Prayer Book’s history goes back beyond 16th century

Casual students of Church history are probably under the impression that the first English Prayer Book is the First Prayer Book of King Edward VI, which was authorized for use in 1549. Indeed, this wonderful book is the ancestor of all the Books of Common Prayer in use today.

The English Church played a major role in the liturgical life of the Church catholic for well over 1,500 years., And reviewing the English Church’s contributions, the Book of 1549 cannot be claimed to be the first vernacular prayer book.

The liturgical works that survive from times prior to the Seventh Century demonstrate a lively liturgical tradition in which much, if not all, of the Eucharistic rite was celebrated in the vernacular rather than Latin. Thus it can be claimed they were distinctly English liturgies.

Latin, however, was the lingua franca of the polyglot British society which by the 6th & 7th Centuries embraced a number of languages, including at least three major strains of Gaelic (four with Pictish; five including Breton), Anglo Saxon and Old Norse, and numerous dialects of each.

When it came to the written word, Latin was a convenient compromise in an age when books, even of the cheapest sort, were laboriously hand-copied by scribes. But while service books were often written in Latin, it was the custom for celebrants to make a running translation of the liturgy into the vernacular.

You’ll find evidence of this practice, for example, in the autobiography of Ireland’s patron saint, St Patrick. In his Confessions, written in the late 5th & 6th centuries, Patrick grumbles that his native Latin has been ruined by years of speaking the “barbarous” Irish tongue. His Confessions show he wasn’t exaggerating.

By the way, this habit of saying the liturgy at least partially in the vernacular seems to have continued into the Middle Ages, when the Epistle and Gospel were often read in the vernacular during parochial Masses. And it’s worth noting that Archbishop Cranmer reinstituted this practice as a temporary measure before the 1549 Prayer Book was authorized.

Latin, however, did not entirely displace the major local languages as the medium for religious publishing in Britain until late in the first Millennium. A considerable body of writings remains from the ancient church in Wales and Ireland; while among the towering literary achievements of the English Church in the 8th-Century is the Venerable Bede’s translation of the Gospels into Anglo-Saxon.

The great historian and scholar, who spent virtually his entire life at the great Monastery at Jarrow, is best known today for his History of the English Church and People. But tradition has it that his last words were those of the final verse of Anglo Saxon translation of St. John’s Gospel. Then, having completed his task, he begged for the Gloria in excelcis to be sung and, as the brothers sang the great hymn, Bede died.

Contrary to common belief, England from the late 6th Century to the early part of the 9th Century was among the most prosperous—and relatively tranquil—places in the West. Europe, as St. Gregory of Tours records, was wracked by constant warfare. Northern and central Italy was laid waste by barbarians. Rome had been put to sack not only by the barbarian invaders, but its own unpaid soldiery.

But with the rise of the Frankish Empire in the mid-8th Century, the situation began to stabilize under Charlemagne, or Karl der Gros, the Frankish king, later proclaimed the Holy Roman Emperor. The man Charlemagne chose to lead his Palace School for the study of religion and the liberal arts was a disciple of Bede, an English scholar named Alcuin from St. Peter’s School at York, renowned as a center of learning.

Alcuin—unintentionally perhaps—preserved for future generations the works of ancient Rome’s literary giants (Virgil, Livy, Cicero, Ovid, Tacitus, Horace, Terence, Martial, etc.) by insisting his apprentice scribes perfect their skills on secular writings before being permitted to tackle the sacred.

Charlemagne considered the ceremonial of the Eucharistic liturgy in use by the Roman pontiff too simple for use in the imperial court. Thus he commissioned Alcuin to compose the Eucharistic liturgy for the Holy Roman Empire.

Ironically perhaps, until the Counter Reformation which began in the mid-16th Century, the Mass said by the Roman pontiffs was essentially the form of the Eucharist said in the English Province of York—one of the great English pre-reformation liturgies. Even more ironically, the Mass that emerged from the counter-reformation was derived from the Sarum Rite, the oldest of the English Eucharistic rites. GPH✠

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