Performance, transmission and devotion: understanding the Anglo-Saxon prayer books, c.800-1050

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March, Kirsty Teresa
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University College Cork
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Through an investigation of the Anglo-Saxon prayer books and selected psalters, this thesis corrects standard histories of medieval devotion that circumvent the Anglo-Saxon contribution to medieval piety. In the first half of the thesis, I establish a theoretical framework for Anglo-Saxon piety in which to explore the prayers. Current theoretical frameworks dealing with the medieval devotional material are flawed as scholars use terms such as ‘affective piety’, ‘private’ and even ‘devotion’ vaguely. After an introduction which defines some of the core terminology, Chapter 2 introduces the principal witnesses to the Anglo-Saxon prayer tradition. These include the prodigal eighth- and early ninth- century Mercian Group, comprising the Book of Nunnaminster (London, British Library, Harley 2965, s. viii ex/ix1), the Harleian Prayer Book (London, British Library, Harley 7653, s. viii ex/ix1), the Royal Prayer Book (London, British Library, Royal 2 A. xx, s. viii2/ix1/4), and the Book of Cerne (Cambridge, University Library, Ll. 1. 10). These prayer books are the earliest of their kind in Europe. This chapter challenges some established views concerning the prayer books, including purported Irish influence on their composition and the probability of female ownership. Chapter 3 explores the performance of prayer. The chapter demonstrates that Anglo-Saxon prayers, for example, the Royal Abecedarian Prayer, were transmitted fluidly. The complex relationship between this abecedarian prayer and its reflex in the Book of Nunnaminster reveals the complexity of prayer composition and transmission in the early medieval world but more importantly, it helps scholars theorise how the prayers may have been used, whether recited verbatim or used for extemporalisation. Changes made by later readers to earlier texts are also vital to this study, since they help answer questions of usage and show the evolution and subsequent influence of Anglo-Saxon religiosity. The second half of the thesis makes a special study of prayers to the Cross, the wounded Christ, and the Virgin, three important themes in later medieval spirituality. These focus on the Royal Abecedarian Prayer, which explores Christ’s life (Chapter 5), especially his Passion; the ‘Domine Ihesu Christe, adoro te cruce’ which celebrates the Cross (Chapter 4); and the Oratio Alchfriðo ad sanctam Mariam, which invokes the Virgin Mary (Chapter 6). These prayers occur in multiple, temporally-diverse witnesses and have complex transmission histories, involving both oral and written dissemination. The concluding chapter (7) highlights some of the avenues for future research opened by the thesis.
Book of Nunnaminster , Royal Prayer Book , Anglo-Saxon
March, K.T. 2012. Performance, transmission and devotion: understanding the Anglo-Saxon prayer books, c.800-1050. PhD Thesis, University College Cork.