The Liturgy of the Medieval Church

By Roy, Neil J. | The Catholic Historical Review, July 2002 | Go to article overview

The Liturgy of the Medieval Church


Roy, Neil J., The Catholic Historical Review


The Liturgy of the Medieval Church. Edited by Thomas J. Heffernan and E.Ann Matter. (Kalamazoo, Michigan: Medieval Institute Publications, Western Michigan University. 2001. xviii, 778. $60.00 casebound; $30.00 paperbound.)

When Etienne Gilson set out in the 1920's to establish an institute dedicated to the study of medieval culture, he challenged the prejudices of the postEnlightenment Zeitgeist which dismissed the Middle Ages as a benighted period characterized by ignorance, superstition, and barbarism. "Through the work of the Institute of Medieval Studies; Gilson wrote, "we shall be able to reach back to the sources of our spiritual traditions, to drink more deeply of their waters and draw from them full life-giving strength." Gilson and his colleagues sought to provide an academic center where scholars could gather to read with appreciation and to plumb with sagacity and wisdom the wellsprings of medieval civilization. Crucial to any serious undertaking of Medieval Studies, of course, is a firm grasp of the nature and importance of Christian liturgy, the cultus which gave rise to the cultura of medieval western Europe.

In Gilson's day, familiarity with Catholic liturgy as well as Latin, the language of that liturgy, could be presumed on the part not only of clergy and religious who were obliged by vows or promises to the recitation of the Divine Office and to the celebration of Mass, but also many layfolk who followed the liturgical movement inaugurated in the nineteenth century by Dom Prosper Gueranger, the founding abbot of Solesmes. Non-Catholics, too, by merely attending Mass and Vespers in a parish or cathedral church, could get a fairly good, firsthand sense of how the liturgy might have been celebrated throughout most of the medieval West. In the train of Vatican Council II, however, such familiarity with medieval liturgy has become a rather rare commodity no less in the academy than in the general population. Beyond the steady secularization of western society over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, developments within the Catholic Church itself have contributed to a wider margin between the liturgical experience of medieval westerners and that of their spiritual heirs and descendants at the dawn of the twenty-first century. The vernacularization and simplification of both the Order of Mass and the Liturgy of the Hours, the 1970 revision of the general Roman calendar, and late-twentieth-century trends in ecclesiastical art and architecture, have all made the medieval liturgy more remote than had been the case in relatively recent history.

Hence the need for a book like this, which seeks to aid medievalists in approaching liturgical sources for the first time. The volume is aimed at "teachers who are preparing classes on the Middle Ages and [ ... ] advanced students who are beginning serious study of the liturgy." The editors have divided this collection of essays into six parts: the shape of the liturgical year; particular liturgies; the physical setting of the liturgy; the liturgy and books; the liturgy and the arts; and, finally, liturgy as social performance.

Three articles comprise the first section, which treats the liturgical year. Stephan Borgehammar explains the sanctification of time over the succession of fasts and feasts that comprise the liturgical calendar. Using a set of twelfthcentury sermons from the Benedictine abbey of Admont in Styria, a province in what is now Austria, as a lens through which to glimpse a typical monastic conception of the liturgical year, Borgehammar shows how medieval interpretations of the liturgical seasons and feasts reflected contemporary approaches to the fourfold "senses" or meanings of the Bible. Jonathan Black introduces readers to the intricacies of the Liturgy of the Hours, laying out the structure of the Divine Office in the Latin West and tracing the increasing privatization of what had been more clearly in Antiquity the public liturgical prayer of the Church.

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