Skip to content
Catholic Online Logo

A derivative of the Latin hymnus , which comes from the Greek hymnos , derived from hydein , to sing. In ancient pagan literature hymnos designates a prize song to the gods or heroes Set to the accompaniment of the cythara ( hymnoi men es tous theous poiountai, epainoi d'es anthropous , Arrian., IV, xi), at first written in the epic measure like the oldest hymn to the Delphic Apollo, later in distichs or in the refined lyric measures of Alcæus, Anacreon, and Pindar. In Christian literature the noun hymnos occurs in only two passages in the New Testament , namely Eph., v, 19, and Col., iii, 16, and then together with the synonyms psalmos and ode pneumatike . With these can be compared the verb hymnein in Matthew 26:30 ; Mark 14:26 ; Acts 16:25 ; and Hebrews 2:12 . Notwithstanding the many attempts at definitions made by exegetes it is difficult to decide to what degree, if at all, a distinction among three kinds of Divine praises is made by the three different terms, psalms, hymns, and spiritual canticles. Psalm is applied only to those songs composed by David, but, if the spiritual contents of these songs be considered, they may justly be called spiritual canticles, while their adaptability to singing makes them hymns. Thus, in the language of the Vulgate, the Psalms of David are termed hymni ; "hymnos David canentes" ( 2 Chronicles 7:6 ); and that hymnos sung by Christ the Lord and His disciples at the Last Supper, as they are described by the Evangelist Matthew (xxvi, 30) as hymnountes , or hymnesantes was the great Hallel prescribed by Jewish custom for the paschal feast. From this it is to be inferred that hymnos was originally used in the general acceptation of "song of praise to God ". At the same time it can be supposed that the expression psalmos was more current among the Jewish Christians, while the Gentile Christians used more commonly the expression hymnos or ode , the latter requiring the complementary pneumatike to distinguish it from profane odes.

The Latin word hymnus is unknown in the pre-Christian literature. For it the word carmen is used by the classic authors, so that hymnus is specifically a Christian derivative from the Greek, like so many other expressions of the liturgy. In the ancient Christian writers hymnus is generally paraphrased as "laus Dei cum cantu" (Rufinus, "in Ps. lxxii") or as "hymnus specialiter Deo dictus" (Ambrose, "De Off.", I, xlv). The most celebrated definition is that of Saint Augustine. Commenting on Psalm 148 he says: "Know ye what a hymn is? It is a song with praise of God [ cantus est cum laude Dei ]. If thou praisest God and singest not, thou utterest no hymn, if thou singest and praisest not God but another thing, thou utterest no hymn. A hymn then containeth these three things, song [ cantus ] and praise [ cum laude ] and that praise of God [ Dei ]." The expression "praise of God " must not however be taken so literally as to exclude the praise of his saints. Saint Augustine himself says in the explanation of the same psalm, verse 14: "hymnus omnibus sanctis eius"; "What then meaneth this 'A hymn to all His saints '? Let His saints be offered a hymn." God is really praised in His saints and in all His works, and therefore a "praise of the saints " is also a "praise of God ".

But Saint Augustine's definition, if it should comprise all and all that alone which has been considered in the course of time as hymnus , requires a limitation and an extension. A limitation: a song in praise of God can also be composed in prose, in. unmetrical language, as for instance the "Gloria in excelsis" and the "Te Deum". These are still called "Hymnus angelicus" or "Hymnus Ambrosianus", evidently because of their elevated lyrical movement. But we have long understood by hymnus a song whose sequence of words is ruled by metre or rhythm, with or without rhyme, or, at least, by a symmetrical arrangement of the stanzas. To the earliest Christian authors and their pagan contemporaries it is most probable that such a limitation of the acceptation was unknown, hymnus on the contrary being entirely a general term which included the psalms, the Biblical cantica, the doxologies, and all the other songs of praise to God in prose or in rhythmical language. It is therefore labour lost to seek for the origins of hymnal poetry in Pliny the Younger (Epp., X, xcvii), Tertullian (Apol., ch. ii), Eusebius (Hist. eccl., III), Sozomen (IV, iii), Socrates (V, xxii), and others. On the other hand the expression cantus in Saint Augustine's definition must be extended. Although the hymn was originally intended for singing and only for singing, the development of the form soon led to hymns being recited aloud or used as silent prayers. Very early indeed religious poems arose which were conceived and written only for private devotion without ever having been sung, although they were genuine lyrical and emotional productions and are counted under the head of hymnody. Consequently, the term cantus is not to be limited to songs which are really sung and set to melodies, but can be applied as well to every religious lyrical poem which can be sung and set to music. With this interpretation Saint Augustine's definition is wholly acceptable, and we may reduce it to a shorter formula, if we say: Hymn in the broader meaning of the word is a "spiritual song" or a "lyrical religious poem", consequently, hymnody is "religious lyric" in distinction from epic and didactic poetry and in contradistinction to profane lyric poetry. Hymn in the closer interpretation of the word, as it will be shortly shown, is a hymn of the Breviary.


The religious song or hymn in the broader sense comprises a great number of different poems, the classification of which is not mentioned by Saint Augustine and which is in reality first completely introduced in the "Analecta hymnica medii ævi" edited by Blume and Dreves. This classification does not apply to the hymnody of the Orient (Syrian, Armenian, and Greek), but to the much more important Western or Latin hymnody. First, there are two great groups according to the purpose for which the hymn is intended. Either it is intended for public, common, and official worship (the liturgy ), or only for private devotion (although hymns of the latter group may be also used during the liturgical service). Accordingly, the whole Latin hymnody is either liturgical or non- liturgical. Liturgical hymnody is again divided into two groups. Either the hymn belongs to the sacrificial liturgy of the Mass, and as such has its place in the official books of the Mass-liturgy (the Missal or the Gradual ), or the hymn belongs to the liturgy of canonical prayer and has its place accordingly in the Breviary or the Antiphonary. In like manner the non-liturgical hymnody is of two kinds; either the hymn is intended for song or only for silent private devotion, meditation, and prayer. Both of these groups have again different subdivisions. In accordance with the above, there arise the following systematic tables:

I. LITURGICAL HYMNODY A. Hymnody of the Breviary or the Antiphonary

(1) Hymns in the Closer Sense of the Word ( hymni ). These are the spiritual songs which are inserted in the horae canonicae recited by the priest and are named after the different hours respectively: Hymni "ad Nocturnas" (later "ad Matutinam"), "ad Matutinas Laudes" (later "ad Laudes"), "ad Primam", "ad Tertiam", "ad Sextam", "ad Nonam", "ad Vesperas", "ad Completorium".

(2) Tropes of the Breviary ( tropi antiphonales, verbetoe, proselloe ). These are poetical interpolations, or preliminary, complementary, or intercalatory ornamentation of a liturgical text of the Breviary, particularly of the response to the third, the sixth, and the ninth lesson.

(3) Rhythmical Offices (historioe rhythmicoe or rhythmatoe). These are offices in which not only the hymns, but all that is sung, with the single exception of the psalms and lessons, are composed in measured language (rhythmical, metrical, and later also rhymed verses).

B. Hymnody of the Missal or the Gradual

(l) Sequences ( sequentioe, prosoe ). These are the artistically constructed songs, consisting of strophe and counterstrophe, inserted in the Mass between the Epistle and the Gospel.

(2) Tropes of the Mass ( tropi graduales ). During the Middle Ages, all those parts of the Mass which were not sung by the priest but by the choir, e.g. the Kyrie, Gloria, Sanctus, Agnus Dei ( tropi ad ordinarium missoe ) also the Introit, Gradual, Offertory, Communion ( tropi ad proprium missarum ) were provided with a rich setting of interpolatio , more even than the Breviary. These tropes came to be known as "Tropus ad Kyrie", "Tropus ad Gloria", etc. or "Troped Kyrie", "Troped Gloria", and so on.

(3) Rhythmical or Metrical Masses ( missoe rythmatoe ). We include under this heading Masses in which the above mentioned parts (under B, 2) are either entirely or partly composed in metrical form. This form of poetry found very few devotees.

(4) Processional Hymns ( hymni ad processionem ). These are used during the procession before and after Mass, and therefore having their place in the Missal or Gradual. They have nearly all a refrain.

II. NON-LITURGICAL HYMNODY A. Hymnody intended for Singing.

(1) Canticles (cantiones). These are spiritual songs which do not belong to the liturgy, but still were employed after and during the liturgy, without being incorporated, like the tropes, with it. They gave rise to the folk-songs, from which the canticles are differentiated by being written in ecclesiastical Latin and being sung by the official cantors, but not by the people.

(2) Motets ( muteti, motelli ). These are the artistic forerunners of the canticles and nearly related to the tropes of the Mass, inasmuch as they grew out of the Gradual responses of the Mass as will be shown more fully in the article HYMNODY AND HYMNOLOGY. In general they may be defined as polyphonic church songs which were to be sung a cappella (without musical accompaniment).

B. Hymnody intended for Silent Private Devotion

The general name for these poems is in Latin rhythmi or pia dictamina . As they were intended for prayer and not for singing, they may be called rhythmical prayers (in German Reimgebete ). Among the various kinds of these poems are the following:

(1) Rhythmical psalters ( psalteria rhythmica ), that is, poems of 150 strophes, corresponding to the 150 Psalms, mostly treating of Christ or His Blessed Mother. Originally every single strophe treated of the psalm corresponding to it in number.

(2) Rhythmical rosaries ( rosaria rhythmica ), similar poems, but which had only fifty strophes corresponding to the fifty "Hail Marys" of the Rosary.

(3) Hours-Songs ( officia parva ); these were rhythmical prayers which supplemented (for private meditation) each of the canonical hours with a strophe or a group of strophes.

(4) Gloss-Songs, which paraphrased, extended, and explained each separate word of a popular prayer or a church antiphon (e.g. the Lord's Prayer , the "Hail Mary", the "Alma Redemptoris", and so on) by a separate strophe or, at least, a separate verse.

These spiritual poems, of which about 30,000 are preserved and again rendered generally accessible by the great collection known as "Analecta hymnica medii ævi", fall within the general acceptation of the word hymn. Several of the more important kinds are treated under separate articles, see RHYTHMICAL OFFICES, and SEQUENCES and TROPES. Their development and lofty meaning will be more fully treated under HYMNODY AND HYMNOLOGY.

More Encyclopedia

The Catholic Encyclopedia is the most comprehensive resource on Catholic teaching, history, and information ever gathered in all of human history. This easy-to-search online version was originally printed between 1907 and 1912 in fifteen hard copy volumes.

Catholic Encyclopedia

Designed to present its readers with the full body of Catholic teaching, the Encyclopedia contains not only precise statements of what the Church has defined, but also an impartial record of different views of acknowledged authority on all disputed questions, national, political or factional. In the determination of the truth the most recent and acknowledged scientific methods are employed, and the results of the latest research in theology, philosophy, history, apologetics, archaeology, and other sciences are given careful consideration.

No one who is interested in human history, past and present, can ignore the Catholic Church, either as an institution which has been the central figure in the civilized world for nearly two thousand years, decisively affecting its destinies, religious, literary, scientific, social and political, or as an existing power whose influence and activity extend to every part of the globe. In the past century the Church has grown both extensively and intensively among English-speaking peoples. Their living interests demand that they should have the means of informing themselves about this vast institution, which, whether they are Catholics or not, affects their fortunes and their destiny.

Copyright © Catholic Encyclopedia. Robert Appleton Company New York, NY. Volume 1: 1907; Volume 2: 1907; Volume 3: 1908; Volume 4: 1908; Volume 5: 1909; Volume 6: 1909; Volume 7: 1910; Volume 8: 1910; Volume 9: 1910; Volume 10: 1911; Volume 11: - 1911; Volume 12: - 1911; Volume 13: - 1912; Volume 14: 1912; Volume 15: 1912

Catholic Online Catholic Encyclopedia Digital version Compiled and Copyright © Catholic Online


Newsletter Sign Up icon

Stay up to date with the latest news, information, and special offers

Subscribe to Catholic OnlineYouTube Channel

Daily Readings

Reading 1, Ephesians 4:1-6
1 I, the prisoner in the Lord, urge you therefore to lead a life worthy ... Read More

Psalm, Psalms 24:1-2, 3-4, 5-6
1 [Psalm Of David] To Yahweh belong the earth and all it contains, the ... Read More

Gospel, Luke 12:54-59
54 He said again to the crowds, 'When you see a cloud looming up in the ... Read More

Saint of the Day

Saint of the Day for October 21st, 2016 Image

St. Hilarion
October 21: Abbot and disciple of St. Anthony the Great, ... Read More