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Common Religious Texts:

The Pater Noster, Credo, and Ave Maria

in the Late Medieval Period (1281 AD-1400 AD):


Occasionally, a student discovers an unusual passage in literature that is difficult to interpret. For instance, Shakespeare's King Lear refers to foxes being "fired" from an area. A medieval jokebook might refer to a cord of scarlet tied in a window. Chaucer might make a pointed reference to the Wife of Bath's deafness. To make sense of these passages, the student creates all sorts of elaborate allegories or symbolic interpretations. Frequently, however, the answer is much simpler; it's an allusion to something in the Bible.

Alternatively, a student may find a critic or scholar who interprets passages making elaborate allegorical connections to Biblical features in what seems like an unlikely source. The student's response may be incredulous: "How can this be correct? It sounds like baloney to me that Chaucer's cuckolded carpenter in 'The Miller's Tale' is supposed to represent Noah, or that Shakespeare's racist villain Iago is supposed to be a figure for the devil!" Before we dismiss that sort of reading however, it is useful to be aware of how prevalent and strong-rooted religious belief was in past centuries.

It's difficult for modern readers to imagine, let alone understand, how pervasive religion and theological concerns were in the medieval period and in the Renaissance. But these concerns did permeate the society. The dates that rents were due to landlords in 14th century London were scheduled to coincide with certain Saint's Days ("What? St. Barthomew's day has come? I'm late paying rent to the landland!"). After the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215, the church ruled that every Christian had to attend Church and confess her sins at least once a year. During the Protestant reign of Henry VIII, all citizens in England were required by law to attend to Church every Sunday. Being a part of society in medieval England was in fact the same as being a part of the Church, and up until the Renaissance, the Catholic Church was the only officially accepted church in Western Europe (though there were other churches in Eastern Europe and elsewhere).

Separation of Church and State is a concept that doesn't appear until the Enlightenment. The two institutes were continuously tangled up in medieval politics. For a long time in Europe, it was common for regional bishops to be appointed by the local duke or king rather than by an archbishop. King Henry VIII declared himself to be the head of the Church of England in 1500s. In these cases, local government officials stepped in and changed the church to their own liking. The opposite case was often also true, and church officials would intervene in local government by excommunicating kings who disagreed with church policy or who were enemies of powerful figures in the church. In the Western medieval mind, only the Pope could maintain unity in the Church, and since the world made little distinction between church and state, religious disunity was equivalent to social and governmental anarchy. Medieval people generally believed it was imperative to maintain a single religious doctrine.

Thus, it was important for each citizen know religious doctrine. Even illiterate individuals who would never read a Bible in all their lives would be expected to learn the basics. The only available education in the medieval period was an elementary religious education in a monastery or in a "cathedral school," or occasionally from a local parish priest. Every child was expected to know the proper means of crossing oneself and learning how to recite (in Latin) the Pater Noster, the Ave Maria, and the Credo. Ideally, there was to be no rote memorization of the Latin sounds, but rather the student was supposed to know the meaning of the Latin as well.

After the Lambeth council of 1281, the following list was considered to be the primary components of a child's education. Every medieval citizen was expected to know this curriculum, much as we expect every child to learn basic arithmetic in modern America. The curriculum was as follows:

  • The Fourteen Articles of Faith (the statements in the Apostle's Creed)
  • The Ten Commandments
  • The Seven Deadly Sins (Pride, Sloth, Envy, Lust, Avarice, Wrath, Gluttony)
  • The Seven Holy Virtues (Faith, Hope, Charity, Justice, Temperance, Prudence, Fortitude)
  • The Two New Laws of the Gospels ("Love the Lord with all your heart, mind, and strength" and "Love your neighbor as yourself.")
  • The Seven Sacraments (Baptism, Confirmation, Communion, Confession, Ordination, Marriage, and Last Rites)
  • The Seven Works of Bodily Mercy (feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, sheltering the stranger, nursing the sick, visiting the prisoner, and burying the dead).

Below, in both Middle English and Latin, I offer samples of primary religious texts such as the Lord's Prayer (Pater Noster), the Hail Mary (Ave Maria), and the Apostle's Creed (the Credo). The right column has the Middle English, the left column has the Latin.

The Lord's Prayer (Pater Noster)

Fadere oure that art in heaven
Halwed be thi name
Come thi kyngdom
Fulfild by thi wil in hevene as in erthe;
Oure ech-day bred yef us to day,
And foryeve us our dettes
As we foryeveth to oure detoures;
And ne led us nouht in temptacioun
Bote delivere us of evil. So be it.

Pater noster qui in coelis est
Sanctificetur nomen tuum
Adveniat regnum tuum
Fiat voluntas tua et in terra sicut in coelo
Panem nostrum quotidianum da nobis hodie
Et dimitte nobis debita nostra
Sicut et dimittemus debitoribus nostris
Et ne nos inducas in tentationem,
Sed libera nos a malo. Amen.

Hail Mary (Ave Maria )

Heil Marye, ful of grace
God is with the [thee]
Of alle wymmen thou art most blessed
And blessid be the fruyt of thi wombe, Ihesu.
So mote it be.

Ave Maria, gratia plena
Dominus tecum
Benedicta tu in mulieribus
Et benedictus fructus ventris tui.
Amen.

 

The Apostle's Creed (Credo)

 

 

I beleve in God, Fader almyghty,
Makere of heven and erthe,
And in Ihesu Crist, his onely sone oure Lorde
That is concyved by the Holy Gost,
Born of the Mayden Marye
Suffred under Pounce Pylate,
Crucifyed,
Ded, and beryed;
Descended to helle;
The thridde day he aros fro dethes
Styed [rose] up to hevene
Sitte on his Fader half [side]
Schal come to deme [judge]
The quick and dede.
I beleue in the Holy Gost,
Holy Chirche,
That is alle that schulle be saved,
And in communion of hem,
Remissioun of synnes,
Risyng of flesch,
And everlastynge lyf.
Amen.

 

Credo in Deum Patrem Omnipotentem
Creatorem coeli et terrae
Et in Jesum Christum Filium eius unicum, dominum Nostrum
Qui conceptus est de Spiritu Sancto
Natus ex Maria Virgine
Passus sub Pontio Pilato,
Crucifixus
Mortuus, et sepultus
Descendit ad inferna
Tertia die resurrexit a mortuis
Ascendit ad coelos
Sedet ad dexteram Dei Patris omnipotentis
Inde venturur judicare
Vivos et mortuos
Credo in Spiritum Sanctum,
Sanctam Ecclesiam Catholicam,
Sanctorum communionem
Remissionem peccatorum
Carnis ressurectionem
Et vitam aeternam.
Amen.

 

 

 

 

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Copyright Dr. L. Kip Wheeler 1998-2014. Permission is granted for non-profit, educational, and student reproduction. Last updated September 3, 2014. Contact: kwheeler@cn.edu Please e-mail corrections, suggestions, or comments to help me improve this site. Click here for credits, thanks, and additional copyright information.