Historical treatment of saying grace at mealtime
Thanksgiving before and after Meals.—The word grace, which, as applied to prayer over food, always in pre-Elizabethan English took the plural form graces, means nothing but thanksgiving. (Cf. the Latin gratiarurn actio and the Italian grazie, "thanks".) Although the expression of gratitude to God for His bounty when He has supplied the where-withal to satisfy the most primary of human needs is an idea which is by no means exclusively Christian (see Deut., viii, 10; Ex., xviii, 12; Livy, XXXIX, xliii; Athenaeus, iv, 27), still in the Christian dispensation, following the personal example of our Savior (John, vi, 11 and 23), the obligation of thanksgiving seems to have been emphasized from the very beginning. Thus, under conditions which altogether exclude the idea of a Eucharistic celebration, we are told of St. Paul (Acts, xxvii, 35) that "taking bread he gave thanks to God in the sight of them all and when he had broken it he began to eat" (Cf. I Tim., iv, 3-5; Rom. xiv, 6; I Cor., x, 30). Passing over the "Didache", in which the formulae of prayer over food may be connected with the Eucharist or the Agape, we find (c. A.D. 123) the apologist Aristides declaring of his fellow Christians that "over their food and over their drink they render God thanks" (Camb. Texts and Studies I, 49). Similarly Tertullian, "We do not recline at a banquet before prayer be first tasted—in like manner prayer puts an end to the feast" (De orat., xxv). In nearly all the Fathers similar passages may be found. In particular the Christian poet Prudentius, at the beginning of the fifth century, has a set of hymns "Ante cibum" and "Post cibum" in which occur such verses as the following (Cath. Hymn., III, Ante cib., ii, 10 s. q.)—
"Without Thy presence, nought, O Lord, is sweet,
No pleasure to our lips can aught supply.
Whether 'tis wine we drink or food we eat,
Till Grace divine and Faith shall sanctify."
Many anecdotes also might be cited from such early writers as Gregory of Tours and Bede, clearly attesting the prevalence of the practice of saying grace. Bede, for example, when he wishes to tell us that Oswald and Bishop Aidan were about to begin dinner, remarks that "they were on the point of stretching out their hands to bless the bread" (Hist. Eccl., III, vi). The Welsh legal codes, ascribed to the ninth and tenth centuries, when speaking of the king's three indispensable attendants, name first "his priest to say Mass and bless his meat and drink", while the function of the queen's priest is also to bless her meat and drink (Haddan and Stubbs, I, 231 and 235). William of Malmesbury (Gest. pont., IV, 140) refers to St. Wulstan's blessings at table as if they perpetuated some custom that was peculiarly English; but that the Normans were no strangers to such a practice is curiously proved by a scene in the Bayeux tapestry, where we look on Bishop Odo at Bayeux as he stands up before the table at the banquet, while the inscription beside him tells us: "Et hic episcopus cibum et potum benedicit."
In the religious orders, naturally the custom of grace was much insisted upon. A special section is assigned to it in c. xliii of the Rule of St. Benedict, and this was much amplified in later expositions. The early monastic rules in fact generally required that each dish brought to table should be separately blessed before it was set before the community. In the "Ancren Riwle" (c. A.D. 1200), which preserves perhaps the earliest instance of the word "graces" in an English treatise, the grace is described as said standing, and, since it included the "Miserere", it must have been pretty long. The souls of the faithful are also prayed for in the thanksgiving after meat. Great importance was attached to the proper learning of the grace by children. It is commonly a prominent feature in the Books of Curtesye and other medieval works for the instruction of the young. Moreover most educational foundations, like the English public schools and the colleges at the universities, had special forms of grace prescribed for them, often metrical in part, some of which are maintained to the present day. The grace officially provided by the Church is contained in the "Breviarium Romanum" under the heading "Benedictio Mensae". The form for supper, both before and after eating, varies slightly from that assigned for dinner, and during the octaves of certain greater festivals special verses are substituted for those in ordinary use. Grace begins with the acclamation "Benedicite", which is spoken by the officiant and repeated by all present. The "Grace before and after meals" commonly found in the catechisms for children and used by the laity consists substantially of a translation of two items in the longer Latin grace, the blessing spoken before the meal and the thanksgiving afterwards.
As for this longer Latin grace contained in the Breviary, Abbot Cabrol says with reason that the whole series of formulae with their appropriate citations from the Psalms, particularly Ps. xxxiii, possess a very high antiquity. In point of fact a great part of the existing forms can be traced back to the ninth century. See for example Rhabanus Maurus, "De ins. cleric.", II, x. The benediction, "Bless us, O Lord, and these Thy gifts", etc., which is retained in our short grace, is to be found in the "Gelasian Sacramentary", which is considerably earlier. Moreover, without precise verbal coincidence, it may be said that our existing longer grace echoes the language of the very earliest document of the kind preserved to us. This is contained in a treatise dubiously ascribed to St. Athanasius, but certainly of early date and, probably at least, the work of a contemporary. It is upon this treatise that G. von der Goltz largely bases his theory of the development of grace for meals out of the primitive Eucharist (Goltz, "Tischgebete and Abendmahlsgebete", pp. 33 sq.). This work (De virginitate) is remarkable for the circumstance that the writer recommends as a prayer before an ordinary meal precisely that form of words which we find in the "Didache" in connection seemingly with a Eucharistic celebration. We also find in this fourth-century document the versicle, "Our merciful and compassionate God has given food to them that fear Him", and in the existing Breviary grace we have:
"The Lord merciful and compassionate, has perpetuated the memory of His wonders. He has given food to them that fear Him,"
Another very early grace may be found in the "Apostolic Constitutions", VII, xliv.