On The Sarum Rite: Beginnings

Let me begin with a disclaimer… My area of study is, broadly, the lived interpretation of the New Testament as it appears in preaching, Christian formation, and liturgy. While I have an interest and a certain expertise in medieval liturgy, my major encounter with the sources has focused on English, pre-Conquest monastic liturgies with a special focus on the Office (and, naturally, later Anglican develo0pments). Most of the following discussion will be about the Sarum Rite/Use (we’ll tackle that “/” later) which is an English post-Conquest secular tradition, largely focused around the Mass. Thus, my tendency is to read the later sources through what I know of the earlier sources rather than the other way around.

Indeed, one of the things I’ve never fully understood about the Sarum Rite is where it came from and how it differs from the pre-Conquest missals that I’ve studied. That is, from the texts of the missals themselves (i.e., leaving aside the complicated questions of ceremonial), what emerges at Trent doesn’t seem all that different from a book like the Missal of Robert of Jumieges, the central exemplar of the Late Anglo-Saxon Benedictine Revival. Where do the differences appear that make “Sarum” distinctive from both its English precursors and its later continental parallels?

That’s precisely where Richard Pfaff starts in Chapter 10 of The Liturgy of Medieval England: A History which is entitled “Old Sarum: The beginnings of Sarum Use.” I’m not going to follow his argument closely for the sake of clarity, but here are some of the major take-aways that I found in this chapter.

First, it’s important to keep at the forefront of our minds that such a thing as the “Sarum Use” is a synthetic abstraction. We can’t imagine people all across Southern England using the same colors, ceremonial, practices, and liturgies in lock-step with one another. Economics, technology, and local circumstances make this impossible. That is, you can’t imagine that a little parish church had the same vestments, participants, and space that the cathedral at Salisbury did. A wealthy church would have more vestments and, presumably, more and newer books than a poorer one. Furthermore, churches dedicated to certain saints or containing certain relics would need different liturgies from others. Just because a Salisbury altar consecrated to a certain saint received a special liturgy wouldn’t mean that liturgy would be performed in another church without such an altar. So, what is “Sarum” is defined as a set of customs and characteristics that generally hold among a set of practices and books. And then there’s the factor of how these items change or don’t change over time which is an entirely other can of worms…

Second, (speaking of time) it’s important to recognize the effects of both time and liturgical space in attempting to wrap our heads around Sarum practice. Strictly and narrowly defined, “Sarum” refers to the books and practices of the Salisbury diocese as archetypically represented in the books and practices of the cathedral of said diocese. And that’s a moving target. In one of the main synthetic narratives of what Sarum is and isn’t is the suggestion that Sarum Use in its totality—books, rubrics, colors, vestments, what have you—was codified by one guy, Richard Poore, at one time, 1225, at one place, Salisbury Cathedral. Unfortunately, as Pfaff lays out, it doesn’t work like that; this simplistic narrative simply can’t account for the actual historical evidence.

There are some important factors in terms of time and place, however. Generally speaking, the Norman Conquest of England from 1066 on was a turning point. While Norman influence had been building in the second quarter of the eleventh century, William the Bastard brought a sea change in the way church establishment was done from the Late Anglo-Saxon ways. At the end of my period, the Benedictine Revival (970 and forward) had seen the transformation of cathedrals into monastic rather than secular foundations. So—all the clergy hanging around were monks rather than canons. With the Conquest there were literal “see” changes; diocesan centers were moved to different towns within their territory and Norman churchmen usually replaced the previous Anglo-Saxon incumbents.

(Think of state capitals on the eastern seaboard of the US—most of them are, now days—fairly minor cities within their states; population and business centers have shifted over the years. Same thing there. The centers of old Anglo-Saxon diocese didn’t meet the needs and geography of the new Norman realm so they were moved to fit the new landscape.)

Also, the Norman churchmen returned to the more normal pattern of having secular canons at cathedrals rather than monks.

Thus, the old Anglo-Saxon diocese had its cathedral at Sherborne with a monastic community. After the Conquest, the see was moved to Old Sarum around 1075 and established with canons. Then, the see was moved to its present location at Salisbury (New Sarum) in around 1225. What we consider Sarum was finalized in the new cathedral but was begun beforehand at Old Sarum.

Third, in terms of the change from the Anglo-Saxon materials into Sarum materials we can see three major influences. One is monastic. Despite the move away from Sherborne and the establishment of canons, there may be what Pfaff calls a “shadowy” monastic influence particularly in the ceremonial going by the testimony of English additions to a Old Sarum copy of the Romano-German Pontifical (the major ceremonial guide used by the early medieval church). The second is the establishment of canons themselves. A set number of priests meant something both for how many participants there could be in liturgy and how many altars the church could have. Last is the example of Leofric C. The Leofric Missal is one from my period which contains three distinctive parts, A, B, and C. A and B are earlier monastic Anglo-Saxon/Breton texts. Leofric C reflects the efforts of Leofric, Bishop of Exeter, and his updating of the book to reflect his secular situation. Something similar must have happened with the Sherborne/Old Sarum liturgies—we just have no evidence of what they started with and exactly what happened when.

What we can say is that distinctively Sarum saints and rubrics appear in the Sarum gradual from between 1200 and 1220, but the earliest surviving missal, the Crawford Missal) is from sometime around 1275 or so. Furthermore, the earliest reference to a Sarum customary also seems to predate both the foundation of Salisbury Cathedral and our oldest missal. Thus, Pfaff concludes the chapter with “this tentative, simple, and indeed obvious conclusion: that there existed a self-conscious Sarum liturgical tradition well before either the new cathedral at Salisbury was begun in 1220 or the ‘Old’ Sarum ordinal was drawn up” (Pfaff, 364).

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