Telling God what he already knows: how to pray like an 11th-century monk

One of the great pleasures of my research is coming across little texts which open our eyes to the daily lives and inner experience of Anglo-Saxon men and women. My work mostly focuses on short rites for protection, healing and general life improvement – prayers, medical remedies, rituals to perform if you have lost your cattle – but probably my favourite of all is a short prayer guide from a manuscript dating to the second quarter of the eleventh century, known as Ælfwine’s Prayerbook (now divided into two manuscripts, London, British Library Cotton Titus D. xxvii and xxvi, and edited by Beate Günzel). The book originally belonged to Ælfwine, the Dean of the New Minster in Winchester, and was his personal compendium of prayers, scientific literature, calendars of saints’ days and all the liturgical texts that he needed as part of his deanly duties.

It’s pretty short, covering only two sides of a single leaf of the rather small manuscript, and is written in Old English, possibly dating from after Ælfwine’s possession of the manuscript. In this guide, which Günzel titles ‘Directions for Private Devotions’, you are advised to pray in the name of the Trinity every Sunday, saying a few Latin prayers such as the Benedicite and the Our Father, ‘because then the whole week will go better for you’. The guide suggests doing this every day when you first wake up. After these, you are given a short English prayer with which to ask God’s forgiveness. On Friday, you should stretch yourself out onto the earth and sing a penitential psalm. Then, over the page, there follows some advice on how to practise these devotions: do this secretly and alone; think how much Christ suffered for all humankind; there are no better prayers to use than these; and if you sing the psalms well every day, you can avoid hell, have a good life in this world, and God will help when you call on him.

So why do I like this text so much?  Here are four reasons:

  1. As far as I’m aware, the version in Ælfwine’s Prayerbook is the only surviving copy: it seems to be a little work which someone put together out of the bits and pieces of monastic liturgy in order to create their own individual, bespoke, utterly unique road map for meeting God in the everyday.
  1. This text gave rise to one of those happy (and rare!) moments in research when suddenly all the reading which I have done effortlessly connects up in my mind and all I need to do is just write it down. If I remember correctly, I first read the ‘Private Devotions’ sometime in early 2008, when I was just starting to work on Anglo-Saxon prayer for the first time. A few months later, I was reading a different text, a very popular Latin guide to prayer called De laude psalmorum (‘On the praise of the psalms’) that had been written some centuries earlier, and one sentence jumped out at me:

Nullatenus potes tua propria lingua nec humano sensu tam perfecte miseriam tuam ac tribulationem angustiamque diversarum temptationum explicare et illius misericordiam implorare quam in his psalmis et ceteris his similibus.

(You cannot in any way, in your own language, nor in human thought, so perfectly explain your suffering, and the trouble and constriction of various temptations, and ask his mercy as in these psalms and in others similar to them.)

Instantly I recognised these words. In the ‘Private Devotions’, the writer remarks:

Ne mæg ænig mann on his agen geþeode þa geswinc • 7 þara costnunga nearonessa þe him onbecumað gode swa fulfremedlice areccan• ne his mildheortnesse biddan swa he mæg mid þillicum sealmum 7 mid oþrum swilcum.

(No man can tell God so effectively, in his own language, of the hardship and oppression of the temptations which come to him, nor ask his mercy, as he can with these psalms and with other such.)

Although this is the only sentence from De laude psalmorum that appears in the ‘Private Devotions’, it’s an almost word-for-word translation, and it shows that somebody in eleventh-century Winchester was reading about that text and thinking about it. I wrote a short article about this discovery here. So much of academic research is about not knowing where you are going, not knowing whether the various things that you read will turn out to have any relevance to each other or to your work whatsoever; so reading this text always reminds me of how, just sometimes, everything magically comes together.

  1. The ‘Private Devotions’ give a context to the prayer texts that survive in relatively large numbers in Anglo-Saxon manuscripts. So much of the time, it is difficult to tell how monks and nuns would have used their prayerbooks. Did they just say one or two prayers, or a whole run of them? First thing in the morning, throughout the day, or at night? Alone, or with another monk? Enthusiastically or reluctantly? There’s no way of answering these questions for certain, but this little text at least gives us some idea of what monks and nuns were expected to do in their own prayer time. We are told when to pray (Sundays, Fridays, and in the morning); what to do with one’s body (stretched out upon the earth – judging from other such texts I’ve read, I would guess in the shape of a cross); the social context of these prayers (the reader was supposed to say them when alone); what to think about (Christ’s sufferings on the cross); and we are given reasons why saying these kinds of prayers was a good idea (because the week will go better for you; because you will have a good life both before and after death).
  1. But finally, and most importantly of all, I like this text because of what it shows us about how Anglo-Saxon monks and nuns felt about their prayer lives, both in chapel and in private; and this is clearest of all in that throwaway line from De laude psalmorum that I quoted above. ‘No man can tell God so effectively, in his own language, of the hardship and oppression of the temptations which come to him, nor ask his mercy, as he can with these psalms and with other such.’ God must know about the monk’s temptations already – isn’t he supposed to know everything? But nevertheless the user of this book is expected to tell him about these things; and not merely to reel off a list of sins (I’ll write about that sort of prayers another time) either, but to use the words of the psalms to communicate to God just how difficult everything was, how much he was struggling. This apparently insignificant little text is a tiny window into the minds of the Anglo-Saxon religious who put together the many prayer collections which have outlived their makers.
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