So you’re scrolling through your Facebook feed, and one of those memes pops up. You know what I mean. Either it’s a sick child who needs your prayers (‘1 like = 100 prayers!’), or a cursed photo of a hellwraith (‘like and share or you’ll die tonight!!’), or simply an inspirational image which will give you a whole day’s good luck if you repost it, an image which has become completely detached from its original purpose. The one below is probably the most baffling example that I have come across so far.
Medieval prayers could be a little bit like that sometimes. Some were considered to be particularly effective, so monks and nuns recopied them again and again. In my research, I have had to get my head around a complex web of prayers, tracing the connections between one manuscript and many others. And sometimes a little piece of text would be written above a prayer, promising blessings in this world and/or the next if you said it. Just as in the memes of today, prayers and their rubrics sometimes became detached from one another, and reattached to other rubrics/prayers, as they were copied and passed on.
In an earlier post, I discussed a small set of prayers for use in the early morning in the manuscript known as Ælfwine’s Prayerbook. At the end of the text, the writer explains why it is important to sing the daily liturgy of the hours:
Gyf þu ælce dæge þine tidsangas wel asingst, ne þearft ðu næfre to helle, 7 eac on þisse worulde þu hæfst þe gedefe lif. 7 gyf ðu on hwilcum earfeðum byst 7 to Gode clypast, he ðe miltsað 7 eac tiþað, þonne þu hine bitsð. Amen.
(Quoted from Günzel, ed., Ælfwine’s Prayerbook, p. 143.)
(If you sing your Hours well every day, you need never go to hell, and in this world too you will have a good life. And if you are in any kind of trouble and call to God, he will have mercy on you and also give to you, when you ask him. Amen.)
More commonly, though, this sort of promise precedes the text of a specific prayer, which was believed to be particularly good for protective purposes. A confessional prayer in the mid-eleventh century Bury Psalter begins with this extravagant promise: [..]