Maundy Thursday

The day before Good Friday is often called Maundy Thursday, but that term is a bit mysterious to most modern English speakers. Outside of the name of the holiday, maundy isn’t a word we much use anymore. The word comes to us from the Anglo-Norman, the dialect of French spoken in post-Conquest England, mandet or mandé, and ultimately from the Latin mandatum (commandment).

The name is a reference to the events of the Last Supper, which are commemorated on Maundy Thursday. According to John 13, Christ washed the feet of the disciples before the meal, and later said, according to the Vulgate, John 13:34:

mandatum novum do vobis ut diligatis invicem sicut dilexi vos ut et vos diligatis invicem

(I give to you a new commandment, that you should love one another. Just as I have loved you, you should love one another.)

As a result, the act of washing feet, as Christ had done, became symbolic of loving as Christ had loved and also became part of the mass for that day. This verse was sung in the antiphon that accompanies the foot-washing ceremony in the Latin mass for the day, so mandatum novum was well known even to those who did not speak Latin and associated with the day.

The word maundy first appears in English at the beginning of the fourteenth century. In what is probably the earliest recorded use, in the Northern Passion, found in Cambridge, University Library Gg.1.1, possibly written c.1300, it is in the form of to make maundy, or to take part in the Last Supper:

Wan þei had ysouped alle And maked her maunde in þe halle, Iesu cneled and woisse her fet. 

(When they had all eaten and made their maundy in the hall, Jesus kneeled and washed their feet.)

Another early use is in the version of the life of Saint Brendan found in the South English Legendary, a collection of saints’ lives, in Cambridge, Corpus Christi College 145, which dates to before 1325 and uses maundy refer to all the rites and ceremonies of Holy Thursday:

Þis procuratour [...] sette hom [...] to þe soper [...] And suþþe he woiss hore alre vet hore mande to do; Al hore mande hy hulde þere, and þere hi gonne bileue A Gode Friday alday.

(This procurator [...] set them [...] to the supper [...] and then he washed all our feet, to do maundy; they held all our maundy there, and there they remained all day Good Friday.)

(A procurator is an official of a monastery, the monk in charge of the finances and worldly affairs.)

The rites associated with the mass include foot washing and distribution of alms to the poor. Traditionally, European monarchs have washed the feet of the poor and distributed alms to them on this day, a practice that the pope continues to this day as part of his celebration of the mass.

The first recorded use of Maundy Thursday as a phrase is in another saint’s life, a version of the Life of St. Norbert, penned by John Capgrave in 1440.

The Lent went fast, Maunde þursday is come, Whan of that sacrament a commemoracioun We maken.

So the maundy in Maundy Thursday is a linguistic relic that survives in the proper name of the holiday.

Middle English Dictionary, University of Michigan, 2001, s. v. “maunde (n.(2))”

Oxford English Dictionary, third edition, March 2001, s. v. “Maundy, n.,” “Maundy Thursday, n.”

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