On Eves, Vigils, and First Vespers, (Digression)

Some comments on the last post prompt me to say a little more about the pre- and non-Reformation systems for dealing with kalendars. Let me say right off the bat that this is not an area where I consider myself an expert; I’ll be grateful for additions here from more informed readers.

One of the reasons I start off that way is because of the situation in the time of my main focus. In the early medieval monastic period, there are few clear surviving written records concerning how rules of precedence and such were ordered (observe for a second the number of caveats there: “clear”, “surviving”, “written”!) If you go to the seminal piece on liturgical books in Anglo-Saxon England,* the only text for dealing with such issues is item U: Consuetudinary. When you go to the text itself, Gneuss gives only a brief note:

The ordinal contains instructions concerning the texts and performance of the liturgy of mass and Office, either for the whole church year or for certain parts of it. In the consuetudinary (or customary) such liturgical instructions or ordines are combined with rules relating to the life and customs of a monastic community or a collegiate church. Such ordinals and consuetudinaries may vary considerably, according to the time and place of their composition and use. I have chosen the heading ‘consuetudinary’ because the pertinent Anglo­-Saxon (and early Anglo‑Norman) texts whose editions are listed below do not deal exclusively with liturgical matters. As will be seen, all these texts were intended for use in English monasteries and cathedral priories in the tenth and eleventh centuries. No specific Old English term seems to exist; none of the texts is found as a separate volume.

Gneuss throws around a number of terms here that will become technical terms for writers dealing with later periods. The ones I’ll note are ordinals, customary, and consuetudinary. There is no real precision to their use here because, as Gneuss says, the distinctions haven’t evolved yet.

The Ordines Romani are an important factor here. While they don’t receive a category of their own—i.e., we don’t really have “ordinals” proper yet—these were the documents that told you how all of your different books were supposed to fit together. Remember, within the early medieval period we had liturgical books with contents grouped by function: the choir had their book, the cantor had his book, the priest had his book, etc. The ordines provided the structure for how they interrelated. I confess that I don’t know if ordines XX-XXXVIII address precedence issues or not. We do have some surviving continental manuscripts that are collections of ordines (like Cod. Sang. 349) but these are also not ordinals in the future sense.

In any case, Gneuss lists four customaries, two of which may be familiar to readers of these pages, the Concordia Regularis and Aelfric’s “Letter to the Monks at Eynsham” (LME). These texts tend to be instructions that fill out the sparse descriptions of common life in Benedict’s Rule with a more precise detailing of the day, season, and year and add in the extra liturgical services common within a Cluniac inspired monastic system.

As you read through the LME, therefore, you find lists of incipits and when they are supposed to begin and end. On the matter of festal days, Aelfric makes two comments, one in his discussion of the liturgies of the summer period, the other tucked into his discussion of the readings of the Night Office:

55. If the Nativity of John the Baptist should fall on a Sunday, we desire to retain all the readings and the responsaries about John himself. The same


for [the feasts of] the Assumption and Nativity of St Mary and the Feast of St Michael: should [any of these] occur on a Sunday, we desire to retain [their liturgies] in full. Again, we do the same for the feast of All Saints and [the feasts] of all the apostles, except those which occur in Advent or [in the period] from Septuagesima to Easter. But as for other feasts not observed by the laity, if they fall on Sunday and have a full history [of their own], let us read about them in the first and third position, and about the Sunday in the second. (LME, 139)

Then later on the Night Office:

73. But on all feasts of the saints, throughout the entire year, we read lives or passions of the saints themselves, or sermons appropriate to the given solemnity, and [we sing] proper responsories, if these are to be had; if not, we sing other appropriate ones and adopt for the third position [readings] from a homily on the gospel as we do always and everywhere. (LME, 147)

Thus, there is very little here about the vexing issue of Vespers, notably because of Aelfric’s focus on the Night Office.

Going back to the issue of liturgical books, there was one other item used in conjunction with the customary and that was the computus/compotus (OE gerim). This is the book that would tell you how to calculate the movable feasts and get into fun topics like lunar epacts, Golden Numbers, and dominical letters. (Gneuss discusses these briefly under item X with Calendars).

So, there were three major items, the ordines, the customary, and the computus that could be used in conjunction to figure out what was done when. The overwhelming sense that I get from reading the customaries, though, is that these tended to be descriptive rather than prescriptive and that, practically, it would boil down to however the community decided to run things.

As things evolved within English liturgy and as we moved more to the sway of the Sarum Rite, there were, in theory, two major texts which are edited together (among other items) in the two volume Use of Sarum, the consuetudinary and the ordinal. Knowing the early medieval background, having two documents makes perfect sense: the consuetudinary discusses the ritual and tells how the various groups of people interact, while the ordinal describes the liturgical orders and what masses and offices are to be said when.

The “old Ordinal” and the succeeding “new Ordinal” didn’t answer all of the possible questions so in the late Sarum period we get documents like the Crede Michi that address controverted questions. These led one Clement Maydeston in the early 1450’s to create a master document called the Ordinale Sarum sive Directorium Sacerdotum that serves to solve these issues once and for all. (This was edited in two volumes for the Henry Bradshaw Society, vol. 20 and vol. 22.)

If you do the math, there are 35 ways that the liturgical year can be arranged based on the possibilities for the date of Easter and when Sundays fall. Accordingly, Maydeston laid out those 35 options from the period between the Sunday following the Octave of Epiphany through the first few Sundays after Trinity. These were then labeled according to the dominical letter  A through G, then the five possible options for each of these were laid out (e.g., primum A, secundum A, tercium A, etc.). Once the “Easter affected” portions of the year had been dealt with,  the rest of the year was gathered into a sixth section (e.g., sextum A).

Here’s a sample for Jan 19th through the 22nd for primum A:

sample from the Directorium

Thursday is of St Wulstan, bishop and confessor; nine lessons are read from the Common of Saints. The Little Chapter starts: “Behold a priest…” At First Vespers and the Night Office there are memorials of the BVM. Second Vespers is of Sts Fabian and Sebastian. Little Chapter starts: “The souls of the righteous…” and there are memorials of St Wulstan and the BVM.

Friday is of the martyrs Sts Fabian and Sebastian; nine lessons are read at the Night Office with no exposition of the Gospel of the Day and there is a memorial of the BVM. The Second Vespers is of St Agnes, virgin. The Little Chapter starts: “I will confess…”, and memorials are made of Sts Fabian and Sebastian and the BVM.

etc. . . .

Thus, it identifies First Vespers (primas vesperas) and Second (Secunde vespere) and lets you know what to do in each case.

Parts of this tool, then, were  cut up and inserted into the Sarum Breviary as the pica or directions on what to do.

Considering the level of detail to which the Directorium descends, Anglo-Catholics through the ages have wondered if Archbishop Cranmer had not exaggerated the difficulties facing clergy in understanding how to say their breviary. All they had to do was flip to the right section of the Directorium and they could tell what was to be done.

I’m not even going to touch that one…

Furthermore, the whole issue of precedence of Vespers has, in modern times, been reduced to a chart that offers a comparison of what is done when. Here’s one from the Marquis of Bute’s English edition of the Tridentine Breviary:

As long as you know the rankings of the various days, you can figure out what you’re supposed to be celebrating. It makes sense, but isn’t an intuitive process until you’ve used it for a little while.

So, these are some of the items referred to in the previous post that give more information on the pre- and non-Reformation ways of reckoning the Vespers issues. Back to the American 1979 BCP in the next post.

* Helmut Gneuss, “Liturgical Books in Anglo-Saxon England and their Old English terminology,” pages 91-141 in Learning and literature in Anglo-Saxon England : studies presented to Peter Clemoes on the occasion of his sixty-fifth birthday, edited by Michael Lapidge and Helmut Gneuss (Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985)