Reading Room Log: Exploring the World of Late Medieval Liturgy and Music

A detailed capital illustration from the 1487 Augustinian Gradual, MS.2005.059, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

The Burns Library is a great place to explore the history of liturgy and music. One way to begin is to compare the more recent liturgical books with those from previous centuries. Of special note are those books predating the reforms of the Council of Trent (1545-1563) and the new “Tridentine” Missal (1570) and Breviary (1568). The Tridentine reforms promulgated a single reformed, standardized, printed Roman Rite that would supersede all but the most ancient local variations (for example, the Ambrosian and Mozarabic rites, or the distinctive “uses” of the Dominicans and Franciscans).

Whatever one thinks of liturgical reform, the facts on the ground tend to defy easy explanation. After Trent, it was not the case that Catholic liturgy (much less music) became, overnight, cleansed of all local difference. And before Trent, despite a great variety of local variation, both in printed books and manuscripts, there was at the same time a deep center of common tradition, whether in a central text like the Roman Canon, or in minor liturgical propers like those for the commemoration of saints (not to mention the popular piety and practices that accompanied these rites).

A page from the 1487 Augustinian gradual.

Some of the more interesting pre-Tridentine books at Burns concern the musical aspect of liturgy. And while these books are beautiful and interesting on their own, they also give us one specific way of observing the ways that the liturgy has changed – or stayed the same – over the centuries.

A few notes on vocabulary are in order. Under the broad label of Catholic liturgy there are three main categories: (1) the Mass, or the Eucharistic liturgy; (2) the Office, or the liturgy of daily prayer; and (3) the Ritual, which encompasses a great variety of other sacraments and blessings, from Ordination (usually in a separate book known as the Pontificale) and Penance to Matrimony and the blessing of crops. For now let us focus on the first two, Mass and Office, not least because they are easier to track. (For more on medieval liturgical books, see this.)

The Mass and Office have their own division of texts. The ordinary parts are those that are invariable, such as the Kyrie or the Sanctus of the Mass, or the Canticles (like the Magnificat) of the Divine Office. The propers are those parts of the liturgy that change with the season. The “proper” liturgy is thus the liturgy of the day, whether the first Sunday of Advent, Maundy Thursday, or the commemoration of a saint. There are propers for both Mass and Office. This is still the case today, though many of the traditional propers for Mass have fallen out of use.

As the Church’s liturgy developed over the centuries, so did the books that supported it. What we call “Missals” are the latest in a long and complicated string of books. Missals, whether today’s missals for the faithful or late medieval missals for clergy, contain the complete text of the Mass, both ordinary and proper. Similarly, the Breviary (the equivalent is today’s Liturgy of the Hours) contain all necessary texts for the Divine Office.

These modern books, almost universal by the 16th century, organize themselves around particular kinds of liturgy: a book for the mass, a book for the office, a book for other services. Older books tended to relate more to specific roles: a Sacramentale for the priest, a gospel book for the deacon, a Pontificale for the bishop, and a Graduale for the choir.

Part of a Kyrie from the Kyriale section in the Augustinian gradual.

Graduals are named for one of the liturgical propers that go with Mass, the gradual psalm which is sung between the epistle and gospel readings. Though all propers are usually included in a missal, it was customary, especially in cathedral or abbey settings, for them to be sung by a choir, so the Gradual provides musical notation for these propers. Many late medieval graduals, like the 1487 Augustinian Gradual (additional photos held at Burns, were large enough for several monks or friars to use at once. The gradual was used in the choir while the priest had his own missal or sacramentary at the altar.

The Augustinian Gradual at Burns has two main parts. In the front is a Graduale, containing the proper chants for saints’ feasts as well as the propers for certain seasons and moveable holy days. Behind this is a Kyriale, a compilation of several chant settings of the ordinary parts of the Mass. (For a more extensive description of the book’s contents, see the Finding Aid in the Burns Reading Room.)

The Introit “Nunc scio vere” for June 29 in the Augustinian gradual.

Let’s take a look at the propers for the feast of Saints Peter and Paul, which falls on June 29. The introit, Nunc scio vere, quotes Acts 12:11: “Now I know in very deed, that the Lord hath sent his angel, and hath delivered me out of the hand of Herod, and from all the expectation of the people of the Jews.” Introits, like other propers, typically include both an antiphon, either Biblical or traditional, and a Psalm verse.

The introit Nunc scio vere remains part of the more recent Graduale Romanum, published in 1961. The chant notation is slightly different, but the text and melody are identical. If you’d like an idea of what that melody is, take a look at this video featuring the introit from the 1961 Gradual.

Folio 28b of the 14th century Franciscan Antiphoner, MS.1996.097, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

Looking at another aspect of the same day, the Divine Office contains numerous propers for the feast, including antiphons for use with the Magnificat at Vespers. Burns also has a 14th century Franciscan Antiphoner, which gives chant notation for these antiphons. (See the Reading Room’s Finding Aid for a more detailed description of the manuscript, as well as the digitized version here.)

On folio 28 we find the beginning of the Magnificat antiphon for first vespers, Tu es pastor ovium. Translated the antiphon reads, “Thou art Shepherd of the sheep, and Prince of the Apostles, and unto thee are given the keys of the kingdom of heaven.” The text refers, of course, to St. Peter, and this traditional antiphon has continued in use up to the present, again with the same melody.

Much more can be said about the development of late medieval/early modern music and liturgy, as well as about these two beautiful manuscripts. Burns provides an excellent place to start.

  • Samuel Keyes,Burns Library Reading Room Student Assistant & Doctoral Student in the Theology Department
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