Introduction to Medieval Christian Liturgy
II. 3 The Liturgy of the Hours

I. Introduction

The early writings of the Christian Church bear witness to a prayer tradition that is rich in eschatological symbols. Christians were to be always praying. They struggled was not against human agents but against spiritual, cosmic forces that never slept. They knew neither the hour nor the day on which the messiah would return. They owed the divine an unlimited measure of gratitude not only for creation but for the redemption of that creation.

For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm....Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints. (Ephesians, 6: 12-13, 18)

Rejoice always, pray without ceasing give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. (1 Thessalonians 5: 16-17)

According to the canonical gospels, Jesus of Nazareth while encouraging his followers to pray went so far as to compare the divine to an unjust judge who may not give judgement on account of the justice of a plea, but would do it to rid himself of the incessant pleading.

Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He said, "In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, 'Grant me justice against my opponent.' For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, 'Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.'" And the Lord said, "Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?" (Luke, 18: 1-8)

Throughout the early centuries of Christianity, preachers admonished Christians to spend their entire lives in prayer. They encouraged them to pray in the morning and the evening, to rise during the night and keep vigil. Tertullian even encouraged them to use the regularly announced watches of the day (at the third, sixth and ninth hours) to remind themselves of their obligation to render thanks to God. 1 For early Christians the question was never whether or not they should pray always, only how to accomplish such an extreme demand. Origen (died c.254) encouraged them to interpret acts of righteousness and mercy as acts of prayer so that they might fulfill the command to pray always. He wrote:

He prays without ceasing who combines his prayer with necessary works, and suitable activities with his prayer, for his virtuous deeds or the commandments he has fulfilled are taken up as a part of his prayer. Only in this way can we take the saying "Pray without ceasing" as being possible, if we can say that the whole life of the saint is one mighty integrated prayer. 2

So while Christians were entreated to pray always in their hearts and in their actions, they also gathered regularly at the beginning and end of each day to pray together. The choice of these times may or may not have been influenced by Jewish traditions that placed particular emphasis on daily prayers at the beginning and end of each day. One such tradition was recorded by Flavius Josephus who wrote his Jewish Antiquities soon after the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in 70 C.E.

Let everyone commemorate before God the benefits which he bestowed upon them at their deliverance out of he land of Egypt, and this twice every day, both when the day begins and when the hour of sleep comes on, gratitude being in its own nature a just thing, and serving not only by way of return for past but also by way of invitation of future favors. 3

Scholars have had a hard time demonstrating in a definitive way the exact relationship between Jewish and Christian traditions of daily prayer. The question of morning and evening prayers is especially difficult, since these times for gathering together are so practical. Christians may simply have chosen them because they only had time to gather regularly before and after the work day.

Whatever the relationship between Christian and Jewish traditions for morning and evening prayers, a great variety of prayer patterns flourished in the Christian Churches throughout the Roman Empire and beyond during the first few centuries of Christianity. Common to all these patterns, though, were the meetings in the morning, the evening and occasionally during the night for prayers. The powerful symbols of light and dark, the rising and setting of the sun came to be an integral part of these prayer services. Morning prayers were focussed on the Risen Messiah, evening prayers on the continual need for forgiveness and protection from the cosmic forces, night prayers on the coming of the messiah at the end of time. Cyprian (died c.258) interpreted these Christian prayer times in such a fashion in his treatise on the Lord's Prayer.

One must also pray in the morning, that the resurrection of the Lord may be celebrated by morning prayer...

Likewise at sunset and the passing of the day it is necessary to pray. For since Christ is the true sun and the true day, when we pray and ask, as the sun and the day of the world recede, that the light may come upon us again, we pray for the coming of Christ, which provides us with the grace of eternal light...

So let us who are always in Christ, that is, in the light, not cease praying even at night. This is how the widow Anna, always praying and keeping vigil, persevered in deserving well of God .... Let us who by God's indulgence are recreated spiritually and reborn, imitate what we are destined to be. Let us who in the kingdom are to have only day with no intervening night, be as vigilant at night as in the light. Let us who are to pray always and render thanks to God, not cease here also to pray and give thanks. 4

After Constantine's conversion, these prayer times (morning, evening, and sometimes in the middle of the night) became common in all the cathedrals throughout the empire. In the West, these services came to be called matins, vespers, and vigils.

II. The Shape of Cathedral Matins (Lauds)

Now the great variety of particulars in liturgical celebrations among the Churches throughout the empire cannot be stressed too often. Each city or region celebrated in their own particular way. On the other hand, for a basic introduction such as this one, general outlines and structures must be delineated lest the inquirer become lost in the forest on account of the variety of trees. As we have already seen, the powerful symbols of time were early on incorporated into the principal hours of the day for communal prayer (morning, evening, and occasionally nighttime). It is not surprising then that throughout all the Christian Churches certain psalms and ritual actions became associated with each of these prayer times. The earliest sources for cathedral matins (morning prayers) speak of psalm 62/63 as the morning psalm.

O God, you are my God, I seek you,
my soul thirsts for you;
my flesh faints for you,
as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.
So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary,
beholding your power and glory.
My soul is satisfied as with a rich feast,
and my mouth praises you with joyful lips
when I think of you on my bed,
and meditate on you in the watches of the night;
for you have been my help,
and in the shadow of your wings I sing for joy. (Psalm 63: 1-2; 5- 7)

It is clear, however, that in many places throughout the west, and in Gaul in particular, that the Christian morning began with psalm 50/51.

Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions.
Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and sustain in me a willing spirit.
O Lord, open my lips,
and my mouth will declare your praise. (Psalm 51: 1, 7, 12, 15)

Many traditions, such as those at Bethlehem and Antioch, included both psalm 62/63 and psalm 50/51 in their morning prayers.

Three other psalms came to be closely associated with morning prayers in the cathedral: psalms 148, 149, and 150. All of these psalms begin with the command 'Praise the Lord!' In Latin the verb 'to praise' is laudare. And so it came to pass that these psalms were known collectively as 'lauds.' Eventually the morning service, most often called 'matins' in early sources often came to be called 'lauds' instead. These three psalms are nothing more than collections of cheerful and exuberant commands to praise the divine.

Praise the Lord!
Praise God in his sanctuary;
praise him in his mighty firmament!
Praise him for his mighty deeds;
praise him according to his surpassing greatness!
Praise him with trumpet sound;
praise him with lute and harp!
Praise him with tambourine and dance;
praise him with strings and pipe!
Praise him with clanging cymbals;
praise him with loud clashing cymbals!
Let everything that breathes praise the Lord!
Praise the Lord! (Psalm 150)

Other common elements of matins included: canticles of praise from the Hebrew Bible, such as that found in Daniel 3; the hymn Gloria in excelsis; and the hymn Te deum laudamus. Bishops throughout the empire drew upon these elements and other hymns, scriptural readings, sermons, and intercessions to form the matins services celebrated in their cathedrals. The services were more or less elaborate depending upon the day and the particular traditions of the city in question. In his work Lives of the Fathers, Gregory of Tours described a matins service for a Sunday morning in Clermont. 5 Robert Taft has reconstructed the service as follows:

Psalm 50/51
Canticle from Daniel 3
Psalm 148
Psalm 149
Psalm 150
A short intercessory verse taken from a psalm.

III. The Shape of Cathedral Vespers

Just as Christians came to associate certain psalms with matins throughout almost all of the Churches, so too did they come to associate particular psalms and ritual actions with vespers. The two most important ritual gestures associated with vespers were the lighting of the lamps (called lucernare in Latin) and the offering of incense. First of all, lighting lamps was simply necessary at the end of the day. But this simple gesture was immediately associated (as was the rising sun at matins) with the risen Christ. In Iberia, for example, a member of the clergy lifted a lighted candle before the altar at the beginning of the service and proclaimed, "In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, light and peace!" To which greeting all responded, "Thanks be to God!" In the East a particular hymn, Phos hilaron was often sung at this point in the service. In both East and West, Psalm 140/141 was the principal psalm sung at vespers.

I call upon you, O lord; come quickly to me;
give ear to my voice when I call to you.
Let my prayer be counted as incense before you,
and the lifting up of my hands as an evening sacrifice. (Psalm 141: 1-2)

An offering of incense often accompanied the singing of this psalm which brought to mind the evening sacrifices offered in Jerusalem's temple. Another tradition related to the Jewish origins of Christianity was the reckoning of a new day by the singing of vespers. Eventually, this became the custom only for festal days. Sunday, Christmas, Easter, and all other great holidays began, and continue to begin in traditional Christian Churches, at sunset on the eve of the feast. The basic structure of vespers was the following:

Lamplighting ritual (lucernare)
Hymn of light with opening prayer
Psalm 140/141 with incensation
Other psalms
Intercessions and collect
Concluding prayer (blessing)

IV. Monastic Traditions

These cathedral versions of matins and vespers, however, were not the only ones in existence in each city. Monks and nuns also celebrated daily prayers in common. But they did so in a slightly different way than did most of the ordinary Christians. Throughout the period, monastic customs and ideas became increasingly influential on the rest of the Church's life. Monastics attempted to live radical Christian lives and were often in conflict with Christians who continued to live in the world. On the other hand, their extreme asceticism often led other Christians to revere them as holy men and women. Bishops in turn did their best to coopt and control the sanctity of these men and women. In the process, bishops were deeply influenced by monastic ideals. One such monastic ideal was the attempt to sing all 150 psalms within a regularly repeated period of time such as a week. The monastics' purpose in gathering together to sing the psalms was quite different from that of ordinary Christians in their cathedral services. Ordinary Christians marked the time of day with appropriate rituals and psalmody. Monks and nuns, following an early Egyptian practice, gathered together in order to meditate upon the entire psalter as a spiritual discipline.

Another difference between monastic and cathedral liturgy was its frequency. As we saw above, Tertullian already around the year 200 recommended to his readers, in addition to the obligatory morning and evening prayers, that they use the third, sixth and ninth hours of daylight to remind themselves to pray. On the one hand these particular hours were practical, since they were announced publicly in cities; Christians could use the public announcements as reminders to pray. For Tertullian, though, these hours were also full of specifically Christian symbolism: the Holy Spirit first came upon the disciples at the third hour (Acts 2:15); Peter experienced his vision of the church while praying at the sixth hour (Acts 10: 9); and he cured a paralytic at the ninth hour (Acts 3:1). Later tradition would continue to make these connections between the third, sixth, and ninth hours of daylight and Christian myths with the exception that the ninth hour came to be particularly associated with Jesus' crucifixion. In Late Antiquity many monastic communities met together at these hours, in addition to the hours of morning and evening, to sing psalms and pray. And whereas the civic Church met occasionally during the night to celebrate vigils on the eve of some great feast, monastic communities tended to keep vigils every night. They marked the difference between an ordinary day and a feast day by lengthening the vigil service. Yet even these six prayer times each day were not deemed sufficient in many monastic communities. Quite a few of them ritualized bedtime prayers into a full office called compline and added another morning office, prime, during the first hour of daylight after the sunrise celebration of matins.

Benedict of Nursia in his Rule laid out specific guidelines for the celebration of the Liturgy of the Hours that were to become widely used throughout the West. Whereas in the earlier monastic tradition the psalms for matins and all the daytime offices were fixed, and the monks attempted to sing through the entire psalter every week during vespers and vigils, Benedict greatly reduced the burden of these last two offices. He ordained that only the psalms for compline would remain fixed. The rest of the psalter would be spread out in the other services. Eventually, the full Benedictine monastic cursus of hours in the West came to look like this:

Vespers (at the end of the day)
Compline (upon retiring)
Vigils (sometime during the night)
Matins (at sunrise)
Prime (during the first hour of daylight)
Terce (at the third hour)
Sext (at the sixth hour)
None (at the ninth hour)
Vespers (at the end of the day)

During the fifth and sixth centuries, western bishops were influenced more and more by monastic traditions of all sorts, not least of them liturgical. Increasingly large numbers of bishops were themselves monks. The lines between monastic and cathedral liturgies quickly blurred in the west. Bishops like Caesarius of Arles, who had been a monk at the famous island community of Lérins, introduced liturgical celebrations in their cathedrals at terce, sext, and none "so that if some priest or penitent wanted to perform a good work, he could attend the office daily without any excuse." 6 And while the faithful, ordinary Christians continued to sing the traditional morning psalms at lauds bishops also began to add variable psalms to the service. Eventually, all of the psalms sung at vespers in the West became variable.

V. Conclusion

The influence of this daily round of liturgies on the lives of people throughout the Middle Ages cannot be stressed too much. As discussed earlier, ancient Christianity was primarily an urban affair. The country was fundamentally a Christianity-free zone. Bishops, however, lost little time in encouraging wealthy laymen and women to build churches on their estates. And the enormous success enjoyed by monastic movements proliferated monasteries and priories throughout the countryside. In time, nearly everyone's day came to be marked by the pealing of bells announcing services in the churches, basilicas, and abbeys of both town and country. Bishops and their clergy continued to encourage, cajole, and badger their auditors into attending at least some of these services on a regular basis.

Oftentimes, the congregations involved did not live up to episcopal expectations. Caesarius of Arles faced a congregation that, in his opinion, regularly stayed up too late drinking and carousing in the night, with the result that they were late for matins. (Some aspects of Proven‡al culture appear to have very ancient roots indeed.) To make matters worse, Caesarius' congregations appear to have been concerned that the service not last more than half an hour so they could get to work on time. Adding insult to injury, they were annoyed when Caesarius chose to preach during the service, even when he started the service earlier so that it would end on time. 7

Congregations were not always so apathetic, though. At other times, the popularity of a given service would fill spaces to their capacity and beyond with people who had come either out of devotion or out of a simple desire to enjoy the spectacle or perhaps some combination of the two. In one of his numerous letters, Sidonius Apollinaris described a vigils service held in Lyon late in the fifth century in honor of one of the city's dead bishops.

We had gathered at the tomb of St. Justus you were prevented by illness from being present. The anniversary celebration of the procession before daylight was held. There was an enormous number of people of both sexes, too large a crowd for the very spacious basilica to hold even with the expanse of covered porticoes that surrounded it....Because of the cramped space, the pressure of the crowd, and the numerous lights brought in, we were absolutely gasping for breath. 8

Whether heavily or sparsely attended, the regular rhythm of these liturgies continued to be a very present daily aspect of life for the peoples of Europe until well into the modern era.

Further Reading

Robert Taft, The Liturgy of the Hours in East and West: the Origins of the Divine Office and Its Meaning for Today, (Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 1986).

Paul Bradshaw, Daily Prayer in the Early Church: a Study of the Origin and Early Development of the Divine Office, (London: SPCK, 1981).


1Tertullian, On Prayer 25. Return to text.

2Origen, Treatise on Prayer, 32. E.G. Jay, trans., Origen's Treatise on Prayer, (London: SPCK, 1954): 114. Return to text.

3Josephus, Jewish Antiquities, line 212 [Book IV chapter 8 § 13]. The Works of Josephus Complete and Unabridged, New Updated Edition, (Peabody, Massachussetts, 1987). Return to text.

4Cyprian, On the Lord's Prayer. As cited in Robert Taft, The Liturgy of the Hours in East and West: the Origins of the Divine Office and Its Meaning for Today, (London, 1981): 20-21. Return to text.

5Gregory of Tours, Lives of the Fathers, Book VI § 7. Return to text.

6Tertullian, On Prayer, 25. Return to text.

7Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Series rerum merovingicarum III, 457-501. Return to text.

8See Robert Taft, The Liturgy of the Hours in East and West: the Origins of the Divine Office and Its Meaning for Today, (London, 1981): 151 ff. Return to text.