Transcribed by Christine J. Murray
This article is reprinted here with the kind permission of Kevin Knight, who has undertaken a project to transcribe an online version of the 1907 Catholic Encyclopedia.
The Hail Mary (sometimes called the "Angelical salutation", or sometimes from the first words in its Latin form, the Ave Maria) is the most familiar of all the prayers used by the Universal Church in honour of our Blessed Lady.
It is commonly described as consisting of three parts.
The first, "Hail (Mary) full of grace, the Lord is with thee, blessed art thou amongst women", embodies the words used by the Angel Gabriel in saluting the Blessed Virgin (Luke 1:28).
The second, "and blessed is the fruit of thy womb (Jesus)", is borrowed from the Divinely inspired greeting of Saint Elizabeth (Luke 1:42), which attaches itself the more naturally to the first part, because the words benedicta tu in mulieribus (1:28) or inter mulieres (1:42) are common to both salutations.
Finally, the petition "Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen." is stated by the official Catechism of the Council of Trent to have been framed by the Church itself.
"Most rightly", says the Catechism, "has the Holy Church of God added to this thanksgiving, petition also and the invocation of the most holy Mother of God, thereby implying that we should piously and suppliantly have recourse to her in order that by her intercession she may reconcile God with us sinners and obtain for us the blessing we need both for this present life and for the life which has no end."
It was antecedently probable that the striking words of the Angel's salutation would be adopted by the faithful as soon as personal devotion to the Mother of God manifested itself in the Church.
The Vulgate rendering, Ave gratia plena, "Hail, full of grace", has often been criticized as too explicit a translation of the Greek chaire kecharitomene, but the words are in any case most striking, and the Anglican words are in any case most striking, and the Anglican Revised Version now supplements the "Hail, thou that art highly favoured" of the original Authorized Version by the marginal alternative, "Hail thou, endued with grace".
We are not surprised, then, to find these or analogous words employed in a Syriac ritual
attributed to Severus, Patriarch of Antioch (c. 513), or by Andrew of Crete and Saint John Damascene, or again the Liber Antiphonarious of Saint Gregory the Great as the offertory of the Mass for the fourth Sunday of Advent.
But such examples hardly warrant the conclusion that the Hail Mary was at that early period used in the Church as a separate formula of Catholic devotion.
Similarly a story attributing the introduction of the Hail Mary to Saint Ildephonsus of Toledo must probably be regarded as apocryphal.
The legend narrates how Saint Ildephonsus going to the church by night found our Blessed Lady seated in the apse in his own episcopal chair with a choir of virgins around her who were singing her praises.
Then Saint Ildephonsus approached "making a series of genuflections and repeating at each of them those words of the angel's greeting: `Hail Mary full of grace the Lord is with thee, blessed art thou amongst women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb.'"
Our Lady then showed her pleasure at this homage and rewarded the saint with the gift of a beautiful chasuble (Mabillon, Acta SS. OSB, saec V, pref, no.119).
The story, however, in this explicit form cannot be traced further back than Hermann of Laon at the beginning of the twelfth century.
Two Anglo-Saxon manuscripts at the British Museum, one of which may be as old as the year 1030, show that the words Ave Maria etc. and benedicta tu in mulieribus et benedictus fructus ventris tui occurred in almost every part of the Cursus, and though we cannot be sure that these clauses were at first joined together so as to make one prayer, there is conclusive evidence that this had come to pass only a very little later. (See The Month, Nov 1901, pp.486-8)
The great collections of Mary-legends which began to be formed in the early years of the twelfth century (see Mussafia, Marien-legenden) show us that this salutation of our Lady was fast becoming widely prevalent as a form of private devotion, though it is not quite certain how far it was customary to include the clause "and blessed is the fruit of thy womb."
But Abbot Baldwin, a Cistercian who was made Archbishop of Canterbury in 1184, wrote before this date a sort of paraphrase of the Ave Maria in which he says:
To this salutation of the Angel, by which we daily greet the most Blessed Virgin, with such
devotion as we may, we are accustomed to add the words, "and blessed is the fruit of thy womb," by which clause Elizabeth at a later time, on hearing the Virgin's salutation to her, caught up and completed, as it were, the Angel's words, saying: "Blessed are thou amongst women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb."
Not long after this (c.1196) we meet a synodal decree of Eudes de Sully, Bishop of Paris, enjoining upon the clergy of his see that the "Salutation of the Blessed Virgin" was familiarly known to their flocks as well as the Creed and the Lord's Prayer; and after this date similar enactments become frequent in every part of the world, beginning in England with the Synod of Durham in 1217.
The Hail Mary, A Salutation
To understand the early developments of this devotion it is important to grasp the fact that those who first used this formula fully recognized that the Ave Maria was merely a form of greeting.
It was therefore long customary to accompany the words with some external gesture of homage, a genuflection, or least an inclination of the head.
Of Saint Aybert, in the twelfth century, it is recorded that he recited 150 Hail Marys daily, 100 with genfluctions and 50 with prostrations.
So Thierry tells us of Saint Louis of France that "without counting his other prayers the holy King knelt down every evening fifty times and each time he stood upright then knelt again and repeated slowly an Ave Maria."
Kneeling at the Ave Maria was enjoined in several of the religious orders.
So in the Ancren Riwle (q.v.), a treatise which an examination of the Corpus Christi manuscript 402 shows to be of older date than the year 1200, the sisters are instructed that, at the recitation both of the Gloria Patri and the Ave Maria in the Office, they are either to genuflect or to incline profoundly according to the ecclesiastical season.
In this way, owing to the fatigue of these repeated prostrations and genufletions, the
recitation of a number of Hail Marys was often regarded as a penitential exercise, and it is recorded of certain canonized saints, e.g. the Dominican nun Saint Margaret (d.1292), daughter of the King of Hungary, that on certain days she recited the Ave a thousand times with a thousand prostrations.
This concept of the Hail Mary as a form of salutation explains in some measure the practice, which is certainly older than the epoch of Saint Dominic, of repeating the greeting as many as 150 times in succession.
The idea is akin to that of the "Holy, Holy, Holy", which we are taught to think goes up continually before the throne of the Most High.