I. It is much to be regretted that the history of the Roman Breviary is so little known, even to those upon whom the Church has laid the obligation of its daily recital throughout the year. Were priests and religious better instructed in the origin, development, and purpose of the book with which in one sense they are so familiar, we are confident they would fulfil their obligation with greater fervour and respect, and by this means the reign of God would be more perfectly realized both in the hearts of those who are priests and in the souls of the faithful entrusted to their care. It is for the benefit of priests occupied in the work of the ministry, who may have neither the time nor opportunity to consult the works recently published on the Breviary, that we have undertaken to give in the following pages an abstract of the monumental work of Dom Bäumer on the history of the Roman Breviary, while making use at the same time of the less voluminous work of Mgr. Batiffol.1
II. To write the history of the Roman Breviary is, in other words, to describe its formation, the developments through which it has gone, and the transformation to which it has been successively subjected. The book of public prayer was not a work which could be perfected at once; it was a work which slowly took shape under the united influence of people and clergy, each century contributing something to its construction. The divine authority of the Pontiffs intervened only at a later stage, and then rather to control the process of development than arrest it. The institution of the Congregation of Rites by Sixtus V., the modifications introduced by Leo XIII. at the close of the nineteenth century, and the creation of a liturgical commission by the same Pontiff, all show us that if the official prayer-book remains unchanged as a whole, it can yet in our own days be brought to a still higher degree of perfection in matters of detail.
Three chief periods can be distinguished in the history of the Breviary: the Patristic Period, the Middle Ages, and the Modern Period. 1. The Patristic Period may be called the period of formation, presenting as in germ the different canonical hours and their constituent elements; it extends from the earliest years of the church’s existence to the reign of St. Gregory the Great (i.e. from the end of the first century to the end of the sixth). 2. The Middle Ages open with St. Gregory the Great; the Roman office has taken shape, but is subsequently modified under the influence of the Carolingians. St. Gregory VII. protected the divine office against the excesses of secular influences until the time when the office of the Roman curia, having spread throughout the whole Latin church, was the subject of attempts at reformation which remained without result until the Council of Trent (i.e. from the end of the sixth century to the middle of the sixteenth). 3. The Modern Period starts with the Council of Trent, and its chief feature is the Breviary of St. Pius V., Breviarium Pianum, imposed upon the whole church, corrected when necessary by Clement VIII. and Urban VIII., superseded for a time in France by breviaries drawn up under Gallican and Jansenist influence, admitted to be defective in certain particulars by Benedict XIV. who had the intention of undertaking its correction, adopted by all the dioceses of France, and always open to improvements under the control of the sovereign pontiffs and the congregations or commissions established for the unification of the book of liturgical prayer (i.e. from the end of the sixteenth century to our own time). These three periods will form the three parts of our brief history.
1 Geschichte des Breviers, by Dom Suitbert Bäumer, 1895,
Freiburg, Herder. Frenh translation by Dom Biron, 1905,
Paris, Letouzey et Ané. Histoire du Breviaire romain, by Mgr.
Batiffol, 1893, Paris. English translation by A. M. Y. Baylay,
1898, London, Longmans & Co. In the following pages
references are given to the French translation of Dom Baumer
and to the English translation of Mgr. Batiffol.