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Musical Musings: Prayers and Liturgical Texts Page 2

Development of a Prayer

Development of the Hail Mary

In the time of Saint Louis the Ave Maria ended with the words of Saint Elizabeth: "benedictus fructus ventris tui;" it has since been extended by the introduction both of the Holy Name and of a clause of petition. As regards the addition of the word "Jesus," or, as it usually ran in the fifteenth century, "Jesus Christus, Amen," it is commonly said that this was due to the initiative of Pope Urban IV (1261) and to the confirmation and indulgence of John XXII. The evidence does not seem sufficiently clear to warrant positive statement on the point. Still, there, can be no doubt that this was the widespread belief of the later Middle Ages. A popular German religious manual of the fifteenth century (Der Selen Troïst, 1474) even divides the Hail Mary into four portions, and declares that the first part was composed by the Angel Gabriel, the second by Saint Elizabeth, the third, consisting only of the Sacred Name, Jesus Christus, by the popes, and the last, ie. the word Amen, by the Church.

The Hail Mary as a Prayer

It was often made a subject of reproach against the Catholics by the Reformers that the Hail Mary which they so constantly repeated was not properly a prayer. It was a greeting which contained no petition (see e.g. Latimer, Works, II 229-230). This objection would seem to have long been felt, and as a consequence it was uncommon during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries for those who recited their Aves privately to add some clause at the end, after the words ventris tui Jesus. Traces of this practice meet us particularly in the verse paraphrases of the Ave which date from this period. The most famous of these is that attributed, though incorrectly, to Dante, and belonging in any case to the first half of the fourteenth century. In this paraphrase the Hail Mary ends with the following words:

O Vergin benedetta, sempre tu
Ora per noi a Dio, che ci perdoni,
E diaci grazia a viver si quaggiu
Che'l paradiso al nostro fin ci doni;

(Oh blessed Virgin, pray to God for us always,
that He may pardon us and
give us grace, so to live here below that
He may reward us with paradise at our death.)

Comparing the versions of the Ave existing in various languages, e.g. Italian, Spanish, German, Provençal, we find that there is a general tendency to conclude with an appeal for sinners and especially for help at the hour of death. Still a good deal of variety prevailed in these forms of petition. At the close of the fifteenth century there was not any officially approved conclusion, though a form closely resembling our present one was sometimes designated as "the prayer of Pope Alexander VI" (see Der Katholik, April, 1903, p. 334), and was engraved separately on bells (Beisesel, Verehrung Maria, p. 460). But for liturgical purposes the Ave down to the year 1568 ended with "Jesus, Amen," and an observation in the Myroure of our Lady written for the Bridgettine nuns of Syon, clearly indicates the generally feeling. "Some saye at the begynnyng of this salutacyon Ave benigne Jesu and some saye after `Maria mater Dei', with other addycyons at the ende also. And such thinges may be saide when folke saye their Aves of theyr own devocyon. But in the servyce of the chyrche, I trowe it to be moste sewer and moste medeful (meritorious) to obey the comon use of saying, as the chyrche hath set, without all such addicions."

We meet the Ave as we know it now, printed in the breviary of the Camaldolese monks, and in that of the Order de Mercede c.1514. Probably this, the current form of Ave, came from Italy, and Esser asserts that it is to be found written exactly as we say it now in the handwriting of Saint Antoninus of Florence who died in 1459. This, however, is doubtful. What is certain is that an Ave Maria identical with our own, except for the omission of the single word nostrae, stands printed at the head of the little work of Savonarola's issued in 1495, of which there is a copy in the British Museum. Even earlier than this, in a French edition of the Calendar of Shepherds which appeared in is repeated in Pynson's English translation a few years later in the form: "Holy Mary moder of God praye for us synners. Amen." In an illustration which appears in the same book, the pope and the whole Church are depicted kneeling before our Lady and greeting her with this third part of the Ave. The official recognition of the Ave Maria in its complete form, though foreshadowed in the words of the Catechism of the Council of Trent, as quoted at the beginning of this article, was finally given in the Roman Breviary of 1568.

One or two other points connected with the Hail Mary can only be briefly touched upon. It would seem that in the Middle Ages the Ave often become so closely connected with the Pater noster, that it was treated as a sort of farsura, or insertion, before the words et ne nos inducas in tentationem when the Pater noster was said secreto (see several examples quoted in The Month, Nov 1901, p.490). The practice of preachers interrupting their sermons near the beginning to say the Ave Maria seems to have been introduced in the Middle Ages and to be of Franciscan origin (Beissel, p.254). A curious illustration of its retention among English Catholics in the reign of James II may be found in the Diary of Mr. John Thoresby (I, 182). It may also be noticed that although modern Catholic usage is agreed in favouring the form "the Lord is with thee", this is a comparatively recent development. The more general custom a century ago was to say "our Lord is with thee," and Cardinal Wiseman in one of his essays strongly reprobates change (Essays on Various Subjects, I, 76), characterizing it as "stiff, cantish and destructive of the unction which the prayer breathes." Finally it may be noticed that in some places, and notably in Ireland, the feeling still survives that the Hail Mary is complete with the word Jesus. Indeed the writer is informed that within living memory it was not uncommon for Irish peasant, when bidden to say Hail Marys for a penance, to ask whether they were required to say the Holy Marys too. On account of its connection with the Angelus, the Ave Maria was often inscribed on bells. One such bell at Eskild in Denmark, dating from about the year 1200, bears the Ave Maria engraved upon it in runic characters. (See Uldall, DanmarksMiddelalderlige Kirkeklokker, Copenhagen 1906, p.22.)

Transcribed by Christine J. Murray

The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume VII
Copyright © 1911 by Robert Appleton Company
Online Edition Copyright © 1999 by Kevin Knight
Nihil Obstat, February 1, 1911. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor
Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York
Reprinted by permission of copyright owner.

See New Advent Catholic Website

See also Ave Maria (Arcadelt) CNP Catalog #7012
and Ave Maria (Victoria) CNP Catalog #7019

 Back to Part I: Origin

Back to Prayers Index

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