Galba A. xiv: the Cinderella of medieval prayerbooks

I research medieval prayerbooks.  When I say that, it conjures up an image of a gorgeous, multicoloured, exquisitely-decorated Book of Hours.  Like this one:

Parisian Book of Hours, c. 1410.  Via Wikimedia Commons.

Unfortunately, they’re not all like that.  Some of them look more like this:

London, British Library Cotton Galba A. xiv, fol. 142r

That is London, British Library Cotton Galba A. xiv, an eleventh-century English manuscript which, for convenience’s sake, I tend to refer to as the Galba Prayerbook.  The term ‘prayerbook’, however, might suggest something smarter and better-organised than this.  It’s a rag-bag of texts in no particular order, with, as editors of the manuscript admit, no apparent purpose or use – a private prayerbook, a miscellany, a few gatherings of parchment sheets folded together into a tiny book and then used as practice fodder for new scribes and translators, some of whom were not exactly the best copyists or the best Latinists.  It’s not pretty; it has scribal errors; it may have had a few folios removed at some point; and, to top it all off, was horribly wrecked in a fire in the eighteenth century, to the extent that many folios have unreadable gaps and some are completely illegible.  In 1988, this fragile manuscript was heroically edited by Bernard Muir, and it has recently been added to the British Library’s online collection of digitised manuscripts.  The Galba Prayerbook might look like a sad, unprepossessing wreck in places, and even at its best it is nothing much to look at, but it is something of a favourite of mine.  Someone at a monastery or convent in eleventh-century England evidently thought it was a good idea to write down a lot of prayers, poems, medical remedies, remixes of liturgical texts, excerpts from the psalms, and hymns with musical notation.  Oh, and a letter from Jesus.  But that will have to wait for another blogpost.

Let’s start off with folios 110r-114r, where we find the opening lines of three groups of psalms, each followed by a short prayer to the crucified Christ.  The psalms are the Seven Penitential Psalms, widely used in medieval prayer, and the three prayers following them were originally private prayers from the Carolingian and Anglo-Saxon church.  But the combination of these particular psalms with these particular prayers comes straight from the tenth-century monastic how-to book known as the Regularis concordia, mentioned occasionally in this blog, which gives directions for the liturgy of the Veneration of the Cross on Good Friday, ending with this very psalm/prayer arrangement.

The Latin text in Galba is pretty close to what is in the Regularis concordia: it looks as if someone has just selected their favourite part of the text and copied it out for use in their own devotions.  That’s not unique – other manuscripts have other versions of the Veneration prayers – but what Galba does have is a good translation of each prayer into Old English.  Perhaps this was an exercise for Latin learners; perhaps it was intended to allow the reader to pray in his or her own language; perhaps both.  But it is a good example of how the mother tongue was actively used in the worship of the eleventh-century church.

Vernacularisation isn’t the only manner in which the Galba Prayerbook adapts the language of the liturgy: there are also a few changes in gender.  In an earlier post, I noted how prayers written using masculine grammatical endings sometimes had feminine endings added to them, between lines and in the margins.  But if we are tempted to think that manuscripts were only ever written for men, and women merely had to adapt them for their use, the Galba Prayerbook reminds us that this process worked both ways.  In my post about confession, I mentioned the wildly popular confessional prayer ‘Deus inaestimabilis misericordiae’.  This can be found in Galba, too: in a female voice:


DIM gender GalA.xiv.53r
Female and male sinners on folio 53r

The second line here reads ‘sed ego miserrima omnium peccatrix’ (‘but I, the most pitiable sinner of all’): the feminine -a and -trix endings show that the prayer was copied for a woman’s use.  Yet someone has masculinised these by adding -m’ (an abbreviation for the masculine -mus) and -tor between the lines.  So we can see how the copyist has chosen to write out the text for her own use, as a woman – and a later user has made it personal for himself, as a man.  For these reasons, it seems as if the Galba Prayerbook was passed between a men’s and a women’s institution at least once in its history.

A few Anglo-Saxon manuscripts include musical notation, and the Galba Prayerbook is one of them:

Neumes GalAxiv.103r
From the hymn ‘Ardua spes mundi’, folio 103r

Now I just need to learn how to sing it!  On the other hand, if you’re not well enough for singing, the manuscript also contains a few medical recipes .  Rather pleasingly, two of them, for keeping the body healthy and preventing demonic attacks (on fol. 118r-v) are found in the Leechbook, which I have written about before.  It’s a reminder that medical texts weren’t just found in the big medical manuals, but were also copied into other manuscripts as and where they were needed.

But probably my favourite part is a group of short English prayers on fols. 105v-107v, first referred to as the ‘Prayers ‘ad horas” – prayers for the monastic hours – by R. A. Banks in 1965.  Monks and nuns prayed and sang the psalms at seven appointed times every day, and some laypeople wished to emulate the monastic life in a small way, by saying short prayers which linked each part of their own day to the day of Christ’s crucifixion; the Prayers ad horas were perfect for these purposes.  One of the major case studies in my thesis is based on these prayers and their Latin counterparts, which appear in a surprisingly high number of Carolingian and Anglo-Saxon liturgical books and prayer collections, such as this one, from the Leofric Collectar (from the third quarter of the eleventh century, a few decades later than Galba):

Leofric None Har2961.40v
London, British Library Harley 2961, fol. 40v

Domine iesu christe qui hora diei nona in crucis patibulo confitenti latroni intra męnia paradisi transire iussisti; te suppliciter confitentes· peccata nostra deprecamur deleas· ut post obitum nostrum paradisi nobis gaudia introire gaudentes concedas.

O Lord Jesus Christ, who at the ninth hour of the day, on the gallows of the cross, urged the confessing thief to cross over into the joys of paradise, we, humbly confessing, beg that you may blot out our sins, so that after our death you may grant us to enter the joys of paradise rejoicing.

The Old English versions in the Galba Prayerbook are mostly literal, accurate translations of the Latin, but here and there we can see slight differences, and nowhere are these more apparent than in this prayer for the afternoon hour of None:

AdHorasNone Gal.Axiv.107r
Galba A. xiv, fol. 107r


Min drihten hælend Crist, þu þe on rode galgan ahangen wære and þone scaþan þu onfenge þe on þe gelyfde on þa fægernesse neorxnawonges gefean, and hine mid þe feran lete; þu wære rice cyning þeah þu on rode hangadest.  Ic þe eadmodlice mine synna andette and ic bidde þe for þinre micelan mildheortnesse þæt ic mote æfter minre forðfore neorxnawonges gatu agan.

Muir, ed., Pre-Conquest Prayer-Book, p.139

My Lord Saviour Christ, you who were hung on the gallows of the cross and received the criminal who believed in you into the beauty of the joy of paradise, and let him go with you: you were a powerful king even though you hung on a cross.  I humbly confess my sins and ask you, by your great mercy, that I may reach the gates of paradise after my going hence.

The Old English gently expands the Latin here and there: the ‘confessing thief’ becomes the thief who believed in Christ, who doesn’t just tell the thief to enter Paradise, but lets him go there with him.  The plural pronouns become singular: the speaker is praying for him- or herself personally.  And the translator lets in a little phrase which has no basis whatever in any copy of the Latin prayer that I know of: you were a powerful king even though you hung on a cross.  Praying in the mother tongue, the speaker dramatises the story of the Passion a bit more, deepens it, brings out the paradoxes of it and the emotion a little bit more.

As I have said, the Book of Hours wasn’t around in the Anglo-Saxon church; but both Banks and Muir have suggested that it is in the Galba Prayerbook, and in these prayers in particular, that we can see the Book of Hours beginning to take shape.  So maybe this Cinderella of medieval manuscripts does have something in common with its more beautiful counterparts, after all.


Related reading:

Banks, R. A.  ‘Some Anglo-Saxon Prayers from British Museum MS. Cotton Galba A.xiv.’  Notes and Queries, n. s. 12:6 (1965): 207-13.

Muir, Bernard James, ed.  A Pre-Conquest English Prayer-Book (BL MSS Cotton Galba A.xiv and Nero A.ii (ff. 3-13)).  HBS 103.  Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 1988.

Muir, Bernard J.  ‘The Early Insular Prayer Book Tradition and the Development of the Book of Hours’.  In The Art of the Book: its Place in Medieval Worship, edited by Margaret M. Manion and Bernard J. Muir, 9-19.  Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 1998.

For the Veneration prayers:

Gjerløw, Lilli.  Adoratio Crucis: The Regularis Concordia and the Decreta Lanfranci. Manuscript Studies in the Early Medieval Church of Norway.  Oslo: Norwegian Universities Press, 1961.



10 Comments Add yours

  1. docstormy says:

    amazing man does seems to really change that much over the years……


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