Who needs a Customary?

Why did medieval clergy need a Customary?

Medieval worship was extensive, complex and often elaborate in execution. In small parish churches it might have been the responsibility of a single priest; but in larger parish churches, monasteries, other conventual churches, collegiate churches and cathedrals, the daily worship was undertaken by a group of clergy or a whole community. The size of the group might be as small as three or four in a larger parish or small collegiate church, or over 100 in some cathedrals and monasteries.

As a solitary priest, you only needed to know which text to recite at each point in a service (and you were expected to recite eight Office services every day of your life, as well as frequently celebrating the Mass). Once you were part of a group, you needed to know who was going to say what. And the larger the community sharing the worship, the more essential it was for everyone to know which parts of the service were allocated to which individual or small group within the community. It was especially important to know who was to begin a liturgical item, or recite it complete, or recite a particular passage (e.g. a section of a chant intended for one or more solo singers). Furthermore, it was not just who recited what and when, but where and how. The medieval liturgy treated certain days as more significant than others: Sundays and festivals (feast days) had more elaborate ritual then ordinary weekdays; some seasons were more austere like the penitential season of Lent, and others were more festive, like the weeks following Easter Day. This could affect how and where a text was recited or a ritual was conducted, and even what special vestments (ritual clothing) needed to be worn.

At the very minimum, as a solitary priest reciting the liturgical texts alone, you needed a clear guide as to what was to be recited on any day of the year (weekday, Sunday or festival) in any service. This information was listed in summary form in the Ordinal. Texts used every day did not need to be recorded – only those that varied according to the season, day or festival.

Once you were part of a group reciting the liturgy, you needed to supplement a list of what was to be recited or undertaken in the liturgy by defining by whom, where, how and in some cases when. This was the information included in the Customary. Of course, the Customary did not list instructions for all the services every day of the year (a minimum of about 3,300); rather, it described norms and then specified variants and exceptions.

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Books for the liturgy

It is quite common to find the Ordinal and the Customary bound together in a single manuscript. Some also include a Tonary, a catalogue of the kinds of chant melody frequently used in the liturgy, with information on how to match formulaic chant tones to the more elaborate chant melodies with which they were combined.

Ordinals, Customaries and Tonaries, as books of reference where details of practice were recorded, might be used for at least four purposes:

  1. to record and codify practice, especially at times of change or reform;
  2. for instruction of new or young members of a community as part of familiarisation or training;
  3. for occasional reference, particularly regarding exceptions;
  4. for transmission of practice from one place to another.

These three reference books were used alongside the full texts of the liturgy contained in other books. In the later Middle Ages, the most important of these other books were the Breviary, Missal, Antiphonal, Gradual and Processional. The priest’s texts for the Office services were found in the Breviary, while the Missal contained the texts of the Mass. The singers (generally the whole body of clergy or monastic community present) found their texts and chants in the Antiphonal (for the Office services) and the Gradual (for the Mass). A fifth book, the Processional, generally combined both the priest’s and the singers’ materials for processions.

Increasingly the details contained in the Ordinal and Customary were subsumed into the main books of the liturgy, especially once these books were printed rather than manuscript from the late fifteenth century onwards.

The numerous and often very substantial volumes of texts, chants and instructions for the medieval liturgy can be misleading. A large cathedral or monastery might not be able to supply over 100 copies of every book for each individual member of the community. Much was committed to memory, as had been the case for centuries. Only with the advent of printing was it more practical for multiple copies of books to be available. And given that before printing, manuscript copies had to be made of each book, it is not surprising that books written in different centuries were in use at the same time.

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The Sarum Customary

Codification of practices and customs was required when either a community or its building changed significantly, and especially when there was a new or substantially altered building. It is no surprise, therefore, to find that the versions of the Customary associated with Salisbury fall into two main groups: those intended for the first cathedral, and those intended for the second cathedral. The first group is generally known as ‘the Old Customary’, and the second as ‘the New Customary’.

On this website you can find four versions of the Sarum Customary, two Old and two New. Two of the manuscripts in which these versions of the Customary are found have close association with Salisbury Cathedral: an Old Customary within the bishop’s archive, and a New Customary in the cathedral library. The other two sources demonstrate how the liturgical Use of Salisbury spread to other parts of England and Wales (and beyond): an Old Customary that was owned by a parish church in Suffolk, and a New Customary now in the library of Corpus Christi College, Oxford.

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Consuetudinary or Customary?

The well-known edition of the Salisbury Customaries, edited by W. H. Frere as the first volume of The Use of Sarum, distinguishes between Consuetudinary and Customary, implying significantly different functions and contents. In fact ‘consuetudo’ translates as ‘custom’ and the liturgical book which includes such customs is ‘custumarium’. Here, therefore, the distinction has been made between Old Customary (which Frere refers to as Consuetudinary) and New Customary (which Frere identifies as Customary).

There are differences of approach, organisation and some contents in the Old and New Customaries (as indeed between the two versions of the Old Customary); but both Old and New Customary serve the same function of recording practice. Both versions of the Old Customary draw their authority from the Institutio Osmundi. The Institutio Osmundi is presented as an authoritative document: it and the Carta Osmundi serve as foundation documents. The Old Customary includes the greater part of the Institutio in its opening sections. Though the two versions of the Old Customary differ in the phrasing of their opening paragraph, they both convey the same import:

Personas et earum offitia. dignitates et consuetudines quibus ecclesia Saresbiriensis ordinatur et regitur iuxta institutionem felicis memorie Osmundi eiusdem fundatoris episcopi: presens tractatus explanat.

The present work describes the individual persons and their duties; {and} the privileges and the customs by which the [Cathedral] Church of Salisbury is organised and governed according to the institution of Bishop Osmund of blessed memory, the founder of the same.

The copy of the New Customary kept in the cathedral library begins in an entirely functional manner:

Incipit custumarium secundum usum Sarum.

Here begins the customary according to the use of Salisbury.

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