The Divine Office, or the Liturgy of the Hours, is the daily service of the Roman breviary; that is, the daily round of religious services as found in any breviary, which is made up almost entirely of psalms and Bible readings.
There are eight such services, one properly being sung at midnight and the other seven during the day at three-hourly intervals. They are known collectively as the Canonical Hours. Consisting almost entirely of plainchant or ‘Gregorian chant’—i.e. the chanting of the Psalms of David in a sepulchrally monotonous but hauntingly beautiful way—the eight offices or Hours are called Matins, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, Nones, Vespers, and Compline.
The entire system is founded on two biblical suggestions : ‘At midnight I will rise and give thanks to thee’ (hence the nocturnal service), and ‘Seven times a day do I praise thee (hence the seven diurnal services). It will be seen from this that the essential feature of the Divine Office is praise, with a large input however of penitential lamentation, owing to the many lugubrious psalms composed by King David.
The Breviary was planned in such a skilful way that the entire Psalter (or the Book of Psalms) was run through once a week. In addition, the bulk of the Bible was recited through by this method once every year, on account of all the Bible readings interspersed between the psalms. It was no wonder that the monks knew the 150 psalms of the Psalter by heart, thanks to the fifty-two oral repetitions of the book each and every year.
Matins, sung between midnight and 2 a.m. in the Middle Ages, is known as the ‘night office’. This was followed after a very brief interval by Lauds. The monks then went back to bed for a few hours.
In ideal circumstances, prime ought then to have been sung soon after sunrise at about six o’clock, terce following at nine o’clock, sext at noon, and nones at three in the afternoon. These services are known collectively as the ‘Little Hours’; this is because they are relatively short—about 10-15 minutes each.
Vespers is the evening service and should take place at six o’clock, being followed by Compline at nine. In point of fact, vespers and compline were sung much earlier throughout the year in the Middle Ages, because the monks had to go to bed early in order to rise early; both services moreover took place an hour earlier in winter than in summer.
In regard to the Little Hours, there was much variation here also as to when these were actually to be sung. Sometimes they were hurried through one after another in order to get them out of the way quickly. Each monastery and cathedral had its own timetable. No two institutions were exactly alike.
The total time spent in plainchant must have amounted to at least four hours a day, but at some monasteries (e.g. Cluny) it took much longer—over six hours.
The Divine Office was incumbent on all religious folk, not just monks and nuns. Village parsons, cathedral canons, chantry priests—all clerks in holy orders—had to recite their offices at the appointed hour wherever they happened to be; that is, if they were unable to participate in the psalmody in church. Travelling clerics would read their breviaries on horseback. And even devout layfolk, though not obliged to do so, might elect to participate in the work of God by reading through the appropriate section in their Book of Hours.
The Anglican (or Protestant) Church prefers to call the Divine Office ‘Divine Service’, and their final service of the day (vespers + compline) is called Evening Prayer or Evensong. In the Old Church of pre-Reformation times, however, ‘evensong’ simply means vespers.
THE MEDIEVAL MONK’S HORARIUM (TIMETABLE)
A note on Matins. Matins was originally a religious service sung at midnight, the first of the seven canonical hours. Known also as the ‘night office’—and as ‘vigils’ (vigiliae) up to the 11th century—matins was sung at daybreak in the later middle ages. It was then followed immediately by Lauds. Matins and lauds were in fact considered one rather than two separate ‘hours’, i.e. matins-lauds.
† In the Rule of St Benedict, matins is scheduled for 2 am, allowing the Benedictines two extra hours of uninterrupted first sleep. Matins splits the night into two sections, giving the monks a ‘first sleep’ (before matins) and a ‘second sleep’ (after matins). The fact that the Benedictines enjoyed a longer first sleep did not in any way imply that they had an easier life than other monks. Firstly, a longer first sleep meant a proportionately shorter second sleep; secondly, having enjoyed 5-6 hours of continuous sleep from bedtime to matins, many monks might dispense entirely with the second sleep—keeping vigil instead.
† Before the 11th century the entire night office, including lauds, was called vigils or nocturn. Thereafter, the term ‘vigils’ dropped out of sight as a synonym for ‘night office’, and was replaced by ‘matins’; and the term ‘nocturn’ was used in a different way, being no longer applied to the night office in toto, but only to one of its divisions.
For convenience, the night office on Sundays and important feast days was divided into three separate parts, each called a nocturn. Thus a latecomer, for example, might come in during the singing of the third nocturn, having missed the first two—in the same way as a theatre-goer might arrive in time for the third act of a play. The theatre analogy is not entirely inappropriate. When there is less material in a play, it tends to become a one-act play. The same applies to matins. On less-important feast days, the night office shrinks in size and becomes a one-nocturn service. The nocturn is of course longer than the nocturns on 3-nocturn days, but a 1-nocturn service is certainly shorter than a 3-nocturns service.