Hidden Treasures from the Middle Ages

April 2014By Rosemary Lunardini

Rosemary Lunardini is a frequent contributor to the NOR and the author of The Mass in My Life: Cries of the Heart in the Prayers of the Mass.

A Sense of the Sacred: Roman Catholic Worship in the Middle Ages.  By James Monti. Ignatius Press. 683 pages. $34.95.



James Monti finds it troubling that so many people admire old Catholic churches but fail to ask: What took place inside them? The art and architecture of the great basilicas are part of everyone’s European itinerary, and many people are knowledgeable about them; yet the substance of the worship they were home to, the prayers and rubrics, are largely ignored.

Worshipers in the Middle Ages were also in awe of their surroundings, and their prayers were inspired by these beautiful works of architectural art. “What took place inside” the churches, however, came from the various sacramentaries and missals. We overlook, at our own loss, the beautiful written works of liturgical art — rich in scriptural, theological, mystical, and allegorical meanings. Monti maintains that ignorance is not the only culprit. “More troubling,” he writes, “has been the vilification of medieval liturgy by those intent upon ridding Catholic worship of its medieval inheritance.” It is a misinterpretation of Vatican II, he adds, to desacralize, secularize, and politicize liturgy in an attempt to make it “relevant.”

In A Sense of the Sacred, Monti, a translator of Latin hymns and prayers for Magnificat and author of a spiritual biography of St. Thomas More, has reproduced examples of the liturgy of the Middle Ages — some of them previously unknown or untranslated. The written medieval sources embody a sense of the sacred that grew out of the early prayers of the Church during centuries of persecution, when worship was often done in secret. Mostly anonymous authors in the Middle Ages added to and modified the liturgy of their patristic ancestors. Liturgical commentators and historians wrote their own works about the liturgy and its meaning, down to the finest detail. Theological understanding of the liturgy became fuller and deeper, while an emphasis on allegory enriched worship for the faithful.

In this long period of about a thousand years, there were many missals as dioceses and monasteries often made their own redactions of some other missal, often an influential one. Yet Monti’s studies show that various areas of Europe produced missals that shared great similarity with one another and with their common heritage of worship within the Church, even while they added some prayers, hymns, and rubrics of their own. Eventually, what was considered the best of these came together in the Pontifical Romanum (1595), which became the norm for the Roman rite of the Church.

In conducting his historical research, Monti uncovered a large number of liturgical treasures from primary and secondary sources, which he has divided into sections for the sacraments, beginning with the Mass, major celebrations, and other special rites. The Mass, which was seen as evoking events from the life, death, and Resurrection of Christ, deserves special attention.

Monti’s primary example of the medieval Mass is from the Sarum rite (ca. 1489) of Salisbury, England, which was used in southern England, Ireland, and Scotland. This was the Mass celebrated daily by St. John Fisher and attended by St. Thomas More. Here are virtually all recognizable parts of the Mass, in more or less the same order, but with some interesting differences. For example, in the Sarum Mass, Psalm 42:4 (“I will go unto the altar of God who gives joy to my youth”) was said by the priest in the sacristy rather than at the foot of the altar, as was done in most other rites from the ninth century on. The sign of peace was given twice during the Sarum Mass, the first occurring just after the Confiteor. A “Pax Board” was kissed by the priest, who then gave it to the deacon, who kissed it and gave it to the subdeacon, and so it was passed to all at the altar.

The Kyrie and Gloria were embellished by troping, which became widespread in Europe. Tropes were verses added to the original verses; for example, in the Kyrie the additions came in the form of other titles addressing God and asking for mercy. The collect, epistle, gradual (responsorial psalm), and sequence led to the Gospel. The two sides of the altar were interpreted mystically by the medieval Church. The epistle was read on the right side, which signified the Jews to whom Christ first came; the Gospel was read on the left because Christ proclaimed it for sinners, and because, in Matthew’s Gospel on the Last Judgment, the wicked are on the left side of Christ.

Virtually everything in the medieval liturgy was endowed with some sort of allegorical meaning, of which different commentators, including popes and saints, offered a variety of interpretations. The modern mind might ask what difference it makes, but surely there was an “original” reason for the priest moving from one side of the altar to the other, as he did until the Novus Ordo missal of the twentieth century — though the original reason might never be definitively known. The varied allegorical meanings do make sense as they stand alongside the literal, and they mostly all seem appropriate explanations, though in some cases they are a bit strained. Monti suggests that allegorical meanings help to focus the mind of the worshiper on the prayers and actions taking place during the Mass.

In the Nicene Creed, the choir bowed or knelt at the words of the Incarnation. In the offertory that followed, the mixing of water and wine usually occurred, but in the Sarum Mass the priest had already done this at the Gospel. The words of the priest carried the meaning for this rubric: “May it be blessed by him from whose side went out blood and water.” We also have two alternate explanations, given by William Durandus, bishop of Mende, France (d. 1296), who said that the mixing of water and wine in the chalice symbolizes the union of Christ with the faithful and also the union of Christ’s two natures in one person. (The English translation of this prayer in pre-Vatican II missals provides yet another catechesis: “Grant that through the mystery of this water and wine, we may be made partakers of His Divinity, who has condescended to become partaker of our humanity.”) Durandus was a noteworthy liturgical historian and author who was devoted to the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, a Catholic belief that received fuller and deeper understanding during the Middle Ages.

At the offertory, altar cloths symbolized the burial cloths of Christ. The corporal was opened and spread on the altar. In an allegorical sense, this was the Lord’s shroud. The pall on the chalice was the wrapping for the head of Christ. This ancient symbolism goes back at least to Pope Sylvester I (314-335), who also deemed that only linen, from the earth, be used for altar cloths. The incensation of the oblation followed, then the washing of hands, the secret, preface, Sanctus, and Roman canon (now Eucharistic Prayer I). The canon dates at least to the fourth century and was thought to re-present the sacrifice of the high priest on entering the Holy of Holies, a prefigurement of Christ’s offering on Calvary. The priest, signing the cross five times over the gifts, imitated the Jewish high priest sprinkling the blood of sacrifice at the altar.

The genuflection of the priest at the consecration, a rubric practiced today, only dates for certain to the fifteenth century, though other clergy on the altar knelt, sometimes to the end of the canon. The Humbert Codex of the Dominican Order (1263) called for continual incensing and kneeling at the consecration by those on the altar. The Lord’s Prayer and Agnus Dei followed in the Sarum Mass. The Agnus Dei is another prayer that was troped; for example, “Lamb of God, my heart has uttered a good word; I declare my works to the King. Have mercy on us.” The Pax Board was again kissed as a sign of peace. Communion was then received on the tongue, under one species after the twelfth century, and while kneeling in almost every instance. The reading of the prologue of St. John’s Gospel was seen as a blessing at the end of Mass.

The lay faithful usually received Communion only once a year because of the greatness of this sacrament. The sacrament of penance was also rare, often being received only once in a lifetime. It too was treated in a very serious manner. The penitent met in the rectory with the priest, who gave the penitent catechesis and then penance to do before returning for absolution. The priest and penitent then went into the church together and prostrated themselves before the altar.

The section of Monti’s book on the sacrament of matrimony contains an interesting description of the use of the veil. A length of cloth or ribbon was placed around the neck of the groom and then over the head of the bride. It symbolized not only their union as man and wife but the “stole” around the neck of the groom also evoked the biblical “yoke” of Christ (“for my yoke is easy”), as the stole of the priest does in the sacrament of holy orders. At a marriage ceremony, special prayers were said for the woman as child-bearer.

Processions are a striking example of the growth of the sense of the sacred in medieval Europe. Perhaps no single ceremony shows more clearly the openness and acceptance of society of the sacred than a procession that went from one church to another, or across the countryside from one village to another, with the people who were working in the fields or lining the roadways genuflecting as the Blessed Sacrament was carried by. The first record of a Palm Sunday procession comes from 382, when a Spanish pilgrim, Egeria, observed it in Jerusalem. By 1570 this procession kicked off Holy Week throughout the universal Church. It was a sign not only of the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem but also of the entry of the redeemed into the heavenly Jerusalem.

The rich and solemn rites of Holy Week, centering on the Triduum, are extensively covered in Monti’s book. Throughout Europe, from the seventh century on, Holy Thursday began with a public penitential rite before or during Mass, in which the deacon recited before the bishop these formidable words: “Now is the acceptable time, O venerable bishop, the day of divine clemency and the salvation of man, in which death receives its ruin and eternal life takes its beginning, when a planting of new shoots is likewise to be made in the vineyard of the Lord Sabaoth, that the curse of the old may be cleared away….” The Blessed Sacrament was processed from the altar to a repository, where it remained until the Easter vigil. The repository represented Christ’s sepulcher, a symbolic recognition that arose in eleventh-century France of Christ’s three days and three nights in the tomb. A small bell, a missal, and empty cruets were also placed in monument together with the Eucharist — likely a sign that Mass would not be offered again until the Easter vigil. Perhaps because the liturgy was so expressive in itself, no medieval commentator ventured an interpretation. But in 1995 Bl. John Paul II said that “the dark chapel” is the “prison where Our Lord Jesus spent the night between Thursday and Friday.”

Veneration of the Cross was recorded in Jerusalem in 382, when a relic of the True Cross was kissed on Good Friday. The washing of the cross, signifying the washing of Christ’s body, began in Jerusalem during the early centuries, accompanied by this hymn: “Behold the glorious wood on which were hung the members of Christ our Savior redeeming the world.” It is very similar to the later antiphon, Ecce lignum Crucis: “Behold the wood of the cross on which hung the salvation of the world.” By the eleventh century the cross had developed into the crucifix. The Twelve Petitions for the world on this day and the “reproaches” (“My people, what have I done to you?”) sung in the person of Christ — traced in part to a second-century homily — are fine examples of the organic development of Catholic liturgy into the present day.

This concept of organic development, cited often by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, is one of the best lessons to take away from this exceptional book, which provides hundreds of examples of how the Church’s liturgy has developed in a systematic way. True, there were many missals that gave rise to innovation, but what remains of them is true to, and expressive of, Catholic beliefs. Presumably anything else fell by the wayside, as the Church in Rome adapted various rites and put together a universal missal in the sixteenth century. It is interesting to note that the Church recently approved the Third Typical Edition of the Roman Missal, reflecting many centuries of traditional liturgy — with some gains and some losses.

It is to Monti’s credit that, on the whole, he does not try to compare the details of the medieval and modern liturgies. He lets the medieval come to light to be appreciated on its own, through its own missals and commentaries. He hopes that these will help change what he considers to be negative modern assumptions about, and condescension toward, the medieval period. He also hopes that his study will influence the liturgy of the future to express more of the sense of the sacred, inherited from our ancestors in the faith, who saw meaning in each and every word and action. Monti, however, does not pinpoint what is lacking in the sense of the sacred in the present day. The reader is left to his own comparative conclusions or, even better, to the writings of Benedict XVI, one of the Church’s greatest liturgists. In The Spirit of the Liturgy, Benedict identifies the movement of the altar closer to the people as one mid-twentieth-century gain, and the failure to orient our prayers to the East as one loss. Monti writes that “we need to learn from medieval Christendom that the liturgy is before all else an act of adoration humbly and reverently offered to the infinitely good and infinitely holy God of the universe.” A “forgotten commandment,” he says, is the first part of the First Great Commandment: to love God.

The content of A Sense of the Sacred is so immense that, alongside satisfying an interest in its subject, readers would benefit greatly by coming back to the book over and over as the liturgical year progresses, to read the prayers and contemplate the meanings that arose out of Scripture and the Church’s expression of the sacred.



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A prayer from the lighting of the Paschal Candle at an Easter vigil. Five grains of incense (for the five wounds of Christ) have been pressed, in the Sign of the Cross, into the wax of the candle:
“In the grace of this night, therefore, receive, holy Father, the evening sacrifice of this incense that your most holy Church, through the hands of your ministers, renders you in this solemn oblation of a candle from the labors of bees.”




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