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Items 12-13, An Evening Prayer and A Morning Prayer: Introduction


1 Reinburg, “Prayer and the Book of Hours,” p. 41.

2 Reinburg, “Prayer and the Book of Hours,” p. 40.

3 J. Bossy, “Christian Life,” p. 148. For the variety of prayer directly related to the Mass, see the intro­duction to A Prayer at the Levation (item 17).

4 See Saenger, “Books of Hours.”

Origin, Genre, and Themes

Once monastic life moved out of the desert caves of Egypt and into the cloisters of Europe, the daily life of monks was governed by a regular cycle of prayers, readings, and singing, known as the canonical hours or divine office. The canonical hours divided the day into orderly units, with each office changing to reflect the cycles of the week and the lit­urgical year. Eventually the laity began to adopt similar practices, particularly through the use of Books of Hours, the small private prayer books that included the Hours of the Virgin or some other office that outlined prayers (including repetition of the Pater Noster and Ave Maria) for specific hours of the day and for days in the liturgical year. Virginia Rein­burg has described the rise of Books of Hours as evi­dence of a “desire to sanctify lay time, to render it holy” in imitation of the liturgical day of the clergy.1 The two prayers here can be seen as imitations of the hours of compline and lauds (the evening and dawn services).

Private prayer had, of course, circulated among the laity long before the spread of Books of Hours. As Reinburg comments, “Devout medieval people collected prayers the way twentieth-century cooks collect recipes.”2 The New Index of Middle English Verse in­cludes prayers to Christ, Mary, and numerous saints, and for a wide variety of pur­poses: chastity, warding off plague, protection from slander, and a prayer for those born in the month of May. In one sense, this variety can be seen as a consequence of the laity’s dis­tance from the Mass; John Bossy has suggested that “pluralism in prayer is one of the advantages of a relatively non-par­ticipatory rite.”3 Several other Middle English prayers for both evening and morning survive, and presumably, to a lay audience, the precise form of these prayers would matter less than the saying of them.

Despite the fact that these two prayers make an obvious pair, and appear as a pair in the only other manuscript that preserves both, they differ in rhetoric and content. The Evening Prayer distantly echoes the Pater Noster (Lord’s Prayer) in its content and its ex­pres­sion. It offers praise, asks for forgiveness, wards away temptation, and acknow­ledges both debts owed and incurred. Though its mention of the “ferynge of the fende” testifies to the night’s association with devils and evil spirits, this anxiety is more on display in the Morning Prayer, with its invocation of a guardian angel as protection against “evyll sprytys.” The Morning Prayer hints at the close relationship between prayers and charms. In Chaucer’s Miller’s Tale, when John the Carpenter confronts an uncanny sight in his own house, he utters a few lines of the “White Pater Noster,” a popular protective spell, and the Morning Prayerxpndtw2 is not an entirely different form of self-protection.

How these prayers were used remains uncertain. While both texts are short enough to be memorized and performed orally, lay people were increasingly encouraged to read prayers silently and privately.4 Neither prayer has the kind of simplicity that a spell like John’s “White Pater Noster” needed in order to be ready at hand for quick recitation, and if they were intended to be memorized, their inclusion in Ashmole 61 suggests that they first needed to be read or taught. Late medieval treatises on prayer stress that the devout needed concen­tration and emotional engagement for prayer to be effective, but the wording of these prayers does not involve heartfelt contemplation of Christ’s suffer­ings or His hu­manity. They seem most likely intended for the kind of devotion described in Dame Courtesy (item 8), devotion that was regular, uncomplicated, and part of an industrious daily routine.

Manuscript Context

As manifestations of popular devotional practice, these two prayers share an obvious con­nection with the two other prayers preserved in Ashmole 61, A Prayer to Mary and A Prayer at the Levation (items 15 and 17). Rate began to recopy The Ten Commandments (item 6) imme­diately after the Morning Prayer, and that text is also one that a reasonably devout lay person might learn by heart. With its concerns about proper speech, eating, and drink­ing, the Morn­ing Prayer also suggests close connections to the courtesy material earlier in the first three quires, including Stans Puer ad Mensam and Dame Courtesy (items 7 and 8).


These two poems appear together in Cambridge, Trinity College MS R.3.21, and the Evening Prayer appears in New York, Pierpont Morgan Library MS G 9. The final stanza of A Morning Prayer appears independently in Durham Cathedral MS A.4.25. There are few signifi­cant variants between these texts. Rate has bracketed the rhymes of the abab stanzas.

Printed Editions

Brown, Carleton, ed. Religious Lyrics of the XVth Century. Pp. 194–96. [From Ashmole 61, with variants from the Trinity College MS in notes, p. 333.]

MacCracken, Henry. “Lydgatiana.” Archiv für das Studium der Neueren Sprachen 130 (1913), 286–311. [Prints the two prayers from the Trinity College MS, pp. 304–05.]

Robbins, Rossell Hope. “Popular Prayers in Middle English Verse.” Modern Philology 36 (1939), 337–50. [Prints the single quatrain of A Morning Prayer from the Durham MS on p. 339.]

Reference Works

NIMEV 2345 [Evening Prayer]
NIMEV 1720 [Morning Prayer]

See also J. Bossy, Fassler, LeGoff (1980), Reinburg, and Saenger in the bibliography.

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