The Stowe Missal Litany

One of the unusual features of the Stowe Missal, at least compared to modern liturgies, is that the Eucharist celebration begins with a penitential litany, and this is one of the areas that Moel Caich, the only named owner of the missal, expanded. The original litany begins like this:

“We have sinned, O Lord we have sinned.

Spare us from our sins. Save us!

You guided Noah over the waves of the flood. Hear us.

You called back Jonah from the abyss with a word: deliver us.

You stretched out your hand to Peter as he sank: help us O Christ.

O Son of God you showed the wonderful works of the Lord to our ancestors, be merciful to us in our times: put forth your hand from on high and deliver us.

Christ hear us! [Christ graciously hear us].” (O’Loughlin, p. 137)

The litany then continues by calling on the intercession of a collection of typical New Testament figures: Mary, the apostles and Paul. For Moel Caich, this was not nearly enough. He adds over 30 universal and local saints, mostly local. Moel Caich added some saints that are universal like Stephan the protomartyr, Jerome, Augustine, Gregory (the great), and Martin (of Tours).  By far most of the additions though are local saints including multiples with the same name, so there are two Brendans, two Columbas, two Finans, etc. In those days, everyone walked in the footsteps of the saints because local saints were celebrated in nearly every locality. A medieval priests calendar was peppered with local celebrations in between the major feasts. These local feast days were important to each local community who celebrated services and fairs on the feast day. A feast day is supposed to be a joyous celebration; fairs and feasts could go on for days that make today’s parish picnics a bare pale shadow of the old parish feast celebrations. A local patron saint was more than an excuse for feasting and fairs though. They were the local people’s own prayer warrior in heaven. One of their own whom they could beseech to intercede for them with the Lord to heal their hurts and celebrate their victories.

“A litany is a declaration that the group gathered imagines itself not just made up by those in the building, but of a communion of saints. … Present on a Sunday morning, the groups identity is not primarily that of being the Christians on one part of the monastery lands at Tallaght who have to assemble as they need the services of a priest and ‘the church’; their identity is rather that of a small group within the whole communion which Christ had established….at the local level, they wanted those saints who were part of the monastic communities of Ireland, and therefore should have a special interest in them as close relatives.  Equally these were the actual intercessors whom they knew in their everyday lives were seeking to follow and be in communion with; these were the stories from just ‘down the road’, and it would be in their company that they would rise again ‘in the resurrection at the last day’ (Jn 11:24). …For our practical purposes how many were gathered for the Eucharist at Tallaght in the early ninth century is a matter of detective work in lieu of counting heads; but from a theological perspective of participants, it was a far more complex matter.” (O’Loughlin, p. 140-141).

The original text of the Stowe Missal is about a generation before the Martyrology of Tallaght. Moel Caich, who expanded the litany lived at some later date, so we ulitmately do not know whether the litany as it exists now is before or after the martyrology. A medieval martyrology is a essentially a church calendar because by the ninth century those listed were no longer all martyrs. These calendars are called martyrologies by convention that dates back to the 5th-6th century when the transition was made to add non-martyrs to the calendar. Once Christianity had become legal under Constantine, early Christians had the conundrum of wanting to honor some of the holy people among them who, from their perspective, unfortunately did not die as martyrs as had earlier holy men and women. The sixth century is the tipping point when holy men and women like Benedict of Nursia and his sister Scholastica, Gregory the Great, Germanus of Auxerre, Martin of Tours,  Genevieve, Patrick and Bridget die peaceful deaths. For some like Germanus of Auxerre, their sainthood was secured immediately upon their death by declaration of the crowd. Apostles like Patrick (Apostle of Ireland) who did not die as martyrs added more tension and were declared immediately upon their death. The sainthood of Bridget was destined without doubt but much more complex. Others were added retrospectively once non-martyrs began to be honored more widely.

The Martyrology of Tallaght is perhaps the most detailed martyrology that I have seen. I did look at it a few years ago when I was working on the Calendar of Willibrord, a project yet unfinished. It is not unusual for the Martyrology of Tallaght to have 20 or more names per date. The compilers of the Martyrology of Tallaght did not want to leave anyone out so they took all the names from all of the calendars they came across, whether they knew anything about them or not. This style of martyrology did not continue for obvious practical reasons. Yet, like the Stowe litany it reflects the theology of Tallaght that everyone who deserved to be honored anywhere should be honored there as well. It reflects a theology of gracious radical inclusion.


Thomas O’Loughlin. (2000) Celtic Theology: Humanity, World, and God in Early Irish Writings. Continuum.