Skip to main contentAccessibility feedback


Christian Use of the Alphabet

Click to enlarge

Alphabet, CHRISTIAN USE OF the. —The Hebrew, Greek, and Latin alphabets have been variously made use of in Christian liturgy. During Holy Week the Hebrew alphabet is sung, each of its letters preceding one of the verses of the Lamentations of Jeremias at Matins; having here, however, merely a numerical value, they might be replaced by Number One, Number Two, etc. The musical setting is now usually the same in all churches, the most ancient known at present being that of the Romano-Gregorian Liturgy. Codex VII, as 3, of the municipal library of Naples (twelfth century) has a melody which varies with the letters; those for verses xvii, xix, and xxi having a simple form, those for xvi and xx a more elaborate one; and, lastly, those for verses xviii and xxii, a form which is little more than a lengthening out of the preceding. The simple form reappears most frequently in the MSS., particularly in the “Breviarium secundum consuetudinem curice romance”, of the thirteenth century. It was probably about this time that the simple form was preferred to the variety which had hitherto existed.

ALPHABET OF THE LITTERAE FORMATAE.—The litteroe formatoe, or letters commendatory, took their name from the seals that were attached to them; indeed, Sirmond quotes a Vatican MS. where the word sigillatoe occurs instead of formatoe. In these letters, the Greek alphabet is used in place of numerical signs. In order to prevent fraud or imposture, it was said that the Fathers of the Council of Niccea had formulated a decree to the effect that the litteroe must contain such a series of letters as, on addition of their numerical values, would determine the origin of the document. The initials given were those of the Three Divine Persons, H. T. A; of the Pope; of the writer and recipient of the letter; of the city where it was written; lastly, the letter of the cycle, and the word AMHN. Unfortunately, the writers. were ill-instructed; a littera formata of the Church of Metz contains an error of addition, nor is this a solitary instance. The early medieval collections of Formuloe show that mistakes were frequent, so that in a short time the means of control became to all intents and purposes illusory.

THE ALPHABET IN THE DEDICATION OF A CHURCH.—Both Greeks and Latins made use of letters as numerical signs, but on wholly different principles. Alphabets, among the Latins, were of two kinds: the systematic, which have arbitrary values; and the signs used by land-surveyors (agrimensores), which have fixed values. The land-surveyors formed a corporation which was entrusted by public and private authority with the measuring of properties. The tax was levied in accordance with the owner’s declaration, but the State came, in time, to recognize the loss to which it was exposed through false returns, and instituted an official survey and measurement of landed properties, to be carried out by officers appointed for the purpose. Their measurements, however, which were renewed from time to time, inevitably gave rise to claims for revision, which were handed in to the equalizers, who forwarded them to the surveyors who acted as arbitrators. The Roman Liturgy has preserved a rite which it is interesting to compare with the practice of these surveyors. At the dedication of a church the bishop writes two alphabets on the ground, one Greek and the other Latin, with the point of his pastoral staff, along two lines of ashes laid in the form of a crux decussata (X). The two alphabets start from the east and stretch towards the west. The Leonine Sacramentary makes no mention of a ceremony which is clearly set forth in the Gregorian Sacramentary: “Thereupon the bishop shall begin from the left-hand eastern corner to write with his staff on the pavement the letters A B C, as far as the right-hand western corner; beginning again in like manner from the right-hand eastern corner, he writes A B C as far as the left-hand western corner of the basilica.” At the period mentioned the bishop was at liberty to write either only A B C or the whole alphabet, in Greek and Latin, or twice in Latin. The rite, however, was not in use everywhere; the sacramentary published by Pamelius, the edition of Rocca, and a manuscript consulted by Dom Menard, make no allusion to it. Moreover, it could be altered at pleasure, since certain bishops added the Hebrew alphabet to the two others. Attempts have been made to find the origin of this custom in the rite for taking possession of a heathen temple, a rite which the faithful are said to have adopted and altered; but the texts of Varro and Servius allow of no such explanation. It must rather be sought for in the practice of the land-surveyors, who used measures of fixed length in making their surveys, marking them, when necessary, with letters to which they gave a special value of their own. These they called casts litterarum, and included the whole Greek and the whole Latin alphabet, the X (decussio) being the most important letter of their system. It is evident, therefore, that the liturgical rite has grown up out of a practice borrowed from the land-surveyors, though we cannot say what alterations it may have undergone in passing from that guild to the Church. In course of time, when the rite lost its meaning, a mystical signification was attached to it. After the ninth century the reason for using the two alphabets was no longer understood; an English Pontifical of the tenth century mistakes the X for the signum Christi. In this way an ancient usage grew by degrees into a ceremony supposed to be the expression of a most abstruse symbolism. Nor was it only in this rite for the dedication of a church that the alphabet was cut down to a mere A B C. The same curtailment is to be seen on two vessels used for baptism, both belonging to the ancient African Church. One, which is of terra-cotta, was found at Carthage. Its symbolical decoration (cross, fishes, A B C) has a special reference to the neophytes. The other, a white marble basin, spherical in shape, was discovered not long ago, in the Basilica of Dermech, near Carthage. It has four ears, or handles (oreillons, ante), one of which serves as a spout, while the others bear the letters A B C. Both appear to have been employed liturgically in the fifth or sixth century.

THE GNOSTIC ALPHABET.—Lastly, the alphabet held an important place in the systems of several Gnostic sects, though the use and meaning given it by them remain very difficult to determine. Certain aspects, however, of the matter have begun to grow plainer. It seems certain, for instance, that the sounds of vowels corresponded with those of the gamut. When, therefore, we meet with vowels arranged in a seemingly meaningless order, the explanation is to be found in substituting the sound for the letter. The W papyrus of Leyden has given us a clue to these melodies, which may have been sung at the celebration of Gnostic mysteries and orgies.


Did you like this content? Please help keep us ad-free
Enjoying this content?  Please support our mission!