Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Hail Mary Over the Centuries

By Kim Rendfeld

It’s only 11 lines, but the Hail Mary, or Ave Maria, took almost a millennium to develop into the form we know today.
Hail Mary,
Full of Grace,
The Lord is with thee.
Blessed art thou among women,
and blessed is the fruit
of thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary,
Mother of God,
pray for us sinners now,
and at the hour of death.
(From EWTN)

Hail, Mary by Luc-Olivier Merson,
circa 1885, High Museum of Art
From Christianity’s earliest days, the Virgin Mary was an advocate for the faithful, an intercessor who would plead their case to God. Devotional images of her go back to the second century, and more Christians started to name their daughters Mary toward the end of the fourth century.

A novelist studying early medieval times can easily see her importance. Charlemagne dedicated a newly built basilica at Aachen to her. On a smaller scale, a scribe wrote, “The book was given to God and His Mother by Dido [of Laon]. Anyone who harms it will incur God’s wrath and offend His Mother.”

No surprise, then, that Christians wanted a prayer just for her. When I first wrote The Cross and the Dragon, I assumed the Ave Maria always had its current form. I just needed the Latin translation for my characters.

Imagine my surprise when my editor informed me that Ave Maria was a lot shorter in the eighth century. “Hail, Mary, full of grace,” or words to that effect go back to the sixth century, so I could have my characters praying “Ave Maria, gratia plena.”

But it apparently took a few more centuries for the prayer to get longer. Two Anglo-Saxon manuscripts from around 1030 include “benedicta tu in mulieribus et benedictus fructus ventris tui” (“blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb”). In the 12th century, churchmen accept the greeting to Mary as a form of devotion, as familiar as the Apostle’s Creed and the Lord’s Prayer.

And so the salutation persisted, accompanied by a gesture of homage such as genuflecting, kneeling, or bowing the head. Some saints said the Ave Maria 50 to 150 times a day.

Christians had probably always greeted Mary with a request in mind such as healing a loved one’s illness, a safe return from battle, a bountiful harvest, or resisting temptation. The closing words of today’s prayer—“pray for us sinners now and at the hour of death”—originated in the 14th century and had variations throughout languages. It became part of the Roman Breviary in 1568.

What we end up with is a prayer that both venerates the Blessed Mother and asks her to use her special relationship with God on behalf of a faithful follower.


"Hail Mary" by Herbert Thurston, The Catholic Encyclopedia

"The Blessed Virgin Mary" by Anthony Maas, The Catholic Encyclopedia

Daily Life in the World of Charlemagne by Pierre Riché

Einhard’s The Life of Charlemagne translated by Evelyn Scherabon Firchow and Edwin H. Zeydel

Kim Rendfeld has written two novels set in eighth century Francia and is working on a third. The Cross and the Dragon (2012, Fireship Press) is a story of a noblewoman contending with a jilted suitor and the premonition she will lose her husband in battle. The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar (2014, Fireship Press) is a tale of a mother who will go to great lengths to protect her children after she has lost everything else.

To read the first chapters of  Kim's published novels or learn more about her, visit kimrendfeld.com or her blog Outtakes of a Historical Novelist at kimrendfeld.wordpress.com. You can also like her on Facebook at facebook.com/authorkimrendfeld, follow her on Twitter at @kimrendfeld, or contact her at kim [at] kimrendfeld [dot] com.

Kim's book are available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other retailers.


  1. Just to make sure I understand you correctly, the Ave Maria as we know it today first appeared in the Roman Breviary in 1568.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. 1568 is when it became official. A Catholic Encyclopedia article cites a 1493 version. Here is the article, which provides an extensive history: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/07110b.htm

  3. Ops, good to know. I had the full text in a scene taking place AD 930. But now I have to find some other prayer that fits the context. I hope the Lord's Prayer was around at the time.

    1. The Lord's Prayer is taken from Jesus' own words in the Bible at Matthew 6:9,10. So yes, it was around, but I don't know if it was in common use.

    2. Well, 10th century nuns had to sing and pray something during the hours spent in the church every day. Research never ends (it's just that researching AngloSaxon warfare is more fun for me than researching religious stuff - sometimes I wish they had remained pagans ;-) ).

  4. Excellent article. yes, the first part of the Hail Mary is directly from the Gospel of St. Luke and so is as old as Christianity. Another ancient prayer to Our Lady was found in the catacombs, called the Sub Tuum Praesidium: "We fly to they protection, O Holy Mother of God, despise not our petitions in our necessities but deliver us always from all dangers, O ever Glorious and Blessed Virgin."


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.