Medieval Liturgy

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Medieval Liturgy

Blended Forms.

The development of the Christian liturgy in Europe—that is, the forms and arrangements of public worship—reflects shifts in political and cultural dominance throughout the medieval period. Roman liturgy (that form of Christian worship practiced in the city of Rome) began to find its way into northern Europe during the eighth century with encouragement from Charlemagne's father, Pepin the Short. As its use became more widespread, the Roman liturgy also assimilated many older uses that were native to Frankish Gaul. In circulation at this time were two major sacramentaries (books of prayers for sacramental services): the Gregorian (dating from the late sixth and early seventh centuries at Rome) and the Frankish-Gelasian (which had Gallic and Benedictine influences, parts of which dated from the early seventh through mid-eighth centuries). The earliest surviving medieval liturgical manuscripts, in fact, blend these Gallic and Roman types. During the reign of Charlemagne, the Hadrianum, a sacramentary sent by Pope Hadrian, further assisted in the promotion of Roman elements in the Frankish liturgy. This hybrid or "mixed" liturgy spread into Germany with renewed support from Rome during the tenth century. The Gallo-Roman liturgy actually found its way back to Rome during the tenth century and further added to the rich blend of medieval liturgical practices.

Missals and Ordines.

Since the old-style sacramentary did not include all the information necessary for conducting a service, it eventually gave way to the missal (Missalis Plenarius), a type of book that included not only the aspects of former sacramentaries, but also epistles (letters of St. Paul in the New Testament), antiphons (chants used during the canonical hours), and directives for preaching. This change did not happen all at once, but the missal virtually replaced the sacramentary by the eleventh century. Not only did celebrants find it easier to use because all the components of the liturgical prayers, songs, and readings were in one volume, but the missal also included more specialized liturgical formulas for use in commemorative services like the private mass. To understand exactly what went on during the medieval liturgies, however, one must look not only at prayers, readings, and songs in the missals, sacramentaries, lectionaries, and antiphonaries, but more importantly to a book called the ordo, which gave directives for liturgical action or served as a guide for liturgical procedure. One problem, however, is that these books (called ordines in the plural) were constantly changing, and there did not seem to be much of a need to save those that had become outdated. Some of the directives existed as individual manuscripts and actually had to be gathered in collections. Like the sacramentaries, antiphonaries, and lectionaries, the disparate directives of the ordo were eventually replaced by a more comprehensive single-volume work which later became known as the pontifical. Again, it took some time for the full transition of such usages to occur, depending upon local customs, between the tenth and twelfth centuries.

The Setting of the Early Medieval Mass.

By looking at some of the early medieval ordines, scholars have been able to reconstruct aspects of the medieval mass. Particularly in the urban areas and especially in the cathedrals, there seems to have been a great deal of pomp and ceremony connected to these services. Indeed, medieval masses were quite extravagant affairs. The papal and episcopal liturgical directives from the eighth century still followed old Roman and Byzantine courtly rituals for the robing of participants in the sacristy (a room for keeping vessels, candles, and other ceremonial objects, near the front of the basilica). The vestments worn were very similar to those used today by Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Lutheran clergy. Deacons, sub-deacons, and acolytes acted as ministers for the celebrant. In the cathedrals and at papal services, the bishops and presbyters (priests) sat near a throne in the apse (an addition at the eastern end of the church, usually near or connected to the altar area) awaiting the arrival of the main celebrant and his attendants. Lesser clergy and those in training sat in the choir near the front altar. Lay men and women of the congregation were seated in separated rows throughout the nave of the church, with members of the aristocracy always seated in the front.

The Procession, Prayers, and Readings.

The service proceeded with Gospels being carried in by an acolyte, then placed reverently upon the altar by the sub-deacon, a minor order of cleric. Candles were lit (there were often seven candle bearers), incense was employed, and an Introit (opening) antiphon was begun as the celebrant and his entourage processed to the altar of the church. Bread that had been consecrated (blessed) at the most recent mass was handed to the celebrant by the deacons. Once members of the procession reached the altar, they would bow, then make the sign of the cross, as the celebrant proceeded to give the attendants a kiss of peace. This was followed by the prayers Gloria Patri ("Glory to God the Father"), the kissing of the Gospels by the celebrant, and then his return to the throne. While facing east, the choir sang the litany Kyrie Eleison ("Lord Have Mercy"). This was followed by the hymn Gloria in Excelsis Deo ("Glory to God in the Highest") sung by the congregation. Afterward, the celebrant turned and greeted the people with pax vobiscum (peace be with you) and began to pray the Collect. The celebrant then sat back on the throne, the congregation sat, and the sub-deacon proceeded to a raised platform (the ambo) to read scriptures from the lectionary. A response to the readings (gradual) was sung by a cantor, and then the deacon who was appointed to read the Gospel proceeded to the throne to receive a blessing from the celebrant. If the pope was present, the reader was to first kiss his feet, a practice from an old Byzantine court ritual. The deacon then removed the Gospel book from the altar, first kissing it, then processed with two sub-deacons carrying candles and incense to the ambo to read the Gospel. After the reading, the book was carried by the sub-deacons to the places in the sanctuary where clergy were seated so that all might venerate the book of Gospels by kissing it. The book was then returned in its cover or capsa (which was usually decorated with ornate precious stones) to the main altar. During the eleventh century the creed or Credo (literally "I believe") was added after the reading of the scriptures.

Preparation for the Eucharist.

Following the service of the Word of God, there was an offertory procession, during which those lay participants at the liturgy would present the gifts that they had brought by coming forth toward the altar. The bishops and priests would receive the gifts, including the offerings of bread and wine for the eucharist (commemoration of the Last Supper of Christ). In large congregations this was quite a time-consuming process. The flasks of wine were poured into a large vessel (the scyphus) and the loaves of bread were placed in linens (called sindones). The celebrants and attendants would then wash their hands. Additional wine, brought by the celebrants, was then poured into the large common chalice (sometimes so big it had to have handles), and the celebrant also poured in a bit of water. While all of this was going on, the various hymns, antiphons, and psalms prescribed for the day would be sung. The next action involved the clergy taking positions around the altar in the sanctuary. They would be arranged according to rank, with priests and deacons closest to the altar, and sub-deacons and acolytes closer to the nave. The celebrant would then sing a prayer of thanksgiving (later called the Preface) followed by the Tersanctus sung by the sub-deacons. The lay community did not always take part in the singing.

The Eucharist.

Once all the elements were in place, the celebrant recited the Eucharistic prayers while those in the sanctuary bowed their heads. The chalice was lifted by one of the bishops or assistant celebrants for all to see, while the celebrant held the offering of bread on the edge of the chalice. Following this action, the celebrant recited or sang the Lord's Prayer ("Our Father"), deposited particles of consecrated bread both from that celebration and the previous day, and then returned to his throne to sit. The consecrated loaves of bread were next broken for distribution while the Agnus Dei (Lamb of God) was sung. The celebrant then broke his own bread and dropped a piece into his chalice of wine, to symbolize that both elements of bread and wine represented one true Lord. Bread and wine were then consumed by the celebrant. Once the bread was consecrated, fragments were carried by sub-deacons to local parish churches in order to connect them to the episcopal or papal service. Consecrated wine from the celebrant's chalice was poured into the larger common cup, and the clergy then received bread from the hands of the seated celebrant. Clergy went to the altar to drink wine from the smaller cups. The celebrant with bishops, priests, and deacons then brought the consecrated bread to the laity (which they handed to them) and filled smaller cups from the large scyphus, which were also presented to the congregation for consumption. It is likely that the bread and wine were brought whenever possible directly to the people instead of there being a procession to the altar area by the laity who elected to receive communion. It is quite clear that by the medieval period the sanctuary was off limits to the laity. By the eleventh century, a screen (made of wood or metal, sometimes called the rood screen) was erected in certain churches to separate the clergy and altar from the laity. These became more common in the abbey churches and larger cathedrals. During the reception of the bread and wine by the laity, songs and antiphons were sung, often by a choir. After the communion, the celebrant returned to the altar, faced east (toward the altar itself), and said a post-communion prayer; then the congregation was dismissed by the deacon. In the closing activity, the celebrant processed out of the church toward the sacristy with the acolytes, sub-deacons, and other attendants, blessing the congregation along the way.

A Decline in Lay Participation.

While simpler liturgical forms likely took place in the smaller and rural churches, the directives of the ordines clearly stated that celebrants were to try to stay as close to the urban and Roman rituals as possible. Some of the Frankish changes to the old Roman rite found their way back to Rome as early as the eleventh century. But the old Roman liturgy imported to France by Charlemagne underwent only minor changes in northern Europe during the following three centuries. One important trend that increasingly became more evident during the late eleventh century was that the members of the laity were losing their participatory voice in medieval liturgy. Prayers of the celebrant, once said aloud so that all in the congregation could hear, began to be whispered. The prayers of the laity began to be limited to short acclamations and then to fall into total disuse. Burchard of Worms (d. 1025) in his list of penitentials wrote that the growing failure of people to respond in church constituted "unbecoming" behavior. However, it might be said that the environment for participation was not especially inviting, since in most parts of medieval Europe the laity usually stood for the entire mass. There were no seats or pews, though there were stalls for the monks or canons of the choir. By the thirteenth century, the laity began to be instructed to kneel during the consecration. It was not until the fifteenth century in Germany that preachers began to direct the laity to sit for their sermons. Thus, the strong ties that once existed in early Christianity between the celebrant and people were being gradually loosened throughout the medieval period.


Bernard Cooke, Ministry to Word and Sacraments (Philadelphia, Pa.: Fortress Press, 1976).

Joseph Jungman, The Mass of the Roman Rite (Westminster, Md.: Christian Classics, 1986).

Theodor Klauser, A Short History of the Western Liturgy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979).

Cyrille Vogel, Medieval Liturgy (Washington, D.C.: Pastoral Press, 1981).

see also Music: Plainsong and the Monophonic Tradition ; Music: Additions to the Sacred Repertory ; Theater: The Development of Liturgical Drama

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Medieval Liturgy

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