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Common Prayer: The Language of Public Devotion in Early Modern England

Common Prayer: The Language of Public Devotion in Early Modern England

by Ramie Targoff Ramie Targoff
Pub. Date:
University of Chicago Press
Pub. Date:
University of Chicago Press
Common Prayer: The Language of Public Devotion in Early Modern England

Common Prayer: The Language of Public Devotion in Early Modern England

by Ramie Targoff Ramie Targoff


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Common Prayer explores the relationship between prayer and poetry in the century following the Protestant Reformation. Ramie Targoff challenges the conventional and largely misleading distinctions between the ritualized world of Catholicism and the more individualistic focus of Protestantism. Early modern England, she demonstrates, was characterized less by the triumph of religious interiority than by efforts to shape public forms of devotion. This provocatively revisionist argument will have major implications for early modern studies.

Through readings of William Shakespeare's Hamlet, Richard Hooker's Lawes of Ecclesiastical Politie, Philip Sidney's Apology for Poetry and his translations of the Psalms, John Donne's sermons and poems, and George Herbert's The Temple, Targoff uncovers the period's pervasive and often surprising interest in cultivating public and formalized models of worship. At the heart of this study lies an original and daring approach to understanding the origins of devotional poetry; Targoff shows how the projects of composing eloquent verse and improving liturgical worship come to be deeply intertwined. New literary practices, then, became a powerful means of forging common prayer, or controlling private and otherwise unmanageable expressions of faith.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226789699
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 05/01/2001
Edition description: 1
Pages: 176
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Ramie Targoff is an assistant professor of English at Yale University.

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Common Prayer: the Language of Public Devotion in Early Modern England

By Ramie Targoff

University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2001 Ramie Targoff
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0226789691

CHAPTER ONE - Common Prayer

In 1547, the first year of Edward VI's rule and the start of a short but intense period of Protestant reform unthinkable under Henry VIII, the archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, received a letter of complaint from Stephen Gardiner, the conservative bishop of Winchester. Not so secretly a Catholic at heart, Gardiner sought to obstruct Cranmer's plans to introduce a vernacular liturgy into the Church of England. Arguing that "in times past, when men came to church more diligently than some do now, the people in the church took small heed what the priest and the clerks did in the chancel, but only to stand up at the Gospel and kneel at the Sacring," he boldly declared that the prayers of the priest were never intended to be either heard or understood by the laity. For Gardiner, the very notion of "hearing" the service belies traditional practice--"it is in speech so called hearing, but in deed nothing so practiced, nor never was." The worshippers could not have heard, let alone understood, all that the priest spoke, for this would have required the priest to turn his body toward the congregation throughout his prayers, and concern himself with keeping the worshippers occupied (so that they "holdtheir peace") instead of focusing his attention on the liturgy. Therefore, Gardiner concludes, it was never intended that the people should hear either matins or the Mass, but only that they be "present there and pray themselves in silence."

What Gardiner intends here as a positive account of the traditional Catholic service could with few adjustments be taken as scathing critique: a liturgy performed largely inaudibly by a priest whose prayers neither address nor engage the congregation neatly encapsulates the Protestant attack on the late medieval church during the English Reformation. Whereas Protestants sought to break down the auricular barriers between the clergy and the congregation, Catholics insisted that these barriers were actually conducive to a genuine devotional practice. For sixteenth-century Catholics, the challenge of public devotion was not to promote a shared and collective liturgical language, but instead to encourage the worshippers to perform their own private devotions during the priest's service. So John Christopherson, the dean of Norwich under the new Catholic monarch, Queen Mary, remarks in 1554 that the congregation should not aim to understand the priest's prayers, but instead should "travail themselves in fervent praying, and so shall they highly please God." For, he continues,

it is much better for them not to understand the common service of the church, because when they hear others praying in a loud voice, in the language that they understand, they are letted from prayer themselves, and so come they to such a slackness and negligence in praying, that at length as we have well seen in these late days, in manner pray not at all.
How is it, we might ask, that understanding the priest's words would actually provoke only "slackness and negligence" in the worshippers? Although this position might seem counterintuitive, within the devotional framework of sixteenth-century Catholicism it makes perfect sense: if the worshippers attend to the words of the priest, they are distracted from generating their own prayers. As Christopherson reflects upon the Book of Common Prayer, now rejected by the Catholic regime: "I have oftentime much marveled at us Englishmen of late that we came to the church at the time of our English service to hear only and not to pray ourselves."

If for Christopherson the vernacular liturgy threatens to diminish the congregation's incentive to pray, for his fellow Catholic Thomas Harding, the prebendary of Winchester, the dangers of using a vernacular prayer book lie in the opportunities that it provides for worshippers to develop their own misguided interpretations of the priest's service. In his vitriolic debate with the Protestant bishop of Salisbury, John Jewel, over "prayers in a strange tongue," Harding argues that "whereas of the service in the vulgar [vernacular] tongue the people will frame lewd and perverse meanings of their own lewd senses: so of the Latin service they will make no constructions either of false doctrine or of evil life." "Lewd senses," "lewd and perverse meanings": for Harding, the minds of the laity are so easily corrupted that they ought not to be tempted with exposure to even the most benign of liturgical texts.

Instead of profiting from understanding the priest's prayers, Harding claims that the congregation is led only to dangerous imaginings that have no efficacy for their devotional lives: "as the vulgar service pulleth their minds from private devotion to hear and not to pray, to little benefit of knowledge, for the obscurity of it; so the Latin giveth them no such motion." Rather than have their minds pulled away from devotion, the people are able to focus on their own prayers, "while the priest prayeth for all and in the person of all." This distinction between hearing and praying lies at the very heart of the Catholics' argument: the English-language service promotes the worshippers' ability to listen, while the Latin service promotes their ability to "occupy themselves" in private worship. Moreover, because the priest petitions God "in the person of all" regardless of the language he uses, the Latin prayers represent the collective voice of the congregation just as powerfully as a vernacular liturgy. In short, Harding concludes, there is no benefit whatsoever to connecting the priest's and the laity's devotions.

If English Catholics insist that the public service ideally provides an occasion for the laity's private devotion, English Protestants defend precisely the opposite arrangement. For these sixteenth-century reformers, the danger of the laity's "lewd and perverse imaginings," a danger they do not deny, can be contained only by controlling the worshippers' attention and supplying their prayers. In this Protestant formulation, the church liturgy becomes the best mechanism to subsume personal and idiosyncratic worship within a collective devotional performance. Thus Cranmer mocks the Latin liturgy as "more like a game and a fond play to be laughed at of all men, to hear the priest speak aloud to the people in Latin, and the people listen with their ears to hear; and some walking up and down in the church, some saying other prayers in Latin, and none understandeth other." This vision of mutual incomprehension and devotional mayhem--"more like a game and a fond play" than a religious service--fuels Cranmer's overwhelming desire to render the liturgy comprehensible to all.

As Jewel explains in his response to Harding, the liturgy was not meant to be one of the Christian "mysteries"--such as the Trinity, or the Eucharist, or aspects of creation--whose meaning God never intended his simple creatures to unravel. On the contrary: far from representing privileged utterances meant for a divine audience alone, the priest's prayers were specifically designed to be understood by the congregation. In one of many citations during this period of John Chrysostom's descriptions of public prayer, Jewel refers Harding to the fourth-century bishop's unambiguous declaration: "Unless the unlearned understand what thou prayest, he is not edified, neither can he give consent unto thy prayer; thou throwest thy words into the wind, and speaketh in vain." With this negative image of the Latin service, Jewel succinctly concludes: "And therefore the very substance of the public prayer resteth in the understanding of the hearer."

Debates over whether the laity ought to understand the public service surround the Book of Common Prayer (1549), which represented the first vernacular liturgy used in the Church of England. Although the Prayer Book was not published until well into the period we associate with the English Reformation, it had been planned for more than a decade. As early as 1536, Cranmer had met at Lambeth, his London residence, with German reformers to develop a uniform Latin liturgy for distribution to churches throughout England. This book was designed to replace the many diverse service books that created, in Cranmer's eyes, "a confusion of tongues almost worse than Babel." In the years that followed, Cranmer became increasingly focused on producing a vernacular prayer book to replace this Latin text so that public worship could be more instructive and edifying for the people. According to his recent biographer, Diarmaid MacCulloch, in 1539 Cranmer was already preoccupied with identifying the most effective way to include the laity in morning and evening prayer, and had expressed concern that the services should be kept to a shorter length so that the people were not "wearied by lengthy reading, [and] should not attend keenly enough."

Notwithstanding the inevitable shifts in devotional climate under the tempestuous reign of Henry VIII, over the course of the 1540s Cranmer painstakingly compiled the vernacular texts that would constitute the Book of Common Prayer. Like the Latin liturgy that he had assembled in the 1530s, the Prayer Book was designed in part to create an entirely uniform model for public worship in the English church, as the preface to its first edition describes:

Where heretofore, there hath been great diversity in saying and singing in churches within this realm: some following Salisbury use, some Hereford use, some the use of Bangor, some of York, and some of Lincoln: Now from henceforth, all the whole realm shall have but one use.
Cranmer was generally careful to retain what he could from Catholic rites in order to maintain some continuity between the two liturgical practices. Based largely on a combination of the pre-Reformation Sarum Rite, which was the most common "use" in England, and the Reformed German liturgies that Cranmer so deeply admired, the Prayer Book that was issued in 1549 tempered its innovative changes to public worship by incorporating traditional forms and prayers. Although in this respect the Prayer Book was liturgically conservative, its alterations to the ways in which prayers were performed represented a radical transformation of the language of public worship.

Despite the prominence of the liturgical reforms that the Prayer Book introduced, their impact on early modern religious culture has often been underestimated. Religious scholars have considered the theological implications of the changes made to the blessing of the Eucharist in the Order for Holy Communion, and yet they have too often paid scant attention to the changes in devotional practice introduced by this service and those of morning and evening prayer. When historians have acknowledged the extent to which the Prayer Book sought to standardize the devotional voice of both the laity and clergy, they have frequently represented this commitment to uniformity in terms of the religious establishment's political, and not devotional, motivations. Those sympathetic to "traditional religion" have regarded common prayer as a superficial practice that had no real meaning for most English worshippers. By arguing that the English Reformation effectively eliminated devotional community by abolishing the crucial structures of medieval parish life--Corpus Christi guilds and plays; penitential fraternities; saints' festivals and pageants--these scholars tend to discount, if not overlook, the competing model of community that the Protestants sought to generate through the church service itself.

As this chapter seeks to establish, the invention of common prayer was not strictly part of a political strategy for creating obedient subjects; nor did it radically deplete the rich communal layers of the laity's devotional life. Instead, the new conditions of public worship--the wide availability of the Prayer Book as a material text; the audibility of the priest's words to all listeners; the emphasis upon the laity's comprehension of and engagement with the service--reconceived the relations between the language of personal and liturgical prayer, and between individual and collective devotion. What emerges from the texts and instructions of the Book of Common Prayer is not the triumphant celebration of religious interiority that we so often associate with the Reformation--as I have already briefly observed, this commitment to individualized worship would more accurately characterize the Catholic Church, not the Protestant. Instead, behind the introduction of a liturgy emphasizing the worshippers' active participation and consent lies the establishment's overarching desire to shape personal faith through public and standardized forms.


In order to create uniformity between lay and clerical prayer, the English reformers faced the daunting task of transforming the texts and practices that had structured medieval public worship. In the centuries preceding the Reformation, the church conceived of its daily services as rites primarily intended for the clergy, with the exception of Sundays and holy days, when the congregation was expected to attend. Thomas More, hardly an average churchgoer, comically speaks on behalf of the laity in asserting that "[s]ome of us lay men think it a pain once in a week to rise so soon from sleep, and some to tarry so long fasting, as on the Sunday to come and hear out their matins (Morning Prayer)." And yet, More consoles his readers, this weekly act of attending services was nothing compared with the monastic life that he knew firsthand from the Charterhouse: "[I]s not the matins in every parish . . . so early begun, nor fully so long in doing, as it is in the Charterhouse, ye know well."

Although, as More acknowledges, the parish churches did not adhere to so rigorous a schedule of services as the monastic houses, they certainly did require a sizable array of texts to perform their daily "offices," the church's term for the services that included reciting set prayers, reading from Scripture, and offering thanksgiving and praise. The multiple books for these offices were reduced in the eleventh century to the two-volume Breviary, which simplified daily services by incorporating the previously separate Psalter, Antiphoner, Book of Collects, and Homilies. The Breviary did not include the liturgy for the Mass, which was provided in the Missal; occasional services, such as Baptism or Matrimony, which formed the Manual; special prayers and hymns to be sung during processions, which constituted the Processional; and so forth. In a world in which books were much scarcer than in the post-Gutenberg era, this level of demand weighed heavily upon parishioners, who were responsible for funding their church's supply of texts. Cranmer's decision both to reduce the number of daily offices from eight to two (matins and evensong) and to include the Order for Holy Communion (formerly known as the Mass) along with other occasional services in the single Book of Common Prayer effected a fundamental reformation of these material demands. It is in response to the financial burden once imposed upon English parishes that the preface to the 1549 Prayer Book stipulates that "the curates shall need none other books for their public service, but this book, and the Bible: by the means whereof, the people shall not be at so great charge for books, as in time past they have been."

In marked contrast, as we shall see, to the availability of the Book of Common Prayer to sixteenth-century Protestants, it was highly unlikely for a medieval worshipper to own any of the service books used by the clergy. Even literate worshippers who could afford books would not have had access to the church's official texts. Instead, they purchased Books of Hours or Primers, personal devotional manuals encompassing nearly all of their liturgical and domestic needs. A typical Primer included a selection of daily and occasional prayers; contents ranged from the Penitential Psalms and the Hours of the Virgin Mary to special petitions to be recited upon entering the church or going to bed. Even before the advent of printing, Primers were produced in a wide variety of styles that depended largely on the nature of illustrations. According to Eamon Duffy, whatever its size or quality, by the early sixteenth century a Primer was as likely to be seen in the hands of a worshipper as a string of Rosary beads.

Because the Primer played so important a role among lay worshippers who were on the whole unlearned in Latin, we might reasonably assume that its prayers were generally supplied in the vernacular. However, even in the fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, when English-language Primers were available, Latin texts remained more prevalent. In the century or so preceding the Reformation, the already scarce vernacular Primers seem to have disappeared. Due largely to the threat posed by John Wycliffe and the Lollards, whose program to reform the Catholic Church included using English as the language of Scripture and worship in order to promote the laity's understanding, the ecclesiastical authorities began to associate vernacular texts with sectarian danger.

By the early fifteenth century, the ownership of religious books in English could be treated as incriminating evidence in cases of heresy, which were often punishable by death. The sixteenth-century Protestant martyrologist John Foxe recounts the story of Thomas Harding, an early Lutheran altogether dissimilar to his Catholic namesake, who was burned at the stake for having relapsed to Lollardy after abjuring his heretical beliefs:

At last the said Harding, in the year abovesaid [1532], about the Easter holidays, when the other people went to the church to commit their wonted idolatry, took his way into the woods, there solitarily to worship the true living God, in spirit and in truth; where, as he was occupied in a book of English prayers, leaning or sitting upon a stile by the wood's side, it chanced that one did espy him where he was, and came in great haste to the officers of the town, declaring, that he had seen Harding in the woods looking on a book: whereupon immediately a rude rabble of them, like mad men, ran desperately to his house to search for books, and in searching went so nigh, that under the boards of his floor they found certain English books of holy Scripture. Hereupon this godly father with his books, was brought before John Longland, bishop of Lincoln . . . [who] sent him to the bishop's prison, called Little-ease, where he did lie with hunger and pain enough for a certain space, till at length the bishop, sitting in his tribunal-seat like a potentate, condemned him for relapse to be burned to ashes.
Harding's death cannot in fact be blamed on his possessing vernacular translations of Scripture. And yet, despite the sensational nature of Foxe's description --the "rude rabble" of Catholic men searching "desperately" for books--this passage accurately conveys the anxiety in the pre-Reformation church over the unauthorized spreading of the English word.

The one notable exception both to the predominance of Latin as the language of Primers, and to the restrictions imposed upon the circulation of English devotional books, was the vernacular guide to the Mass. The most popular of these texts has come to be known as The Lay folks' Mass Book, for which we have six remaining versions composed for different dialects and rites throughout England. Unlike the average Primers, which included Latin rites from the liturgy in addition to private meditations and prayers, The Lay folks' Mass Book provided a step-by-step English manual of instruction and prayer for the laity to follow during the priest's Mass. Here the tolerance of the vernacular might be explained by the imperative to separate the language of the priest in this holiest of services from either the ears or the mouths of the congregation. With a few exceptions that include the Lord's Prayer and the Gloria in Excelsis, the prayers in The Lay folks' Mass Book are not translations from the clergy's Missal, but instead represent separate if often compatible texts for occupying the worshipper's attention.

One of the emblematic moments of separation between the laity and the congregation surfaces in relation to the priest's "secret prayers," called the Secreta. While the priest recites the Secreta silently, The Lay folks' MassBook instructs the congregation:

When the priest goes to his book,

his private prayers for to look,

kneel thou down and say then this,

That next in black written is:

it will thy prayer much amend,

If thou will hold up both thy hands,

to God with good devotion,

when thou say this orison,

God receive thy service.


Excerpted from Common Prayer: the Language of Public Devotion in Early Modern England by Ramie Targoff Copyright © 2001 by Ramie Targoff. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Author’s note on spelling and editions
Introduction—The Performance of Prayer
1. Common Prayer
2. Reading Prayer: Spontaneity and Conformity
3. Prayer and Poetry: Rhyme in the English Church
4. George Herbert and the Devotional Lyric
Conclusion—The Bay Psalm Book: From Common Prayer to Common Poems

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