Magazine article New Oxford Review

Hidden Treasures from the Middle Ages

Magazine article New Oxford Review

Hidden Treasures from the Middle Ages

Article excerpt

HIDDEN TREASURES FROM THE MIDDLE AGES 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 Pontiñcal 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 Confíteor. 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. …

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