Late Medieval Prayer and Prayerbooks
Prayer as a genre of religious literature of the Middle Ages can be called the 'stepdaughter' of medieval studies. Historians and linguists consider prayers as the most difficult material to research. The vast majority of prayers are not published, and catalogues contain only their initial and last lines. Prayers have survived in many versions; any conclusions can be made only after examination of the several homogeneous manuscripts.
No one is able to determine the number of late medieval prayers - 10 thousand? 20 thousand? more? Researchers never managed to discover two parchment or paper manuscript prayerbooks with identical contents. Created in one monastery, manuscripts of the same subject are indeed unique. They differ in the number, oder, and selection of the prayers.
Intensive study of prayerbooks has began in recent years. No significant summary researches appear during the late 20th century, after works of Franz Heimerl on the South German prayerbooks, Mary Mertens on Dutch prayers, Peter Ochsenbein on the 11th-14th century German prayerbooks and Gerard Achten's catalogue.
In 1995, there was published J. Osterman's study on Dutch rhymed prayers. In his thesis of 1996, Thomas Lentes resolved a number of problems that prayerbooks raise to researchers, and developed good research questions, the main of which - who and how compiled the prayer.
Each of handwritten prayerbooks is a unique item, it provides information on the general spiritual needs of his time. The prayerbooks are most personal books of the Middle Ages. They reveal the spiritual world of their time.
Prayers were the most popular literary genre of the late Middle Ages. It provided the most accessible way to communicate with God for all people, regardless of their social status and level of education. Both educated and illiterate Christians prayed aloud in the church during the liturgy. A private prayer was also expressed in the words, but was much intimate. So prayers can be seen as key means of personal contact of believers with God.
Prayers were addressed either directly to God or to the Virgin Mary and the saints as the protectors and mediators between God and man. 'Be my protector', Christians asks Our Lady in prayer. Such intercession helped a person to bridge the gulf between God and man. Using Dutch prayerbooks, the scientist J. Osterman developed this idea. He writes that God is too great, and believers feel too small to directly contact him. So they pray to the Virgin Mary or one of the countless saints. That's why the prayers to God make up a smaller part of the late medieval books, while most of them address to the Holy Virgin and the saints. The study of German prayerbooks allows us to make corrections of this J. Osterman's assertion, since most of the fifteenth century North German prayerbooks were devoted to Jesus.
The prayers were introduced by rubrics. They were drawn in red ink and explained how to perform a particular prayer. Due to the rubrics, we know that Christians prayed out loud or silently in their minds. Often silent prayers were called "prayer of the heart", 'of the heart rather than of the lips'. Sometimes a rubric was longer than a prayer itself, 'Who wants to perfectly succeed in God with all his soul, must pray to God at all hours, with the heart and lips, and recite the following seven words'. This sentence was followed by a short text of the prayer, 'Lord Jesus Christ, grant that I passionately loved you'.
The rubrics arranged the prayerbooks, separating one section from another. They also served as a kind of guidelines, explaining the purpose of the prayer. The rubrics informed under what circumstances and with what spiritual attitude a believer should read it, what the good can come from the prayer. The practice of absolution is also linked with the rubrics. Many prayers are preceded by detailed explanations how many times one should read the texts to receive remission of sins.
The period between 1470 and 1525 was very fruitful, when a huge number of new prayers were created. The handwritten prayerbooks reflects religious processes happening in Germany at that time. Their texts followed the main religious trends of society and showed the changes taking place in them. This statement is proved by the five German prayerbooks, produced in the second half of the 15th - the first third of the 16th centuries, kept in the National Library of Russia.