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The word "Matins" (Latin Matutinum or Matutinae), comes from Matuta, the Latin name for the Greek goddess Leucothae or Leucothea, white goddess, or goddess of the morning (Aurora): Leucothee graius, Matuta vocabere nostris, Ovid, V, 545. Hence Matutine, Matutinus, Matutinum tempus, or simply Matutinum (i.e. tempus); some of the old authors prefer Matutini Matutinorum, or Matutinae. In any case the primitive signification of the word under these different forms was Aurora, sunrise. It was at first applied to the office Lauds, which, as a matter of fact, was said at dawn (see LAUDS), its liturgical synonym being the word Gallicinium (cock-crow), which also designated this office. The night-office retained its name of Vigils, since, as a rule, Vigils and Matins (Lauds) were combined, the latter serving, to a certain extent, as the closing part of Vigils. The name Matins was then extended to the office of Vigils, Matins taking the name of Lauds, a term which, strictly speaking, only designates the last three psalms of that office, i.e. the "Laudate" psalms. At the time when this change of name took place, the custom of saying Vigils at night was observed scarcely anywhere but in monasteries, whilst elsewhere they were said in the morning, so that finally it did not seem a misapplication to give to a night Office a name which, strictly speaking, applied only to the office of day-break. The change, however, was only gradual. St. Benedict (sixth century) in his description of the Divine Office, always refers to Vigils as the Night Office, whilst that of day-break he calls Matins, Lauds being the last three psalms of that office (Regula, cap. XIII-XIV; see LAUDS). The Council of Tours in 567 had already applied the title "Matins" to the Night Office: ad Matutinum sex antiphonae; Laudes Matutinae; Matutini hymni are also found in various ancient authors as synonymous with Lauds. (Hefele-Leclercq, "Hist. des Conciles", V, III, 188, 189.)

Origin (Matins and Vigils)

The word Vigils, at first applied to the Night Office, also comes from a Latin source, both as to the term and its use, namely the Vigiliae or nocturnal watches or guards of the soldiers. The night from six o'clock in the evening to six o'clock in the morning was divided into four watches or vigils of three hours each, the first, the second, the third, and the fourth vigil. From the liturgical point of view and in its origin, the use of the term was very vague and elastic. Generally it designated the nightly meetings, synaxes, of the Christians. Under this form, the watch (Vigil) might be said to date back as early as the beginning of Christianity. It was either on account of the secrecy of their meetings, or because of some mystical idea which made the middle of the night the hour par excellence for prayer, in the words of the psalm: media nocte surgebam ad confitendum tibi, that the Christians chose the night time for their synaxes, and of all other nights, preferably the Sabbath. There is an allusion to it in the Acts of the Apostles (20:7), as also in the letter of Pliny the Younger. The liturgical services of these synaxes was composed of almost the same elements as that of the Jewish Synagogue: readings from the Books of the Law, singing of psalms, divers prayers. What gave them a Christian character was the fact that they were followed by the Eucharistic service, and that to the reading from the Law, the apostles and the Acts of the Apostles was very soon added, as well as the Gospels and sometimes other books which were non-canonical, as, for example, the Epistles of Saint Clement, that of Saint Barnabas, the Apocalypse of Saint Peter, etc.

The more solemn watches, which were held on the anniversaries of martyrs or on certain feasts, were also known by this title, especially during the third and fourth centuries. The Vigil in this case was also called pannychis, because the greater part of the night was devoted to it. Commenced in the evening, they only terminated the following morning, and comprised, in addition to the Eucharistic Supper, homilies, chants, and divers offices. These last Vigils it was that gave rise to certain abuses, and they were finally abolished in the Church (see VIGILS). Notwithstanding this, however, the Vigils, in their strictest sense of Divine Office of the Night, were maintained and developed. Among writers from the fourth to the sixth century we find several descriptions of them. The "De Virginitate", a fourth-century treatise, gives them as immediately following Lauds. The author, however, does not determine the number of psalms which had to be recited. Methodius in his "Banquet of Virgins" (Symposion sive Convivium decem Virginum) subdivided the Night Office or pannychis into watches, but it is difficult to determine what he meant by these nocturnes. St. Basil also gives a very vague description of the Night Office or Vigils, but in terms which permit us to conclude that the psalms were sung, sometimes by two choirs, and sometimes as responses. Cassian gives us a more detailed account of the Night Office of the fifth century monks. The number of psalms, which at first varied, was subsequently fixed at twelve, with the addition of a lesson from the Old and another from the New Testament. St. Jerome defended the Vigils against the attacks of Vigilantius, but it is principally concerning the watches at the Tombs of the Martyrs that he speaks in his treatise, "Contra Vigilantium". Of all the descriptions the most complete is that in the "Peregrinatio Ætheriae", the author of which assisted at Matins in the Churches of Jerusalem, where great solemnity was displayed. (For all these texts, see Bäumer-Biron, loc. cit., p. 79, 122, 139, 186, 208, 246, etc.) Other allusions are to be found in Caesaurius of Arles, Nicetiuis or Nicetae of Treves, and Gregory of Tours (see Baumer-Biron, loc. cit., I, 216, 227, 232).

The elements of Matins from the fourth to the sixth century

In all the authors we have quoted, the form of Night Prayers would appear to have varied a great deal. Nevertheless in these descriptions, and in spite of certain differences, we find the same elements repeated: the psalms generally chanted in the form of responses, that is to say by one or more cantors, the choir repeating one verse, which served as a response, alternately with the verses of psalms which were sung by the cantors; readings taken from the Old and the New Testament, and later on, from the works of the Fathers and doctors; litanies or supplications; prayer for the divers members of the Church, clergy, faithful, neophytes, and catechumens; for emperors; travellers; the sick; and generally for all the necessities of the Church, and even prayer for Jews and for heretics. [Baumer, Litanie u. Missal, in "Studien des Benediktinerordens", II (Raigern, 1886), 287, 289.] It is quite easy to find these essential elements in our modern Matins.

Matins in the Roman and other liturgies

In the modern Roman Liturgy, Matins, on account of its length, the position it occupies, and the matter of which it is composed, may be considered as the most important office of the day, and for the variety and richness of its elements the most remarkable. It commences more solemnly than the other offices, with a psalm (Ps. xciv) called the Invitatory, which is chanted or recited in the form of a response, in accordance with the most ancient custom. The hymns, which have been but tardily admitted into the Roman Liturgy, as well as the hymns of the other hours, form part of a very ancient collection which, so far at least as some of them are concerned, may be said to pertain to the seventh or even to the sixth century. As a rule they suggest the symbolic signification of this Hour (see No. V), the prayer of the middle of the night. This principal form of the Office should be distinguished from the Office of Sunday, of Feasts, and the ferial or week day Office. The Sunday Office is made up of the invitatory, hymn, three nocturns, the first of which comprises twelve psalms, and the second and third three psalms each; nine lessons, three to each nocturn, each lesson except the ninth being followed by a response; and finally, the canticle Te Deum, which is recited or sung after the ninth lesson instead of a response. The Office of Feasts is similar to that of Sunday, except that there are only three psalms to the first nocturn instead of twelve. The week-day or ferial office and that of simple feasts are composed of one nocturn only, with twelve psalms and three lessons. The Office of the Dead and that of the three last days of Holy Week are simpler, the absolutions, benedictions, and invitatory being omitted, at least for the three last days of Holy Week, since the invitatory is said in the Offices of the Dead.

The principal characteristics of this office which distinguish it from all the other offices are as follows:

The Ambrosian Liturgy, better perhaps than any other, has preserved traces of the great Vigils or pannychides, with their complex and varied display of processions, psalmodies, etc. (cf. Dom Cagin; "Paleographie Musicale", vol. VI, p. 8, sq.; Paul Lejay; Ambrosien (rit.) in "Dictionnaire d'Archeol. Chret. et de Liturgie", vol. I, p. 1423 sq.). The same Liturgy has also preserved Vigils of long psalmody. This Nocturnal Office adapted itself at a later period to a more modern form, approaching more and more closely to the Roman Liturgy. Here too are found the three Nocturns, with Antiphon, Psalms, Lessons, and Responses, the ordinary elements of the Roman Matins, and with a few special features quite Ambrosian. In the Benedictine Office, Matins, like the text of the Office, follows the Roman Liturgy quite closely. The number of psalms, viz. twelve, is always the same, there being three or two Nocturns according to the degree of solemnity of the particular Office celebrated. Ordinarily there are four Lessons, followed by their responses, to each Nocturn. The two most characteristic features of the Benedictine Matins are: the Canticles of the third Nocturn, which are not found in the Roman Liturgy, and the Gospel, which is sung solemnly at the end, the latter trait, as already pointed out, being very ancient. In the Mozarabic Liturgy, on the contrary, Matins are made up of a system of Antiphons, Collects, and Versicles which make them quite a departure from the Roman system.

Signification and symbolism

From the foregoing it is clear that Matins remains the principal Office of the Church, and the one which, in its origin, dates back the farthest, as far as the Apostolic ages, as far even as the very inception of the Church. It is doubtless, after having passed through a great many transformations, the ancient Night Office, the Office of the Vigil. In a certain sense it is, perhaps, the Office which was primitively the preparation for the Mass, that is to say, the Mass of the Catechumens, which presents at any rate the same construction as that Office:--the reading from the Old Testament, then the epistles and the Acts, and finally the Gospel--the whole being intermingled with psalmody, and terminated by the Homily (cf. Cabrol: "Les Origines Liturgiques", Paris, 1906, 334 seq.). If for a time this Office appeared to be secondary to that of Lauds or Morning Office, it is because the latter, originally but a part of Matins, drew to itself the solemnity, probably on account of the hour at which it was celebrated, permitting all the faithful to be present. According to another theory suggested by the testimony of Lactantius, St. Jerome, and St. Isidore, the Christians, being ignorant of the date of Christ's coming, thought He would return during the middle of the night, and most probably the night of Holy Saturday or Easter Sunday, at or about the hour when He arose from the sepulchre. Hence the importance of the Easter Vigil, which would thus have become the model or prototype of the other Saturday Vigils, and incidentally of all the nightly Vigils. The idea of the Second Advent would have given rise to the Easter Vigil, and the latter to the office of the Saturday Vigil (Batiffol, "Hist. du Bréviaire", 3). The institution of the Saturday Vigil would consequently be as ancient as that of Sunday.


BONA, De Divina Psalmodia in Opera Omnia (Antwerp, 1677), 693 sq.; GRANCOLAS, Commentarius historicus in Rom. Breviar., 100; PROBST, Brevier und Breviergebet (Tübingen, 1854), 143 sq.; BAUMER, Histoire du Breviaire, tr. BIRON, I (Paris, 1905), 60 sq.; DUCHESNE, Christian Worship (1904), 448, 449; BATIFFOL, Histoire du Breviaire, 3 sq.; THALHOFER, Handbuch der Katholischen Liturgik, II, 434, 450; GASTOUE, Les Vigiles Nocturnes (Paris, 1908) (Collection Bloud); see HOURS (CANONICAL); LAUDS; VIGILS; BREVIARY.

About this page

APA citation. Cabrol, F. (1911). Matins. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Cabrol, Fernand. "Matins." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 10. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Thomas M. Barrett. Dedicated to Rev. Emmet Harrington.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. October 1, 1911. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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