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The meaning, practice and context of private prayer in late Anglo-Saxon England
By Kate Heulwen Thomas
PhD Dissertation, University of York, 2011
Abstract: This thesis is a detailed discussion of the relatively neglected subject of private prayer in late Anglo-Saxon England, mainly focusing on three eleventh-century monastic codices: the Galba Prayerbook (London, British Library Cotton Nero A. ii + Galba A. xiv), Ælfwine’s Prayerbook (London, British Library Cotton Titus D. xxvii + xxvi) and the Portiforium of St Wulstan (Cambridge, Corpus Christi College 391). Chapter One provides a background to the following chapters by introducing a wide variety of English and Continental texts from the ninth century. This chapter demonstrates the many different prayer genres, prayer guides and attitudes to prayer which would be inherited by the late Anglo-Saxons. Chapter Two, which focuses on private adaptations of the canonical Offices, examines the different manuscript contexts in which private prayers were found. It argues that series of prayers were combined into increasingly sophisticated ordines for personal devotion, and that it was from these that the Special Offices arose. Chapter Three applies these concepts to prayers to the Holy Cross. After a discussion of the evidence for prayer before a cross, and involving the sign of the cross, it examines private prayer programmes based on the liturgy for Good Friday and those from which the Special Office of the Cross developed. Chapter Four turns to private confessions, arguing that these prayers were somewhat different from those hitherto discussed. It therefore begins with an exploration of the many kinds of confession which existed in the late Anglo-Saxon church, before examining a number of private confessional prayers in detail. Throughout this thesis, emphasis is placed on the bodily experience of prayer in its time and place, and upon the use of each text as it is found in the prayerbooks of eleventh-century England.
Private prayer has been part of the Christian tradition from the very beginning. Furthermore, as the quotation from Matthew’s gospel above shows, set prayers have always been regarded as a major component of private prayer, which can, of course, also include spontaneous prayer. By the time of King Alfred (c. 848-899), about whom Asser writes in the second quotation above, the corpus of texts believed to be suitable for private prayer had expanded greatly, to include both Biblical texts such as the Paternoster and psalms, as well as compositions from late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages.
Indeed, Asser’s reference to ‘celebrationes horarum’ reveals that some of the set prayers intended for the king‟s personal use were derived from the monastic liturgy for the Divine Office. Private prayer has always been an integral part of the Christian tradition and, during Late Antiquity, it would appear that such prayers were commonly undertaken at the third, sixth and ninth hours of the day. Evidence for this practice can be seen in Hippolytus’ Apostolic Tradition:
if indeed thou art at home pray at the third hour and praise God; but if thou art elsewhere and that time comes, pray in thy heart to God. For in this hour Christ was seen nailed upon the tree.
One must praise God not only in words, but also in one‟s inner thoughts.