Have mercy, guide me, guard me: an eighth- (and eleventh-) century prayer

It’s Lent, and time for something a bit more penitential than some of the glorious manuscripts and linguistic fun that I have been writing about in recent posts.  It happens that a lot of my current work (adapting my doctoral thesis for publication) has been on confessional prayers of various kinds, which is pretty convenient.  Since the start of the season, I have been tweeting short excerpts from the prayers of confession and contrition used in the Anglo-Saxon church, which is the theme of my final chapter.  Although it’s difficult to quote and translate easily in 140 characters or fewer (and medieval monks didn’t have hashtags to squeeze in), I have been attempting to convey the sheer variety of this genre.  Some of the prayers were definitely intended for use with a priest, in front of an altar and relics; others may have been used alone and/or at home.  Some are in Latin, others in Old English; some were adapted from liturgical sources, others composed for extra-liturgical usage; some quote from the psalms, or were written in the Carolingian church and spread across the Christian world, and others were written in England.  Most are prose, a few are in poetry.

It is impossible to cover all of these subjects in a single blogpost, so instead I will look at just one prayer, which begins with the words ‘Dominator domine deus omnipotens, qui es trinitas una’, in which the speaker asks for forgiveness, expresses penitence, and asks for the prayers of the patriarchs, prophets and apostles of the Bible.  I know of it from five different prayer collections: a ninth-century manuscript from Tours (Troyes, Bibliothèque municipale MS 1742), two English examples of a similar age (Cambridge, University Library Ll. 1. 10, the Book of Cerne; London, British Library Harley MS 2965, the Book of Nunnaminster), and two eleventh-century southern English manuscripts (London, British Library Cotton MS Galba A. xiv; and Cambridge, Corpus Christi College MS 391, the Portiforium of St Wulstan, beginning at the foot of page 604).  In this post, I will focus on just two of these, for reasons of image availability: Nunnaminster and Galba.

The Book of Nunnaminster is a collection of prayers and Biblical excerpts which was originally written in the late eighth century, probably by or for women, and is known to have been owned by a Winchester convent a century later.  A number of texts were added to it in the ninth and tenth centuries, but ‘Qui es trinitas una’ was part of the original line-up, appearing on fols. 16v-18v (pp. 58-60 of Walter de Gray Birch’s 1889 edition), immediately after extracts from the gospel narratives of the passion of Christ; in this manuscript it is attributed to St Gregory.

The Galba Prayerbook was written sometime between the 1020s and 1040s, and is now thought to have been written in Leominster.  Severely wrecked in a fire in 1731, along with many others in the collection of its then owner Robert Cotton, this manuscript is illegible in many places due to fire and water damage.  However, Bernard Muir has done a heroic job of editing it (as far as is possible).  The Galba Prayerbook, which I wrote a whole blogpost about in April 2016, is a strangely random collection of prayers, mostly in Latin but with a few being in Old English.  Both masculine and feminine grammatical forms are used in the texts, and a number of different scribes, with greatly differing levels of skill in writing and in Latin grammar, to the point that Muir has suggested that it may have been used not just as a prayer collection but also as an exercise book for novices (Prayer-Book, pp. xvi-xvii).  ‘Qui es trinitas una’ appears on fols. 39r-45r (pp. 56-60 of Muir’s edition), and is followed by another long prayer of contrition.

In many ways, the two manuscripts couldn’t be more different.  The Book of Nunnaminster is 220 x 170 mm, though it isn’t very thick, being only 41 folios long; the leaves are big enough for twenty-one long lines per page.  The Galba Prayerbook, on the other hand, at only 150 x 110mm, and with more than three times the number of surviving folios, would originally have been a handy little pocket volume.   The leaves are so small that it is not atypical to have only eleven lines, each of only a few words’ length, on each page.

Nunnaminster is written in a rather lovely, orderly, consistent insular hybrid minuscule script, with some ‘oc’-shaped letter as and a flat-topped, open letter g, and a long-legged, swooping letter x.  And, as is typical in English manuscripts of this time, following the Irish-Northumbrian style, important initials are filled in with coloured inks and surrounded by dotting.  It is a really pleasurable kind of script to look at.

London, British Library Harley MS 2965, fol. 17v

Galba, on the other hand, is a far less showy manuscript, one written in a number of different hands, some of them better than others.  ‘Qui es trinitas una’ is an interesting example of this.  The prayer begins in a rather nice Caroline script, with elegant little st and ct ligatures, hooked ę, and little flourishes on a letter p.

London, British Library Cotton MS Galba A. xiv, fol. 39r

Overleaf, however, everything changes dramatically.  The fine, even hand is replaced with one much larger and inexpert.  The scribe has left out occasional letters, the odd word, and even a whole line of text.  It’s because of this sudden switch that I think ‘Qui es trinitas una’ must be one of the texts which, as Muir argues, was written as a teaching text for new scribes: perhaps the teacher started it off and let the pupil finish, correcting or him or her here and there.

2nd page GalAxiv39v
You missed a bit.  London, British Library Cotton MS Galba A. xiv, fol. 39v.

In each manuscrupt, the opening letter D is decorated in a style of the time.  Galba‘s is relatively restrained (and this is about as flamboyant as this manuscript ever gets):

London, British Library Cotton MS Galba A. xiv, fol. 39r

Nunnaminster, on the other hand, has a fantastic decorated initial in coloured inks, terminating in a rather startled-looking animal head:

You would be startled too if your tongue suddenly turned into interlace.  London, British Library Harley MS 2965, fol. 16v.

The actual text of the prayer is broadly the same in the two manuscripts, although there are several minor variants in phrasing between the two: this is pretty normal in the copying of medieval texts, particularly considering that over two centuries passed between the writing of Nunnaminster and Galba.

But let’s talk about the content of the prayer itself.  Early on, the speaker says,

Miserere mei deus angelorum, dirige me rex archangelorum.  Custodi me per orationes patriarcharum, per merita prophetarum, per suffragia apostolorum

Book of Nunnaminster, Harley MS 2965, fol. 17r

Have mercy on me, God of the angels.  Guide me, King of the archangels.  Guard me through the prayers of the patriarchs, through the merits of the prophets, through the intercessions of the apostles …

This effectively serves as a summary of the whole prayer (although in reverse order).  After these opening words, the speaker asks for the prayers of the Biblical patriarchs and prophets, and the apostles of Christ, listing many names, telling their stories, invoking them in his aid.  May Abel, the first-crowned martyr, pray for me …  May Isaiah, whose lips were cleansed by heavenly fire, pray for me … May all the holy apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ assist me …  He has a great crowd of supporters assisting him from heaven.

After this, the speaker asks for God’s guidance in turning from sin and towards virtue: banish from me the sadness of this world, and increase in me spiritual joy … diminish my pride, and perfect in me true humility.  The speaker uses every synonym in his thesaurus (or wordhord, as an Anglo-Saxon might have said) to express this: repel, extinguish, restrain; give, grant, ignite.  As with so many confessional prayers of this period, ‘Qui es trinitas una’ is not just self-castigation, but also something poetic, something you might actually want to recite: Allen Frantzen argues (Literature of Penance, p. 90) that these confessions were intended to be pleasurable to hear and to say.

Finally, the speaker asks for God’s mercy.  He makes sweeping confessions of sin: ‘ego peccator sum, et innumerabilia sunt delicta mea’.  ‘I am a sinner, and my sins are innumerable’ – a claim which, again, is typical of confessions of this kind.  And then, in almost the final words of the prayer, he asks God’s aid, not merely to live a good life, but to have the right attitude in his heart:

Suscita in me fletum penitentię & mollifica cor meum durum et lapideum & accende in me ignem timoris tui domine quia ego sum cinis & mortuus … doce me facere uoluntatem tuam quia deus meus es tu.

Galba Prayerbook, Cotton MS Galba A. xiv, fols. 44v-45r

Awaken in me the tears of penitence, and soften my hard and stony heart, and ignite in me the fire of the fear of you, O Lord; because I am dead ash … teach me to do your will, because you are my God.

Confession isn’t just about reciting a list of sins and promising to do better; in ‘Qui es trinitas una’, we see it as being something that moves the emotions, something passionate like a fire, and about the relationship between God and the penitent.  Medieval confessions can be tough and uncompromising, but the composers of them appear to have gone out of their way to use flamboyant language, pleasurable to say, and which stirred up the emotions away from themselves and towards God.


Works used:

Walter de Gray Birch, An Ancient Manuscript of the Eighth or Ninth Century: Formerly Belonging to St Mary’s Abbey, or Nunnaminster, Winchester (London: Simpkin, 1889).

Allen J. Frantzen, The Literature of Penance in Anglo-Saxon England (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1983).

Bernard James Muir, 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).

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