The stripping of the altars

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G. C. Atchley, "Some Notes on the beginning and Growth of the Usage of a Second Gospel at Mass", Transactions of the St Paul's Ecclesiolotiat Society, V, 1900, pp. 161—76; A Hundred Merry Viles, p. 129; Ceremonies and Processions of the Cathedral Church of Salisbury, cd. C. Wordsworth, 1901, p. 17.

up theyr legges and crosse so moth as their heeles and the very soles of their fete and beleve that if it be done in the tyme that he readeth the gospell (and else not) that there shall no mischaunce happen them that daye because only of those crosses.

It was also read at the end of the baptismal service, immediately after a passage from St Mark's Gospel describing the exorcism of a demoniac boy, designed to protect the newly baptized child against epilepsy, and it was used in ceremonies of exorcism, and, in Henry VII's reign, in the ceremony of touching for the king's evil. It is no surprise, therefore, to find that it was widely used as a charm against all evils. Inscribed on parchment, it was frequently worn round the neck to cure disease, and lay people also often hung it on the necks or horns of ailing cattle.14 The Lucan Annunciation story, "Missus est", was in some places used as the last Gospel, and was also believed to be powerful against the Devil in this way, but of course had its own distinctive potency. The Annunciation was arguably the single most frequently depicted Gospel scene, the Crucifixion apart, and the greeting of the angel to Mary formed the basis of the Hail Mary.15

The story of the Magi represented something less accessible but hardly less potent in the late medieval imagination. Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar, the "Three Kings of Cologne", directly led by God and delivered by dreams from Herod's malice, were very frequently invoked as intercessors and protectors. Their navies often occur in incantatory prayers for deliverance from evil, and they were invoked as protectors against the bites of mad dogs or the falling sickness. Their star-gazing gave some legitimacy to astrology, and they may have been associated iii lay perceptions with the "wise" or ''cunning'' men and women who were the common resort in illness or ill fortune. Their extraordinary and mysterious-sounding names almost certainly contributed to their imaginative power for late medieval lay Christians. Prayers to them were an invariable element in the small group of morning prayers included in moist Books of Hours."' The Marcan passage, with its divine promise of victory over demons, disease, and evil,

More, Works, VIII part 3, 1973, p. 1507.

Alissale, p. 629; :tilarnaile, p. 38; Manuale et Processionals ad ['stun lus(gnis Geclesiae h"horacensis, cd. W. G. Henderson, Surtecs Society, 1X111, 1875, p. 19; K. Thomas, Reli'ion and the Decline of Magic, 1973, p. 39; Malleus Maleficarum, trans. M. Summers, 1971, pt. II, ch. 6, p. 390.

'`' On the Magi see item no. 91 in C. Louis (ed.), "[he Cornrnonplace Book of Robert Reyn"s of Aile. 1980, and the literature cited in the note, and Horstntann's edition of their legend, SETS os LXXXV, 1886; Liber de Diversis Medicinis, ed. M. S. Ogden, SETS, 1938, pp. 42-3, 99.

formed the Gospel for the Mass of Ascension Day. It thus came as the culmination of the Rogationtide exorcism of the parish and community by beating the bounds, in which the demons which infested earth and air were banished with cross, bells, banners, and by declaiming these passages of the four Gospels to the points of the compass. l7

In each case, therefore, these Gospel texts carried an element of the numinous greater than might seem immediately warranted by their function as texts. For many people, it was probably these texts, not the Gospels as a whole, which were associated with the names of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and they were probably seen not principally as authors, but as the guarantors of blessing, an emphasis preserved in the traditional childhood prayer "Matthew Mark Luke and John, bless the bed that I lie on." When the parishioners of Bramfield in Suffolk had the evangelists painted on their magnificent Rood-screen, they had them identified with scrolls containing not the opening words of their Gospels, but the incipits of these four passages used in the processionals and primers (Pl. 83—4).18 Virtue inhered in these passages quite apart from actual comprehension of their message, and their presence in the primers suggests that these books were themselves seen as sacred objects, focuses of power, as much as books to be read and under-stood. There is a clear parallel here with the way in which the book of the Gospels might he kissed, censed, and venerated in the course of the liturgy, or, like relics and the Blessed Sacrament, used as the focus of oath-taking. Sir John Fastolf sealed the promise of land to a servant by taking an oath not on the Gospels, but on his primer.l"


Nevertheless, the primers were books of prayers, to be recited, rather than sacred objects mediating grace or power simply by being handled or contemplated. Given their widespread and steadily growing appeal, what sense can we make of the undoubted fact that many who used them can have had only an imperfect grasp of the meaning of the prayers they contained?

The most obvious point to make here is that the available models of prayer — supremely in the day-to-day liturgy of the parish churches, but also in monastic piety and the great literary models of devotion — were all in Latin. The highest form of prayer was uttered by the priest at the sacring, the moment of consecration at the Mass. It was part of the power of the words of consecration that

For the use of another passage from Mark, "Respondens onus de turba", to feud off the fàlling sickness from newly baptized children see Manuale, p. 38.

The painter, it should he noted, has given Matthew Mark's text, and vice versa.
1'' Norman Davis (ed.), Pastor Letters and Papers of the Fifteenth Century vol. I, p. 224.

they were hidden, too sacred to be communicated to the "lewed", and this very element of mystery gave legitimacy to the sacred character of Latin itself, as higher and holier than the vernacular. Moreover, since the words of scripture and the liturgy came from God, they were held to convey power even to those who did not fully comprehend them. One author, writing to help lay men and women participate properly in the Mass, compared the beneficial effect of such uncomprehending hearing at mass to that of a charm upon adders!20

So it was also with the prayers of the primers: they were "good words", full of "vertu" which "availed" by God's grace, indepen­dently of the reader's or hearer's comprehension. Often their intrinsic "vertu" was emphasized by rubrics claiming that these precise words had been revealed as specially powerful or pleasing to God or the saints. The hymn "Ave Rosa Sine Spinis", printed in many Horac, whose popularity is attested by the fact that it supplied a motto on some of Henry VIII's coins, was usually prefaced by an English rubric which claimed that "this prayer shewed our lady to a devoute persone, sayenge that this golden prayer is the most swetest and acceptablest to me. And in her apperyng she had this salutacyon and prayer writen with letters of golde on her brest. "221

Such canonizations of specific "golden" forms of words were common. One of the most popular of all prayers in fifteenth- and early sixteenth-century England was the Passion devotion on the Last words of Jesus known as the "Fifteen Oes of St Bridget". Circulating both manuscript and, at the end of the fifteenth century, in printed versions, the prayers were often accompanied by a legend which emphasized the extraordinary power of the prayers in releasing souls from Purgatory, which claimed that the prayers had been directly revealed to "a woman solitary and recluse". In the versions of the legend copied by the Norfolk artisan Robert Reynes, and by the highly literate clerical compiler of the collection of devotions and prayers contained in the Bodleian Lyell MS 30, it is revealed to a woodland hermit by a group of distraught and outraged "ffendys" that "in this wode woneth an olde woman ful of many holy wordes and seyth an Orison so plesyng to God of hevene Wher through we takyn ful oftyn gret harms for with that orison sehe getyth to God ful many souks that were in our power

fast be foren. One did not tamper with "holy worries" and "orison's so plesyng", nor was it necessary to understand them fully to benefit from them. In fact the "Fifteen Oes" were translated

LFMB, p. 140.

Hor. Ebor., p. 136; Hoskins, p. 124.

22 Bodleian Library, Tanner MS 407 fol. 43; Lye]] MS 30, fois 41v—43.

more than once, and a vernacular version said to have been com­missioned by the Lady Margaret circulated widely in its own right, as well as being included in many Horae.23 But Reynes probably copied the legend of the "Oes" before that translation was given wide currency by Caxton, and there are other clear signs that the indulgenced or otherwise privileged devotions which appeared in their dozens in printed primers were very often recited for the virtue of the words in themselves, and not for their power to move or persuade to intenser devotion. One of the most common items in printed Home were the eight verses of St Bernard, "to be saide a noon aftur masse or ellis at heryng of a masse". These verses from the Psalms, the accompanying legend claimed, would preserve from damnation anyone who said them every day. St Bernard had exacted knowledge of these verses from the Devil, who had at first refused to disclose which they were, until Bernard threatened to recite the whole psalter each day. To prevent this flood of supererogatory prayer, the Devil disclosed the verses. Though Lydgate wrote an English paraphrase and elaboration of St Bernard's verses, the legend seems to establish that, for the users of late medieval Books of Hours what mattered was not so much the meaning of the words as their power, guaranteed, depending on one's point of view, either by St Bernard, or the Devil himself?'

Other indications point in the same direction. As printed primers became more plentiful and moved down-market, many devotions which iii manuscript and early printed Home had stood on their own began to have attached to them a prescribed number of Paters and Aves. The recitation of the Lord's Prayer and Hail Mary had been the basis of the church's catechetical activity since the thirteenth century, and was the essential lay expedient during those parts of worship which were unintelligible to the "lewed", and were occasionally explicitly recommended as substitutes for Latin prayers of the sort we have been discussing." The prescription of Paters and Aves after every Latin devotion in a primer, there-fore, is a strong indication that the readership envisaged was expected to have at best only a partial comprehension of the Latin "holy wordes", and consequently to be in need of supplementing their recitation with prayers which they could be expected to understand.2o

" On the "()es" see II. C. White, Tudor Books of l'rivuue Ix'votion, 1951, chapter 13, and below, pp. 24'1—56; for their separate circulation in print see RS'LC 20195.

Iloskins, p. 114.

On the laity and the Paternoster, sec above, chapter 2, "How the Plowman learned his Paternoster".

2' For a representative example of this sort see Hone b(ea)tissime marie virginis ad usurp Sarum, Christopher Endoviensis (Antwerp) for Francis Byrckman (London), 1525; Hoskins no. 67: RSTC 15939.



Yet it would be a mistake to emphasize too strongly the element of incantation and imperfect understanding which was undoubtedly a feature of some lay use of the primers. Even for those with little or no Latin, there were degrees of possible comprehension of the texts. Much of their contents, especially those liturgical or quasi-liturgical sections which made up their central core, would have been familiar even to lay people, and their meaning well under-stood. This can be most clearly demonstrated from the prayers for the dead which, after the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin, formed the single most important element in the primer. These consisted essentially of the Office of "Placebo" and "Dirige", recited at every funeral, together with the seven penitential Psalms and litany, which usually preceded "Placebo", and the Coninmendations (and often the Psalms of the Passion), which usually followed "Dirige''. Given the centrality of intercession for the dead in the piety of late medieval men and women, these were the most commonly used of all prayers, and ordinary men and women eagerly sought their recitation as part of their own mortuary provisions. Langland, who seems to have made a living as a lay chantry clerk both in London and in the country, tells us that these prayers were his bread and butter:

The tontes that y labore with and lyflode deserve Is pater-noster and my prymer, placebo and dirige, And my sauter sont tyuie and my seveue psalmes. This y segge for here soutes of suche as Inc helpeth.'7

But such matters were not left to the professionals. Even for those who could not read at all, simple repetition must have made the Office of the Dead familiar as no other prayer was. Every gild prescribed attendance at the funeral of every deceased brother or sister as a condition of membership and imposed fines for avoidable absence, and both gild and parish celebrated corporate Diriges for their members. Literate lay people certainly participated in these services by following them iii their primers, and soute gilds, like that of St Katherine in the parish of Sts Simon and Jude, Norwich, expressly stipulated that they should do so, requiring that

at the Dirige, every brother and luster that is letterede shul seyne, for the soule of the dede, placebo and dirige, in the place wher he shul cotnen to-geder: and every brother and sister that bene nought letterede, shul seyne for the soute of the dede, xx sythes, the pater noster, with Aue maria.25

'' William Langland, Piers Plowman: an edition of the C Text, ed. I). Pearsall, 1978, Passus v lines 45—8.

28 Toulmin-Smith, English Gilds, p. 20.

The detailed specification of mortuary prayers in many wills reveals the familiarity of many lay people with this part of the primer above all. The presence of those who could recite the whole of the Office for the Dead at one's obsequies was clearly much valued: Anne Buckenham, a Suffolk testator of the 1530s, was prepared to pay for it, offering twopence a head to "everie laye manne that ys lettered beinge at Dirige and masse". In 1540 Margery Rokebye of Yafforth in Yorkshire left twopence "to everye scholer, that can say Direge for my sowie", and such bequests appear to have been common in the region.29

The acceptance of alms at funerals was not done lightly, for it implied a formal acceptance of "charity", probably involving some loss of face and position. The provision of doles for lettered laymen tells us much about the downward spread of literacy, for the dif­ference between lettered and unlettered was not simply coterminous with social or economic distinctions. John Estbury, in founding his Berkshire almshouses, envisaged that some of the pauper inmates would be literate, and required them to recite each day in the parish church the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin, the seven penitential Psalms, "Placebo" and "Dirige", and the Psalms of the Passion, thereby prescribing for his paupers daily recitation of the major part of the primer.' Similar provision for lettered paupers to recite both the Little Office and the "Dirige" were laid down for the alms-houses established at Hadleigh in Suffolk by the will of Archdeacon Pykenhant, u while a number of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century testators assumed that poor men could be found capable of reciting all or part of the printer Offices for the Dead — "a poore man that will saye everie Fridaye iii the yeare the vij psalutes with the letany" or the "De Profundis and Miserere Psalm". `2

These poor men may not all have been readers. Sir William Bulnier, a Yorkshire testator of the early 1530s, thought that those inmates of his almshouse who didn't know the "De Profundis" and ''Miserere'' Psalms when they first arrived would iii due course learn them by dint of constant repetition. No doubt many more or less literate users of the primers who nevertheless had little Latin used the text as not much more than a set of cues to launch them on prayers they knew by heart from hearing and recitation, rather than from reading. In a culture where the whole of the liturgy was celebrated in Latin most lay people would pick up a wide range of

' Richmond Wills, pp. 18, 24, 26.

J. Footman, 'flu' History of the Parish Church of St Michael and All Angels, Chipping Lamhourn, 1854, pp. 186—7.

i' Proceedings of the SuffiPik Institute of Archaeology, vii, 1891, pp. 379—8(I.

32 Bury Wills, pp. 137—8; Test. Ehor. V pp. 313—19.


p hrases and tags, with a depth of understanding perhaps not much more profound than Chaucer's Sumouner's grasp of legal Latin — "Ay `Questio quod juris' wolde he crie" — but enabling them to recognize the general purport of particular prayers, and to use them with some degree of confidence. Indeed, even professed religious and the exceptionally devout laity seem to have managed with just such a partial grasp of Latin. Early in the fifteenth century it was felt necessary to produce for the ladies of the royal Brigittine monastery at Syon, all of whom were certainly literate in English and possibly French, a translation and exposition of their breviary "forasmoche as many of you, though ye can synge and rede, yet ye can not se what the meanynge therof ys". Yet ignorance of Latin was not held to be a complete barrier to intelligent use of the primer. A smattering coupled with constant repetition might supply what was missing. Bishop John Fisher reported that his patroness, the Lady Margaret Beaufort, had never studied Latin, in which, nevertheless, "she had a lytell perceyvynge specially of the rubrysshe of the ordinal for the sayeng of her servyce whiche she dyde well understande. "33

The story of William Malden, converted to Protestantism in the late 1530s, throws a fascinating light on the use of the Latin primer at the other end of the social scale from the Lady Margaret, among the tradesmen and the poor of urban England, and on the relation-ship between English and Latin literacy. On the promulgation of the 1535 royal Injunctions a group of poor men iii Malden's home town of Chelmsford pooled their resources and bought a copy of the New "Testament, "and on Sundays dyd set redinge in Ithel lower ende of the churche, and many wolde Hocke about them to heere theyr redinge". Malden himself, a teenager at the time, began to join these Bible-reading sessions every Sunday, though at that stage he could not himself read. His father was a theological conservative, and to draw the boy away "wolde have me to say the Latin nlattyns with hym". Deprived of hearing the New Testament, the boy decided to learn to read English for himself. Ile had been provided with a primer to say his matins with his father, which he describes as an English primer. Since he quotes part of the Hours of the Cross from it in Latin, it was almost certainly one of the bilingual primers which had begun to appear in the 1530s, orthodox in content but introducing the Trojan horse of the vernacular into traditional liturgical observance. By "plying" this

A. Jeff-cries Collins (cd.), Du' l/ridgettine Breviary of Syon Abbey, Henry Bradshaw Society, XCVI, 1969, p. xxxii; John Fisher, English Works, ed. J. B. Mayor, EETS, 1876, p. 292.

primer on Sundays, and following the English translations of the Latin service he taught himself to read.34

This is a fascinating story, for it demonstrates not only the use of the primer by the urban middle classes, but the extraordinary fact of the son of a tradesman literate in Latin before he could read English. Yet this fact should not surprise us. The primer, as its name suggests, was the basic learning book for most people, even before it was available in English, and Malden's father presumably learned to ply his primer in much the same way as his son, though without the benefit of an English translation. In such a use of the primer the Latin obviously had an autonomous authority of its own, just as it had primacy as written text. How could these users of the Latin text have understood it?

In addition to constant repetition in the liturgy, there were a variety of ways in which "hewed" men and women could gain a working understanding of their Latin primers. Fifteenth- and early sixteenth-century England saw a proliferation of prayers and meditations in English, paraphrasing or elaborating devotional themes characteristic of the prayers of the primer.35 Lydgate, for example, produced verse translations of the calendar, the "Fifteen ()es", the Marian antiphons from the Little Office such as the "Salve Regina", and a number of popular devotions from the primer, like the indulgenced hymn on the five joys of Mary, "Laude Virgo Mater Christi". He also contributed to the flood of devotional poems on the Passion and on the compassion of the Virgin, which formed the central theme of most of the non-liturgical material in the primers.3e'

Lydgate's "Primer" verses were no doubt intended for the edification of the well-to-do and aristocratic lay clientele of his monastery at Bury and around the Lancastrian court, but such material in fact proliferated at every level of society. The common-place book of Richard Hill has many similar pieces, as does Cambridge University Library Ff 2 38, a manuscript collection of didactic, edifying, devotional, and entertaining material which is perhaps our best surviving guide "to the religious and literary tastes and preoccupations of the bourgeosie in the late fifteenth century". In addition to a group of Passion poems and celebrations of the titles of the Virgin, similar to the "Ave Rosa Sine Spinis" which we

J. G. Nicholls (ed.), Narrative of the Days of the Re/ormation, Camden Society, LXXVII, 1859, pp. 348-50.

s A. Ilarratt, "The Prynier and its influence on Fifteenth-Century English Passion Lyrics", Medium Aevutn, XLIV, 1975, pp. 264-71.

3' H. N. McCracken (ed.), The Minor Poems of John Lydgate, EETS, 1911, pp. 238ff, 288ff, and 260ff, 291-6, 297-9, 250ff.

have already discussed, this collection has verse paraphrases of the magnificent series of lessons from the book of Job used in the "Dirige", and of the penitential Psalms: the material implies not only a poet "but also an audience familiar with the primer".37

As these examples suggest, a good deal of this supplementary primer material was in verse, which could be memorized com­paratively easily. But prose devotions duplicating, expanding, or explaining the Latin prayers of the primers were also very widely used, and penetrated far down the social scale. Robert Keynes had a series of prayers and other devotional matter clearly related to the primer in his commonplace book, notably a circumstantial and lengthy version of the legend normally attached to the "Fifteen Ocs". He omitted the prayers themselves, a fact best explained by the likelihood that he already had access to them, perhaps in his primer. 3s

Much of this supplementary devotional material was copied by owners directly into their primers, just as they often stuck devotional pictures into them. The same owners copied both ver­nacular and Latin prayers, suggesting at least a minimal competence in both languages (Pl. 86). In this way comparatively simple Books of Hours could he expanded to include a wider range of Latin and English devotions and these collections seem in turn to have affected subsequent printings of the primers, which became more and more comprehensive as they incorporated material earlier found only in manuscript. One typical fifteenth-century English Book of Hours was supplemented in this way iii the early sixteenth century with a poem on the vanity of the world and the need to love "gentel Ihesu", a Latin prayer to the Virgin, often found in printed primers, beginning "O Gloriosa 0 Optima", a threefold invocation of the name of God in Greek, taken from the Good Friday liturgy and headed "A good prayer ayenste the pestilence", a Latin prayer of thanksgiving to Christ for his Passion, and a prayer to the angel guardian.3' In the early 149(Is Edmund Appleyard, a Londoner who doubtless used his manuscript Book of Hours at the "Diriges" organized by the Jesus Gild at St Paul's, of which he was a brother, copied a series of English prayers to the Blessed Sacrament, arranged for every day of the week, onto the blank reverse sides of the illustrations preceding each of the Hours in the Little Office. The fortunate early sixteenth-century owner of one of

I)yboski, Songs, nos 24, 29, 63, 66a, 66b, 67a, 68, 69; F. McSporran and I'. R. Robinson (eds), Cambridge University Literary MS 11-2 38, 1979, pp. vii, ix, and items 2, 7, 8, 15, 29, 30. keynes Commonplace, pp. 264-8.

3'' CUL MS I)d vi 1 fois 142v if.

Simon Vostre's beautifully printed Sarum primers added a series of devotions on the five wounds of Christ and the sorrows of the Virgin. And of course Thomas More's famous prison prayer, "Gyve me thy grace good lord / to sett the world at nought" was copied into the margins of the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary in his printed primer.4''

Examples of this sort could he multiplied indefinitely: what they reveal to us is a wide spectrum of lay people using and supplement­ing the Latin devotions of the primers with familiarity and freedom. Their Books of Hours, in which they copied the details of births and deaths just as later generations would do in the family Bible, were very much their own, and the devout scrawls which embellish or disfigure so many of the surviving Horae are eloquent testimony to their centrality in the devotional lives of their owners. If their Latin contents were not always fully understood in a way readily accessible to twentieth-century perceptions, they were certainly appropriated and used meaningfully by their first possessors (Pl. 87).0

One final element contributing to lay understanding of the Latin material in the Florae remains to be discussed. Most of the Horae were, to a greater or lesser extent, illustrated. Before the advent of printing only the wealthiest owners would have had hooks with a consistent and programmatic series of illustrations matching image and text. The more modest mass-produced manuscript books had a relatively simple visual scheme, which we have already touched on in discussing the primers as devotional objects. The seven Hours of the Little Office often had illustrations related to the life of the Virgin, but might instead be preceded by illustrations of the conventional 1 lours of the Passion — Christ brought before Pilate at Prime, mocked, scourged, and led out to Calvary at Terce, Crucified at Sext, and so on. Such images can hardly be said to illustrate the Little Office: they took on a devotional importance of their own, and time the hours of the Little Office were often interspersed with the so-called } lours of the Cross, a set of devotional verses with appropriate antiphons and collects develop­ing the sevenfold division of the Passion embodied in the pictures.'

A more direct correspondence between pictures and text was

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