Sunday Observance in Anglo-Saxon England

Following up on the sermon I mentioned here about what folks should do on Sundays in pre-Conquest England, I’ve found quite a bit of additional material. The go-to resource on anything relating to Sundays in the Anglo-Saxon period is Dorothy Haines’s Sunday Observance and the Sunday Letter in Anglo-Saxon England. (I’ll warn you it’s a little pricey…) The blurb lays it out pretty well:

Few issues have had as far-reaching consequences as the development of the Christian holy day, Sunday. Every seven days, from the early middle ages, the Christian world has engaged in some kind of change in behaviour, ranging from participation in a simple worship service to the cessation of every activity which could conceivably be construed as work. An important text associated with this process is the so-called Sunday Letter, fabricated as a letter from Christ which dropped out of heaven. In spite of its obviously spurious nature, it was widely read and copied, and translated into nearly every vernacular language. In particular, several, apparently independent, translations were made into Old English. Here, the six surviving Old English copies of the Sunday Letter are edited together for the first time. The Old English texts are accompanied by facing translations, with commentary and glossary, while the introduction examines the development of Sunday observance in the early middle ages and sets the texts in their historical, legal and theological contexts. The many Latin versions of the Sunday Letter are also delineated, including a newly discovered and edited source for two of the Old English texts.

So—does anybody remember our discussion of interesting heretics in the Letters of St Boniface? One of the charges against Aldebert concerned a letter that he claimed dropped down from heaven:

Denehard, the priest, answered: ” I have a letter here which he made use of in his teaching, saying that it was written by Jesus and came down from heaven.”

Then Theophanius, the regional notary and treasurer, took it up and read out the following words:

“In the name of God. Here begins the letter of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, which fell from heaven in Jerusalem [113] and was discovered by the archangel Michael near the gate of Ephraim. This very copy of the letter came into the hands of a priest named Icore, who read it and sent it to a priest named Talasius in the city of Jeremias. Talasius passed it on to another priest Leoban, who was living in a town of Arabia. Leoban sent the letter to the city of Westphalia, where it was received by a priest Macrius. He sent the letter to Mont St. Michel. In the end, through the intervention of an angel, the letter reached Rome, even the tombs of the Apostles, where the keys of the kingdom of heaven are. And the twelve dignitaries who are in the city of Rome fasted, watched and prayed for three days and three nights,” etc.

Yep—that’s the Sunday Letter. It takes a number of forms but essentially, this is a letter purportedly written by Jesus that says—in a nutshell—that he’s sick and tired of people doing work on Sunday and if they don’t shape up and stop doing things, that he’ll visit all kinds of nasty plagues on them and burn things up (in his mercy…). Likely written in Spain or Gaul around the 6th or 7th century, it did enjoy wide circulation. The Irish monks seemed to be quite fond of it and added a number of elements to it including Sunday lists which identified important and miraculous events that happened on Sunday according to either Scripture or Tradition, that provide further weight why Sundays should be hallowed.

As a result of the Sunday letter, both Carolingian and English law codes place some very heavy penalties upon working on Sundays. Free-men found working will be enslaved; slaves ordered to work on Sundays by their masters gain their freedom. Heavy fines, forfeiture of goods,  and floggings are all part of it too. The reason seems clear—the letter promises corporate punishments for individual offenses. From the perspective of early medieval legislators, then, harsh penalties would prevent some fairly severe supernatural consequences that would effect everybody.

Interestingly, our two most prolific authors of the Benedictine Revival appear to have had different attitudes towards it. Wulfstan seems to have approved of it and its circulation may be related to an imprimature of sorts from him:

Since all of these copies [of the Sunday Letter] date from the eleventh century, one might speculate that part of its legitimacy derived from its similarity, in some respects, to the work of Wulfstan, whose sermons also speak of the national disasters about to be visited upon the English for their many sins. It is significant that Letters C and E have been augmented with his writings and adopt some of his phrases, and Letters B, E and F are found side by side with his authentic works. The letter’s apocalyptic sermonizing would not have sounded excessive to any audience familiar with Wulfstan’s style and substance.

In her discussion of Letter C in particular, Haines seems to come within a hairs-breadth of suggesting that Wulfstan is indeed the translator/editor of this Old English version.

Ælfric, on the other hand, appears to have mostly ignored it. While he does state that Sundays are for rest and for going to church (gan to cyrcan, Godes lof to gehyrenne [ÆHom 17.72]), he doesn’t go beyond sensible patristic advice on the keeping of Sundays.

What I find fascinating is that the Sunday Letter tradition spends most of its time on three topics: what you shouldn’t do on Sundays, punishments that will happen if you do things on Sundays, and wondrous events that happened on Sundays—it says very little about what should be done. In particular, the advice in the anonymous homily cited before shows up nowhere here, particularly attendance at the Offices: “…he at the least should come on Sundays and on feastdays to morning-song and to mass and to evensong…”

So—was there an expectation that laity should be at the Offices? Apparently Caesarius of Arles thought so. The old Catholic Encyclopedia attributes to him the statement that laity should attend Sunday Vespers and while this statement is then cited ad nauseum across the Internet by Catholic apologists, I’ve yet to see an actual citation to a homily or treatise.  Thus, while the Sunday Letter tradition gives us some interesting material to work with, I’m still left with questions concerning how broadly laity were expected to be at Sunday Offices.

5 thoughts on “Sunday Observance in Anglo-Saxon England

  1. Mockingbird

    The following passage from the 15th-century work Dives and Pauper. The writer covers some of the same ground that your anonymous homelist does:

    The peple thise dayys is wol indevout to God and to holy chirche…they ben loth to comyn in holy chyrche…and wol loth to heryn Gods servyse. Late they comyn and sone gon agen awey. Gyf they ben ther a lytil while, hem thynkyth wol longe. They han lever gon to the taverne than to holy chirche, lever to heryn a tale or a song of Robyn Hood or of som rybaurye than to heryn messe or matins or onything of Goddis servise or ony word of God.

    In your place my next stop would be to examine the confessors’ manuals and other penitential literature to see what people were asked when they were shriven, and what their confessors were advised to ask them. But I expect you’ve done just that long since.☺

  2. MadPriest

    It’s a little off thread but this post brought to my mind the words of a traditional English folk song.

    On Christmas Day it happened so,
    Down in the meadows forth to plough.
    As we were a ploughing on so fast,
    Up comes sweet Jesus, himself at last.

    “Oh man, oh man, what makes you plough
    So hard upon the Lord’s birthday?”
    The farmer he answered him with great speed,
    “For to plough this day we have great need.”

    His arms did quaver to and fro,
    His arms did quaver, he could not plough.
    The ground did open and let him in,
    Before that he could repent of sin.

    His wife and children are out of place,
    His beasts and cattle, they die away.
    His beasts and cattle, they die away,
    For the breaking of our Lord’s birthday.

    Who knows when this song was originally sung but its sentiments can be traced back to early Anglo Saxon Christianity.

  3. Derek Olsen


    That’s awesome! Yes, that’s exactly the kind of thing that the Sunday Letter describes. Y’all remember the story of Abiram, Dathan, and Korah from the Torah? They decided that Levites could offer incense to God just as well well as the Aaronic priests could and when they came before the Lord, the earth opened it’s mouth and swallowed them (in a really interesting parallel to Canaanite portrayals of Mot, the god of death, but that’s for another post…) Well—some editions of the Sunday Letter take the story but fudges the facts to say that these guys had sinned by not keeping Sunday holy and that’s why the ground had swallowed them. So—you’re absolutely right; the notion of the ewarth swallowing someone who profanes a holy-day can be directly tied back to these letters conceptually and possibly literarily as well!


    I think I’ve heard that snippet recently but instead of Robin Hood it mentioned golf and traveling soccer team games… :-)

    I haven’t check the penitentials on it yet, though that’s a great idea—this is a side tangent of a liturgical year project and I’m desperately trying not to chase all of the interesting hares that pop up.

  4. Jeffery BeBeau


    Forgive me for being off topic, but I was unable to find a contact form on your site.

    I want to say thank you for your site, it is like an answer to pray and I know I am going to have a delightful time searching through it. So much of what I have found here and on the Julian of Norwich website reflects my own personal views. I’d certainly like to be able to email you and discuss similar interests.

    Jeff BeBeau

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