God bless my epiglottis: why I love the Lorica of Laidcenn

In this blog, I have written a lot about Anglo-Saxon prayer, medicine and poetry. Of course, these aren’t exclusive categories: medicine sometimes involved prayer, and prayers could be in the form of poetry. And sometimes, the same text can be all three. The Lorica of Laidcenn is a good example of this. A lorica is also known as a ‘breastplate prayer’, one in which the speaker asks God to protect each and every part of his or her body, giving a list of these parts (in the same way as confessional prayers often confess the sins which are attributed to each body part), and was traditional in the early medieval church of Ireland, which was influential upon English prayer and manuscript culture. The oldest surviving copy of the Lorica of Laidcenn can be found in the ninth-century Book of Nunnaminster (London, British Library Harley MS 2965); another copy is in the Lacnunga collection (in London, British Library Harley MS 585) on which I have written many times over the past two and a half years: this copy has an Old English gloss above the Latin words of the prayer.

The speaker of the Lorica opens by asking God to protect them from danger, calling also upon the heavenly host for aid:

Suffragare trinitas unitas,

unitatis miserere trinitas.

Suffragare q(ue)so mihi posito

maris sonum magni uelet in periculo …

Help (me), O Trinity, O Unity,

Have pity, O Trinity of Unity,

Help me, I ask, placed

In peril even as in a great sea …

Lacnunga, ll. 315-322, ed. and trans. Edward Pettit

The speaker then asks Christ to defend them completely – and they clearly mean it, because they then name each part of the body in a prayer for their protection, picturing themself as being under attack from demons throwing spears. Over a hundred body parts are named, including the septum and the spleen! The speaker concludes by asking that God may shield the five senses and upon any body parts which they might have forgotten about, so that they might grow old, blot out their sins with good deeds, and go up to heaven.

Har2965.38r start of Lorica
The opening of the Lorica of Laidcenn in the Book of Nunnaminster. London, British Library Harley MS 2965, f. 38r.

I once spoke about the Lorica at the Leeds International Medieval Congress, and afterwards a member of the audience asked me if it could be understood in the light of mindful meditation practices. I was very pleased to get that question – I too had been thinking that it was a bit like the Body Scan, a form of meditation in which the practitioner must concentrate his or her attention on each part of the body, one by one, starting with the feet and working upwards, part by part. Contemporary, secular mindfulness was inspired by Buddhism, which, of course, is far more ancient than the Lorica of Laidcenn. I have no reason to suppose that the lorica was directly influenced by that religion, but I suppose it is possible that Christian meditative practices had all kinds of roots. (As an aside, the idea of Buddhism influencing western Christianity and European literature is not all that outlandish: John C. Hirsh wrote a chapter in his book The Boundaries of Faith about the influence of Buddhism upon late medieval English works such as the play Everyman and Chaucer’s Pardoner’s Tale). The speaker of the prayer becomes aware of just how many parts the human body has, and dwells on each one with care and attention.

As I said, the version in Harley MS 585 has an Old English gloss – each word of the Latin is translated above the line. Unusually, the script used for the Latin main text is the same as that used in the gloss, a late Anglo-Saxon minuscule:

Har585.152r opening of Lorica
The opening of the Lorica of Laidcenn in London, British Library Harley MS 585, f. 152r.

In manuscripts of this era, it is more normal to see Caroline minuscule used for Latin, with Anglo-Saxon minuscule being retained for English writing:

DIM opening Ar155.175v
Latin script in Caroline minuscule, with an Old English gloss in an Anglo-Saxon vernacular minuscule. London, British Library Arundel MS 155, f. 175v.

This unusual feature may be accounted for by the fact that Harley MS 585 is almost exclusively written in English: except in the Lorica, Latin only appears fleetingly, such as when the text recommends that you sing a certain psalm or prayer.

It is also worth noting the fact that Latin was not the only language with a complex vocabulary for overlooked body parts. Judging from this lorica, Old English had native terms for most of those listed in the prayer without borrowing from Latin, and only occasionally having to paraphrase. It’s fair to point out that it is difficult to find modern English equivalences for Latin and Old English terms, but it is certainly clear that anatomy was known about and codified in both languages. Thus, the uvula is uba in Latin and hræctunge in Old English; the larynx is guguilio in Latin and þrotbolla in the vernacular; the epiglottis sublingua and undertunge. English wasn’t just the mother tongue, it was the undertongue too. Even the Hebrew names of the angels are translated: cheruphin [sic] is glossed as ‘wisdomes gefylnes’ (‘the fullness of wisdom’), seraphin as ‘godes lufu onbernes’ (‘God’s love incense’), Michael ‘swa swa god’ (‘just like God’) and Gabriel ‘godes strengu’ (‘the strength of God’). The translator, though presumably knowing no Hebrew, had a general idea of the meanings of these words.

Har585.152v Angels
Cherubim, seraphim, Michael and Gabriel. London, British Library Harley MS 585, f. 152v.

Both poet and translator have a way with words that I am very fond of. The speaker asks God to protect their whole body with its ten ‘doors’: presumably these refer to the orifices (although I have struggled to make these add up). They do not simply pray to be protected from death, but that sickness and pain ‘cannot thrust the life from my body’ (‘de meo posit uitam trudere … corpore). It’s a beautiful, compassionate poem with a wonderful sense of concern for the whole person, physical and spiritual.

Har2965.40r end of Lorica
End of the Lorica. London, British Library Harley MS 2965, f. 40r.

Updated 27/05/18 to add extra angel information

Works used:

Hirsh, John C. The Boundaries of Faith: the Development and Transmission of Medieval Spirituality. Studies in the History of Christian Thought 67. Leiden, New York and Köln: E. J. Brill, 1996.

Pettit, Edward , ed. and trans. Anglo-Saxon Remedies, Charms, and Prayers from British Library MS Harley 585, The Lacnunga. 2 vols. Mellen Critical Editions and Translations 6. Lewiston, Queenston and Lampeter: Edwin Mellen Press, 2001.

4 Comments Add yours

  1. sunroseclear says:

    Always enjoy your posts, Kate! 10 doors: 2 below, 1 belly button, 1 mouth, 2 nostrils, 2 ears, 2 eyes? Belly button is cheating a bit, more like a little lint closet…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. katehthomas says:

      Ahh, I didn’t think of that one!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. florenceandtheai says:

    Going strictly on rough resemblance, but does (th)rotbolla equate to “throat ball”? It’d be a rather alarmingly specific description of the larynx.


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