American Sarum: Sunday Afternoon

Session 5: Dr. John Harper: Sonic Ceremonial

This session was amazing. I don’t have learning to appreciate fully everything that he said, but it has taken my understanding of late medieval liturgy up a level. (That’s not to say that you had to have a lot of prior learning to get anything out of it, just that he covered the whole spectrum. A shotgun blast of erudition!) I received a strong sense of how intellectual my knowledge of liturgy in this period is; I know books and books about books. What I don’t know nearly as well are the spaces in which the liturgies were conducted, the timing of the various parts and how both of these overlapped.

Cathedrals: Multiple and Overlapping Spaces

Using the plans of Hereford Cathedral, Dr. Harper identified the three principal worship spaces within a late medieval cathedral.

The heart of the cathedral’s worship life is the choir (quire) which contained the high altar. This section is located literally at the heart of the cathedral where the two transepts come together. This is where the main body of canons would gather to sing the Offices and would celebrate the Mass of the Day. (I believe the organ is located here, but I can’t swear to it.)

To the east is the Lady Chapel. In this area, a separately funded body of people are attending to the various services for Our Lady. Thus, there was daily a Matins, Lauds, Vespers, and Compline of the BVM, the Lady Mass, and, after Compline, the Antiphon/Anthem ceremony when choral arrangements of the Antiphons (Alma Mater Redemptoris, Salve Regina, etc.) would be sung.

To the west of the Choir is the Nave or the parish church. You don’t see it in the 1950’s plans I inked to, but there was a stone pulpitum (essentially a big stone rood screen that you could get on top of—readings would be done from its top) that separated the Choir from the Nave. The Nave was the parochial space. The parish priest led masses, baptisms, weddings, funerals, and the Friday Jesus Mass in this space. However—note the aisle in the plan… On Sundays and Holydays processions that went forth from both the Choir and the Lady Chapel would travel around this space as the various services overlapped and inter-related. And it’s this inter-relation of space that must be considered to understand the full impact of sound and action in late medieval liturgy. There could literally be three different services going on at the same time—on in each of the three main spaces—and variously interacting with one another sonically if not physically. Indeed, there are surviving complaints from canons that the noise from the parish masses was interfering with their choir services.

The organ would only play on Sundays and Holydays and, I believe, supported what was going on in the Choir. Hearing this piece of information made me realize that I have to reconsider the old Lent and Advent restrictions on organ playing—these never originally applied to parish settings, as far as I can tell, and chiefly impacted the Choir only!

Rochester Cathedral: Who does what when


Rochester Cathedral (note the photo of the in-place pulpitum with the pipe ranks atop it and the railing where the reader would stand to read into the Choir but be seen and heard in the Nave) which has its Lady Chapel in the South Transept gives us a great opportunity to look at exactly how worship would have been late out in the period after Henry VIII’s break with Rome but before the institution of the Book of Common Prayer. This is English Sarum in its heyday. The reason why it’s such a terrific case is because Rochester had been staffed by a Benedictine priory. With the dissolution of the monasteries in 1540, it was re-founded as a secular cathedral by letters patent in June of 1541. Bishop Nicholas Heath drew up a set of injunctions in 1543 and statues in 1544 to regulate the life and worship of the new cathedral structure.

Here’s the breakdown of people we find in Heath’s directions:

  • Dean and Chapter (7 people)
    • Dean
    • 6 canons
  • Choral Body (23 people)
    • 6 minor canons (clergy)
    • 6 clerks (lay or clergy)
    • 1 Master of Choristers
    • 8 Choristers
    • Deacon and Subdeacon
  • Grammar School (22 people)
    • 2 Instructors of Grammar
    • 20 Grammar boys
  • Church servants and poor men (12 people)
    • 2 Vergers
    • 2 Bellringers/sweepers
    • 2 Porters
    • 6 Poor men
  • Household Servants (4 people)
    • 2 butlers
    • 2 cooks


These people were then correlated to a chart that displayed how these various groups were deployed across the day for Holydays and Workdays. (The chart is copyrighted or I’d post it.) There are five possible staffing groups that were deployed for various services based on the service and the rank of the day:

  • Choristers: these were the 8 singers and their Master of Choristers who also doubled as the organist
  • Priests and clerks: these were the 6 minor canons and the 6 clerks (I don’t know if the Chapter is included here as I don’t know how often they were around. I expect that the deacon and subdeacon were in this group as well.)
  • Full choir: Choristers + Priests and clerks
  • Full choir & Grammar school: Like it says, full choir + boys
  • Said: It’s on the chart but isn’t explicitly described. Clearly the minimum necessary here is a priest and a server.

From the chart it’s clear that the Choristers and Master of Choristers are the main body for the Lady Chapel and the Priests & Clerks inhabit the Choir on Workdays. The Choristers are used for the Jesus Mass in the parish church on Fridays. On Holydays, the Full Choir and the Grammar School come together for big blowout events.


Since this was a conference for musicians, the “what” in this case was the music. There were three basic kinds of music used:

  • Plainsong—sung unison
  • Improvised polyphony (organum)—plainsong with two parts added, one moving in open fifths above, the other moving below by a fourth IIRC
  • Composed polyphony (pricksong)—this is the composed polyphony for a set of voices (anywhere from 3 to a maximum of 12 (!!)) that we’re used to from Byrd and others

On a regular workday, the only people who would be singing polyphony at Rochester Cathedral according to Bp. Heath’s directions were the Choristers when they sang at Lady Mass 8 AM every morning but Saturday. (On non-festal Saturdays, the Lady Mass was the Mass of the Day and was sung by the Full Choir at the main Mass of the Day slot; the Lady Mass was only “said” at 8 AM in the Lady Chapel). On the Eves of all Doubles (including Saturdays as eves of Sunday), the Full Choir sang the Anthem of the BVM in composed Polyphony. The Grammar School joined with the Full Choir for the Anthem on Holydays.  Thus, in the 8 surviving major sources of liturgical polyphony from the period,

  • 29% of the pieces are for the Mass
  • 33% of the pieces are for the Office
  • 39% of the pieces are for the Anthem

When it comes to the Mass, very little of the Propers get embellished. Instead what receives the embellishing is the Ordinary of the Mass. Again, most singers will be familiar with this as the major mass pieces are the Ordinary: Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Agnus Dei. (Note, though, that in Sarum non-votive masses, the Kyrie was troped and thus was part of the Proper, not the Ordinary—hence no Kyries in most Byrd Masses; it’s because they’re Sarum…)

In the Offices, the main areas for polyphony were the final Respond of Matins and the Magnificat (not the Benedictus, note). Compline was sung separately from Vespers and tended to be more formal (more formal than what I’m not sure—my notes don’t say: possible answers could be “than Vespers” or “than continental sources”).

As a side note, note that music composed for the Lady Chapel is small-space music—it wasn’t intended to fill the whole space of the cathedral because it didn’t have to.

Dr. Harper then displayed a fascinating chart that I didn’t have anywhere near time to copy down. It displayed the correspondence between liturgical “height” of a feast and the number of voices liturgical music (usually Masses) for the feast contained. It was a very clear distribution of kalendrical importance expressed through song. Christmas received pieces for 8 voices on one end of the spectrum; All Saints, and Feasts of Confessors and Martyrs received 5 at the other.

One of his main points in the discussion of music on the eve of the Reformation is how much of it survived. Organs narrowly missed being banned by one vote (in Parliament, I believe) and Elizabeth saved the choirs. As we consider late Medieval liturgy/music and the transition into the early Anglican experiment, the retention of music must be kept in mind.

Experiencing a Sarum Liturgy

The second part of Dr. Harper’s presentation was watching a video of a reconstruction of a Sarum service for the reconciliation of penitents. He asked us when we watched it to be aware of its effect on us from a few different angles. First, what does it mean to participate in a liturgy in a language we don’t understand but of which we know the general gist? Second, what is the lived impact of certain uses that seem boring on the page—like the prolonged recitation of the penitential psalms in plainsong—but may be more powerful in the experience?

The service was done at St Teilo’s, a church which is part of a Welsh museum, and which the Harpers (John’s wife is also a formidable scholar of medieval music and liturgy) and other scholars are using to learn more about the lived experience of medieval liturgy. Here’s a pdf of a paper on how liturgists might learn from it and some pointers on how a Sarum Mass might be done in this particular church.

Here’s at least a portion of the service we watched uploaded to YouTube. Jeremy Davies, precentor at Salisbury is serving as the priest, Dr. Harper is the second server.

I’ll put the next session in another post given the current length here…

5 thoughts on “American Sarum: Sunday Afternoon

  1. Matthew the Penitent

    Fascinating video, wondrous in fact. Why don’t the churches have this or something like it for we sinners. The Orthodox have something similar as I recently saw it on a couple of blogs; at least it’s a service that restores the fallen away back into the family of the LORD.

  2. Pingback: The Actual Experience of Sarum | English Catholic

  3. MAG

    Your recap summaries are excellent; especially for those of us who were slowly jotting notes with pen and paper.
    One tee-tiny bit of highly arcane accuracy-pointing from the musical end: the improvised sung polyphony wouldn’t be organum *per se*; the more accurate term for what they did is “faburden” (related to the term fauxbourdon).
    Great meeting you last weekend, also.

  4. John Robison

    I found the three times the penitents are called to kneel almost an echo of the three declarations for the veneration of the Cross and the Declaration (?) of the “light of Christ” at the Vigil. I could also be seeing a parity where there is none.

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