Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Office of Prime (III): Parvum Officium

The period historians generally called the "Dark Ages", the time after the fall of the Roman Empire and before medieval Christianity accomplished "Europe", saw the gradual enhancement of the ancient Roman liturgy through devout emendations by localized Christian communities. The hymns of the Office, octaves, the feasts of most non-Roman Saints, and the ceremonies of Mass grew up around this time and continued to grow until the years after the Council of Trent and the creation of the Congregation for Rites.

One new tradition that sprang forth from the fertile soil of Early Medieval Christendom is that of the Little Office. Today, the knowledgeable faithful associate the term "Little Office" with the Parvum Officium Beatae Virginis Mariae, but there emerged a multiplicity of Little Offices over those centuries.

Perhaps the oldest is the Office of the Dead, which betrays its antiquity by its form. Its Mattins lack an introduction, omitting psalm 94 unless it is celebrated as a Duplex (November 2 and for funerals), absolutions at the readings, and any introductions. Lauds and Vespers similarly have no hymns, chapters, or opening ceremonies. No other part of the Roman Office resembles the Officium Defunctorum more than the Tenebrae and Horae Minores of the Sacred Triduum, which remained effectively unchanged from the time of Gregory the Great until 1911.

The Office of the Dead emerged as a parallel liturgy in monasteries during the closing centuries of the first millennium and became popularized through other monasteries and collegiate churches, both as means to pray for diseased monks and for canons to pray for their diseased benefactors. While eventually said daily, along with the Requiem Mass, on permitting days, it never developed as fully as the other Little Offices, lacking Little Hours (including Prime) and Compline until the Divino Afflatu reforms of Pius X.

The Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary emerged slightly later and became the most popular of all paraliturgical functions. Guilds emerged in Northern Europe which commissioned priests uniquely to offer this Office and its associated seasonal votive Masses daily, again, kalendar permitting. The Marian Office has an Inviatory at Mattins, hymns throughout the day, and Little Hours, including our Prime. While Vespers, Mattins, and Lauds repeat the same psalms, antiphons, chapters, and hymns of the Blessed Virgin's feasts throughout the year, the Little Hours of the Little Office derive their psalmnody from the Gradual Psalms except for Prime. The psalms of Prime are Deus in nomine tuo (53), Benedixisti Domine (84), and Laudate Dominum omnes gentes (116). As with festive Prime, the antiphon is the first of Lauds (Assumpta est Maria in coelum). Uniquely, the hymn at Prime and the rest of the Hours is that of Compline, Memento rerum Conditor. Another unique aspect of Prime of the Blessed Virgin Mary is that unlike Prime in the Roman Office, it does not follow a unique structure based around the [assembled] Chapter, with an act of repentance, a reading of the Martyrology, prayers for the intention of the day, and the Dominical statement of faith. It simply follows the normal structure of psalms, the chapter and hymn, and an oration.

The Parvum Officium of Our Lady gained common currency by the high Middle Ages. Whenever Duffy or historians speak of nobles or guilds assembling in a church to sing Vespers or royal women "reading the Mattins" in the morning they inevitably mean that they were following the texts of the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Churches and chapters that did not observe the full Office of Our Lady instead celebrated it as an elevated Simplex feast on Saturdays outside of Lent, switching from ferial psalms to Marian chapter, hymn, versicles, and orations midway through the Office.

Less common, although said at Cluny and its sister houses, was the Office of All Saints, the text I which I would one day like to see. With the mandate of all clerics to recite the full Roman Office daily, the tradition of offering these Little Offices remained but in a diluted manner. Counter-Reformation Josephilia and liturgical sloth even gave birth to this Parvum Officium of Saint Joseph, which has a solitary psalm for its Mattins, no Lauds, and a simple hymn for its Prime and following Hours.

Our next and closing post in this series will consider the place of Prime, putatively suppressed, in the Church and Christian life today.


  1. I don't know if it's the same, but here's the pre-Pius X Little Office of All Saints of the Benedictine Order: https://coelifluus.wordpress.com/2016/11/13/little-office-of-all-benedictine-saints/

  2. I have always found it interesting that traditionally Prime of the B.V.M. was said within Canonical Prime, rather than before or after it.

  3. I've committed the Little Office hymn "Memento rerum Conditor" to memory, but in the old form:

    Memento salutis auctor quod nostri quondam corporis
    Ex illibata Virgine nascendo formam sumpseris.

    Maria Mater gratiae, mater misericordiae,
    Tu nos ab hoste protege et hora mortis suscipe.

    Gloria tibi Domine, qui natus es de Virgine,
    Cum Patr'et Sancto Spiritu, in sempiterna saecula. Amen.

    Presumably they rewrote this hymn because the stress accents are not perfectly iambic. I hardly understand why that would be of concern... I would rather have expected them to try to rewrite it in dactylic hexameter!

  4. Maria Mater gratiae, mater misericordiae,
    Tu nos ab hoste protege et hora mortis suscipe.

    I saw this today on an image of Our Lady in the abandoned cloister of a Poor Claire's convent and was wondering why it sounded so familiar.