Late Medieval Thoughts on the Office: Purpose

I always like to get a little perspective on questions of liturgy from different periods by looking at vernacular catechetical sources. That is, rather than looking at the conversations that clergy and the learned were having—because they were operating with shared assumptions—take a look at what they were teaching to the unlearned and hopefully were revealing just what those assumptions were!

So—here are two late medieval English vernacular texts that explain the purpose of the Office. The first is from the Myroure of Oure Ladye, the second is from the Henrican Rationale of Ceremonial from the early 1540’s.

The Myroure

Chapter 1: how and why God’s service is said each day in seven hours.

Sepcies in die Laudem dixi tibi. These are the words of the prophet David saying thus to our Lord: “Seven times in the day I have said praises to you.”

All reasonable creatures were made to know, to love, and to praise God and therein to have their endless joy. While our souls are imprisoned in these deadly bodies, we cannot – due to corruption and heaviness of these same bodies – continually accomplish that godly praising as they do who by death are made free from thralldom to the flesh and have come to the end of their joy, that is, the presence of God. Therefore our mother holy church ruled by the Holy Ghost, knowing the frailty and feebleness of her children, has set us every day seven hours. At least in these we ought to be occupied in the service and praise of God that is to say: matins, prime, terce, sext, none, evensong, and compline.

What Solomon says is true, that a righteous man falls seven times a day, and the number of all wickedness is named under seven deadly sins against which the holy church has ordained seven sacraments and is given seven gifts of the Holy Ghost. Therefore, to get remission of our sins, and to thank God for his gifts, we say praises to him in the said hours, seven times each day. Since God made all things in six days and fulfilled them in the seventh day and rested, therefore doing thanks to God for all his works and for all that he made, each day we praise him seven times. Also because the life of man is divided into seven ages where we have spent our time idly or evilly therefore we thank God for our life and seek recompense for such negligence; seven times a day we do service to God. All of this life passes under seven days where the people of this world who are given to active life are occupied in getting their livelihood – and ours – so that they may not freely attend each day in all these times to praise God with their tongues. Therefore we who are called to contemplative life ought to praise God for them – and for us – every day seven times that we may say to our Lord with David, “Lord God, I praised you seven times in the day.”

Chapter 2: why these seven hours rather than others.

But now, you might ask why these seven hours – that is to say, matins time, prime time, and so forth – are assigned by the holy church for the praise of God rather than other hours since there are so many more hours in the day and in the night than seven. To this I answer that these hours are more specially privileged than others because of the great works that God has wrought therein for which he is everlastingly to be praised. Therefore we read that Saints both in the old law and in the new praised God in these hours. For David the prophet says to God this concerning himself: Media nocte surgebam ad confitendum tibi, that is, “Lord, at midnight I rose to praise you.” He also says this: Vespere, et manet meridie narrabo et annunciabo. That is, “At morning, at prime time, at noon, and at evening time, I shall tell and show your praises.” Also Daniel the prophet worships God three times in the day kneeling, according to the exposition of St. Jerome, at terce, sext, and none. Also Peter and John went up into the temple to pray at the hour of none, as it is written in the Acts of the Apostles. St. Paul and Silas, being in prison, prayed to God at midnight, and then the earth quaked and all the prison doors opened and all the fetters and bonds of the prisoners were loosed. Our Lord Jesus Christ also prayed, not only in one part of the night, but all the night he remained awake in prayer as the gospel tells. At the beginning of the holy church, the clergy and the common people – both men and women – rose to praise God four times in the night. First, at the beginning of the night when people are accustomed to go to bed. Second, at midnight. The third, a little before daybreak, and the fourth time at the morning. At evening, our Lord was taken by the Jews, bound and scorned. At midnight he was born. Before day he despoiled hell, and in the morning he rose from death to life. Therefore on some feasts matins are yet said at evening, and in some orders at midnight, and in some before day, and in others, at various times of the night. In some churches they say matins in the morning time.

At prime time, our Lord Jesus Christ was led to Pilate and accused. In the same hour after his resurrection, he appeared to Mary Magdalene, and another day he appeared to his disciples as they were fishing at the same hour. At the hour of terce, our Lord Jesus Christ was scourged, crowned with thorns, and scorned. The same hour, after his resurrection he appeared to the women coming from the sepulcher. On Pentecost Sunday at the same hour he sent the Holy Ghost down upon the apostles. At sext, our Lord Jesus Christ was nailed on the cross, and fed with vinegar and gall. At the same hour after his resurrection, he appeared to the apostle St. James, and on Ascension Day at the same hour he sat and ate with his apostles. At the hour of none, our Lord Jesus Christ cried and he gave up his soul to death. At the same hour, a knight opened our Lord’s side with a spear and smote through his heart from which came water for our baptism and blood for our redemption. On Easter day, he appeared at the same hour to St. Peter. At evening time, our Lord Jesus Christ on Shere [Maundy] Thursday ate with his apostles and ordained the holy sacrament of his holy body and blood. At the same hour on Good Friday, he was taken down from the cross. On Easter day at the same hour, he met with two of his disciples going toward Emmaus, and made himself known to them in the breaking of bread. At compline time, our Lord Jesus Christ on Shere Thursday at evening prayed and sweat blood. At the same hour on Good Friday, he was buried. On Easter day at the same hour, he appeared to his disciples gathered together in a closed place for fear of the Jews, and said to them, “Peace be with you.” Thus you may see that not without great cause are these hours set and ordained to be specially occupied in the serving and praising of our Lord God rather than other hours of the day.

The Rationale

The service used in the Church daily in some places or upon the Sundays and other feasts in all places, that is to say to have matins, prime, hours, evensong, and compline, whereof the most part is of Scripture, as the Psalms, and many times the legends (certain things added by man well reformed) are very godly and expedient both for that the ministers prayeth and giveth and thanks to God for themselves and for the people, and also that by the example of their prayers, they move and excite the people to pray with them. And therefore, for the adorning of the same service, surplices, copes and other vestures and ceremonies in the doing thereof are very laudable and comely.

The sober, discreet and devout singing, music and playing with organs used in the church, for the service of God are ordained to move and stir the people to the sweetness of God’s word the which is there sung [and not understanded (contained but struck out in one of the two manuscripts…)], and by that sweet harmony both to excite them to prayers and devotion and also to put them in remembrance, of the heavenly triumphant church, where is everlasting joy with continual laud and praise to God.

Some Thoughts…

Coming to these texts with the classic distinctions between “monastic” and “cathedral” ringing in my ears, I’m struck at how “cathedral” these descriptions appear—particularly the second. The emphasis on prayer/praise and on the the visual aspect of the ceremonies figure quite large in the standard definitions.

Note the comments in both that the singing of the hours is a means of joining the chorus of the Church Triumphant. Not just joining an angelic chorus, but particularly the saintly dead.

The offices are seen as edifying, but—particularly in the second—edifying by means of their example rather than their content. Seeing and hearing the song of the Offices should put the people in mind to pray themselves and join the saintly chorus. Of course, at this point, the services remained in Latin as Henry retained the Sarum Rite even after his separation from Rome.