prayer rolls

The roll format, in which pieces of parchment or paper were attached end to end, was the standard method of presenting text in antiquity. Although the codex had been dominant since the 4th century, the manuscripts seen here demonstrate that rolls were still used for a wide range of purposes through the Middle Ages. Indeed, the use of rolls continued well beyond the medieval period: British Acts of Parliament, for example, were recorded on parchment rolls until 1850.

Takamiya MS 70: Prayer roll in Latin

Takamiya MS 70. Prayer roll in Latin. England, c. 1423-1475.

Takamiya MS 70 is a striking example of a 15th-century prayer roll. The image at the top depicts the crucified Christ flanked by the thieves who were executed alongside him. The penitent thief looks toward Christ while the unrepentant one turns away. At their mouths, scrolls (or banderoles) function as medieval “speech bubbles” that quote from the Gospel of Luke, with the penitent thief saying, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom,” as the other mocks Christ: “If you are the son of God, save yourself and us!” On each side of the cross are the instruments of the Passion: the lance with which a Roman soldier inflicted the final wound in Christ's side, and the sponge with which Christ was offered vinegar to drink.  At the foot of the cross is a chalice, which collects Christ’s blood. In medieval legend this chalice was identified with the one used at the Last Supper, linking the blood from the Crucifixion with the wine of Holy Communion.

The text of the roll consists of popular prayers that include the Seven Penitential Psalms, which were particularly associated with forgiveness, and the Fifteen Oes, which memorialize Christ’s Passion. Unusually for an English roll, the text is written on both sides of the parchment. Around the edge of the top of the roll are many small stitching holes, which would originally have been used to attach the roll to a piece of cloth or leather for protection as its owner carried it.  

To survey the entire roll in greater detail, simply click on the image on the left and then, once you are taken to a new page, click on the image again.

Takamiya MS 112: Prayer roll in Latin and Middle English

Takamiya MS 112. Prayer roll in Latin and Middle English. England, c. 1430.

When fully unrolled, Takamiya MS 112 is 18 feet long. It opens with a worn but still impressive picture of the Virgin Mary standing in a hortus conclusus— a walled garden that is emblematic of Mary herself. Crowned and haloed, she holds the infant Christ. The alternating bands of decoration and text in the background of the picture read “Ihesu mercy lady mercy,” reminding the reader of the image’s devotional role. The main texts of the manuscript begin with the Seven Penitential Psalms (also included in Takamiya MS 70). The large initial “D” marks the beginning of the first Psalm, and each subsequent Psalm is marked by an illuminated initial the height of two written lines.

Although most of the texts in this manuscript are in Latin, a Middle English text finishes the roll. The English devotional lyrics appear in several other manuscripts, including the famous collection of English literary texts known as the Vernon Manuscript. They deal with Christ’s love for mankind and the Virgin Mary’s mercy for sinners and include prayers for the reader, the reader’s friends and enemies, and for all Christian men. They end with a series of requests to saints including Michael, Gabriel, John the Baptist, John the Evangelist, Peter, Paul, Stephen, Nicholas, Cecelia, Catherine, and Margaret. Each saint is asked to “prey for me to oure lady. þat Ihesu on me haue mercy.” This recalls the running text behind the opening picture.

The piece of leather and decorative green cloth at the top of the roll wrap around it for protection when the manuscript is fully rolled.

Takamiya MS 116: Prayer roll in Middle English with passages in Latin

Takamiya MS 116. Prayer roll in Middle English. England, c. 1475-1525.

Takamiya MS 116 contains prayers written by Sir Thomas More, whom Roman Catholics venerate as a saint and martyr. More (1477/78-1535) had a distinguished career as a lawyer, author, and member of Parliament before becoming chancellor of England in 1529. Just a few months later, Henry VIII declared himself the supreme head of the Church of England, rejecting the authority of the pope. In 1534 the Act of Supremacy gave this claim the force of law, and the Treasons Act directed that anyone who refused to accept the Act of Supremacy could be put to death. More was executed under this provision the following year.

The texts in this roll were printed in 1557 in a folio edition of More’s English Works, edited by his nephew William Rastell, who emphasized More’s imprisonment and death so as to present him as a Catholic martyr. The first text in this roll, which begins imperfectly here, was printed with this heading:

“A deuoute prayer, made by sir Thomas More knight, after he was condempned to die, and before he was put to deth who was condemned the thursdaye the first daye of July in þe yere of our lord god. 1535. and in the .xxvii. yere of þe raigne of king Henry the eight, & was behedded at the tower hill at London, the tewesday folowing.”

 At least one other contemporary copy of this text survives in roll form (Washington, D.C., Folger Library, MS X.d.532). The prayer was also popular with Protestants. Stripped of its Latin quotations and edited to suit Protestant beliefs, it was incorporated into Lutheran-inspired prayer books in the later sixteenth century.

The Beinecke Library also holds Thomas More’s personal prayer book, which he read and annotated in the Tower of London as he prepared for his execution.

To survey the entire roll in greater detail, simply click on the image on the left and then, once you are taken to a new page, click on the image again.

Takamiya MS 56: Prayer roll in Middle English and Latin

Takamiya MS 56. Prayer roll in Middle English and Latin. England, c. 1435-1450. 

Takamiya MS 56 is most remarkable for its purpose. This long narrow prayer roll was intended as a “birth girdle,” which would be worn by women to invoke heavenly aid in childbirth. The text running the length of the exterior of the roll is quite clear: “And a womyn that ys quyck wythe chylde [girde] hir wythe thys mesure and she shall be safe.”

The interior of the roll contains four Passion miniatures, including illustrations of the nails that pierced Christ’s hands and feet, the instruments of the Passion, and the wound in his side. They are accompanied by a series of prayer texts and introductions in Middle English and Latin, all of which emphasize the suffering of Christ; some also specify indulgences for the worshipper.

The roll was probably produced between 1435 to 1450, and the prayers in both languages are written in a rounded English book hand. The scribe was not particularly accomplished, and the letterforms are stiff and uneven. The woman would have worn the roll so that its interior, which contains the prayers and text, was next to her.

To survey the entire roll in greater detail, simply click on the image on the left and then, once you are taken to a new page, click on the image again.