The evolution of the liturgy of Ash Wednesday

Just as we are getting over the excesses of Pancake Day- or it’s related Shrove Tuesday counterparts- seems as good a time as any to reflect upon the manuscript evidence of the early practices of Lent, the Christian season of penance and self-reflection, which begins with Ash Wednesday.

Ashes have a number of symbolic applications in Biblical accounts, both in the Old and New Testaments. It is likely that the use of ashes became a major part of the English penitential mass at the beginning of Lent around the 8th century. The great Anglo-Saxon homilists Ælfric and Wulfstan both describe the practice of putting ashes on the heads of penitents, which reminds them of God’s words to Adam: that they were created from ashes, and would return to ashes.

While there are prayers and homilies for Ash Wednesday in several earlier manuscripts, the first datable liturgy (or ordo) for the application of ashes is found in the Parker Library’s MS 163, which contains a Pontifical of the Romano-Germanic type. Although likely descended from a Cologne manuscript, CCCC MS 163 was written after 1050, probably at Worcester, although the Old Minster and the Nunnaminster at Winchester have both been suggested. It gives instructions for the entire liturgy, with the relevant responses.

MS 163, p. 82
MS 163

However, the medieval process of penance on Ash Wednesday included certain elaborate and public aspects. Everyone was expected to absolve themselves and receive the ashes, but those who were guilty of ‘high sins’ were publicly driven out of the church, in a symbolic re-enactment of Adam and Eve being driven out of Eden for their sins. Wulfstan (d. 1023) describes this in his homilies.

CCCC MS 190 contains a collection of writing that is known as ‘Archbishop Wulfstan’s handbook’, a selection of texts that were likely compiled by Wulfstan, Archbishop of York, for use in his own writing. The handbook itself is in Latin, and contains a Latin version of an Ash Wednesday homily. However, later in the manuscript a translation of the same homily appears in Anglo-Saxon. This homily is one of three extant vernacular sermons which explicitly describe public penance.

MS 190, p. 351
A homily for Ash Wednesday. MS 190, p. 351.

 

The sinners could only return to church on Maundy Thursday, having atoned for their sins for the past 40 days. The public practice continued for hundreds of years. CCCC MS 79, which dates from the first decades of the 15th century and was made in London, is an elaborate decorated Pontifical. The text of a Pontifical contains the church services particular to bishops, and MS 79 contains a specifically English version. Shown here is a miniature depicting the casting out of the sinners, which is included in the liturgy for Ash Wednesday.

MS 79, f. 98r
Casting out the penitents on Ash Wednesday. MS 79, f. 98r

The rhythm of the liturgical year was vitally important in medieval life, as the faithful symbolically acted out the Biblical text. This rhythm was coupled with the natural world- Ælfric says in his Lives of Saints that just as the sinners are cast away during Lent but welcomed back at Easter, so too do ‘ealle treowa cuciað æfre on lenctenes timan’ or ‘all trees always quicken in Lenten time’ (Skeat’s translation) The people can look forward to spring and celebration after duly accepting their penance.

 

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