Appendix: The Development of the Prayers

I. The Circulation and Influence of the Prayers

When Anselm wrote the Prayers and Meditations between 1070 and 1080 he wrote out of a tradition, objective and liturgical in form, which had changed little in the two previous centuries. They were the answer to a new demand for personal and more intimate forms of prayer, and expressed the fervent devotion to the humanity of Christ and his mother in a way which influenced piety to the end of the Middle Ages and beyond. They had in Anselm a firm theological basis in the doctrines of the undivided Church, but it was the tone of personal commitment and affection, the reference to real personal experience – ‘affectus’, ‘cor’, ‘experientia’, those key words to this school of prayer – that took the imagination and answered the need of the next centuries.

The prayers had a circulation among monks and educated laity alike during Anselm’s life-time. In 1081 he sent six prayers and one meditation to Adelaide, the younger daughter of William the Conqueror, who lived not far from Bec as the ward of Roger de Beaumont; she seems to have lived a secluded life without in fact being a nun. The Princess had asked Anselm to send her a selection of psalms for her private use, a common practice, and this he did, adding some prayers addressed to the saints. This was also a usual procedure and the saints addressed are familiar in such a context – St Mary Magdalene, St Stephen, probably St Peter and St Paul, St John the Baptist, and St John the Evangelist. These prayers, however, are no brief collects but long meditations for use in the inner chamber; it is significant that they have survived while the florilegium from the psalms has not. The prayers were accompanied by a letter containing directions about their employment.

In the next year Anselm sent three more prayers to a friend, this time to Gundolf, a monk of Bec, who had followed Lanfranc to Caen in 1063. The Vita Gundolfi describes him as ‘a man whose obedience was perfect, his fasting rigorous, his prayer constant, and his compunction so remarkable that if you had seen the tears pouring from his eyes you would have thought them to be the sources of two streams’.1 He is described as the intimate friend of Anselm though they could only have shared the monastic life at Bec together for three years, and Gundolf was ten years Anselm’s senior. The Vita also mentions Gundolf as devoted especially to St Mary, ‘who became as it were his friend and initiated him into all her mysteries’.2 It has this to say about the three prayers Anselm sent to Gundolf: ‘Knowing that Gundolf was assiduous in prayer, the same divine instrument, namely Father Anselm, sent him three prayers, or rather meditations, on blessed Mary, which he had framed under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit; and indicated the method he should use in meditating on them.’3 The letter accompanying these prayers explains that another monk had asked Anselm to write a prayer to St Mary; he had felt no enthusiasm about this at first, but he was stirred to composition, he says, when he thought of his friend. He wrote a short prayer first (Prayer 5), was dissatisfied with it, and tried again (Prayer 6); finally he wrote the third prayer (Prayer 7), and sent all three to Gundolf. It seems that Anselm worked over this final version with great care, and Dom Wilmart has examined two extant versions which were first drafts of it.4 It also seems to have satisfied him to the end of his life, for it was included in the collection sent to Countess Mathilda in 1104. These prayers and those sent to Adelaide were written at the request of others; and this is what Eadmer says too about the composition of the Prayers and Meditations: ‘His prayers which at the desire and request of his friends he wrote and published.’ This in no way detracts from the integrity of the prayers, but indicates rather the reputation of Anselm even as a young monk as a man of prayer, from whom others were eager to learn, both inside the cloister and farther afield. It was through these prayers, and therefore as a spiritual guide, that Anselm first became known as a writer.

Two of the meditations, numbers 1 and 2, seem to have circulated outside Normandy at this time, for the Abbot Durandus of Casa-Dei in Auvergne wrote to Anselm when two of his monks visited Bec, praising these meditations and mentioning especially the tears of compunction they had evoked.

Another prayer, to St Nicholas, is mentioned in a letter from Anselm to the community at Bec in 1090, when it seems to have been a recent composition. The final meditation, the Meditation on Human Redemption, was certainly composed in 1099 and added to the collection as a prayed version of the Cur Deus Homo.

Anselm sent the completed collection of the Prayers and Meditations to Mathilda of Tuscany in 1104; this is the first mention of the shorter prayers, the Prayer to God, to Christ, to the Holy Cross, and Before Receiving the Body and Blood of the Lord, but they may well have been written earlier and added to the collection to complete it at this time. By 1104 the prayers had ceased to be an addition to a selection from the psalms; it is the psalms that have disappeared, leaving the prayers to circulate as a book in their own right.

Within a few years this collection had received additions. They were sufficiently of the same genre to be accepted as the work of Anselm at this very early date, but they do in fact differ from them both in quality and in content. Some of these were older Carolingian prayers, such as the Singularis Merita; writers of others included John of Fécamp, Elmer of Canterbury, Ekbert of Schonau, Aelred of Rievaulx, and others. These spurious prayers influenced the tradition of medieval devotion equally with the genuine prayers of Anselm, and it is useful to see some of the contrasts between the prayers that are by Anselm and the rest. The additions made within fifty years of Anselm’s death, by Ralph and Elmer, are very close to the kind of prayer he wrote, but present already some significant differences.

II. Early Additions to the Collection

Ralph of Battle

In his work of separating the genuine prayers of Anselm from the rest Dom Wilmart1 distinguished a group of prayers and meditations which had been added to the collection early in the twelfth century and which seemed to be the work of one person. He tentatively suggested John of Fécamp as their author, and later put forward the name of Anselm the Younger, the archbishop’s nephew. More recently Professor Southern has examined what is substantially the same group of prayers and meditations in the Bodleian MS. Laud Miscellany 363, a twelfth-century MS. from St Albans Abbey.2 He has shown that they are the work of Rodolphus, a monk, whom he at first identified with Ralph D’Escures, Bishop of Rochester, and later Archbishop of Canterbury, who was a pupil of Anselm. He has since suggested the name of Ralph of Battle and this, though not conclusive, seems highly probable.3

This Ralph was a monk of Caen who came to England with Lanfranc and was made Prior of Rochester under Bishop Gundolf. He later became third abbot of the royal foundation at Battle, where he died in 1124. The Chronicle of Battle Abbey describes him as ‘vir venerabilis’, and says that under him Battle was ‘judged second to none in England for goodness, kindness, charity and good deeds’.4 Ralph left a reputation for sound administration and for learning and sanctity; he was ‘vir agricola… et spiritualis agricolae’, caring for both the temporal and spiritual needs of his monastery. He extended the library, and among his devotions it was noted that he read the whole psalter daily. ‘Quies et pace’, ‘mansuetudine’, ‘venerabilis’, are the kind of words the Chronicle uses about Ralph; it is a picture of a scholarly and devoted monk, a preacher and teacher, concerned with his own monastery, able rather than brilliant, and this picture is confirmed by his writings. Ralph’s most important works were a series of discussions between Reason and Ignorance in the Anselmian manner, but he was also known as a writer of prayers and meditations, some of which are put after the treatises in the Laud MS. By their connection with the name of Anselm they reached a wider public than any of Ralph’s other writings, and thereby had a greater influence than in a sense they deserved.

Ralph’s long and complex meditations belong to the kind of writing that Anselm popularized; they are for use in private, in solitude, and are meant to stir up the soul from its torpor to look inwards and understand its own need as a way to come to the knowledge of God. The most immediate difference between Ralph and Anselm is in their style of writing. The introduction to Ralph’s meditation, ‘To stir up the soul to amend its sins’ (Meditation IV), provides an example of this at once: like Anselm in Meditation 2, Ralph addresses himself, ‘Anima mea, anima misera et foeda, diligenter recollige ad te intrinsecus omnes sensus corporis tui, diligentiusque intuere, et videre quam graviter intus vulnerata atque prostrata sis.’5* The contrast with Anselm writing in the same vein is obvious, ‘Anima mea, anima aerum-nosa, anima inquam, misera miseri homunculi, execute torporem tuum, et discute peccatum tuum, et concute mentem tuam…’6 Ralph’s style is quieter, flatter; he makes no use of rhyme; he has simply ‘intuere’ and ‘videre’ where Anselm has the brilliant ‘execute… discute… concute’ climax. The contrast is perhaps not only that of an artist in words and a less gifted writer, a vigorous personality and a less colourful one, but also between a monk still under forty and the ‘old man’ that Ralph calls himself.7 However, Anselm’s style proved inimitable; it was Ralph’s that provided a model for others.

Anselm uses the literary device of addressing himself as ‘my soul’, and Ralph attempts to use it in most of his meditations; but what Anselm uses with complete control is for Ralph a half-understood technique which he cannot sustain. In Meditation IV he begins by addressing himself as ‘anima mea’, but he soon slips into the second person, and by the middle of the meditation he is definitely exhorting someone else; the end of the meditation has more the style of a sermon, with an awkward return to ‘anima mea’ in the last paragraph. This moral and dialectical concern is something almost entirely absent from Anselm’s meditations and prayers, perhaps with the exception of parts of the Meditation on Human Redemption; but it occurs again and again in Ralph. Meditation V is full of exhortations directed towards other people: ‘In all your works keep careful watch’; in Meditation VI he has, ‘Let us amend our sins’; Prayer VI is for the sins of others rather than about his own; in Prayer III he is talking about God, not to God; in Prayer XV, he discusses rather than confesses sins.

There is an important difference here between Anselm and Ralph. Ralph writes as a preacher, a pastor of souls, whereas Anselm is simply praying out of his own need. This contrast can be seen clearly when in Meditation VI Ralph describes the fall of Adam; he sees the fall at a remove, ‘I have heard’, ‘they say’, and he describes the history of redemption as a series of events he has heard about; the direct prayer which applies this to his own condition comes later. In the Prayer to St John the Baptist Anselm makes the whole human tragedy immediate and personal to himself; he himself is ‘worse than the devil’ in his rejection of God; it is not a story known about but an experience undergone.

There is one sphere, however, where the quieter approach of Ralph makes a wider appeal than the heights and depths of Anselm; this is in self-abasement. In Anselm there is an intense, overwhelming horror of sin as such; it springs from his awareness of the holiness of God and the infinite offence of any sin against him: ‘Where then is the sinner who dares to call any sin small?’ 8 Few have this degree of impassioned understanding of theological truth, and without it such self-abasement can seem over-done. Ralph works from a more familiar starting-point: his repentance comes from a steady and honest examination of himself and his actual sins and weaknesses; and he expresses his self-knowledge with simplicity and discernment: ‘If it happens, and it sometimes does, that I, unhappy man, do something that seems in the judgement of men to be good, not a little do I pride myself upon it. If anyone does not mention it, or fails to praise me for it, I despise him as a fool and ignoramus; or if I flee from the praise of men, as if I did not care about it, I glory not a little in doing so, in my heart of hearts, where only God sees me; and thus when I avoid praise, in a strange way I seek praise and vainglory all the more.’9 Such self-revelation is less universally applicable than that of Anselm since it is connected with particular sins; but it has for most men a more sincere ring, a more human note. It was this practical moral concern for the individual that shaped the manuals and sermons of preachers and confessors in the next centuries.

In his dialogues Ralph shows himself to be the pupil of Anselm, but in his meditations this is not nearly so obvious. In some ways the prayers of Ralph are closer to the older tradition of devotion that formed the Carolingian prayers. Prayer XV, for instance, has more in common with a prayer in section IV of the Libellus Turonensis than with anything in Anselm. It is a meditation in litany form on the life of Christ from the Annunciation to the Second Coming, leading to a detached kind of confession of sin and a petition for mercy. In this prayer it is significant that Ralph uses the old understanding of the rights of the devil as if Anselm’s view of the Atonement was unknown or unacceptable to him.

It is the pedestrian tone of Ralph’s meditations which appears most when they are set beside those of Anselm. In Ralph’s prayers there is less variety in every way; there is no third person of a saint to add interest to the dialogue; there is none of the vivid understanding of the Bible of Anselm. There is the same ardent devotion to the person of Christ, but in Ralph this too finds less varied expression. ‘Dulcissimus, benignissimus, et mitissimus’ are his favourite and often repeated adjectives in addressing Christ – nor is it always quite clear whom in fact he is addressing. By ‘dulcissime Pater’ in Prayer XXVIII he seems to mean Christ, but elsewhere he uses expressions normally associated with Christ for the Father. Anselm too spoke of Christ as the Father of the redeemed creation and also as him ‘by whom all things were made’, but he holds this firmly in the theological framework of God’s creative action through Christ. Ralph seems to confuse the functions appropriate to the Persons of the Trinity, and speaks of creation by Christ instead of through Christ. Perhaps for this reason Anselm could go further than Ralph and speak also of the Motherhood of Christ.

The last group of prayers by Ralph is a collection of private devotions for a priest before saying Mass. They are addressed to Jesus, and are acknowledgements of the unworthiness of the minister, and prayers for purity. One of them found its way into the Roman missal under the name of St Ambrose for this purpose.10 Anselm’s Prayer before Receiving the Body and Blood of Christ is the obvious point of comparison here. Ralph’s prayers are longer, more diffuse, and their theme is moral, a desire for cleansing from sin, whereas Anselm’s prayer has a more theological and biblical content.

The difference in kind and in quality between Ralph and Anselm is clear, but these prayers went under the name of Anselm until this century and exercised a deep influence on piety. Indeed they may have been popular just because they were less demanding, perhaps more sentimental, than the genuine prayers. Plain teaching and moral effort mingled with sentiment may be dull in some ways, but they seem to have a more general appeal than mystical and intellectual fervour. Ralph was concerned for ‘the salvation of souls’, and he writes first and foremost as a pastor. The tone of his prayers is in line with this passage describing his life: ‘He was vigilant in his care for all exterior things, and let it not be thought burdensome if I relate how zealously he set forward the salvation of souls; he was always adapting himself to the characters of those under him; never did he give orders as a master. He bore with the infirmities of others and led them on to great things. He himself practised what he preached; he lived what he taught… a Daniel in his sparing diet, a Job in his sufferings, a Bartholomew in his prayers.’11

Elmer of Canterbury

The tradition of prayer in Anselm’s meditations was continued by another of his immediate circle – Elmer, who was a monk at Christ Church, Canterbury, and prior until his death in 1137. He wrote a great deal, and two at least of his meditations have survived, one of them under the name of Anselm.

Ralph shared and continued Anselm’s theological interests, but in some ways it is Elmer who is more truly the successor of Anselm in meditative writing. He was pre-eminently a monk, a man of the cloister, and his preference was for a life of prayer and meditation. He wrote to William of the ‘paradisi claustralis’, saying, ‘I have such joy in study, in meditation and writing that I count a day wasted in which I have not engaged in these employments.’1 Like Anselm he took pleasure in friendship and wrote to his friends at length about spiritual matters. It is in these letters that he shows himself to be a doctor of suspira, of desire, like St Gregory, Anselm, and John of Fécamp. His was a single eye, a single concern: ‘What else ought we to meditate,’ he wrote to William, ‘unless how our devotion to Christ can be more and more increased?’2 And in his letter to Nicholas of Gloucester he claims eagerly his descent from St Gregory: ‘I perceive’, he wrote, ‘that you have a great love for the writings of St Gregory, my sweetest master, and I greatly rejoice at it.’ 3 Like Anselm Elmer prayed the prayers he wrote personally: ‘You see in these meditations in what misery I am involved… lament with me and of your mercy pray for me, lest the number of my sins cut me off from the mercy of God.’4

Elmer sent the two meditations that are certainly his to the same Nicholas, whom he had found to be a fellow disciple of St Gregory. Meditation XX is concerned with man’s alienation from God and his desire to return to him. It recalls the Proslogion, and it is significant that the meditation that follows it in Migne is in fact an abridgement of the more meditative parts of the Proslogion. Both the Proslogion and Elmer’s prayer are concerned to ‘stir up the soul to seek after God’, and both begin with the awareness of the soul of its distance from God, and its weariness in the land of unlikeness. This awareness of sin, which is the first compunction, leads to the second compunction of desire for God, and in Elmer’s prayer this is done in a passage strongly reminiscent of St Gregory: ‘My whole heart, delight in sighs, that by their practice your beauty may be illuminated and your inner eye raised to contemplate the brightness of heavenly light. My whole soul, leave aside your wanderings, and gaze only upon the splendour of God; desire him, shed copious showers of tears, that they may wash away your foul and numberless sins; then will the natural beauty which the good Creator gave you be restored by his mercy.’5 Equally familiar in St Gregory and Anselm are these ideas of the ‘inner eye of the soul’, the ‘heavenly light’, and the ‘tears’ that wash away defilement and restore the image of God in man.

The end of this meditation echoes Anselm’s Meditation on Human Redemption with its use of ‘I ask, I seek and I knock’, and the last passage in it is similar to the end of the Proslogion: ‘Let my soul long always for the glory of thy countenance, let my mind love it, my thought reach out to it, the entire love of my heart sigh for it, all my being be gathered up in love for it…’6

A very notable difference between Anselm and Elmer is in their use of the Bible. Elmer constantly uses an allegorical interpretation of the scriptures which is entirely absent from Anselm. In Meditation XX, for instance, Elmer introduces the parable of the Prodigal Son, and uses each detail in a symbolic manner – the prodigal son is the repentant soul returning to God; the ring he receives is faith, the robe righteousness, the arms of the father are God’s mercy, and the servants of the household are angels; the calf is seen as the Son of God, presumably seen as a sacrifice. The difference between this approach and that of Anselm is still more clearly illustrated in the other of Elmer’s meditations, where he refers to the forgiveness accorded to David, St Peter, and St Mary Magdalene.7 When Anselm prays to St Peter he talks to him as a friend, asks for his help, is encouraged by his life, and is even on such familiar terms with him as a person that he can reproach him for his denial of the Lord. But Elmer is not concerned with Peter as a person at all; for him there is a truth behind the surface meaning of scripture, a spiritual meaning. So he makes St Peter’s confession of Christ into a revelation of the doctrine of the Trinity to the Church: ‘He knew the Father’s revelation of the Son, he understood the Son by knowing the Father, by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit he merited to know the full truth of the Father co-equal with the Son; so he deserved to be called Peter because he knew him to be truly Father, Son, and Spirit, one God…’8 This kind of exegesis belongs to the Patristic writings and continued down into the late Middle Ages, but it is a stream of biblical understanding as alien to Anselm as to the present day.

Elmer’s prayers are of the same type as the meditations of Anselm and in its most important aspect, that of compunction, he echoes the thought of his master. But he was not a writer of the stature of Anselm, and while a phrase here and there catches Anselm’s ardour it is not sustained and there are long and tedious passages. His style is rhetorical, he makes great use of antithesis, but much of this is artificial and superficial. There is in the meditations, however, a quality of sheer goodness, of single-minded dedication, which redeems them. They are in the Anselmian tradition, but the work of a different man, of whom Gervase of Canterbury wrote, ‘Prior Elmer, a man of great simplicity and of outstanding religion’.9


The Circulation and Influence of the Prayers

1. Vita Gundolfi, PL 159, part II, 816D.

2. ibid., col. 816D.

3. ibid., col. 819C.

4. Wilmart, A., ‘Les propres corrections de S. Anselme dans sa grande prière à la Vierge Marie’, in Recherches de Théologie Ancienne et Médiévale, vol II, 1930, pp. 189–204.

Early Additions to the Collection (Ralph)

1. Wilmart, A. Auteurs spirituels et textes dévots du moyen âge latin, Paris 1932, pp. 158–98.

2. Southern, R. W., Anselm and His Biographer, Cambridge University Press, 1963, pp. 206–9.

3. Southern, R. W. ‘St Anselm and His English Pupils’, in Medieval and Renaissance Studies, ed. Hunt and Klibansky, Warburg Institute, appendix, ‘The Monk Rodolphus’, pp. 24–29.

4. Chronicon Monasterii de Bello, London 1846, p. 51.

5. Ralph, Meditation IV, PL 158, 729D-733B.

6. Anselm, Meditation 1.

7. Ralph, Oratio IV, PL 158, 870C.

8. Anselm, Meditation 1.

9. Ralph, Oratio IV, PL 158, 869C.

10. Ralph, Oratio XXIX, PL 158, 921.

11. Chronicon Monasterii de Bello, op. cit., p. 59.


1. Elmer of Canterbury printed by Leclercq, J., in Analecta Monastica (2nd series), 31, ‘Écrits Spirituels d’Elmer de Cantorbéry’, Rome, 1953, p. 63.

2. ibid., p. 63.

3. ibid., p. 87.

4. ibid., p. 87.

5. Meditation XX, PL 158, 812B.

6. ibid., 814C.

7. ‘Écrits Spirituels d’Elmer de Cantorbéry’, pp. 110–114.

8. ibid., p. 114.

9. Historical Works of Gervase of Canterbury, ed. Stubbs, Longman, 1878, pp. 98, 100.

1. VA, 1, viii.

2. Wilmart, Auteurs spirituels et textes dévots du moyen âge Latin, Paris, 1932, pp. 162–201. Wilmart, Introduction to Odo Castel’s French translation, Les Meditations et Prières de S. Anselme, Paris, 1923, Pax XI.

3. Schmitt, Meditations and Prayers, vol. 3, Letters, vols. 3–5, Proslogion, vol. 2.

4. R. W. Southern, St Anselm and His Biographer, Cambridge University Press, 1963, pp. 42–71.

5. Pächt O., Illustrations of St Anselm’s Prayers and Meditations, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, XIX, 1956, pp. 68–83.

* I praise those modern scholars who have turned over the ancient writings, seeking to discover the real roots of many books, and I willingly read what they have written. Those who are young are nonetheless the more perspicacious, and their skill flowers since it draws from so many sources.

* My soul, my wretched, filthy soul, carefully gather within yourself all the senses of your body, and understand more carefully and see how gravely hurt and cast down you are.

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