon (reversed at Lauds and Vespers—the psalm coming first), a chapter with a response, and a concluding collect. (Matins is more involved, has 3 readings and responsaries in proper Matins fashion…)

By the 15th century, the variable psalm has dropped and the chapter and response have shortened into something more like a basic verse and response. Thus, the later hours are chiefly, opening, hymn verse, verse/response, and collect. Instead of standing on their own, they were joined to the end of the Hours of the BVM. This becomes a standard pattern. The hymn verses and collects change each hour, but there is no variation from day to day and season to season. As a result, these become eminently memorizable. As books of hours spread and become status objects even among those classes with questionable literacy, the static form makes these offices easier to read (fewer changes).

By the time of the first English language prymers, the Hours of the BVM had quite a number of these “memorial” forms consisting on an anthem/antiphon, a verse/response, and a collect appended after Lauds and Vespers. With the coming of the Books of Common Prayer and the suppression of antiphons and v/r patterns, most of these disappeared, but some of their collects linger. In fact, you ought to be familiar with one of them—the collects “for Peace” in the section after the Collect of the Day at morning and Evening Prayer are remnants of the Memorial for Peace.  Too, the collect used at the Little Hours of the Passion is tucked at the end of the Good Friday liturgy on page 282:

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, we pray you to set your passion, cross, and death between your judgment and our souls, now and in the hour of our death. Give mercy and grace to the living; pardon and rest to the dead; to your holy Church peace and concord; and to us sinners everlasting life and glory; for with the Father and the Holy Spirit you live and reign, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Ok—so that’s a real quick fly-by of the history of the Little Hours. In fact, I’ll make it even shorter:

  • They started out as focused versions of choir Offices
  • Over time, most were reduced to invariable forms through the day consisting of a verse-length hymn, a versicle/response, and a collect
  • By the time of englishing the liturgy, they entered as collects alone.

The trend for these ancillary devotions is a move to become shorter and less variable. Ergo, they were easier to memorize and to use throughout the day.

What are the implications for lay devotions in our own day?

Do we want to create things that are as variable as possible with as many moving parts as we can find—or does it make more sense to follow the fundamental channels that lay devotion seems to have followed in previous ages?

It seems to me that if I wanted to create intermediary offices as a supplement to the BCP’s Morning and Evening Prayers, I would go with the base pattern: hymn verse, versicle/response drawn from the psalms, collect. Some of the Little Hours, like those of the Holy Spirit and of the Passion, explicitly referred to the time of day and connected the devotion to biblical events that happened at that same time of day. Perhaps that strategy might still retain some utility today.

I wonder if the average hymn verse and/or collect has more or less than 140 characters…?

10 Replies to “Little Hours and Lay Devotion”

  1. There is something wonderful about the pieces of liturgy that I know by heart, not because I have intentionally memorized them but because I have repeated them so often that they have become part of me. I also like to find something that is particular to a season or a day because that helps me with the rhythm of the liturgical year. I would hope that new intermediary offices would have that familiar core model and that the 140 characters might be a very accessible way to add the occasion-specific pieces.

  2. I’ve never heard of Little Hours of the Holy Spirit before! I think I would really like that one – and the Passion hours, too. (A quick search brings up this link, which contains a link to “The Office of the Holy Spirit at Matins,” BTW, for anybody else who’s interested.)

    Actually, I think you could create a “Little Hours” for almost anything – for a favorite story or theme or person or event. That’s a really interesting thought – and doing this would allow people some room exploring the things that particularly resonate with them.

    Very, very interesting. Thanks for a great article!

  3. The SCLM did put together an hour-based resource called “Daily Prayer for All Seasons”; the text was completed before I joined the SCLM. I haven’t studied it carefully, but my sense is that they went in the opposite direction and made things about as variable as possible.

    My sense is that certain sets of Little Hours themselves might be particularly appropriate to particular seasons: Passion for Lent, Holy Spirit for post-Pentecost, Resurrection for Easter, etc. Rather than the texts changing, then, the selection would change.

  4. Yes, indeed. Actually, as I said at some point in the past (although I think WP may have eaten the post…) this is, at the heart, what one strand of the Stations of the Cross are. You have a standard opening, then the hymn verse is replaced with a biblical reading, then the v/r, then the collect.

    A nice little collection of these lavishly decorated with manuscript art would be a delightful little Kindle/iPad devotional, I think…

  5. Two thoughts:
    1) Why not make translations of the pre-Reformation ‘little offices’ available?
    2) I put together some themed ‘little offices’ a while ago and they are special to me. I actually like repeating the same office, especially if it is well themed. Forward Movement has a small book of hours that has a set of hours for each day of one week, so the same office for each Monday, each Tuesday etc. It was my inspiration for trying to pull together my own.

  6. What is interestijng – to me at least – is that when the Officium Parvum ceased to be of obligation, except in certain collegiate foundations, the decrees of the SRC are littered with numerous requests to sing the Officium Parvum on days on which it was excluded by the rubrics, e.g. on double feasts etc.

  7. I always appreciate people who have a prayer that has become a part of them. Years ago, as a lay pastoral minister, I regularly visited a woman who lived to be 100yrs old. She suffered some minor strokes near the end of her life and couldn’t speak. I read EP for her on a few occasions and was startled to hear her make the responses. Such prayers can become part of our DNA.

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