Liturgy in the White Monastery

Liturgy in the White Monastery

Liturgy is an essential part of the life of a monastery, and we can hardly feel an interest for the White Monastery without being interested in its liturgical life as well.[1] Unfortunately we still know little about this subject, as recently stated by Heinzgerd Brakmann, a most distinguished scholar in the field of Coptic liturgy: “ . . . even the simplest questions concerning [the White Monastery’s] liturgy and that of Southern Egypt do not meet a satisfactory answer. At pres­ent, scholarly literature has very little, if anything, to offer on how services were conducted in the course of time: daily Hours, Commemorations and Feasts, and the structure of sacramental and other services.”[2]

The reason is well known: the liturgical manuscripts, as well as all other manuscripts of this library, have been dismembered,[3] and a liturgical document is interesting only if complete since the structure of the ser­vice concerns us more than its contents, which are usually known from elsewhere. This holds true even more here, since we have no liturgical commentaries dating from the first millennium to help us to understand how services worked.

Available Material

Here are the sources from which we can collect information:

  • fragments from the White Monastery manuscripts, when we are able to locate them and to reconstruct the original manuscript, as well as correctly to understand their contents not forgetting that, there as elsewhere, services changed over time;
  • comparison material from the Pierpont Morgan manuscripts, which belonged to the monastery of Saint Michael in Hamuli in Fayoum;
  • mentions of the Upper Egypt liturgy found in the Lamp of the Sanctuary (Missbah al-zulma fi idah al-khidma) of Abu-l-Barakat Ibn Kabar (d. 1324).[4]
  • additional material for comparison: a detailed description of the consecration of the Myron (Holy Chrism) in the year 1374, written in about 1377 by Bishop Athanasius of Qus,[5] some prayers and hymns preserved in present Coptic services,[6] and possibly some remnants in the liturgy of Ethiopia.[7]

Preliminary Remarks

Liturgical books were usually divided: the priest’s book comprised the anaphorae and the blessings, that of the deacon, the parts which were proper to him (diakonika), and possibly also the responses made by the people; there were several books for the use of the cantors.

The typika (also called directory or index)—liturgical books built as an ordo and summarizing in a few lines the directions for a whole service—are of special interest for us. Indeed, each fragment, even in isolation, allows us to reconstruct several contiguous services; if we are able to gather some contiguous sheets of a typikon we can reconstruct a coherent portion of the liturgical year.

Coptic liturgy has always been bilingual: still today, the deacons’ bid­dings, and some chants, can be taken in Greek. Greek was widely used in the White Monastery; Arabic is sometimes found, at least in rubrics.

The Priests’ and Deacons’ Books

  1. The Missal

Among all liturgical books of the White Monastery, only the Missal (Euchologion) —that is, the book containing everything that the celebrating priest has to say at mass and other sacraments and services—has been pub­lished in a scholarly way. [8]This edition has been out of print for some time, and the author is preparing a new and revised one. Since we have 29 sheets out of the at least 120 found in the original manuscript, we can evaluate how great the loss is; however, fragments from other missals from the White Monastery might compensate for that loss, at least in part.

  1. The Deacons’ Books

To explain how important the deacon’s book is for the liturgical historian, Brakmann found a nice comparison: the priest’s and the deacon’s books are “like the two sides of a zip fastener,” which are of no use separately. The missals have very few rubrics, but the deacon’s books allow one to understand how the service proceeded; since the diakonika underwent very little change, they give us a sure reference mark. Brakmann is cataloguing them at present, after having offered a list of fragments in his detailed review of Henner’s thesis.4 [9]

Next to the deacon’s biddings, one should mention the Diptyka: dur­ing the anaphora, the deacon commemorates “our fathers in the faith,” the saints, the deceased patriarchs and the acting hierarchs. A paper on this sub­ject is currently being prepared.[10]

  1. The Lectionaries

The situation has undergone little change since my rapid survey written twenty years ago,[11] and the specific research about the Catholic Epistles.[12] Lists of readings have been published: the analysis of the full lectionary M 573,[13] and the contents of he lectionary M 615 (gospels only).[14] A num­ber of other fragments are known: some of them were listed long ago,[15] others have lately been pointed out.[16] However, these witnesses only rarely agree with each other. To understand how the readings worked in the White Monastery, we cannot avoid making use of the typika: I shall return to this topic in a specific paper.

Despite the differences between Upper and Lower Egypt, Burmester was long ago able to publish a ‘middle’ edition of the Holy Week Lectionary; much research has still to be done, but we can at least have an idea of how the Holy Week services were conducted in the White Monastery.[17]

  1. Typika

As said above, the typika were used by all the participants, the priests, the deacons, and the cantors, since they described how services were to be per­ formed and specified the variable parts, including the readings. Some of them contain only information for mass, while other ones describe the vig­ils and other services, and some seem to be all-inclusive. Few papers have been published about them, one giving two pages taken from two differ­ent hermeniai typika,[18] and one reconstructing a part of a typikon for Mass.[19] Fortunately, we can also refer to the precious transcripts given in some man­uscript catalogues.[20] I shall detail this point elsewhere.

The Liturgical Day in the White Monastery, and the Contents of the Divine Service

Gathering all the information available in the liturgical documents (but not in the literary texts: this should be done by some other scholar), as well as in literature,[21] we can obtain an idea of how daily services were conducted in the White Monastery. However, we should never forget that, because of the scarcity of resources, we are in danger of taking as universal certain details which were valid only locally and for a limited time.[22]

1.The Liturgical Day in the Pachomian Monasteries

Before talking about the White Monastery, let us recall how literary texts describe the office in the Pachomian monasteries: there were two daily ser­vices, one at dawn and another in the evening; the morning service was held in church, while the evening one was said together by the monks of each ‘house’ before retiring.[23]

Their pattern was quite simple: after a Bible reading by the lector in charge, all rose, made the sign of the cross and said the Our Father with arms extended, then once again made the sign of the cross and made a full prostration to the ground; at the signal, they stood up, crossing themselves, and prayed silently until the signal to be seated again was given, and a new reading could start.[24] The services obviously evolved with time and grew richer, but no liturgical manuscript earlier than the sixth century has reached us and it is only with the ninth century that more abundant, though scattered, documentation becomes available that can suffice to reconstruct parts of the services.

2. General Survey of the Daily Services in the White Monastery

If we start with the description of Vespers, as liturgical books often do, we see that the monks gathered at evening for the common prayer, most prob­ably now in the church, since services were more complicated and required a different environment. In the Hamuli monastery during the last years of the ninth century, and probably at that time in the White Monastery, too, the service began with an invitatory. There were readings from Holy Scripture, prayers said at times with the assembly prostrate on the ground and at other times in the standing position, and some hymns. Fr. Hans Quecke supposed that in the ninth century the hour of Compline—not mentioned in his manuscript—must have existed already, but joined to Vespers.[25] Afterward the monks retired for the night.

The night prayer began probably for an extended period ‘at cockcrow,’ that is, at the beginning of the fourth vigil of the night, about 3 a.m. by modern reckoning. Again, since his manuscript mentioned an hour of ‘Prime,’ Fr. Quecke supposed that by the end of the ninth century the night prayer actually began in the middle of the night, and that ‘Prime’ was, like today’s Matins, said just before dawn.[26] I am not able to say at what time these services in fact began, or if they followed immediately one upon the other. As far as I know, liturgical manuscripts give no hint to that.

Both services together certainly lasted quite long, some two to three hours. They might have included the biblical odes and canticles of M 574 and some other pieces, such as the antiphons of M 575 (at least for some days), but they certainly included above all readings, hermeniai and responso- ries, as mentioned in the typika.[27]

On some days Mass was celebrated after the morning service: it is usually called “the synaxis hour,” in Coptic p-nau n-synage. Several proper chants were used for Mass: the trisaghion, hymns for the gospel, for the kiss of peace and several other hymns. Of course, there were readings and an anaphora, the latter being in the Missal (see A. 1 above).

We know nearly nothing about other hours of prayer: they probably had an invitatory taken from the Bible,[28] and then, perhaps, some psalms, or a reading from Scripture recited by heart.

3. Psalms

Psalms are found everywhere in the liturgy of Upper Egypt:[29] they are used in any service as constituent parts of hymns, to be sung as responsories or to accompany a meditation. But was the Psalter systematically read in the White Monastery, from beginning to end or in any other way (for example, with prescribed series, such as in the modern Coptic Agbeyya)? As far as I know, there is no mention of that at all.

Indeed, the famous tradition of the ‘Angel’s Rule’ concerns only Lower Egypt, and in any case it talks about “twelve prayers,” not “twelve psalms.”[30] The information given by Abu-l Barakat Ibn Kabar about the monastery of St. George in Sadamant, where the whole Psalter was read every day accord­ing to a rather complicated system,[31] does not seem to have been known in the White Monastery—otherwise, at least some traces of it should have been found. Thus, I have come to think that, in the White Monastery and possibly in all Pachomian monasteries, at least for some time, the divine ser­vice was organized without current psalmody, with only biblical readings and responsories, together with hymns; for the main part, hymns and responsories were composed of a blend of psalm verses. Since liturgical documents give no evidence about this point, I hope other scholars will be able to help to collect information in literary texts or elsewhere.[32]

4. Biblical and Patristic Readings

In the White Monastery, as in all Pachomian monasteries, the Bible (Old and New Testaments) was read at the main services, in the evening and the morn­ing: the lives of Pachomius and of Shenoute bear witness to that.[33] Besides, the liturgical fragments, mainly from the typika, show that there were also readings of extracts from Shenoute and other authors during the vigils. In the first centuries, these readings were probably often done by heart,[34] but in the course of time lectionaries came to be composed. The matter is long and complicated: I shall return to it in a specialized paper.

5. Different Kinds of Hymns, Based on Scripture

Next to the readings, the services included different kinds of hymns, most of which were composed of psalm verses. Because of space limitation, I will only introduce them only briefly and return to this matter later on.

The hermeniai were certainly one of the most distinctive features of the White Monastery liturgy, and they probably built up the framework of the services. Fr. Quecke gave some information about them in 1970, and came back to this topic more than once.[35] Their basic principle was rather simple: you collect psalm verses containing the same keyword, such as, “king.” “priest,” “sky,” and you sing them one after the other, thus creat­ing a rhapsody of psalm verses. These ‘rhapsodies,’ however, implied further complications, mixing the hermenia with responsories, and so on, so that it is far from easy to tell exactly how they functioned. Abu-l-Barakat alludes to them too, but gives us no further useful information.[36] Besides, M 574 has also ‘lesser hermeniai‘ that have not yet been studied.[37]

The rubrics regularly mention shto and ekhmoos. While the second obviously means “while you are sitting,” the former probably means “pros­tration,” as Crum rightly guessed.[38] They must be related to the way the service was conducted in Pachomian monasteries, as said above (B.1), including prostrations on the ground and a return to the sitting position after each reading. In time, it came to be considered natural to develop chants to emphasize these strong moments.

There were also other responsories: ouohm, lexis, and tagma. They may have been said by the people, or by a second choir, as an answer to a hymn sung by the cantors.

The term hymnos is also frequently met in the typika. Fr. Quecke devoted to it an article containing nearly all that is known about it;[39] he showed that there were lists of psalm verses from which the cantors chose what they were to sing (according to principles that we do not know), and that the rubric hymnos referred to these lists.[40] The hymnos could be ‘pure’ or specialized for given times of the Mass, such as the gospel, the kiss of peace, or the communion.

A hymn, also made of psalm verses and abbreviated as ‘alph‘ in the rubrics of the typika, was complementary to the hymnos, but how it functioned is still an enigma.[41] Something more could probably be said, but the question needs further research.

6. Ecclesiastical poetry

While the Coptic Church does not use the same amount of ecclesiastical poetry as the Byzantine rite, it has a number of pieces that have been in use for many centuries. There were acrostic hymns, with twenty-four stances for the twenty-four letters of the Greek alphabet,[42] like those of M 574;[43] today’s psalis seem to be their offspring[44]. Similar compositions regularly appear, often incomplete, in the papyri.[45]

Next to them is the Antiphonary found in M 575,[46] somehow the ances­tor of today’s Difnar. No such composition has yet been found in the White Monastery, but I have been able to identify something like that in the pub­lished documents, to which I shall return later on.

One often meets the word poiekon; Fr. Quecke suggested (but did not publish his reflections on the subject) that it stands for poietikon.[47] It is a rather short piece, like the Byzantine troparion, but much research has still to be done about it, as emphasized recently.[48]

Last but not least, Mass, as well as processions and other services abun­dantly, used the ‘developed Trisaghion.’ In the modern Coptic liturgy, the Trisaghion is sung with the Christological additions: (Christ, you) who were born of the Virgin . . . who were crucified for our sake . . . who rose from the dead and ascended into heaven . . . ; in Upper Egypt, there were full sets of hymns, starting with Haghios ho Theos, but continuing with other invoca­tions, either Christological or (more often) not.[49] The Trisaghion could also be used as a responsory to psalm verses sung by the cantors, or to other chants.[50]

7. Liturgical Calendar

The ecclesiastical year has a fixed part, which follows the order of the year (in that case, from 1st Tut to 5th or 6th Epagomens), and a movable part, which is bound to the paschal cycle. We know the liturgical calendar of Lower Egypt quite well, but that of Upper Egypt has not yet been studied in detail: the material is there, but still lacks specialized studies.


Although much more could be said, it is already possible to give a general idea about how liturgy functioned in the White Monastery. More details will appear later, in a much longer paper. However, a call should be made to all scholars working with White-Monastery material, archaeologists, art historians, philologists, “Shenoutologists” (if I may coin a new expression) . . . to be kind enough to point out any detail they might happen to find in their own research that could be of some help to understand how the litur­gical services really functioned ‘on the ground,’ since liturgical documents are usually silent on that point.

Fr. Ugo Zanetti


[1] Since the length of this paper is limited to 3,500 words, I am offering here only a general overview of the question. A detailed study will appear later in the Bulletin de la Societe d’Archeologie copte.

[2] Brakmann 2004: 138.

[3] Cf. Orlandi 2002: 227ff. (who however has no interest in liturgical manu­scripts).

[4] Cf. Zanetti 1992.

[5] The edition of this text is currently being prepared by Dr Youhanna Nessim Youssef and myself. Cf. Youssef 1998; Youssef 2003, etc.

[6] Cf. Youssef 1997, Muyser 1935.

[7] Zanetti 1994.

[8] Lanne 1958.

[9] Brakmann 2004: 155ff, about Henner 2000.

[10] Brakmann 2004: 157-58 and n. 180.

[11] Zanetti 1985.

[12] Zanetti 1996.

[13] Schussler 2000-2003 and Schussler 2002.

[14] Depuydt 1993.

[15] Zanetti 1985: 14—21.

[16] Most recently by Brakmann 2004: 150ff.

[17] Burmester 1933—1934. Cf. Zanetti 1994: 767 and passim; Schussler 2002: lectionaries “sa 105L” and “sa 108L” (the latter is R4 of Burmester 1933— 1934). Cf. also Atanassova 2004.

[18] Quecke 1983.

[19] Zanetti 1995. Three other sheets should be added to the five published in 1994: Paris, BN copte 120 (20), fol. 163 and fol. 165, as well as a sheet pre­served in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

[20] Pleyte and Boeser 1897, Crum 1905 and 1909, as well as Wessely 1901-1923.

[21] Taft 1986: 57-73 gives an excellent survey together with the reference to sources.

[22] Quecke 1970: 346 points out that the service described in M 574 can have been only of local use. But up to now little else has been done about old Sahidic liturgy!

[23] Veilleux 1968: 296 and 300, n.108.

[24] Veilleux 1968: 307ff.

[25] Quecke 1970: 146.

[26] Quecke 1970: 184-90.

[27] Cf. Quecke 1983.

[28] As in Quecke 1970: 424ff and 108ff (Hamuli monastery), where the invitato- ries were Ps 11: 8 for Terce, Ps 64: 6ab for Sext and Ps. 137: 8bc for None.

[29] “Coptic liturgy makes use of psalms and parts of psalms in an amount that is quite unique in the Christian East. Much of this (material), which in the meantime has fallen out of use and is preserved only in fragmentary wit­nesses, is still lying in profound darkness.” (Quecke 1995: 114).

[30] Veilleux 1968: 324-39.

[31] Cf. Zanetti 1990: 360. Although this paper concerns Lower Egypt, it can help give an idea of the several systems which were in use in Egypt in the past, as well as describe today’s system.

[32] It might also be true that the ‘little hours,’ which were fashioned later and are mentioned neither in lectionaries nor in typika, included a current psalm­ody (under foreign influence?), and that only the main and ‘older’ services of lychnikon (Vespers) and of the night preserved the old usage. The material found up to now does not allow one to draw any conclusions.

[33] Veilleux 1968: 307-15.

[34] Veilleux 1968: 311. Is this the reason for which the readings in the White Monastery were always short (usually some ten verses)?

[35] Quecke 1970: 97-100; Quecke 1983; Quecke 1995. One should not forget that the word hermeneia can also mean ‘commentaries,’ or rather ‘para­phrases,’ of biblical texts (Urbaniak-Walczak 2004: 652).

[36] Cf. Villecourt 1925: 271 ff.

[37] Quecke 1970: 99.

[38] Crum 1939: 792b; Urbaniak-Walczak 2004: 651.

[39] Quecke 1995.

[40] However, not all the verses are taken from the psalms: there were some exceptions. Quecke gives an example from Dan 3:86a, and another case that is non-biblical.

[41] Cf. Quecke 1995: 113ff. — Although the natural way to solve this abbrevia­tion is ‘alphabeta,’ the question is probably less simple than it seems (Quecke 1970: 101).

[42] Just as there are acrostic psalms (for example, Ps. 118). In Bohairic, hymns based on the thirty-one letters of the Coptic alphabet (or thirty-two when one includes the ‘sti‘ which stands for number six) are rarer (Quecke 1970: 101 and n. 15).

[43] Kuhn and Tait 1996.

[44] Kuhn and Tait 1996.

[45] Brashear and Satzinger 1990.

[46] Krause 2003.

[47] Cf. Henner 2000: 121 and n. 108.

[48] Brakmann 2004: 142-46.

[49] Cf. Brakmann 2004: 142.

[50] Cf. McCoull 2004: 94 and 102.

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