500-Year-Old Illuminated Prayer Roll Reveals Insights Into The 'Cult of The Cross'

Researchers have rediscovered a beautiful Christian prayer roll that dates back five centuries. This gives the public a rare glimpse of this medieval religious document.
The prayer roll is an example of an illuminated text in reference to its rich decorations. It dates back to the last years of Catholic doctrine in England just before the Reformation changed church life in Europe.

Gail Turner, an art historian, is the author of a new research paper that describes the rare find. "Known only from its brief appearance in the 1960s/70s on the market, the roll has never been closely examined or published in its entirety," she says.

(Gail Turner/Journal of the British Archaeological Association)

Above: The Bromholm Prayer Register depicts Christ.

The prayer roll has been rediscovered in recent decades, but it quickly disappeared into private collections. It is still a mystery how the 500-year-old item made it to the present. These items, which are physically rolled out to be read, are susceptible to wear and damage, especially over a long time span.

Researchers don't know of many prayer rolls like this one. The newly analyzed roll shows signs of abrasion. Turner says that the document was likely unfurled and often kissed by worshippers. This is a devotional act to "experience Christ's Passion more directly" Turner writes.

The prayer roll dates back to 1505-1535 and is associated with Bromholm Priory, an abbey established in the early 12th centuries.

The ruin of Bromholm Priory. (Bill Tyne/Flickr/CC-BY-SA 2.0

"Only a handful of ruins of this priory are left today, but Bromholm used to be a well-known medieval site for pilgrimage," Turner explained. Bromholm once held a fragment of the True Cross, upon which Jesus Christ was crucified.

History has long since lost the sacred fragment, which is contained in Bromholm’s crucifix, known as The Rood of Bromholm.

The newly rediscovered prayer roll depicts Christ on Rood. It is believed to have been created in Bromholm. There are also detailed religious illustrations that add to our historical appreciation for the 'cultof the Cross', the cultural artifacts, and rituals of this section of Christian religion.

The Bromholm Prayer roll. (Gail Turner/Journal of the British Archaeological Association).

Turner writes that the roll "reflects a time when laity [lay people] believed in visible and invisible enemies and when incantations could be adapted to suit lay needs."

"Towards the end 15th century and beginning of 16th century, there was a large undergrowth of semi-Christian charms that heavily drew heavily upon ecclesiastical formulations."

A prayer roll was created to aid devout worshippers. It gave well-to-do churchgoers a copy of prayers and iconography that could be easily rolled out so they could read and appreciate them when the mood strikes.

These prayer rolls were much easier to make than bound books. However, they didn't have covers like books so are less likely to be damaged by the ravages history.

This prayer roll, which is incredibly preserved, is almost a miracle of its own, especially considering its historical proximity to the True Cross.

Turner writes, "The survival of such an impressive roll for more than 500 years is therefore remarkable."

This document is described in the Journal of the British Archaeological Association.