Medieval Liturgy Web Resource: Dreaming Dreams

The web is a fantastic tool for studying medieval liturgy and it keeps on getting better every day. With the continuing flow of out-of-copyright books via Google Books and the Internet Archive, good early stuff is appearing from the Surtees Society and the Henry Bradshaw Society; furthermore, more and more libraries are digitizing their manuscript collections. I headed over to the British Museum site yesterday (not having been there in a while) and was blown away by some of the material there I hadn’t seen before. So—important material for specialists is become more widely available.

But how useful is that for everybody else? (And when I say “everybody”, I’m obviously referring to the rather minute subset of people to whom this is interesting!) There are quite a lot of barriers to profitably utilizing some of this terrific material that’s appearing. Most medievalists, even western European or England focused people, have a difficult time keeping in their heads the sometimes confusing inter-relations of Offices, Masses, Chapters and so forth. What’s an antiphoner and when do you use it? Well—do you mean an office antiphoner or a mass antiphoner; since Hesbert the same term gets used for two very different books. When was some little bit of text used and how and where would it have been used or experienced within a service? Who would have been able to hear it said or sung and how intelligible would it have been? These are just a few of the difficulties and many interested people don’t even know that these questions exist to be asked and wrestled with.

So what’s the answer…?

If I had an unlimited amount of time, money, and research minions, I have a vision for a project that could address this difficulty. My chief model is, naturally, the St Bede’s Breviary. The breviary performs two simple tasks:

  • First, it pulls together the disparate elements that make up the Daily Office of the Episcopal Church. Using a framework from the static/ordinary elements, it draws from database tables the changeable/proper elements and seamlessly integrates them into an organic whole. Thus you have at your finger-tips the complete office without a need to flip or click back and forth among different resources.
  • Second, it provides an array of options (within certain parameters). Thus, you can vary the language, the kalendar, and the embellishments to the Office.

What if a framework were developed to put this sort of material at the hands of medievalists? The project would need to move in a series of stages. First, it would tackle the Mass, then build to the Office, then to the various supplementary liturgies. Chapter could be fit in either before or after the Office based on time and inclination.

The reason for starting with the Mass is simple—far fewer moving parts. To present a Mass properly you would need to bring together a minimum of  four parts:

  • Sacramentary/Missal: This is the most obvious piece. It will provide our ordinaries (the canon and such), the kalendar, and the collects. Depending on how developed it is down the missal line it may or may not be able to provide minor propers and Scripture readings.
  • Gradual/Mass Antiphoner: This would certainly give the minor propers whether the missal/sacramentary contained them or not.
  • Lectionary: I’m collecting two things here under one roof as epistolaries and evangelaries were typically different physical objects—at least from my early medieval perspective.
  • Ordo: Did you forget about this one? I would argue that, if you’re looking for a big-picture sense of what was going on and how your particular text as being used, you ignore this one at your considerable peril. Indeed, the basic structure of the liturgy and its presentation would not be defined by the missal/sacramentary as you might expect—rather, I’d embed all of the missal texts within the structuring context of an ordo. Now, granted, as missals developed, some ordo-type matters were inserted into the missals themselves.

Once these blocks are in place things like tropers could be added.

That’s the conceptual framework. Text-wise, I would attack this from three different directions and time-periods. First, I’d hit the English Late Anglo-Saxon period by entering Ordo I*,  the Missal of Robert of Jumiege, and the (Oxford) Winchester Troper. Lectionaries are less of an issue—Lenker’s work has demonstrated how firmly established the type 3 and type 3-alt lectionaries were established in late Anglo-Saxon England. Since my copy of her dissertation is currently in a box, I don’t have access to it to pull out a suitably representative lectionary. Second, I’d use a late Sarum printed missal. The obvious benefit here is that the necessary elements are already pulled together; little would need to be tracked down. Third, there is an excellent collection of well-preserved (and well-known) texts at San Gall that offer ordines, missals, graduals, and most anything else you’d want in the 10th-11th century range. Between the three, most of the issues could be raised, if not fully solved, and a base set of major, useful liturgical texts would be established.

The key is establishing an open architecture where user inputs could select specific manuscripts  texts (once a sufficient body were entered). Thus, you could select specific manuscripts (or categories like “Gelasian”) for your ordo, missal, gradual, etc. in order to get the closest possible picture of the liturgical environment that you’re seeking to re-create.

Furthermore, homing in on the “open” word, it would be absolutely ideal if the manuscripts were encoded in a standardized format, allowing others to submit manuscript files that could be integrated with a minimum of effort. Clearly, this would suggest the TEI using whatever their latest structures are for liturgy in conversation with some of the other existing liturgy projects out there.

So—that’s the dream. What’s the reality and scope for something actually do-able? As awesome as TEI is, it’s an XML derivative. It’s totally possible to use XSLT and XPath and other technologies to do exactly what I’m describing in terms of text merging and manipulating. Unfortunately, I don’t know XML. While I do have some basic experience encoding manuscripts with TEI parameters, I wouldn’t know what to do with it from there. Instead, I’d use my old fall-back, the classic PHP/MySQL combo that drives the breviary.

Text-wise, it’s a toss-up and would really depend on the driving needs of the project. I could begin with the Missal of Robert of Jumiege and accompany it with the Loefric Missal. While the Leofric Missal is a mess in terms of being a very composite text, it’s got incipts for the minor propers and lectionary entries; as I know of no modern edition of the Oxford Winchester Troper that I can get my hands/eyes on, the Leofric Missal is the next best thing. Alternatively, the Sarum material is already gathered and—thanks to the work of our Victorian Sarum Revival friends—could be presented in both Latin and English translation. Lastly, text files of Herbert’s Antiphoner are floating around the Internet. While there are no English materials included, San Gall materials are meaning that a big chunk of transcription work would already be done.

That’s how I’d conceive and tackle this kind of a project.


* IIRC, the earliest ordines we have from Anglo-Saxon England are those of the Romano-German Pontifical which we normal slot around 1050. That’s a little late, so Ordo I is used as a general guess. Again—more could be entered as time and research went on…

3 thoughts on “Medieval Liturgy Web Resource: Dreaming Dreams

  1. Sean+

    I’m really glad you qualified “everybody” in the second paragraph, because my immediate thought was “Dude, I hate to break this to you….”

  2. MAG

    my first thought is “….and then one could link in plainchant resources, with access to early neumatic notations and modern transcriptions!”

  3. kljolly

    You seem to have started from the other end of the timeline from my idea to digitize Anglo-Saxon liturgical materials. Yours is a much more ambitious agenda in terms of the amount of materials, but also easier because of a clearly defined set of service books (and regulated texts) compared to the late Anglo-Saxon manuscripts. But if you did your project first…I could search for my odd texts in your database. Or perhaps we should collaborate.

Comments are closed.