This Medieval Prayer Wheel Is More Than 1,000 Years Old And No One Knows How To Use It

05/03/2015 07:58 am ET | Updated May 04, 2015
Photo courtesy of Les Enluminures Ltd.

NEW YORK (RNS) The directions, if a little stilted, look familiar: “The Order Of The Diagram Written Here Teaches The Return Home.”

Think Parcheesi or Sorry.

But then think again. The board is not cardboard or plastic; it’s 1,035-year-old vellum. And there are no dice — just prayers.

Care to play?

In April, Manhattan’s Les Enluminures Gallery, a dealer in medieval manuscripts, put a book on sale with a first page so rare that only five of its kind are known to exist. In fact, the book itself is rare, with a massive ancient carved-oak cover and sturdy clasps of worked copper. Dating back to the year 980, it contains just the Gospels, the four accounts of Jesus’ life.

The volume’s commissioning was unusual. It appears to have been ordered up by a woman for women: An abbess in Liesborn, Germany, named Berthildis, had it made for the highborn ladies who had traded the medieval court for her convent.

But its true mystery dates more than a century later, when someone opened the Gospels, which would have been used primarily for display and oath-taking, to its blank first page, set a compass needle in the center and began drawing concentric circles.

Call it the Liesborn Prayer Wheel.

The wheel’s outermost circle consists of the instructions we’ve read, but in medieval Latin. The next is labeled “Seven Petitions” and contains seven quotations from the Lord’s Prayer (“Daily Bread,” “Will Be Done,” “Kingdom Come.”) In the third circle, seven “Gifts Of The Holy Spirit” (“Wisdom, Understanding, Counsel … ”) run clockwise in red, interspersed with seven events in Christ’s life (Incarnation, Baptism, Passion Day of Judgment) in black. The fourth segment contains seven groups blessed in Jesus’ Beatitudes (“Meek, Poor in Spirit, Mourn”) and — opposite each — their rewards (“Inherit the Earth,” “Kingdom of Heaven,” “Be Comforted”). Finally, at the center, surrounding the pinhole of the compass, is the word “DEUS,” or God.

If much of life in the High Middle Ages seems foreign to us, the detailed workings of the wheel — along with four others like it that have survived to the present — are a real riddle.

Schematic prayer guides were more common in later centuries, said Lauren Mancia, a medievalist at Brooklyn College who has examined the Liesborn Wheel.

“Monks and nuns in the Central Middle Ages often get a bad rap for unsystematic thinking — doing all this prayer by rote, mumbling and not caring about the sense,” said Mancia. “This diagram suggests that they’re not just mumbling, they’re using a mnemonic device to remember and internalize, or even to make an inner journey.”

However, the path of that journey is not obvious.

Clearly the nun was supposed to find her way from the Lord’s Prayer to God; but how? Did she read her way around one wheel and move in to the next? Or did she drill downward along each of the wheel’s “spokes,” and then start again on the next spoke? Or were the seven events in Christ’s life the key to the diagram, connecting its prayers to the Gospels that make up the rest of the book?

Was it more of an instruction, or a meditative aid? Was it a one-shot exercise or meant to be repeated again and again? And what to make of the black and red stipples that show up seemingly randomly on the diagram, making it look a bit like the Marauder’s Map in the Harry Potter books?

Perhaps some directions got lost. The Gospels is missing its flyleaf, the protective page before the first page. Maybe the full instructions for prayer were inked there. Or maybe they were intentionally omitted. Medieval labyrinths included dead ends to make the experience less boring and more memorable, and to stimulate further creative entry into the meditation.

That would mean the nuns reading that book would be almost as clueless and curious as we are.

Les Enluminures’ asking price on the Gospels is a hefty $6.5 million, but speculation on how to use the prayer wheel is free.

How do you think the prayer wheel is meant to be used?

Biblical Archaeology
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