Sunday, June 30, 2019

Office of Prime (I): A Brief History

The Offices of Prime and Compline are unique among the Roman Hours. They are horae minores, "little hours", but look little like the Terce, Sext, and None. Prime has variable readings and Compline boasts a canticle, a feature otherwise belonging to the Vigil and Vespers. Both of these Hours originated after the main Hours of the Office (Vespers, Mattins/Lauds, Terce, Sext, and None), but according to the evidence, they originated not too much later. If anything, all that lagged was their universal acceptance, which both Hours attained by the second half of the first millennium of the Christian age.

The Divine Office is a fracturing of the original Christian all-night vigil which would culminate in the singing of the Divine Praises (laudes) at dawn and the celebration of the Eucharistic sacrifice, the risen Sun would meet the Risen Son. The Hours separated and, as readers of St. Augustine's Confessions will remember, the implementation was somewhat arbitrary imitation of the practices of Alexandria according to local taste (Saint Ambrose evidently preferred a lone cantor to sing psalms in recto tono rather than ornate melodies of whatever practices preceded the Canonical Office).

Practical needs of discipline in monastic life generated the first Hour of the Office. Saint John Cassian purported that Prime, which he called "Mattins" (literally the "morning hour", as separate from the vigil we call Mattins and its accompanying Lauds), came about in his own monastery at Bethlehem:
"But you must know that this Mattins, which is now very generally observed in Western countries, was appointed as a canonical office in our own day, and also in our own monastery, where our Lord Jesus Christ was born of a Virgin and deigned to submit to growth in infancy as man, and where by His Grace He supported our own infancy, still tender in religion, and, as it were, fed with milk. For up till that time we find that when this office of Mattins (which is generally celebrated after a short interval after the Psalms and prayers of Nocturns in the monasteries of Gaul) was finished, together with the daily vigils, the remaining hours were assigned by our Elders to bodily refreshment. But when some rather carelessly abused this indulgence and prolonged their time for sleep too long, as they were not obliged by the requirements of any service to leave their cells or rise from their beds till the third hour" (Cassian, Twelve Institutes Bk III.IV).
In his Rule, Saint Benedict laid out a schema of psalms for his monks to follow according to the day, a schema which effectively reworked the Roman psalter of his time according to his own perceived needs. In Chapter 8 he asks that three psalms be said at Prime each day from Monday until the Lord's day, psalms 1, 2, and 6 and then three successive psalms each day; on Sunday the psalms at Prime were the four 15-line fragments of psalm 118.

Chapter Room of Poblet Monastery

Prime and Compline, unlike the other Major and Minor Hours, are "chapter" hours, not properly part of the cathedral or collegiate public liturgy. Their original purpose was to occupy monks' down time, but as the rites of the Church matured, they took on their own character and importance in the monastic and collegiate life. Both were sung "in chapter", that is, in a separate room attached to the collegiate or monastic church, but separate from it. Mass would never be offered in this room. Instead, the avowed clerics would sing either Prime or Compline, review business of the day, listen to spiritual reading, admit any violations of their Rule or constitutions, and administer punishment.

Among the Eastern Churches, the practice of reading sacred texts in the Office subsided, leaving only prophesies for major feasts in the Byzantine rite. The Roman rite, however, retained a full structure of readings at Mattins and offered the Martyrology at the Office of Prime. As an Hora Minor, Prime does not change drastically with the days or seasons, but if the Martyrology is read, it reads of the saints whose feasts will be recalled by the Church the following day. On December 24 comes the only day in the Roman rite wherein Prime is celebrated with great ceremony. Prime is sung as normal until the Martyrology, when a priest in purple cope flanked by two acolytes reads the foretelling of the Incarnation:
"In the year 5199th from the creation of the world, when in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth, in the year 2957th from the flood, in the year 2015th from the birth of Abraham, in the year 1510th from the going forth of the people of Israel out of Egypt under Moses, in the year 1032th from the anointing of David as King, in the 65th week according to the prophecy of Daniel, in the 194th Olympiad, in the 752nd from the foundation of the city of Rome, in the 42nd year of the reign of the Emperor Octavian Augustus, in the 6th age of the world, while the whole earth was at peace, Jesus Christ, Himself Eternal God and Son of the Eternal Father, being pleased to hallow the world by His most gracious coming, having been conceived of the Holy Ghost, and when nine months were passed after His conception, (all kneel down) was born of the Virgin Mary at Bethlehem of Juda made Man, Our Lord Jesus Christ was born according to the flesh."
 A full singing of this Office can be viewed here.

After the psalms in Prime, the choir sing a series of intercessory prayers, the celebrant and the choir make Confessions in alternation, the celebrant recites a stationary collect that Our Lord might protect those present this day from the danger of sin, they read the Martyrology, and then follows another series of prayers in praise of Our lady and the Saints. These prayers are of early medieval Gallican origin. Prior to the Battle of Hastings in 1066, the communities of England had their own preces based entirely on verses of psaltery, admitting no other text. These prayers, which one can read more about in The Psalms and Medieval English Literature: from Conversion to the Reformation, were replaced with more responsorial prayers akin to the ones in the pre-Conciliar breviaries.

As far as the psalms themselves, Sunday Prime before S Pius V was longer than any major Hour, save Mattins. Psalms 21-25, 53, 117, and the first two fragments of 118 were sung, followed by the Athanasian Creed, the Martyrology, and the aforementioned prayers. For the rest of the week, Prime was short. The 1568 reforms, cognizant of the new obligation of secular clergy to pray the complete Office daily and also aware of the 26 psalms sung at Mattins and Lauds, re-distributed psalms 21-25 and 117 throughout the week while retaining 53 and the first two fragments of 118 daily. The result was coming substantial, but manageable from the standpoint of secular clergy.

Why, then, did Prime become the object of incessant caterwauling by reform minded priests in the late 19th and early 20th century? The Industrial Revolution quickened the pace of life in ways that modern society often overlooks. Throughout medieval times and into the pre-Industrial period, most people in Europe practiced bi-phasic sleep. Liturgically, this meant monks would awake in the middle of the night, sing the Nocturnal Vigil (Mattins and Lauds), return to sleep, and observe the rest of the Liturgy in the morning. When that disappeared, clergy still retained the venerable tradition of anticipating Mattins and Lauds after nightfall the prior evening. After both social changes in sleep and 20th century legislation forcing the entire Office to be sung or said within a modern 24 hour day, the morning became front-loaded with psalms. For the parish priest celebrating a 7AM Mass, this was onerous.

As stated elsewhere on this blog, the answers to the problems with the ancient Roman Liturgy could easily have been resolved by reducing clerical obligations and lessening the number of Doubles in the kalendar, but the result was something quite different.

Next we will look at how to pray Prime and its variations in the early half of the 20th century.


  1. Was the redistribution of the Psalms of Sunday Prime the first step in a long chain? In my opinion it was.

    1. I think it would depend on the origin of the extra psalms at Prime before Pius V. The old schema is mostly very neat, with Matins and Vespers going MOSTLY in order throughout the week. But whenever the schema was codified for the Church of Rome, the continuous movement through the psalter was balanced by a concern for the number of psalms in each hour. A week of Matins goes through 90 psalms, and a week of Vespers goes through 35. The remaining 25 are spread out in the other hours.

      I've read that originally 21-26 were on Sunday Matins (for a total of 24 psalms).
      St. Gregory I moved 21-25 to Sunday Prime, and moved 26 to Monday Matins, and bumped 38 from Monday to Tuesday, then took out 50 from Tuesday Matins and made it to be recited every day at Lauds.

      So pss 21-25 were already the most fungible; they never quite belonged in Sunday Prime. St. Pius V introduced a slight novelty by moving 21-25, but he also restored Sunday Prime to what it was before St. Gregory.

      These little details on the margins I think are okay for a pope to slightly modify. This alteration is not anything like the Divinu Afflatu changes or the Novus Ordo.

    2. S. Pius V was most solicitous in this regard. Sunday Prime, when the Office is Dominical according to the real Roman Psalter, takes longer to pray than Lauds. Pss. 53, 117, 118.1, 118.2, and the Quicumque, and then the Dominical Preces. It's fitting that the Lord's Day be given over to more prayer compared to a weekday, but if Pss. 21-25 were added back to Prime, it would feel almost like another Matins.

      On another note, Pss. 21-25 are practically omitted in most weeks owing to the festal Offices, even the Simplex, which even the CTO can't rectify. I think these psalms should be permanently fixed to each weekday's Prime except when the Office is a D1Cl or D2Cl.

    3. @ Paul Goings:

      The problem with equating the Pian (V) breviary, or the Urban VIII hymns, with the chain of reform is that it was not really connected with what came after it. It was not seen as a major precedent in its time (although perhaps Quod a nobis was), it did not do anything so particularly different from previous liturgically minded popes that people thought something novel had transpired, it was not part of a concerted movement, and the people involved in this liturgy did not have anything to do with later changes. All the 20th century nonsense bears these marks, especially from 1945-1975. Historically, Pius V's very modest touch to the Roman psalter was a one-off.

      @ Godfrey:
      Are you getting that citation about S Gregory the Great from Taft's "Liturgy of the Hours: East and West"?

    4. Getting it from a Fr. Cekada in an article on Rorate Coeli. Is it not correct?

  2. "venerable tradition of anticipating Mattins and Lauds after nightfall the prior evening..."
    Do you want to say that Matins and Lauds were anticipated in the previous evening on all days, like it was done for the Tenebrae?

    The shortening of Lauds and ferial Matins in 1911 would make a significant economy of time only in the case of a sung Office. In 1911, this was probably not the everyday experience of most parish priests. For the solitary recitation of breviary the effect is not that big. Sunday or Lenten ferial Matins, Lauds, and Prime (including Martyrology) recited back to back takes no more than a hour and a quarter. That seems not to be very onerous.

    "The Divine Office is a fracturing of the original Christian all-night vigil..."
    This seems to apply for the block of 1st Vespers-Matins-Lauds. Terce, Sext, and None seem to be a different thing altogether, originating the daily prayer of Jews, as practiced also by disciples of Jesus.