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Medieval Women and Their Devotion: Gendered Readings of Medieval Prayers

Annunciation, Walters Book of Hours, MS. W197. for.62v.
Annunciation, Walters Book of Hours, MS. W197. fol.62v.

Gender was a rather straightforward concept in medieval religion, except when it wasn’t. There were fairly firm lines: women could only hold the clergy positions of nun or abbess, men, anything else. However, in the domestic lives of medieval lay people, women, especially wealthy or noble women with plenty of time on their hands, were likely to engage in frequent private worship (Zieman 101). Contrasting with fairly standard prayers which might be considered gender-neutral, to use an anachronistic term, or even masculine, this female devotion is evidenced by the many prayers written for a specifically female reader. What, then, was considered feminine about these specified prayers besides their designated readership? And how would the gender of a reader affect the meanings of a more neutral prayer?

Let’s start with a distinctly feminine prayer from the Norwich Hours, listed on page 105 in Charity Scott-Stoke’s Women’s Books of Hours in Medieval England. Addressed to Mary “for help at the hour of death,” it begins by listing Mary’s many attributes, followed by a plea for intercession (104). Now, Mary was highly revered by Christians throughout the medieval era. And how could she not be when she was the mother of God Himself on Earth? She was an extraordinary woman, and as such, many prayers were addressed to her.

In this case, the speaker is the most obvious sign that the prayer has a distinctly feminine readership, as the reference to the reader being a “sinful woman” demonstrates (105).

Saint Mary, most merciful mother of God, daughter of the supreme king, glorious mother, mother of orphans, consolation of the desolate, path for those who are lost, salvation for those who trust in you, virgin before giving birth, virgin in birth, virgin after both, fountain of mercy, fountain of salvation and grace, fountain of charity and joy, consolation and indulgence, I pray for you to intercede for me a sinful woman, in the sight of your son, so that through his holy mercy and your holy intercession he may grant me before death and on my dying day pure confession and remission of sins, and life and peace everlasting to all the faithful, living and dead. Through Christ [our Lord. Amen.] (105)

Most explicitly, the Virgin Mary, though accessible to all, was a mother, which ultimately shifted this prayer toward femininity. As women, many female readers would have sympathized with the Mother of God, who had gone through childbearing, birth, and childrearing. Motherhood would have been familiar to the majority of the female readers of this prayer, at the very least through their own mothers, perhaps making Mary seem a more approachable. She is also called “daughter,” which provides a sympathetic figure for younger women, still living with their parents, as even they had domestic duties. Additionally, a focus is placed on Mary’s status as a virgin, even after the birth of Christ, and since a woman’s virginity was incredibly important to her pre-marriage life, this would have also been familiar, especially to those who were unwed or members of the clergy. They would have prayed to this eternal virgin, who was always pure, and thus revered by all, but even more so by women whose lives revolved around such a quality and the childbearing often was required.

The prayer starts off rather domestic, with Mary being a mother, daughter, consoler, and leader to the lost. This would have been mirrored by lay women then, engaged as they were in their family duties as mothers and daughters themselves, consoling their familes, and leading their children through teaching them prayers. However, even further into the prayer, Mary is described as a fountain of many virtues. This fountain imagery perhaps reflects not only biblical imagery such as the fountain of living water, but also womanly qualities, such as fertility and nourishment. Like her son Jesus, who was the source of salvation, Mary was a source of intercession and goodness. She would have provided prayer to God himself in the speaker’s stead asking for their forgiveness — thus becoming a provider of a form of protection, and a spiritual nourishment that the faithful so desperately needed. And finally, at the very end, the reader asks for eternal salvation for not just themselves and their family, but for “all the faithful,” which is reminiscent of both the clergy’s duty to pray for the salvation of everyone, but also of women’s duties to pray for the shortening of purgatory time for all of their family, and possibly others outside of it.

On the other end of the spectrum, there are prayers that at first glance would appear very standard and without a specific gender in mind. Perhaps, though, the intrinsic meaning of the prayer could be at least somewhat influenced by the gender of the reader. Take for example the “Prayer to All the Angels and Saints Before Mass” as found on the Thesaurus Precum Latinarum: it asks all of the angels and saints in existence for intercession and the reader’s “welfare.”

Angels, Archangels, Thrones, Dominations, Principalities, Powers, heavenly Virtues, Cherubim and Seraphim; all Saints of God, holy men and women, and for you especially my patrons: deign to intercede for me that I may be worthy to offer this Sacrifice to almighty God, to the praise and glory of His name, for my own welfare and also that of all His holy Church. Amen.

This prayer might actually have been read as somewhat masculine because the hierarchy that the speaker calls upon is similar to that of nobility, a largely masculine field, or the male clergy in particular. However, it’s possible that the gender of the person reading the prayer would influence the meaning in subtle ways through intention and need, and as such, a woman could skew this prayer more to the feminine ideal through her own thoughts and needs that would differ from a man’s. Perhaps, then, the first thing that would appeal to a woman about this prayer might have been the inclusion of holy women. In a way, it might have provided a woman reader with a sense of female importance within the church. Another aspect of the prayer that appears gender-neutral at first would be the very specific inclusion of the reader’s patron saints. When reciting this prayer, they would have had their patron saints in mind when they came to this part, maybe even ruminated over them a little longer since those saints would be more important to them than the rest. For women however, that time provided an opportunity to think on the female exemplars such as Mary, Saint Margaret, or Saint Anne, all of whom were were renowned for the strength of their faith, their chastity, even in the face of sin, and frequently associated with childbirth. This focus would have allowed for a personalization of the prayer that delved specifically into what religious women celebrated, revered, and desired to emulate, what they considered important in prayer, and to whom they thought was best to pray for those things. Finally, the end of the prayer where the reader asks for intercession on behalf of their own health and the whole church’s reflects a duty of all the faithful, but in particular those women who were noble or part of the bourgeois class — those without demanding domestic duties who could afford leisure and hours of private prayer.

Ultimately, though this is rather hypothetical, it shows the importance of an individual’s intention when praying, for that is what will largely affect the final reading of a prayer. Because the gender of the speaker would have been so definitively tied to many of a medieval person’s intentions, one’s gender could, at least subtly, influence the personalization of a spoken prayer, especially among the laity, even going so far as to bring out more hidden elements that reflect a specific gender.


Annunciation. Walters Book of Hours, MS. W197, fol.62v. Ca.1460. The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, MD. The Digital Walters.


Zieman, Katherine. “Literacy of Women Religious.” Learning and Literacy in Medieval England and Abroad, edited by Sarah Rees Jones, Brepols, 2003, 97-120.
Scott-Stokes, Charity. Women’s Books of Hours in Medieval England. D.S.Brewer, 2006.
“Oratio Ad Omnes Angelos et Sanctos Ante Missam.” Thesaurus Precut Latinarum. 2016.