“In modern English, it’s ‘The wooing of our Lord,’” says Dr. Catherine Innes-Parker. “It’s a 13th century collection of prayers written in English for women. It turns Christ into a figure from romance—the Christ Knight, the ideal bridegroom.”
Dr. Innes-Parker is a professor of English at UPEI. She says the most recent edition of these “wooing” prayers was published in the 1950s, and is inaccessible to all but Middle English scholars.
“Which is a real shame,” she says. “They are beautiful prayers. I love to teach them. I really want to make them available and accessible to a wider audience. These are important texts, and some of the first widely available devotional literature in English.”
Dr. Innes-Parker has edited a new edition of the prayers, laying each out in both Middle English and Modern English.
“The intended audience for these prayers were anchoresses,” explains Dr. Innes-Parker, “who were women who had dedicated their lives to the church. They had withdrawn from secular life, and lived in tiny, austere cells attached to the sanctuaries of churches.”
Anchoresses were not nuns; they had no access to education or libraries, but Dr. Innes-Parker says these prayers were written to provide them with their own devotional material. They could not speak Latin, which is why these prayers were written in English. They were the first passion meditation prayers written in English.
“A passion meditation prayer is one directed to Christ or Mary, and based on the Passion of Christ,” says Dr. Innes-Parker. “That refers to the events surrounding the sufferings and death of Christ. These prayers refer to a romantic, even erotic meditation based on the Song of Songs. They are deeply rooted in the image of Christ as the bridegroom of the soul.”
This interpretation is based on an allegorical reading of the Song of Songs, which is an erotic love poem traditionally attributed to King Solomon. Theologians were often confused as to what to do with it. This interpretation is based on the concept of the soul being the bride of Christ, and that the Song was Christ wooing the soul; it was made popular in the 12th century by Bernard of Clairvaux’s Sermons on the Song of Songs.
“These poems were written to be read aloud,” says Dr. Innes-Parker. “The speaker had to look on the passion of Christ with the eyes of her soul and ask herself why her heart wasn’t breaking. Christ showed great love on the cross, and the response from these women was impassioned love.”
Dr. Innes-Parker says no one knows who wrote the prayers. Some may have been part of an oral tradition and later written down. They may have even been written by the women themselves.
“My heart wants to believe that to be true,” she says, “because there is a real understanding of the female perspective. They really do paint Christ as the ideal husband. My brain believes they were probably written by a man. The prayers themselves are beautiful and subtle. The author was an educated person. If we are talking about the 13th century, that’s much more likely to be a man. Even more likely, it was several men.”