Nocturns (Nocturni or Nocturna), a very old term applied to night Offices. Tertullian speaks of nocturnal gatherings (Ad. Uxor., II, iv); St. Cyprian, of the nocturnal hours, “nulla sint horls nocturnes precum damna, nulla orationum pigra et ignava dispendia” (De orat., Neix). In the life of Melania the Younger is found the expression “nocturnae horae’, “nocturna tempora” (Anal. Bolland., VIII, 1889, pp. 49 sq.). In these passages the term signifies night prayer in general, and seems synonymous with the word vigiliae. It is not accurate, then, to assume that the present division of Matins into three Nocturns represents three distinct Offices recited during the night in the early ages of the Church. Durandus of Mende (Rationale, III, n.17) and others who follow him assert that the early Christians rose thrice in the night to pray; hence the present division into three Nocturns (cf. Beleth, Rupert, and other authors cited in the bibliography). Some early Christian writers speak of three vigils in the night, as Methodius or St. Jerome (Methodius, “Symposion”, V, ii, in P.G., XVIII, 100); but the first was evening prayer, or prayer at nightfall, corresponding practically to our Vespers or Complines; the second, midnight prayer, specifically called Vigil; the third, a prayer at dawn, corresponding to the Office of Lauds. As a matter of fact the Office of the Vigils, and consequently of the Nocturns, was a single Office, recited without interruption at midnight. All the old texts alluding to this Office (see Matins; Vigil) testify to this. Moreover, it does not seem practical to assume that anyone, considering the length of the Office in those days, could have risen to pray at three different times during the night, besides joining in the two Offices of eventide and dawn.
If it is not yet possible to assign exactly the date of the origin of the three Nocturns, or to account for the significance of the division, some more or less probable conjectures may be made. In the earliest period there was as yet no question of a division in the Office. The oldest Vigils, in as far as they signify an Office, comprised certain psalms, chanted or sung either as responses or as antiphons, intermingled with prayers recited aloud, or interrupted by a few moments’ meditation and readings from the Old or the New Testament. On certain days the Vigil included the celebration of Mass.
It was during the second period, probably in the fourth century, that to break the monotony of this long night prayer the custom of dividing it into three parts was introduced. Cassian in speaking of the solemn Vigils mentions three divisions of this Office (De coenob. instit., III, viii, in P.L., XLIX, 144). We have here, we think, the origin of the Nocturns; or at least it is the earliest mention of them we possess. In the “Peregrinatio ad loca sancta”, the Office of the Vigils, either for weekdays or for Sundays, is an uninterrupted one, and shows no evidence of any division (cf. Cabrol, “Etude sur La Peregrinatio Sylviae”, Paris, 1895, pp. 37 and 53). A little later St. Benedict speaks with greater detail of this division of the Vigils into two Nocturns for ordinary days, and three for Sundays and feast-days with six psalms and lessons for the first two Nocturns, three canticles and lessons for the third: this is exactly the structure of the
Nocturns in the Benedictine Office today, and practically in the Roman Office (Regula, ix, x, xi). The very expression “Nocturn”, to signify the night Office, is used by him twice (xv, xvi). He also uses the term Nocturna laws in speaking of the Office of the Vigils. The proof which E. Warren tries to draw from the “Antiphonary of Bangor” to show that in the Celtic Church, according to a custom older than the Benedictino-Roman practice, there were three separate Nocturns or Vigils, is based on a confusion of the three Offices, “Initium noctis”, “Nocturna”, and “Matutina”, which are not the three Nocturns, but the Office of Eventide, of the Vigil, and of Lauds (cf. The Tablet, December 16, 1893, p. 972; and Baumer-Biron, infra, I, 263, 264).