Alicia Smith gives an introductory overview of the nature of prayer in Western Christianity, the places of prayer in medieval society and in individuals’ lives, and how prayer related to liturgical practice.
Prayer in Christianity
The most basic definition of prayer in a Christian context is the act of calling on God, verbally or otherwise. The God presented in Christian doctrine is personal, and so prayer can be directly addressed to him, and understood as part of a conversation. In some traditions, prayer can also involve calling on the saints – the holy dead, understood to have a degree of intercessory power with God on behalf of the living.
Some central ideas about the nature and proper practice of Christian prayer are drawn from the teachings of Christ recorded in the Gospels. Both Matthew and Luke record the model prayer which became known as ‘the Lord’s Prayer’, or the Pater Noster (its first two words in Latin, ‘Our Father’). Its emphasis is first on praising God and asking for his will to be done, then on asking for provision, forgiveness, and protection (see Matthew 6:9-13 and Luke 11:2-4). In Matthew’s account this model is framed by the instruction to avoid hypocritical performance in prayer by praying in secret: ‘When you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen’ (Matthew 6:6). Parallel to this recommendation is Christ’s own habit of going out to pray in lonely places (see Luke 5:16).
Christ praying in a synagogue, depicted in a 15th-century French manuscript (British Library, Royal 20 B IV, f. 40v)
Other Biblical ideals and models supplement these key elements. The Old Testament (that is, the Hebrew Scriptures) records various episodes of efficacious prayer, painting a picture of God as a listening and speaking Person willing to heed the requests of the godly (see, for example: Genesis 18:22-33, 1 Kings 18:36-39, 2 Kings 4:32-37, Daniel 2:17-19). The Psalms, the Hebrew songbook, provide models for praise, lament, and intercession suitable for use both in private and in communal settings, and were absolutely foundational to medieval prayer and liturgical practice. In the New Testament, prayer is noted as one of the principal activities of the newly formed church (Acts 2:42) and is addressed in several of the epistles. A principle which became particularly important for the monastic movement is the instruction of the apostle Paul to ‘Pray without ceasing’ (1 Thessalonians 5:17).
The Psalmist praying in the wilderness, in a 15th-century Book of Hours (British Library, Burney 336, f. 110)
Prayer in medieval society
Prayer played a part in the life of every medieval Christian. By the high medieval period, it was normal for everyone, whatever their level of education or social status, to learn at least the two foundational prayers of the faith: the Pater Noster, or ‘Our Father’, mentioned above, and the Ave Maria or ‘Hail Mary’, a salutation addressed to the Virgin Mary. Especially in the later period the Creed (Credo – literally, ‘I believe’) would also be learned alongside these as a quasi-prayerful statement of faith. Knowing these basic items enabled people both to participate in liturgical services of various kinds and to practise their own prayers, even in the absence of further knowledge or education. There is also evidence that the ubiquity of these prayers was useful for other practical reasons – some medieval recipes, for example, indicate periods of time by how long it takes to recite a particular prayer.
Prayer did not necessarily need to take place in a specific location or setting, although churches and chapels were the obvious and most frequent context, whether as part of a liturgical service or independently. People prayed before meals; at the outset of meetings and councils; in outdoor liturgical processions; and in private rooms, with or without aids such as prayer books and beads. They might kneel, stand, sit, or lie prostrate, among other postures, and they engaged their bodies in other ways as well, such as making the sign of the cross or turning to the east.
Prayer played a range of roles in people’s devotional lives. It was often intercessory – asking for things for oneself or for others, engaging with the divine and saintly power believed to be available to all Christians. Intercessory prayer for the dead, within and alongside the offering of liturgical services on their behalf, became an increasingly important practice over the period as a means of speeding their way through purgatory.
A woman kneeling in prayer, with a book before her, in a 15th-century Book of Hours (British Library, Harley 2952, f. 19v)
One could pray for penitential or sanctificatory reasons, as a way of making satisfaction for sins and becoming more holy. Prayer could also be a way of practising love for God, often incorporating affective meditation – that is, the use of the emotions and the imagination to structure the self in relationship with Christ, through meditative thought on his qualities, his suffering, or his love for the soul. This could result in physiological and emotional reactions of various kinds: tears, for example, were a commonly cited sign of devotion and were sometimes assigned a prayerful efficacy of their own.
Prayer did not need to take place at a specific time, although there was a well-established structure for regular prayer times throughout each day, known as the Hours, or the Offices. These emerged primarily from monastic practice. Monks and nuns had become specialised practitioners of prayer from early on in church history, establishing separate communities which were dedicated to prayer and to work, in varying proportions depending on the order and time period. This dedication to prayer was intended both to promote holiness, and to intercede for society as a whole – i.e. to pray on its behalf. Monastic houses developed the seven services throughout the day which became known as the Hours:
- Matins – night / the early hours
- [Lauds] – sometimes attached to Matins, sometimes a little later as its own service
- Prime – around dawn
- Terce – mid-morning
- Sext – noon
- Nones – mid-afternoon
- Vespers – early evening / around sunset
- Compline – before bed
The exact timings varied with the time of year and with local and institutional customs. Non-monastic churches and chapels tended to follow the same routine, though generally with shorter services, and devout laypeople, especially later in the Middle Ages, also began to follow the routines individually. ‘Books of Hours’ developed as a compact and often portable way to combine the different services, along with other prayers and useful items, for individual use.
A group of nuns processing to church, singing from books, in a 13th-century manuscript (British Library, Yates Thompson 11, f. 6v)
Prayer was also key to the monastic practice of lectio divina – a way of engaging with spiritual texts in such a way as to make reading a devotional activity. It was generally explained as involving lectio, reading, meditatio, meditation, and oratio, prayer, although other elements were sometimes added. While these elements were distinguished in this way to allow convenient classification, in practice they formed a continuous process of careful, slow movement through a text, absorbing its meaning, and using it as part of an ongoing conversation with God. Not only monks and nuns but professional religious of all kinds employed this method, and increasingly through the period devout literate laypeople did as well.
Prayer and liturgy
The categories of prayer and of liturgy overlap to some extent, but they are not synonymous. On one level, liturgy is a specific, fixed, and cyclical practice of prayer; prayer itself is a broader category and is not necessarily liturgical in nature. But liturgy as a social practice also incorporates elements other than prayer and can be considered as a distinct phenomenon.
Medieval Western liturgy was normally performed in Latin. Prayer practice in general, however, was much more varied; the Pater Noster, Ave Maria, and many other prayers circulated in vernacular translations, and prayers were also often composed in the vernacular. This was often for the use of devout laypeople, but the Latinate clergy and monastics also used the vernacular in their devotion in various contexts.
Geoffrey Chaucer, author of The Canterbury Tales, shown holding a rosary in a 15th-century manuscript (British Library, Harley 4866, f. 88)
Individual and/or private prayer was influenced by liturgical practice, both in the use of the structure of the Hours and in reliance on pre-existing texts, Latin and otherwise: repetition of the basic prayers (in the later medieval period, often incorporating rosary use and similar memorial aids), the recitation of the Psalms, and the use of purpose-written lyrics, hymns, and meditations of various kinds. Wordless prayer was discussed in theological works, particularly in relation to the definition of ‘contemplation’ (sometimes added as a fourth stage of lectio divina), but it was not the norm for most people in most contexts.
Collections known as libelli precum, ‘books of prayers’, were being made from around the ninth century, gathering together prayers attributed to major patristic and theological writers, prayers for specific occasions, and prayers to specific groups of saints and persons of the Trinity, typically in Latin. Prayers were also very often included in miscellany books, owned by institutions or households, alongside a huge variety of other texts. Books of Hours, as noted above, promoted both liturgical and extra-liturgical prayer: they were structured around the liturgical routine of the Hours, but generally contained other items for various kinds of devotional use, and were often owned by individuals.
The Encyclopedia of the Middle Ages, ed. André Vauchez et. al. (Cambridge: James Clarke & Co., 2002), has useful entries on ‘Prayer’, ‘The Lord’s Prayer’, ‘Prayers for the dying’, and other related topics.
Eamon Duffy, Marking the Hours: English People and their Prayers, 1240-1570 (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2006) is a very approachable social history focusing on prayer.
Some of the most influential non-liturgical prayers in the
medieval period were those of Anselm of Canterbury, which can be found in
readable translations in The Prayers and
Meditations of St Anselm, ed. and trans. Benedicta Ward (Harmondsworth:
Penguin Books, 1973).
 The texts of these and many other prayers can be found here with facing translation from Latin: http://www.preces-latinae.org/preces.html. Note, however, that the latter half of the Ave Maria is a post-medieval addition.
 Recent research, however, has questioned the assumed universality of Latin in liturgy – see in particular the work of Helen Gittos: https://oxford.academia.edu/HelenGittos.
About the author
Alicia Smith is a doctoral researcher in the English Faculty at the University of Oxford, working on prayer in anchoritic texts and the relationship of prayer, reading, and time. She also blogs for the Thinking Faith Network [https://thinkfaith.net/fisch/blog].