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The Primer

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The common English name for a book of devotions which from the thirteenth to the sixteenth century was the ordinary prayer-book used by the laity. The contents of these books varied greatly, but they possessed certain common elements which practically speaking are never absent. the most important feature, judging by the position usually assigned to it as well as by the lavish use of miniatures and other forms of ornament with which it is associated, was the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary. In different liturgical centres, for example, at Rome, Salisbury, York, or Paris, the constituents of the Little Office differed from each other in various details; for example, the Psalms recited at Prime "according to the use of York" were not the same as those appointed for the same hour in the Sarum breviary and hence in the later printed editions of the Primer it is common to find upon the title-page or in the colophon a statement of the particular use followed, e.g., "Horae secundum usum Romanum" or "secundum usum Sarum". Such designation however qualify only the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin, and not the other contents of the volume. Next in importance, but not usually next in order, was the Office for the Dead, or rather Vespers, followed by Matins and Lauds. These were commonly known as Placebo and Dirige (hence our English word "dirge"), from the antiphons with which the Vespers and the Matins respectively began. Three other constant elements are also invariably included in the Primer: the Fifteen Psalms (i.e., the Gradual Psalms, Psalms 119-133), the Seven Psalms (i.e., the Penitential Psalms), and the Litany of the Saints. As already stated, these invariable features of the Primer are supplemented in nearly all extant copies with a variety of other devotions of which a word will be said later on.

Origin of the primer

The question of the origin and primitive association of the invariable elements just specified has been of late thoroughly examined by Mr. Edmund Bishop (see introduction to the Early English Text Society's edition of the Primer, London, 1897), who has corrected the erroneous views previously advanced by Henry Bradshaw and others. As Mr. Bishop has shown, the Primer was constituted out of certain devotional accretions to the Divine Office itself which were invented first by the piety of individuals for the use of monks in their monasteries, but which gradually spread and came to be regarded as an obligatory supplement to the office of the day. Of these accretions the Fifteen Psalms and the Seven Psalms were the earliest in point of time to establish themselves generally and permanently. Their adoption as part of the daily round of monastic devotion was probably largely due to the influence of St. Benedict of Aniane at the beginning of the ninth century. The "Vigiliae Mortuorum", or Office for the Dead, was the next accretion to be generally received. Of the cursus or Little Office of the Blessed Virgin we hear nothing until the time of Bernerius of Verdun (c. 960) and of St. Udalric of Augsburg (c. 971); but this form of devotion to Our Lady spread rapidly. Two English manuscripts which contain it date from before the Norman Conquest and have been published in facsimile by the Henry Bradshaw Society. In these provision was probably made only for the private recitation of the Office of the Blessed Virgin, but after the ardent encouragement given to this form of devotion by St. Peter Damian in the middle of the tenth century many monastic orders adopted it or retained it in preference to some other devotional offices, e.g., those of All Saints and of the Blessed Trinity, which had found favour a little earlier. By the second half of the fourteenth century a certain measure of uniformity had been attained with regard to these devotional accretions both among the monastic orders and in cathedral and collegiate churches, so that we learn from Radulphus de Rivo (c. 1390) that the daily recital of the Office of the Blessed Virgin and of the Vigiliae Mortuorum were then regarded as obligatory upon all ecclesiastics by the general consent of nations, while by the laudable practice of many, other particular offices were also observed, such as the Penitential and Gradual psalms and so forth. Throughout all this it would seem that the sense that these things were accretions to the Divine Office itself was not lost. Hence there was a tendency to perform these devotions in private, and for this purpose they were probably often collected into a separate book. Moreover, since these devotions, unlike the Divine Office, were invariable, they could be learned and practised with comparative ease by those who had little pretensions to scholarship. There was always a tendency in the laity to copy the exercises of piety which prevailed among the monastic orders. to take part in the full Divine Office of the Church, which changed from day to day, was beyond their reach, but by rendering themselves familiar with the Hours of the Blessed Virgin, they were enabled both to make their own something of that burden of prayer which the monks actually performed, and also to imitate that sevenfold consecration of the day, which no doubt seemed to them the most distinctive feature in the monastic life. Hence it came to pass, no doubt, that the collection of these accretions to the Office, gathered into one small volume, became the favourite prayer-book of the laity, whilst copyists naturally supplemented these more strictly liturgical forms of prayer by the addition of many private devotions, often in the vernacular. For it must be remembered that the Psalms, the Officium B.M.V., the Vigiliae Mortuorum, etc. were recited by the laity as well as by the clergy in Latin. True, a number of manuscript primers of the fifteenth century are in existence, in which the whole contents have been translated into English, but these are comparatively rare exceptions. On the other hand, out of over a hundred editions of the Primer printed for the English book-trade before the breach with Rome, in 1533, not one is known to contain the Office or the Psalms in English.

Primers for children

The origin of the name "primer" is still obscure. The earliest instance yet discovered of the use of the word is in a Latin will of 1323, where it evidently means a prayer-book. Probabilities favour the view (see "The Month", February, 1911, pp. 150-63) that it was called "primer" because the more elaborate forms developed out of a book containing the invariable elements already specified, preceded by the alphabet, the Pater noster, Ave Maria, Creed, etc. which compilation was used as a first reading book for children. This will not seem strange when we remember that children in the Middle Ages learned to read not in English but in Latin, and that almost every child learned to read learned with the more or less definite purpose of becoming a clerk, i.e., a cleric, whose profession required him to recite the Office and to know the Psalms by heart. Further the day-book of John Dorne (Oxford Hist. Soc., 1888), bookseller in Oxford in 1520, preserves many entries of the sale of books called "primarium pro pueris", with indications which make it certain that they contained the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin, and though none of these now survive, some later reformed examples are in existence of the "Primer-moste necessary for the educacyon of Children" (1538), which contain the A.B.C. together with a modified office. When, therefore, we read in Chaucer's "Prioress's Tale" (1386) of the primer used by the "litel clergeon seven years of age" —

"This litel child, his litel book lerninge,
As he sat in the scole at his prymer",

there can be no doubt that the book was none other than the Primer here described. Indeed, the religious character of such elementary manuals persisted for long centuries afterward and Dr. Johnson, the lexicographer, as late as 1773, still defined a primer as "a small prayer-book in which children are taught to read".

Early printed primers

A very large number of editions of the Primer came from the press before Henry VIII threw off his allegiance to the pope. Such books containing the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin and the Vigiliae Mortuorum with miscellaneous private devotions were common enough everywhere throughout Europe and were generally known as "Horae". But the English name, the name commonly used when these books were spoken of in English, was "Primer". Though Caxton himself is known to have printed four editions, and there are probably more of his that have perished, while his successors multiplied editions rapidly, the English printers were unequal to supply the demand. A vast number were produced "secundum usum Sarum" by the presses of Paris, Rouen, and elsewhere, many of them exceedingly beautiful in their typography and ornamentation, and a considerable number printed on vellum. Besides the constant elements already specified, these books commonly contain some other minor offices, e.g., that of the Passion, that of the Angels, etc., and a vast number of commemorations of individual saints. The beginnings of the four Gospels are also often found with the Athanasian and other creeds, and prayers for Confession and Communion. An almost invariable adjunct, either in Latin or English, was the fifteen prayers attributed to St. Bridget and known as "the fifteen O's", and there were often devotions of a more fantastical kind which claimed to have been enriched by extravagant grants of indulgence, mostly quite unauthentic. Perhaps no better idea can be given of the miscellaneous contents, some Latin, some English, of many of the larger primers than by making an extract from the index of one of Wynkyn de Worde's quarto editions. Thus:

A prayer made upon Ave Maria.
Gaude virgo mater.
De profundis for all crysten soules.
A prayer to oure lady and saynt John the evangelyst: O intemerata.
A prayer to our lady; Sancta Maria.
Another devout prayer to our lady: Obsecro.
To our lady: Sancta Maria regina.
To our lady: Stella celi extirpavit.
Prayers to the Sacrament at the leavacion: Ave verum.
A prayer to the trinite; sancta trinitas unus deus, with two other prayers, Deus qui superbis, Deus qui liberasti.
Domine Jesu Christe qui me creasti.
Domine, Jesu Christe qui solus.
Two prayers with two collectes to the thre Kynges of Coleyn.
Rex Jaspar, rex Melchior, and Trium regum trinum munus.
The XV OOS of the passion of our Lorde in latyn.
Prayers to the pyte of our lorde: Adoro te domine.
A prayer to our lord crucyfyed: Precor te amantissime.
Another to his V woundes: O pie crucifixe.
The prayer of saynt Bernardyn: O bone Jesu, with an antheme and a collecte.
O Rex gloriose.
To the crosse: Santifica me.
To thy proper Aungell: O sancte angele.

Post-Reformation primers

So strong was the hold which the Primer had taken upon the affections of Englishmen that after the breach with Rome various imitations, still bearing the name of Primer and framed upon the same general lines, were put forward with more or less of ecclesiastical approval by Marshall and Bishop Hilsey, while in 1545 appeared "the Royal Primer", which was published in the name of Henry VIII himself, and was to supersede all others. Other substitutes, still further modified in the direction of the reformed doctrine now in favour, were published in the reign of Edward VI. For the most part these books were entirely in English and when under Queen Mary the old form of Primer was restored, several editions then produced though thoroughly Catholic in their contents, were printed in English as well as in Latin. Under Elizabeth the Protestant substitutes for the Primer returned, but that printed in 1559 was still called "the Primer set forth at large with many godly and devoute Prayers" and it included a form of "Office" divided into seven hours, with the "seven psalms", the litany (much modified), and "the Dirige" (see "Private Prayers", Parker Society, 1851). Meanwhile the Catholics had to be content with such ancient copies of the Marian or earlier editions which they would secrete, or with the few copies of the Roman Horae printed entirely in Latin which could be smuggled in from abroad. The first Catholic Primer of penal times seems to have been that edited by Richard Verstegan (Antwerp, 1599). It adhered to the old conception of the Primer by making the Office of Our Blessed Lady the most conspicuous feature of the whole, but a great deal of new matter was introduced into the miscellaneous devotions, and in the subsequent editions printed in many of the cities to which Catholics resorted upon the continent, e.g. Douai, St. Omers, Rouen, etc., a great deal of innovation was tolerated. Of really old English devotions the "Jesus Psalter", which we know from John Dorne's day-book to have been printed and sold separately before 1520, was one of the features most relished and most consistently retained. The edition of 1706 seems to have been much improved as regards the translations of the hymns, and of some of these John Dryden is believed to have been the author. The whole number of Catholic editions of the Primer known to have been printed under that name, either in England or abroad since Elizabeth, amounts to over forty.


Sources

MASKELL, Monumenta Ritualia Ecclesiae Anglicanae, III (2nd ed., Oxford, 1882); LITTLEHALES, The Prymer or Prayer-Book of the Lay people, two parts (London, 1891-2); IDEM, The Prymer, edited for the Early English Text Society and including an introduction by BISHOP (London, 1896-7); HOSKINS, Horae Beatae Mariae Virginis, or the Sarum and York Primers and Kindred Books, a list and description of English Horae and Primers (London, 1901); BENNETT in Julian's Dictionary of Hymnology (London, 1907), s.v. Primers; THURSTON, The Mediaeval Primer in The Month (February, 1911); GILLOW, Letters on "Our Old English Prayer-books" in The Tablet (December, 1884, and January, 1885).

About this page

APA citation. Thurston, H. (1911). The Primer. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/12425a.htm

MLA citation. Thurston, Herbert. "The Primer." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 12. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/12425a.htm>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Ann M. Bourgeois. In thanksgiving to Almighty God for Joseph & Nancy Lischwe & family.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. June 1, 1911. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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