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Rubrics and Priests: Re(a)d Letters that Guide

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Today, teachers and students understand a rubric as a set of expectations for a written assignment, often thought of as a grading or scoring guide, but the word has a long history in the Catholic Church’s liturgical practices. It has stayed close to its original Middle English and French meanings, even today.

The first appearance of the word was a reference to directions for church services and how they should be conducted. These references were usually in red letters, much like a heading. In the Lay Folks’ Mass Book (ca. 1300-1400 B.C.E.), one of the first uses of the term was to the church services (I’ve emphasized the word in red for ease, which is not necessarily the way the original text displayed the word): “Þo robryk is gode vm while to loke, þo praiers to con with-outen boke.” In 1563, the term was used similarly by John Foxe in Acts and Monuments: “The whole Canon of the Masse with the Rubrick therof, as it standeth in the Massebooke.”

The term rubric literally referred to the …