Saturday, February 18, 2017

Medieval Devotions: an insight into medieval life

Years ago, I spent a weekend with the army reserve band.  We practiced eight hours a day.  I kept expecting a general to walk in and catch us at it--getting paid to have fun!--and send us all back to work. 

Writing historical fiction can sometimes feel like that.  I get to hunt down fascinating books and stories--online, at Half Price Books, and more--and call it work, because research is a huge part of what I do.  I've acquired a decent-sized collection of older books, some very unique things, some of which I'll begin to write blog posts about. 

One of them is called Devotions from Ancient and Medieval Sources, translated and arranged by Rev. Charles Plummer, M.A. and published in 1916.  I find the book an interesting source both on the way our medieval and ancient ancestors who used these prayers saw the world and on the way the early 20th century translator and arranger saw his world and theirs--which brings us to an interesting point on historical research: secondary sources may not be accurate, and part of researching one era may involve reading through the biases and beliefs of another.

In the preface of the book, Reverend Plummer is clear that his intention with the book is not historical accuracy, but to assist in devotion.  Therefore, he says, he has 'not scrupled to modify' the prayers where he feels they are not in accordance with the teaching or practice of the English church.  He has altered some forms, and re-assigned prayers to different uses in some cases.  Thankfully, he is quite upfront about these changes, and the book remains useful in that he notes the historical sources for these prayers and also notes at the end of the book many of the changes he made.

Reading the list of his sources is an education unto itself.  Many of the publication dates he gives are in the late 19th and early 20th centuries--thus nearly contemporary to him despite the book's title of Ancient and Medieval.  One wonders if he presumes, then, that his readers know without being told that The Leofric Missal, despite being edited by F.E. Warren and published by Oxford, 1883, is actually a book dating back to the 10th century.  The Sarum Missal, likewise, is given dates of 1861 and 1863, as the copies he used.  But the original Sarum Missal, used with the Sarum Rite Mass, was in use up until roughly the mid-1500s.

Devotions from Ancient and Medieval Sources is a secondary source, but one thing jumps out, in looking through the table of contents.  There was a rhythm to life that I think we've lost.  It's hardly surprising, given it was a largely agrarian society.  Each season had its purpose--the spring for planting and the autumn for harvesting, slaughtering, preserving for the winter.  Even warfare tended to follow the seasons--battles being more likely in the warmer months.  Nighttime was for sleeping--what else was there to do with no electricity, no light?  (Well, the human race continued, so I guess there were at least two things!)

This is a sharp contrast to our lives, which hum along much the same regardless of the season.  We get up and go to jobs, where most of us do largely the same thing, no matter what month it is, no matter how hot or cold it is outside of our temperature-controlled offices, cars, stores, and homes.  Few of us worry about slaughtering our livestock at Martinmas (November 11) or salting the meat.  We can have apples, pears, strawberries, and any kind of meat we want any day of the year.

I suspect this has contributed to a general loss of a sense of wonder and appreciation.  After all, an apple is nothing special and nothing to look forward to if it's always there.  But that's a different post.

This rhythm, pattern, and order of medieval life is reflected in the wealth of prayers.  There is an order and rhythm to each day: morning prayers and evening prayers; tierce, sext, none, and compline.  A similar prayer book I acquired from my grandfather gives a pattern of prayers for the days of the week and months of the year, each day and month having a theme, on which the pray-er focuses and contemplates.  There are prayers for the seasons and holy days, for advent, Christmas, St. Stephen's Day, Lent, Whitsunday, and more.

There are prayers for the seasons of life itself: for the newly baptized, the newly ordained, and the newly departed.

It's a post for another day (or another blog altogether possibly) as to how this loss of rhythm and cycles changes our outlook on life, but as far as research, it is a window into another world, another way of experiencing life, of living, of seeing things, to see this structure and pattern woven even into prayer books.

Coming in Part Two: similarities revealed by these medieval prayers.



COMING UP:
  • February 19 (11 am) and 26: I'll be reading on the Vehicle of Expression, part of the Art Shanty Project
  • February 25, 2017: I will co-host Food Freedom on AM 950 with Laura Hedlund and Karen Olson Johnson.  Guests: Michael Agnew, craft beer expert and Ross Fishman on Russian literature.  We'll taste Russian beer: listen to the whole program from last month.

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If you liked this article, you might also like
Dan Blum in Psychology Today
Dan Blum Interview
or other posts under the POETRY label

 

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