Medieval Liturgy


Medieval liturgy was primarily the domain of the clergy. It was not that ordinary people did not worship or attend liturgy; rather they were able to pray and make their devotions in a church alongside or in parallel with what the clergy were doing. Often the clergy could not be seen by ordinary people: at both cathedrals in Salisbury most of the main services conducted by the clergy were out of sight in the quire, shut off from the nave of the church where the people gathered by the stone pulpitum. Only when there were processions into the nave or around the church, or when Mass or a devotion was held in a part of a church to which the people had access (e.g. the nave or a special chapel) might they be likely to see the liturgy.

Medieval liturgy had some straightforward principles, structures and forms; but these were complicated, and their performance required ‘professional’ familiarity. Indeed, the complexity was such that the Ordinal was needed to record all the details of items to be included, and the Customary to record how the services were conducted.

There are two main cycles to reconcile:

  1. the regular pattern of services which the clergy recited daily;
  2. the details and variations in those services according to the specific day, season, or festival

The regular pattern of daily services divided into two groups:
The Office
The Mass

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The Office

The Office consisted of eight services:

In the small hours of the night (or in the late Middle Ages very early in the morning)
Matins (sometimes known as Vigils or Nocturns)

From dawn to nightfall
Lauds (the morning praises)
Prime, Terce, Sext, None (marking the first, third, sixth and ninth hours of the day)
Vespers (the evening service)
Compline (at nightfall)

All the services included sung Scripture (mostly from the Book of Psalms), readings from Scripture (which were short, except at Matins), and prayers.

Some of the texts were unchanging (e.g. the psalms and canticles, and some of the prayers)
Other items were not fixed (e.g. antiphons before and after psalms and canticles, readings, sung responses to readings, and prayers).

Some texts were recited by all, some to by a designated group of two to four singers, and others were allocated to a single officiant or reader. Much that was sung by all was committed to memory (manuscript books were slow to copy, and relatively expensive and scarce). Books generally only contained those items required for a specific purpose.

The two principal books were the Antiphonal (or Antiphoner) and the Breviary. Choral chants were found in the Antiphonal, though there might be a separate Psalter and Hymnal. In the later Middle Ages, all the texts (though not the chants) were gathered together in the Breviary, enabling a single priest to recite the whole Office alone, or to have access to the complete text when it was sung corporately. In earlier times there were several separate books.

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The Mass

The Mass had one form. There were, however, variations: certain texts were omitted on certain occasions, and – as with the Office services – texts and/or melodies changed according to season or festival.

There were two principal sections of the Mass. After a preparatory section came a sequence of prayers, readings and responding chants: Collect(s) Epistle, Gradual, Alleluya with Sequence [or Tract], Gospel. The second principal section was the Canon of the Mass, during which the priest consecrated the bread and wine, followed by the priest’s communion. This was framed by an Offertory before the Canon, and a conclusion to the Mass after the priest’s communion.

Those parts of the Mass sung by the body of clergy in the quire (or in some places by a specialist body of singers) consisted of items whose texts and melody changed (the Proper of the Mass), and those items whose texts were unchanging, but whose melody might vary (the Ordinary of the Mass). Here, items of the Proper are show in italic.

Introit, Kyrie, Gloria in excelsis, Gradual, Alleluya with Sequence [or Tract when Alleluya is not sung], Credo, Offertory, Sanctus (with Benedictus), Agnus Dei, Communion, Deo gratias.

As with the Office, there were two principal books for the Mass: the Missal for the priest, and the Gradual for those in choir. There might also be separate books for the readings (Epistle and Gospel), and for the chant immediately before the Gospel (Sequence). In the early Middle Ages, there was a greater range of separate books for different parts of the Mass; these were later brought together into the Missal and Gradual.

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In addition to the Office and Mass, there were certain days when the clergy left the quire and went in procession either to a specific place in the church known as a station (e.g. altar, the Cross on the rood, the font) for a special purpose (e.g. for devotion or to mark a specific saint’s festival) or on Sundays around the church as an act of weekly purifying of the altars and all the clergy and people. Other processions went around church and cloister (if there was one), around the outside of either the church or church precinct, or to another church. In each case the procession normally began and ended with the clergy in their places in the quire.

Processions most often took place before the Mass (on Sundays and certain important festivals) and after Vespers (on certain festivals or other specified days).

The chants, prayers and other items required for the processions throughout the year were generally compiled in a single book: the Processional.

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The Kalendar (or Calendar)

There were three main cycles which affected the detail of content and ritual of the daily pattern of services:
The week
The church seasons
Festivals on specific days

Sunday was the most important day of the week, and began in the later afternoon of Saturday. Other days were not of such high rank, except when a festival occurred. There were however certain items that changed according to the day of the week (e.g. the psalms at certain services, and some additional devotions at the Office or in an additional Mass).

Each year, the medieval church followed the cycle of Christ’s life. The cycle was calculated from two main points: Christmas Day (fixed by date), and Easter Day (fixed by the phases of the moon, and therefore falling between 21 March and 23 April). The church year began on Advent Sunday, four Sundays before Christmas Day, in expectation of the coming of Jesus Christ (adventus = coming). Christmas (the birth of Christ, 25 December), Epiphany (the revelation of Christ to the world, 6 January),  Lent (Christ’s forty days in the wilderness, beginning six-and-a-half weeks before Easter Day), Holy Week (Christ’s entry into Jerusalem, celebration of the Last Supper, trial, and death on the Cross, in the week before Easter Day), Easter Day (Christ’s resurrection from the dead), Ascension Day (Christ’s ascension into heaven, forty days after Easter Day), Pentecost or Whit Sunday (when Christ’s followers received the gift of the Holy Spirit, fifty days after Easter Day). A week after Pentecost was Trinity Sunday (a celebration of the Christian God as three persons but one God, the week after Pentecost), and thereafter followed a series of Sundays after Trinity, until Advent came round again.

Then there were the other Christian festivals, mostly associated with a specific date. Prominent among them were feasts in honour of the Blessed Virgin Mary, mother of Christ, including her Purification (2 February), Annunciation (25 March), Assumption (15 August), and Nativity (8 September); feasts of the Apostles, Saints and Martyrs, including All Saints’ Day (1 November). One exceedingly important feast in the later Middle Ages was Corpus Christi (celebrated ten days after Pentecost), in honour of the body of Christ, crucified, risen, and present in the Mass under the form of the consecrated bread.

In addition to festivals celebrated throughout the western Church, there were other festivals for national, regional or local saints, including in some cases the saint after whom a specific church was named – the patron saint.

A Kalendar was generally copied into the beginning of Breviaries, Antiphonals, Missals and Graduals, so that those using them could identify the appropriate texts and chants for each day.

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Ordering and regulating the liturgy

To those who recited the liturgy as part of their daily pattern it will have been very familiar. It will have seemed relatively straightforward to maintain the regular pattern of services, even with such elaborate forms in which different items were allocated to different members of the clerical community. However, even the most seasoned of clerics will have needed to check on the exceptional details.

There was a strict sense of order and priority, and each item on each day needed to be allocated. Sunday or weekday, feast or feria, one season or another, all these factors affected not only what was recited or undertaken, but who was charged with responsibility for each item or action. Such information was gathered together in three standard reference books:
the Ordinal, listing the special contents of each service,
the Customary setting out the allocation of duties and the way special rituals were to be undertaken, and
the Tonary with details of the classification of chants and recitation tones, their nature, and how to match one to another.
These were also books that those joining a clerical community, or in training for parish ministry, would need to learn to use.

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Books for the parish priest and the bishop

Parish priests had pastoral duties to perform (baptism, marriage, burial, confession, ministry to the sick and dying, etc.), which were to be found in the Manual.

Bishops alone ordained clergy, confirmed, consecrated altars, dedicated churches, blessed objects, etc. They too needed a book which contained these rites: the Pontifical.

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