It’s only 11 lines, but the Hail Mary, or Ave Maria, took almost a millennium to develop into the form we know today.
Full of Grace,
The Lord is with thee.
Blessed art thou among women,
and blessed is the fruit
of thy womb, Jesus.
Mother of God,
pray for us sinners now,
and at the hour of death.
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 has 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.
Originally published August 11, 2015, on English Historical Fiction Authors.
“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