Have mercy on me, O God: Psalm 50 in the Anglo-Saxon church

Cambridge, Trinity College MS R. 17. 1, fol. 88v.

I have a new article out!  ‘Which Psalms Were Important to the Anglo-Saxons? The Psalms in Tenth- and Eleventh-Century Prayer and Medical Remedies’ is part of a special edition of English Studies on the psalms in Anglo-Saxon and Anglo -Norman England, edited by Helen Appleton and Francis Leneghan, and I am grateful to both of them for organising the edition and being so helpful during the publication process.

In my own article, I discuss the use of the psalms in Anglo-Saxon life outside of the formal services of the daily offices in the monastery: both in the how-to-pray guides that are the main focus of my research, and also in medical remedies, because certain psalms were believed to have curative properties.  But which psalms?  Why do some crop up again and again in these texts – such as (using the numbering found in the Vulgate Latin Bible) Pss. 3, 50, 53, 118, and 101/142?  Some psalms were sung daily in the monastery, so it is logical to assume that these would have been better known.  And some have specific relevance to their subject matter.  If you were assembling a text for praying against one’s enemies, for washing the eyes, or for praying in the morning, then of course you would pick psalms about God triumphing over the speaker’s enemies (there’s lots of those), psalms which refer to the eyes, and psalms which speak of morning-time.

Psalm 50 is the one which crops up most of all.  It begins with the words ‘Miserere mei, Deus’ (‘Have mercy on me, O God’), and so do two other psalms, but this one was used in the monastic liturgy every day; so it is reasonable to assume that references to ‘Miserere mei’ denote this psalm, and it is understandable that its words hung upon the minds of monastic writers.  The text of the psalm in Latin and English can be found here.

London, British Library Cotton MS Vespasian A. i, fol. 51v

Unto the end, a psalm of David, when Nathan the prophet came to him after he had sinned with Bethsabee.

Psalm 50 was attributed to King David after the prophet Nathan condemned his adultery with Bathsheba (2 Samuel 12), when the king sent Bathsheba’s husband out to the front line of battle to get him conveniently out of the way (2 Samuel 11).

Bathsheba, David and Nathan.  Utrecht, Universiteitsbibliotheek MS 32, fol. 29r

Another reason why this psalm was so popular and important is because it was identified by Cassiodorus (in his Expositio psalmorum) as being one of the seven Penitential Psalms.  Thus the tenth-century Royal Psalter has this little note in the margin explaining the meaning of the psalm:

Margin note Roy2Bv.62v.PNG
London, British Library Royal MS 2. B. v, fol. 62v.

How I cannot be cleansed except through your mercy.

As already mentioned, the psalm was believed to be useful for curing all kinds of ailments.  These examples come from a recipe for a ‘Holy Drink’, a cure for dysentery, and one for something called þeoradl, ‘dry disease’, in which the psalm should be sung twelve times!

London, British Library Harley MS 585, fol. 138r
London British Library Royal MS 12. D. xvii, 106r
London British Library Royal MS 12. D. xvii, 44v

The special status of Psalm 50 can also be seen in its treatment in vernacular poetry.  A few important liturgical items (such as the creed and Lord’s Prayer) were loosely translated by poets working in Old English, expanding and explaining the doctrine behind the words.  The fact that Psalm 50 is included amongst these is itself a testament to its importance.

London, British Library Cotton MS Vespasian D. vi, fol. 70v.

Have mercy on me, O God, according to thy great mercy.  Have mercy on me, ruler of powers; you know the [thoughts] of men …

The words ‘Domine, labia mea aperies’ (Ps. 50:17, ‘O Lord, open thou our lips’) were used to open monastic prayer for the liturgical hours, and we can see this practice in more informal prayer collections too, such as this guide to morning prayer in the prefaces to the Tiberius Psalter.

Primitius enim TibCvi.21v.PNG
London, British Library Cotton MS Tiberius C. vi, fol. 21v.

… hurrying in silence to the church, bending the knee with the head placed upon the ground, with the Lord’s decoration [i.e. the sign of the cross], begin the verse ‘O Lord open my lips’ … and then the fiftieth [psalm], ‘Have mercy on me, O God, according to your great [mercy]’

Wherever it was to be found, ‘Miserere mei’ was always an essential part of the Anglo-Saxon religious life, whether for singing in the monastery, healing the sick, repenting of one’s sins, or simply in everyday prayer.

King David and his musicians.  London, British Library Cotton MS Vespasian A. i, fol. 30v

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