Gentle deaths and softening hearts: an Old English confession

The main focus of my academic work is on private prayer in eleventh-century English religious institutions, and at least three-quarters of the prayers that I look at are in Latin.  However, people did pray in their native language, and a number of prayers in Old English survive: some of these are known to be translations from Latin, while others do not have a known source.  I’ve written a couple of posts on some of my favourite vernacular prayers before now, such as the Sunday morning prayers in Ælfwine’s Prayerbook, and the prayers for the monastic Hours in the Galba Prayerbook.  Am I particularly drawn to prayer in Old English?  In both of these posts, I wrote about how the compiler or translator of the prayers focused on emotional depth and connection to God.  Although these qualities are by no means absent from Latin prayers, they do seem to be a particular feature of prayer in the mother tongue.

Back in December, I wrote about a trip to see the manuscript known as London, British Library Cotton Tiberius A. iii, an eleventh-century miscellany of prayers, confessions, homilies, prognostics and general religious knowledge.  After returning home, I realised that there was something else in the manuscript that I had needed to look at.  So I’ve been back again, and while I had the chance I took a quick look at a favourite prayer of mine on fols. 46v-47r.  It begins with the words ‘Min drihten leof, for þinre þære mycelan mildheortnysse’ (‘My dear Lord, for your great mercy’), and can also be found on pages 601-3 of Cambridge, Corpus Christi College 391 (the Portiforium of St Wulstan) and near the start of London, British Library Royal 2 B. v (the Royal Psalter).  The images and quotations below are from the Royal Psalter, where it has been written onto the back of a leaf concluding a series of Latin prayers, and before the preface to the psalter itself.

London, British Library Royal 2 B. v, fol. 6v
London, British Library Royal 2 B. v, fol. 6v

The prayer begins with the speaker asking God to have mercy upon him – the grammar assumes a male speaker – before going straight into the heavy stuff:

Min drihten ne læt me næfre færlicum deaðe of þissum earman life gewitan · ac loce hwenne min tima beo. 7 þin willa si · þæt ic þis læne lif for lætan sceole.  Læt me mid gedefnysse mine dagas geendian.

(My Lord, do not ever let me depart from this wretched life through a sudden death, but look when my time will be and when it may be your will that I should give up this temporary life.  Let me end my days with gentleness.)

It’s a disarmingly honest statement of his human fragility and vulnerability to a sudden death: one ungentle and – as Victoria Thompson writes in Dying and Death in Later Anglo-Saxon England – unmarked by the dignity of the appropriate rituals.

The speaker continues by praying that, before he leaves this life, he may have forgiveness for absolutely everything that he has done against God’s will.  Like a lot of Anglo-Saxon confessions, this one expresses the concept of ‘absolutely everything’ via a series of paired opposites:

dæges oððe nihtæs ·

gewealdes oððe ungewealdes.

on worde . oððe on weorce . oððe on minum þystrum geþance.

(By day or by night, deliberately or accidentally, in word or in deed or in my secret thought.)

The distinction between words, deeds and thoughts is a common one in confessional prayers, both in Latin and in Old English, but I don’t know of any others that specify secret thought as this one does.

The speaker then asks for the gift of various virtues, including that of sorrow over his sins:

Stonyheart Roy2Bv.6v
A stony heart. London, British Library Royal 2 B. v, fol. 6v

Ge nehxa þa heard heortnysse minre þære stænenran heortan . 7 forgif me teara genihtsumnysse · þæt ic mæge þa mis dæda bewepan 7 be hreowsian · þe ic earming dæghwamlice on gean þinne willan gewyrce.

(Soften the hardheartedness of my stony heart, and give me an abundance of tears, so that I may weep and mourn over my misdeeds, which I, a wretch, daily commit against your will.)

After asking God for more virtues, the speaker begins to wrap up the prayer by asking blessings upon those he loves:

Ic bidde þe min drihten eadmodlice þæt ðu helpe ealra minra freonda . 7 maga . 7 ealra þæra þe to minre ge bedrædene þencað .7 hyhtað lybbendra 7 forð gewitenra … Eac ic bidde þe min drihten þæt ðu ge miltsige eallum þam þe me god didon · 7 god tæhton.

(I ask you humbly, my Lord, that you help all of my friends and relations and all of those living and dying who think and hope for my prayer … Also, I ask you, my Lord, that you have mercy on all those who have done and taught me good.)

So what is it that I like about this prayer?  Like the Sunday morning prayers that I discussed in my earlier post, ‘For þinre þære mycelan mildheortnysse’ takes a look into the heart and the desires of the person praying – into his ‘secret thought’.  He doesn’t just confess his sins, he wants to weep over them.  He imagines God himself looking into his future, and asks for the gift of a gentle death, something I haven’t seen in other confessional prayers.  Finally, we get a glimpse into the life of a person who cares about his friends, family and those who have helped him, a network of people supporting each other in prayer.

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