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

The title page to The Lay Folks Mass
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 red textual rules for the mass, which guided people’s bodies and souls. The etymology of the word begins with the French, rubrique, meaning red ochre, which referred to a chapter or fragment of a text, and an established custom or set of rules, similar to the Anglo-Norman, ruberich, and the Middle French, rubriche. In classical Latin, the term rubrīca also meant red ochre, the same as the Middle French, and referred to a chapter heading (written in red ink) in a book of law. While in post-classical Latin the word referred directly to monastic rule, with ruber meaning red and the suffix -īca forming the noun (ruberīca).

Outside of the church, uses of the word often referred to the color red, or a marking in red. For instance, around 1440, in Palladius De Re Rustica, the author states: “Her holes oon wel filleth vp with wilde Cucumber Iuce, and doth withal rubrike.” In 1558, Girolamo Ruscelli’s The Secretes of The Reuerende Maister Alexis of Piemount Containyng Excellent Remedies reads: “Mingle it with [. . .] carattes at the most of Rubricke, or sparkes of copper” (William Ward’s translation). 

The New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia explains that the term originally came from the red earth that carpenters used to mark wood for cutting. The encyclopedia's entry goes on:
Soon the red colour, at first used exclusively for writing the titles, passed to the indications or remarks made on a given text. This custom was adopted in liturgical collections to distinguish from the formulæ of the prayers the instructions and indications which should regulate their recitation, so that the word rubric has become the consecrated term for the rules concerning Divine service or the administration of the sacraments. Gavanti said that the word appeared for the first time in this sense in the Roman Breviary printed at Venice in 1550, but it is found in manuscripts, of the fourteenth century, such as 4397 of the Vatican Library, fol. 227-28; see also the fifteenth-century "Ordo Romanus" of Peter Amelius.
It wasn’t until the middle of the 20th century that the word was used to refer to a guide for writing. The OED lists the term first appearing in The Oxford Magazine in 1959 as a reference to a guide for a paper: “A good deal of the content of this paper retained by widening the rubric of the paper on Political Thought.” It seems clear how the term moved from carpentry to Latin to liturgical directions, but I'm less sure how the word rubric moved to writing guidelines.

There is no doubt, however, that the use of the word rubric has stayed close to its historical associations to the red textual directions that guided the Catholic mass, and the red, earthen marks that guided carpenter's cuts. Rubrics have always been symbols to be read in red in order to guide the actions, and often the souls, of people. For teachers who use rubrics to guide students’ words or guide their own red markings on writing today, the history of the word rubric might give us pause to reflect as the priests of the classroom (for better or worse) on what we are doing when we use or ask students to use rubrics.

How do you use rubrics in your writing classroom? How do you talk to students about them? How do you ask them to engage with rubrics? How do you try NOT to use them, but use something else? What guidance do you give your students for their writing and for your own reading and feedback to their work?

-- Asao B. Inoue
Director of University Writing
University of Washington Tacoma