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500-year-old prayer roll sheds new light on Christian devotion in medieval England

A prayer roll from around the time of King Henry VIII has provided researchers with new details about religious rituals in England and a fabled monastery that now stands in ruins.

(CN) — The Bromholm Prayer Roll has sat in a private collection for decades, one of only a few dozen such prayer rolls known to remain intact. The artifact is now providing researchers with fresh insights into Catholic beliefs in pre-Reformation England, and points to another lost relic thought to contain a piece the cross to which Jesus was nailed.

The prayer roll had never before been studied by experts, and was thought to be decades older when it last appeared at auction during the 1960s and 1970s. Its text and imagery reveal a close connection to Bromholm Priory, a long-abandoned pilgrimage site in northeast Norfolk of which only a few ruins remain. The priory was mentioned in William Langland’s “Vision of Piers Plowman” and Geoffrey Chaucer’s “Reeve’s Tale.”

Gail Turner, an art historian who has worked at Tate Britain, the Arts Council and as a consultant for Christie’s, researched the 500-year-old prayer roll for a new study published Tuesday in the Journal of British Archaeological Association.

“In particular, the study demonstrates Christian devotion in medieval England,” Turner said in a statement accompanying the study. “It gives insight into the devotional rituals connected to a large crucifix (‘Rood’) at Bromholm Priory, in Norfolk, and uncovers a direct link between this 16th century artifact and a famous religious relic once associated among Christians with miracles.”

That famous relic, the “Rood of Bromholm” as it has been dubbed by art historians, is thought to have contained a fragment of the “true cross” to which Jesus was nailed, making it extraordinarily important to Christian worshippers of the time and helping to transform Bromholm Priory into a popular pilgrimage site.

Consisting of two pieces of vellum sewn together and measuring approximately 54 inches long by 5 inches wide, the Bromholm Prayer Roll contains several depictions of the rood in black with gold outlines, with a direct reference to “the crosse of the bromholme.” Turner suggests a wealthy pilgrim was likely the roll’s original owner and used it for personal devotion and meditation practices.

“For their owners, prayer rolls…were prized as very personal inspirations to prayer, although during the Reformation and after they were commonly undervalued and dismissed,” Turner explained. “The survival of such a magnificent roll for over 500 years is therefore remarkable.”

A reference contained in the roll to a suffragan bishop of Norfolk and staunch supporter of the Roman Catholic Church, John Underwood, also known as “John of Chalcedon,” allowed Turner to determine that the roll was likely created sometime during Underwood’s tenure between 1505 and 1535. Earlier estimates provided when the piece appeared at auction in the 1960s and 1970s had dated it to the late 16th century.

Medieval prayer rolls are exceptionally fragile compared to books because they lack covers, yet are still meant to be handled regularly so few of them remain in good condition. Turner said worshippers of the time were keen on touching and kissing images of Jesus on the cross “to experience Christ’s passion more directly or powerfully.” Indeed, abrasion marks are visible on this and other similar prayer rolls, evidencing their use in day-to-day religious practices.

“The roll reflects a time when the laity (non-clergy) had a real belief in both visible and invisible enemies,” Turner said.

A further connection to Underwood can be seen in the roll’s numerous depictions of the five wounds Christ was believed to have sustained on the cross, which also appear on Underwood’s tomb in Norwich but few other places in the region. These five wounds featured prominently in Bromholm Priory’s devotional feasts, where pilgrims came to pay their respects to the rood, according to Turner.

“Its scale, illuminations and texts suggest that the original owner was both prosperous and familiar with Bromholm and its particular feasts, and indicate that the owner may have used the roll as a special aid to meditation whereby handling it he could feel in close physical proximity to Christ’s Passion,” Turner concluded. “One can speculate that he may have been a patron of the priory, perhaps a member of the local Paston family, a local regular devotee of Bromholm or possibly even a friend of John Underwood.”

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