The Litanies be done twice in the year. The first be done on Saint Mark's day, and that is called the more Litany. And the second be done on the three days before the Ascension Day, and is called the lesser Litany. And Litany is as much to say supplication or prayer. The first Litany is named in three manners. First, it is called the more Litany. secondly, the procession of seven orders. Thirdly, the black cross. Then this Litany is said the more, for three reasons. The first is for him that instituted it, that was Saint Gregory the Pope, and that was at Rome, which is lady and head of the world, because that the body of the prince of the apostles is there, and the Holy See. And also for the reason of the cause wherefore it was instituted, and that was for a right great and grievous malady. For as the Romans had in the Lent lived soberly and in continence, and after at Easter had received their Saviour. After, they disordered them in eating, in drinking, in plays and in lechery.
And therefore our Lord was moved against them, and sent to them a great pestilence, which was called the botche of impedimy. And that was cruel and sudden, and caused people to die in going by the way, in playing, in being at table, and in speaking one with another suddenly they died. In this manner sometime sneezing they died, so that when any person was heard sneezing anon they that were by said to him: God help you, or Christ help: and yet endureth the custom. And also when he sneezeth or gapeth, he maketh tofore his face the sign of the cross, and blesseth him; and yet endureth this custom. And how that pestilence began, it is found in the life of S. Gregory. Secondly, this Litany is said procession of seven orders, because that when they were made, S. Gregory ordained them by seven ordinances. For in the first order was all the clergy, in the second were the monks and religious men, in the third were all the nuns, in the fourth all the children, in the fifth all the lay people, in the sixth all the women, and in the seventh all they that were married. But because that now we may not fulfil in number of persons, we ought to fulfil it in number of Litanies. For it with black clothes. And peradventure for that same cause they covered the cross and the altars with blessed hairs, and thus we should take on us clothing of penance.
There is another Litany, which is called the lesser Litany, the which is made the three days tofore the Ascension. And this instituted S. Mamertin, Bishop of Vienne in the time of the Emperor Leo, which reigned the year of our Lord three hundred and fifty-eight tofore the institution of the first. And is said the Litany the less, the rogations and processions. For it is the lesser Litany to the difference of the first, because that this lesser Litany was instituted of a lesser, which was a simple Bishop, in a lesser place, and for lesser malady. And the cause of the institution was this. For then, at Vienne, were great earthquakes of which fell down many churches and many houses, and there was heard great sounds and great clamours by night. And then happed a terrible thing on Easter-day, for fire descended from heaven that burnt the king's palace. Yet happed more marvellous thing; for like as the fiends had entered into the hogs, right so by the sufferance of God for the sins of the people, the fiends entered into wolves and other wild beasts, which every one doubted, and they went not only by the ways ne by the fields, but also by the cities ran openly, and devoured the children and old men and women.
And when the Bishop saw that every day happed such sorrowful adventures, he commanded and ordained that the people should fast three days; and he instituted the Litanies, and then the tribulation ceased. And from then, forth on, the Church hath ordained and confirmed that this Litany should be kept and observed over all. It is said also Rogations, for then we pray and demand the suffrages of all the saints, and we thus have good cause for to keep this ordinance and fast in these days. And for many reasons it is instituted. First, because it appeaseth the battles, that commonly begin in primetime. Secondly, because that the fruits which be then tender, that God will multiply. Thirdly, because that every man should mortify in himself the movings of his flesh, which in that time boil. Fourthly, because that every one dispose himself to receive the Holy Ghost; for by fastings, by orisons, and by devotion is one more able and more worthy. But, two other reasons assigneth Master William of Auxerre, because then, when Jesu Christ would ascend into heaven he said: Ask ye duly and ye shall have. And we may the more faithfully demand when we have the promise of God. Secondly, because that holy Church fasteth and prayeth that she have but little flesh, that is to make the body lean by abstinence, and to get wings by prayer.
For prayer is the wing of the soul by which she fleeth to heaven, to the end that she may follow Jesu Christ ascending up before us to show us the way. And know ye that the soul that aboundeth in plenty of flesh, and hath but few pens and feathers, he may not well fly. Thus this Litany is called procession, for then the Church maketh general procession. And in this procession the cross is borne, the clocks and the bells be sounded and rung, the banners be borne, and in some churches a dragon with a great tail is borne. And aid and help is demanded of all saints. And the cause why the cross is borne and the bells rung is for to make the evil spirits afraid and to flee; for like as the kings have in battles tokens and signs-royal, as their trumpets and banners, right so the king of heaven perdurable hath his signs militant in the Church. He hath bells for business and for trumps, he hath the cross for banners. And like as a tyrant and a malefactor should much doubt when he shall hear the business and trumps of a mighty king in his land, and shall see his banners, in like wise the enemies, the evil spirits that be in the region of the air, doubt much when they hear the trumpets of God which be the bells rung, and when they see the banners borne on high.
And this is the cause why the bells be rung when it thundereth, and when great tempests and outrages of weather happen, to the end that the fiends and the evil spirits should be abashed and flee, and cease of the moving of tempests. Howbeit also that there is another cause therewith; that is for to warn the Christian people, that they put them in devotion and in prayer, for to pray God that the tempest may cease. There is also the banner of the King, that is the cross, which the enemies dread much and doubt. For they dread the staff with which they have been hurt. And this is the reason wherefore in some churches in the time of tempest and of thunder, they set out the cross against the tempest to the end that the wicked spirits see the banner of the sovereign king, and for dread thereof they flee. And therefore in procession the cross is borne, and the bells rung for to chase and hunt away the fiends being in the air, and to the end that they leave to tempest us. The cross is borne for to represent the victory of the resurrection, and of the ascension of Jesu Christ. For he ascended into Heaven with all a great prey. And thus this banner that flyeth in the air signifieth Jesu Christ ascending into heaven. And as the people follow the cross, the banners, and the procession, right so when Jesu Christ styed up into heaven a great multitude of saints followed him. And the song that is sung in the procession signifieth the song of angels and the praisings that came against Jesu Christ and conducted and conveyed him to heaven where is great joy and melody. In some churches, and in especial in them of France, is accustomed to bear a dragon with a long tail filled full of chaff or other thing. The two first days it is borne before the cross, and on the third day they bear it after the cross, with the tail all void, by which is understood that the first day tofore the law, or the second under the law, the devil reigned in the world, and on the third day, of grace, by the passion of Jesu Christ, he was put out of his realm.
After in this procession singularly we call the suffrages of all the saints. And why we call to the saints divers reasons be assigned heretofore, but yet there be of the general, wherefore we pray the saints. First for our poverty and for the glory of saints, and for the reverence of God. For the saints may well know the vows and the prayers of the suppliants. For in the mirror perpetual, that is Jesu Christ, they understand how much it appertaineth to their joy and to our profit. Then the first reason is for our poverty, and for our misery, or for our default we have some merit, to the end that where our merits be not sufficient the suffrages of saints may avail us, or for default that we have in contemplation of God, and that we may see perfectly the light sovereign that we see and behold in his saints, or for the default that we have in loving God, for we see that some show more greater affection to a saint than they do to God, and such people be imperfect. The second reason is for the glory of saints. For God will that we call the saints, because that by their suffrages that we require, we glorify them, and the more greatly we praise them. The third reason is for the reverence of God, to the end that the sinners that have offended God, the which dare not approach to God in their persons, they approach him by the friends of God in demanding their suffrages.
And in these Litanies we ought to repeat this song of angels: Sancte Deus, sancte fortis, sancte et immortalis miserere nobis. Item, John Damascene recordeth in his fourth book that, in Constantinople, for a tribulation that happed there, there were litanies made. It happed that a child amid the people was ravished to heaven and this canticle he learned there; and after then he returned to the people, and in the midst of the people he sang it, and anon that tribulation ceased. And after at the Council of Chalcedon this canticle was approved and the cause concluded. We know that it is so that the fiends be put out by this canticle: Sancte Deus. Of this canticle and praising the authority is approved by four reasons. First, because that an angel taught it first. Secondly, because at the prolation and repetition of this canticle, that tribulation ceased. Thirdly, because that the Council of Chalcedon approved it. And fourthly, because that the fiends and enemies so much dread and doubt it.