Early Medieval Expectations for Laity

Posting will be quite light in the near future. I’m not giving up blogging for Lent or anything, but—as is usual—have way too many irons in the fire…

I warn you now, not only will posting be sporadic but it may also be both research intensive and potentially cryptic. I’m chasing several quite specific hares—and today’s led me into something I knew some of you would be interested in.

In Old English circles there are two main homileticians and two major anonymous collections: Ælfric, Wulstan, the Blicking Homilies and the Vercelli Homilies. Then there’s the mass of random anonymous stuff into which very few individuals go, myself included.

While trawling an old tome I found a reference to this interesting passage which shows up in an anonymous homily for the Fifth Sunday in Lent (i.e., old Passion Sunday):

Us is ðonne swiðe gedafenlic, þæt we gelomlice ure circan secan and ðær mid micelre eadmodnysse and stilnysse us to urum drihtne gebiddan and godes word gehyran. And se ðe on oðrum ðingum abisgad sy oððe to ðam ungehænde, þæt he dæghwamlice his circan gesecan ne mæge, he huru ðinga on ðam sunnandagum and on oðrum freolsdagum þider cume to his uhtsange and to mæssan and to æfensange and na to nanum idelum geflite, ne to nanum woruldlicum spræcum, ac to ða anum, þæt he his synna gode andette and hira forgifnysse bidde and ðære halgan þenunge mid micclum goddess ege gehlyste and siððan mid ælmæsdædum gange him to his gereorde and mid micelre syfernysse and gemetfæstnysse his goda bruce and na mid nanre oferfylle, ne mid oferdrince, forði ðe Cristenum men nis nan ðing wyrse, ðonne druncenscipe. (Assmann, BASP3, 144: [Assmann 12] B3.2.16)

It is very proper for us that we should frequently visit our church and there pray to our Lord and hear God’s word with great humility and silence. And the one who is busy with other things or is overcome and cannot visit his church daily, he at the least should come on Sundays and on feastdays to morning-song* and to mass and to evensong and not pass them in idleness nor in worldly speech, but in this only: that he confess his sins to God and pray for their forgiveness and that he hear these holy services with a great fear of God and afterward, with almsgiving, go to his meal and partake of his food with much sobriety and moderation and not with any overeating or overdrinking for there is nothing worse for Christian men than drunkenness.

* Uhtsange looks to be the aggregated Night Office of Matins and Lauds which was said at the hour of “uhta”–the first glimmer of light.

10 thoughts on “Early Medieval Expectations for Laity

  1. Tim

    You are very right, I (for one) am very interested in this sort of intersection of social and religious history. I would be quite pleased to find copies of the above-mentioned homilies (either in the original A/S or translated). Thank you for sharing and recall during this busy season that we are never given more than you and Him can’t handle together. :)



  2. Matthew the Not So Penitent These Days

    ‘Old English’,” Anglo-Saxon”?
    Looks like ‘Old German’.
    Do you know of any CDs of Old English music? Pre-Christian? Christian? Stuff like Eowyn (Miranda Otto) sang in The Two Towers (extended edition)? Christian singer Kemper Crabb did a song on either Archangel or The Quest album. Might have been The Our Father.
    Really like this stuff.

  3. Tim

    Old Low German (OLG), Anglo-Saxon and Old English are exceptionally close, linguistically.

    In common usage, most use the terms Old English and Anglo-Saxon interchangeably. The technical difference is that Old English was influenced by Old Norse. Anglo-Saxon and OLG was, effectively, the same language as the Angles and the Saxons migrated to Britain from the northern part of where we now call Germany (as well as parts of what is now Belgium and Denmark). Hope that this helps.

  4. Derek Olsen


    The Angles, Saxons, and Jutes from modern-day Germany and Denmark invaded Britain after the departure of the Roman legions, generally taking things over and pushing British rule into Wales and across the Channel (hence ‘Brittany’). They intermingled with the natives and generally became known as the Anglo-Saxons. Their language takes its name from the Angles—Angl-isc=English. Old English is the general name for the language up until 1066 or so when the ruling class changed hands (again) and the familially related but French-speaking Normans took over. Old English is remarkable because it is one of the earliest emergent European vernaculars with a large body of written literature (you don’t get comparable collections in other vernaculars until the twelfth century or so).

    I don’t know of any sung Old English, but Dr. Michael Drout who teaches Old English at Wheaton College (no, the other Wheaton) is the heroic producer of Anglo-Saxon Aloud where he has read through the entire OE poetic corpus and has no started on the prose works .


    Thanks to the magic of Google Books, here is Assmann’s Angelsachsische Homilien und Heiligneleben available for complete and free download. More in a second…

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  6. Larry Swain

    Aelfric in the Colloquy has a term for lauds, if memory serves, just lofsang though I may be wrong there….but anyway, all the typical monastic hours are mentioned in one passage.

  7. Derek Olsen

    I haven’t updated this is a while–I’ve found quite a bit more around this topic… The key passage for Aelfric is from his Letter to Wulfsige: Nu gebyrað mæssepreostum and eallum Godes þeowum, þæt hi healdan heora cyrcan mid halgum þeowdome, And þa seofon tidsangas gesyngon þærinne, þe him gesette synd, swaswa se sinoð hi gedihte: Uhtsang and primsang, undernsang and middægsang, nonsang and æfensang and nihtsang seofoðan.

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  9. april

    Tupper is still quite good for the hours, I think. I don’t know much about them in the modern church(es).
    My understanding of uhtan is that it’s before dawn – there’s still hancred (cock-crow) to go before daegred (when the sun comes up). Uhtan might be a more general term, though, encompassing hancred?

    Since it was a period of time, I imagine there’s variation in usage (perhaps comparable to the different times we might mean when we get up “at the crack of dawn”)

    In Aelfric’s colloquy, the ploughman doesn’t go to the fields until daegred, and a student sometimes misses the uhtsang bell and has to be woken with a stick. The laity who made it to uhtsang must have been very devout!

    Interesting read. Thank you

  10. Larry Hood

    If you want more Anglo-Saxon info check the net for The English Companions-Þa Engliscan Gesiðas. I was for a few years their American representative and I can tell you their club magazine is loaded with all things Anglo-Saxon; even music.

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