The Little Office Of Our Lady – The History Of The Little Office, by E. L. Taunton

BEFORE concluding the theoretical part of our study on the Little Office, we must trace out its history ; for the lessons of the Past are the best means of understanding the Present.
The earliest account of the Office is to be found at Monte Cassino, of which Cardinal Bona says : " I have the testimony of Peter the deacon, a Casinese. He wrote a remarkable commentary on the rule of St. Benedict, the manuscript of which is kept at Rome by Don Constantine Cajetan. In this book Peter, speaking of the consecration of the abbat of Monte Cassino, says : ' On this day the abbat must take nothing but bread and water, and must not omit the seven canonical hours in commemoration of holy Father Benet, besides that which it is customary to perform in honour of the holy Mother of God, which Zachary, the Pope, commanded under strict precept to the Casinese monastery, ordering that all the year round, in summer, as well as in winter, before the night or day office, the brethren, as soon as they enter the choir, should begin the Office of St. Benet, and that finished, they should commence the Office which the Rule prescribes, adding thereunto the Office of the holy Mother of God and Virgin Mary.' This aforesaid Peter elsewhere refers the institution to Gregory II. But as Gregory, according to Baronius, began his pontificate in the year of salvation 715, after whom came Gregory III. in 731 ; and then Zachary, who succeeded in 741 ; the use and ordering of this Office is therefore more ancient than is commonly thought " [Cf. Bona, De Divina Psaimodia, ed. (1677), p. 327.].
From the way Peter the deacon speaks of it, a form of Office of our Lady must have been already in use. In the Acta Sanctorium we read that St. Ildephonsus, the great servant of our Lady in Spain, composed an office in her honour, the greater part of which is embodied in the modern Liturgy for the feast of the Expectation. St. Ildephonsus lived in the latter part of the seventh century. How much further back the devotion can be traced we cannot safely say. But the Carmelites, who claim to have kept up a continued succession on Mount Carmel from the very days of Elias, may have, traditionally, an earlier date for their Office. In the Eastern Church the earliest example of an Office of our Lady is that of the Greek Church, which, it is said, can be traced back to St. John Damascene (730). It is called the Paracle-tica, and consists of fifty-six sets of Vespers, each containing several hymns, lessons, and prayers.
The above is sufficient to show that a liturgical form of prayer in honour of our Lady is of early times ; but what precise form it had we have not, at present, the means of saying. For it must not be supposed that it was the same as what we have to-day or anything like it. What, then, is the origin of our Little Office ? Here we begin to tread on surer ground. Mr. Edmund Bishop, the greatest living authority on Liturgy, in the masterly essay which he wrote for the Early English Text Society's edition of the "Primer or Layfolk's Prayer-Book," has given a patient and masterly account of the origin ; and, so far, he shall be our guide. It must be remembered that the English " use " differs from the Roman in certain particulars, such as antiphons, lessons, &c., but the general structure is the same and points to a common origin.
In the great Benedictine revival which began in England in the days of St. Dunstan, St. Ethelwold and St. Oswald, we find introduced certain customs which had already found place in continental monasteries. These are contained in the Concordia regularis of St. Ethelwold, which represents the practice of English monasticism of about the middle of the tenth century. They consisted mainly of the addition of prayers to the Divine Office.
In England, where we find customs taken from the great abbeys of Fleury and Ghent, the additional prayers were :
the Gradual Psalms said before Matins (during the longer hours of winter extra psalms were said, sometimes to the number of thirty) ; the Penitential psalms with the Litany of the Saints said after Prime ; the Office of the Dead [" The origin of this office is obscure," says Mr. Bishop, " a recent writer has declared it to be purely Roman and a creation of the beginning of the eighth century. Extant testimonies by no means warrant so confident a tone ... It is probable that these offices of the dead, at least in the general way, represent practices prevailing in Italian monasteries also" (p. xvii.). "It is after all not improbable that Benedict of Aniane may actually have introduced and practised the devotion of a daily recital of the Office of the Dead " (p. xx.).] ; the Office of All Saints (lauds and vespers only) ; and after each hour the psalmi familiares, that is, two psalms with Collects said for the king and queen and other benefactors [Reyner's Apostolatus, iii. 77. It is worth noting the frequent use of the Psalms as prayers for all occasions. The Psalter was the general Prayer-Book.], " The devotional accretions, whereby the Divine Office was so greatly lengthened, were not said in full in Eastertide or on feast-days of a high grade ; speaking technically, they were only said in full on ferial days" [p. xxiv. 5. [4] p. xiv.].
By the close of the tenth century, perhaps before, these additional prayers were in use throughout the Benedictine monasteries in England, France, Germany, and most likely in Italy. But while here are the facts, how are we to account for them ? Their origin is thus :—
" It will be readily conceived that such devotional additions and accretions will not easily have found their origin with the secular clergy engaged in the active duties of the ministry and generally dispersed, or at most but loosely organised ; whilst, on the other hand, such additions to the prescribed divine service almost inevitably must ensue upon the decrease of manual labour in the monasteries, such as already had taken place by the ninth century ; and any revival or reform of monastic discipline would, in such circumstances, be naturally accompanied as a dictate of piety, by the adoption of novel and extraordinary devotional practices in addition to the traditional Office " [p. xiv.].
This we find, as a matter of fact, was one of the results of the reforms made by St. Benedict of Aniane ; and it is almost certain that the custom of saying the fifteen Gradual Psalms before Matins dates from him. Some of his ideas had a wide influence. " By the second half of the tenth century, as has been observed, the testimony of monastic custom books is uniform, that the recitation of the fifteen gradual Psalms before Matins obtained everywhere " [Reyner's Apostolatus.].
It will be noted that some of these extra prayers took the form of Offices, e.g., of the Dead, of All Saints. " Themselves an imitation of the original Divine Office, or Cursus as it was from long tradition called, such offices . . . once fairly established, were in the then temper of men's minds sure to call forth imitations. And in fact, ingenious piety invented many a new cursus; those of the Blessed Virgin and of the Holy Cross are the first to appear; to which by-and-bye were added those of the Incarnation, of the Holy Trinity, and of the Holy Ghost. Each represented a special devotional attraction of some individual, and each was said in the same way in which the customary recitation of the Office of the Dead and of All Saints had made familiar, viz., as a private daily devotional addition to the Divine Office itself, in strict imitation of it, and like the Office, as a daily exercise throughout the year ["The Einsiedeln Customs, drawn up not long after the year 970, as it would seem, and certainly before 990 or 995, not only confirm the existence and the spread of such a cursus of the Blessed Virgin in Germany at this time, but they also show that the transition from the stage of a mere private devotion to an actual place in the public office of the Church was already accomplished " (p. xxviL).], Of these numerous later products of an exuberant piety, only one, the Office of the Blessed Virgin, was destined to take its place as an additional cursus to the Divine Office, alongside of the Office of the Dead, and, like it, secure public recitation in the Church, eventually ousting, even in the monasteries, the long-established, older cursus of All Saints" [pp. xxv. vi. ]. This last only remained, as in the " Use " of the Sarum, in the form of commemorations after Lauds and Vespers, and in the present Roman use by the Commemoration of All Saints.
But when exactly are we to locate its origin ? When the Norman Conquest took place the English Church was thoroughly reorganised according to the ideas of the new masters. As part of the work, Lanfranc drew up a set of Statutes for the use of the monks of the primatial Church of Canterbury. These very Statutes are a clear proof that the Office of our Lady was not introduced into English monasteries by Norman monks. They are a further proof that, if it had been in vogue in these monasteries before the Conquest, the foreigners, who posed somewhat as models of regular observance, had not hesitated to abolish it as " mere Eng-lishry." They did so, we know, as regards the purely English feast of the Conception of our Lady, which took its origin at Winchester [Not only was the feast of the Conception of Our Lady kept in Anglo-Saxon England on December 8th, but also those of St. Joseph (March 19th), and St. George (April 23rd). The testimony of an Anglo-Saxon Calendar in the British Museum is explicit on this point. The Normans abolished all three.]. There can be but little doubt that the Office of our Lady is connected with that great spread of devotion to her which was so marked a feature of the English Church, from the days of SS. Dunstan and Ethelwold, and of which the above-mentioned feast is a striking evidence. The trend of all the evidence points to English Benedictism as one, if not the one, origin of the Little Office of our Lady.
St. Udalric, Bishop of Augsburg (about 970), is an early example of its use : " The daily cursus with his clerics he carefully observed in the choir of the mother-church. Moreover, unless some inevitable necessity prevented him, he was accustomed every day to say one cursus in honour of Holy Mary, the Mother of God, a second in honour of the Holy Rood, and a third in honour of All Hallows, besides many other psalms, and the whole Psalter " [Reyner's Apostolatus, xxvi.].
In the Chronicon of Hugh, Abbot of Flavigny [His life by his disciple Gerard (Migne, P. L., vol. cxxxv., p. 1016).] there is a story of Berengaria's, Bishop of Verdun (940-962), going one night, as was his wont, to the Church of our Lady to pray before the Office, and there, in the darkness, stumbling over the prostrate form of the provost of that Church—Bernerius by name—" who, then prostrate on the ground, was saying the Matins of our Lady " [Migne, P. L., vol cliv. p. 197.].
But be this as it may, the devotion rapidly spread. In the year 1095 Pope Urban II., the friend of St. Bruno, held a council at Claremont for the purpose of stirring up Christendom to undertake the Crusades. On this occasion, to obtain a special blessing from heaven, he ordered that all clerics should follow the example of the monks and add the Little Office of our Lady to the Greater Office. And, at the same time, he earnestly recommended its use to the faithful laity [Mansi, torn, xx., p. 827.].
St. Peter Damian, O.S.B. (1072), was a great promoter of the Little Office of our Lady. Writing to the hermits of Gamonium he speaks of the monastery of our Lady of Monte Petra Pertusa, where, for three years the Little Office had been daily added to the ordinary cursus ; and where at the suggestion of a certain monk it was discontinued: but presently, storms and attacks, and losses of all kinds fell on the monastery in punishment, and only ceased when they resumed the pious practice [Migne, P. L., vol. cxliv., p. 431.]. In a beautiful letter to one Stephen, a monk, he exhorts him to say the Office of our Lady every day ; and quotes the example of a certain French cleric of Nivers who said it every day, and in reward was specially helped by our Lady at his death [p. 420.].
In the next century we can trace it somewhat further. The White Monks (Cistercians) began to sweep away the accumulations of extra prayers which had gathered round the Greater Office ; and they were followed by the White Canons of Premontre", but with different results, the White Monks keeping only the Little Office of our Lady, and the White Canons that of the Dead.
It seems to have come down to the clergy through the Black or Austin Canons, a body that formed, as it were, the link between the monks and the clergy. This was in keeping with the past, as we have pointed out in the case of Matins, which were adopted from the monks and imposed on the clergy. These later accretions to the Divine Office were also at first taken up by the clergy, in imitation of the monks, and finally became an acknowledged part of their daily duty. The date of this was in the course of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, thus coinciding with the establishments of cathedral Chapters on the new model, and with that magnificent outburst which would naturally give rise to a revision of the Church offices in general. By the end of the thirteenth century the Little Office and that of the Dead were established in secular use. Sarum and Lincoln bear witness to this; and from the books of these two churches we learn that Matins, Lauds, and Vespers of our Lady were said in choir ; the " Little Hours " in the Ladye Chapel before the daily " Ladye Mass," while Compline was said privately after the Compline of the day. When the Council of Trent left the reformation of the Missal and Breviary to the Pope, St. Pius V. in the bull Quod A. Nobis (1568) released the clergy from an obligation which had for so many hundred years been laid upon them. The Pontiff says : " On account of the various businesses of this life and indulgent to the occupations of many, we have thought it well to remove the occasion of sin from this matter; but, warned by the weight of the Pastoral care, we vehemently exhort all in the Lord, that seconding our remission as far as can be done, by their own devotion and diligence, they should, by these prayers, suffrages, and praises, endeavour to provide for the salvation of themselves and of others." And he grants to all who say the Office of our Lady, on the days mentioned in the Rubrics, an indulgence of one hundred days for each recitation. The days prescribed are on all simples and ferias throughout the year, except Saturdays, which, from old custom, had a special votive office in honour of our Lady [In the customs of Einsiedeln, we find the Votive Office of our Lady assigned to the Saturday.].
This Office of our Lady, the growth of many years, is largely practised in the Church. The older order of monks and friars keep up its recitation on fixed days; and the numerous congregation of women called to special active work have no other office but this. St. Francis of Sales says of it in the order which he founded that: " The Office of our Lady is the soul of devotion in the Convents of the Visitation." Many of the newer orders say the Office in choir, carrying out as far as possible all the choral ceremonies. Some others, who of their work, have to content themselves with private recitation, keeping choir with their guardian angels.
Having thus traced the origin of the Little Office, it will not be amiss to see what evidence there is for its recitation among the laity; and, confining ourselves to England, we may easily gather that in the Dowery of Mary it was a favourite devotion. The rise of the art of printing naturally gave a great impulse to the recitation ; for manuscript books of the Hours, such as are still kept in our museums, would be too costly for the generality of lay folk. But when printing made it possible, we find an extraordinary growth ; and this, too, in a remarkable way. Not only was the Little Office available for the body of the faithful, but it was given them in the vernacular, in books called the Primer or Lay Folks' Prayer-Book [The one recently reprinted by the Early English Text Society is from a MS. of about 1420.].
Caxton's " Boke of Courteseye" (1477) contains some verses to " Little John " concerning his behaviour. Among them is the direction :—
" And while that you be about honestly
To dress yourself and do on your array,
With your fellow well and tretably Our Lady matins look that you say ;
And this observance use ye every day
With praise and hours withouten drede
The Blessed Lady will quit you your mede "
[P. 5.].
The Eton statutes prescribes that the scholars, after rising and making their beds, should say the Matins of our Blessed Lady after " Sarum use." Henry VI., the munificent founder of the College, had a special devotion to the Office, which he said every day. Cardinal Fisher, in his funeral sermon on the Countess of Richmond, mother of Henry VII., says : " First in prayer every day at her uprising, which commonly was not long after five of the clock, she began certain devotions ; and so after them with one of her gentlewomen, the Matins of our Lady," besides the greater Office which she said with her chaplain, and heard four or five masses ["The English works of John Fisher" [E.E.T.S.], p. 292.].
The Venetian Ambassador, in A relation of the Island of England [Camden Society's Publications, p. 23.], about the year 1496, tells his Government about the life of our Catholic forefathers and says : " Although they all attend Mass every day and say many paternosters in public (the women carrying long rosaries in their hands, and any that can read taking the Office of our Lady with them, and with some companion reciting it in the church verse by verse after the manner of churchmen), they always hear Mass on Sunday in their parish church and give liberal alms, because they may not offer less than a piece of money of which fourteen are equivalent to a golden ducat; nor do they omit any form incumbent upon good Christians."
About the period of the Reformation we find editions of the Primers printed in 1538, 1546, and several between 1551 and 1558. When Elizabeth destroyed the work restored by Mary, many of the people still clung to their old practices of devotion. In 1569, "Thomas Wright, vicar of Seaham, confesses that he says daily in his house, with certain others, the Offices of the Blessed Virgin " [" Depositions," p. 199, Surtees Society.]. One of the earliest publications of Dr. Allen was a Primer for the use of the persecuted Catholics. This came out in 1571, and was followed in 1599 by Richard Verstegan's edition and many others [Besides those in the text, there are editions of 1604, 1615, 1619, 1632, 1650, 1658, 1684, and 1685. All these were printed abroad. The first one printed in London was 1687. In 1706 appeared one with hymns translated by Dryden, and there are editions of the years 1717 and 1732.]. It was the favourite prayer of our brave confessors, and shows that they formed themselves on the simple, bold, direct prayer of the Church, and were thus able to cultivate a spirit of solid catholicity which withstood all shocks from within and without.
Nowadays, many pious lay-folk use the Little Office as their daily prayer. It is part of the rule for Dominican, Carmelite, and Augustinian Tertiaries. The Franciscan Third Order used it; and when Leo XIII., by his late Letters Apostolic, brought the tertiary rule more into harmony with the state of modern society, although he does away with the obligation of its recitation and orders instead the recital of twelve paters, he wishes that all who have time and opportunity should say the Little Office as heretofore.
From - The Little Office of Our Lady; a treatise theoretical, practical, and exegetical - Taunton, Ethelred L. (Ethelred Luke), 1857-1907