Altar boys are an important part of the tradition of the Catholic Church as well as other churches such as the Orthodox and Anglican churches. One source suggests that altar boys appear in the written record as early as 251 AD, but does not provide derails. This would mean that the tradition must have developed even earlier.
A reader has found a reference in Admonitio Synodalis from the Synod of Mainz (859). There appears to have been at the time a shift from instituted Acolytes (as a minor order preceding priesthood) to altar boys.
Quoting from the New Catholic Encyclopedia vols 1, 4, 8 (the full library set, not the OSV version):
“In the 9th century, at the Synod of Mainz, it was declared that “every priest should have a cleric or boy (scholarem) to read the epistle or lesson, to answer him at Mass, and with whom he can chant the Psalms” (Admonitio Synodalis, PL 132: 456).”
The reference above is to Patrologia Latina (Migne) vol. 132, column 456. PL is a chronological collection of thousands of Church documents. The pages are not numbered, rather each column is numbered such that the numbers are ascending from left to right throughout the volumes. In this case column 455 is on the left of the page and 456 is on the right. The columns are then marked with A, B, C, D from top to bottom to ease location of citations, and the following occurs just before C:
"Omnis prebyter clericum habeat vel scholarem qui Epistolam vel lectionem legat, et ei ad missam respondeat, et cum quo psalmos cantet."
The Latin translates exactly to what the NCE says it is. It is interesting to note that the word “scholarem” is used for “boy” instead of “puer”, which is the normal term. My Latin is far less than sufficient in my opinion, but “scholarem” seems to indicate not just a boy, but a boy in training (cf. “schoolboy”). Here is a continuation of the notion that service at the altar is preparation for priesthood, which was exactly the idea in the case of the Minor Order of Acolyte.
This was the earliest reference to Altar Boys I could find.
For more information, From New Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume 1, pp. 86 – 87 is a great place to start. It also has a cross reference to Knights of the Altar, which is another worthwhile look up (see NCE vol. 8, p. 221).
Altar boys in the early church lived in the church building and dedicated their whole lives to the Church, usually becoming monks and priests. We have very few historical images of altar boys. We do not know what altar boys wore during the medieval era. We know more about altar boy costumes with advent of the Renaissance and the availability of more paintings. We Have some images from the 19th century. Some 19th century images show altar boys wearing caps. We no longer see this in the 20th century. Most images we have found come from the 20 century.
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