A summary of Theodor Klauser: A Short History of the Western Liturgy [1965]

Ch 2: The Earlier Medieval Liturgy (570-1073)

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Pages for Klauser:    Intro |  Ch 1 |  Ch 2 |  Ch 3 |  Ch 4

Sections:    Overview |  The Intercessionary Prayer |  The Gelasian and Gregorian sacramentaries |  The Papal Mass of around 700 AD |  Imperial efforts |  Franco-German developments |  The liturgical year |  Notes


Gregory the Great (c540-604, Pope from 590) and the next few popes made some important additions to the Roman liturgy. The Gregorian Sacramentary specified prayers to be said at mass through the liturgical year and when the sacraments were being administered. The Capitulare evangeliorum specified readings from the Gospels through the liturgical year. The Ordines gave directions to the clergy concerning the ritual procedure to be observed at each liturgical function. [p 45]

This Gregorian liturgy came to be used in England and then in the Carolingian Empire, under Pepin (714-768) and Charlemagne (c742-814). By around 1000 AD, the liturgy of Rome was a mixture of the Gregorian liturgy and two versions from beyond the Alps, the Gelasian (originally from Rome) and the ancient Gallican.

The Intercessionary Prayer

A casualty of the liturgical reforms of Gregory the Great was the Intercessionary Prayer or general prayer of the Church. This was a prayer that had its origins in Jewish liturgy. It had come at the start of the second part of the mass as the first Common Prayer. The baptised were not allowed to pray in common with the unbaptised. The latter had to leave after the first part of the mass, the service of the word; the second part consisted of the offertory, the consecration and the communion, which were restricted to the baptised.

In the Intercessionary Prayer, the faithful were invited to pray in turn for a series of categories of people, covering the community, the Church more generally and beyond that the whole of humanity. The alternation of invitation by the celebrant and silent prayer by the congregation took a long time, which was a problem where there were large congregations, meaning that the procession for the offertory and the distribution of both bread and wine at communion were also long drawn-out .

Pope Gelasius I a century earlier than Gregory had introduced a short version of the Intercessionary Prayer and had moved it to the start of the mass. The latter innovation effectively had abolished the division of the mass into two parts. But then, there were very few adult catechumens by that time.

Klauser suggests that the reform of liturgy could include the reintroduction of the intercession rid prayer. This should involve not only the general intentions of the Church universally and locally but also the current concerns of each member of the congregation.

The Gelasian and Gregorian Sacramentaries

The Gelasian Sacramentary is a manuscript believed to have been produced in France around AD 750. The liturgical prayers it contains seem to have been those used around AD 700 by the Roman presbyters, who ministered in the churches of Rome other than that of the Pope [1]. The latter used the Gregorian Sacramentary. So it would appear that, during the 6th and 7th centuries, there were in Rome divergences between the liturgical prayers used by the presbyters on the one hand and the Popes on the other.

Klauser comments that this knowledge should help people cope with any local divergences that may result from the liturgical changes reforms of the Vatican II.

The Papal Mass of around 700 AD

The Roman Ordines were notebooks of directions for the performance of the various liturgical rites. Edited in the c20th by Michel Andrieu, the ordines cover a wide range of observances, including baptism, ordination of bishops and others, consecration of churches, the crowning of the Holy Roman Emperor. They were produced over several hundred years.

Klauser offers a detailed account of how, as Ordo I reveals, the Pope must have celebrated mass around the year 700.

Preliminary ceremonies

The Pope celebrated mass each morning at one of the main Roman basilicas. He went there from the Lateran with an entourage made up of principal functionaries and those clergy who were to assist at the mass. All the items necessary for the mass were brought along.

When the Pope arrived at the church, his entourage helped him change into his vestments in the sacristy, in a Byzantine court style ceremony. He would already have been wearing the episcopal ring and shoes and the papal cap, though these are not mentioned in Ordo I. The (elaborate) vestments were exactly the same as today’s . The Pope did not wear a stole, which suggests that this was for the lower clergy, whereas the higher clergy had the pallium.

Already in the basilica were, firstly, the presbyters and suburban bishops, seated round the apse, secondly, the choir of men and boys [2], standing in an area between altar and nave, and thirdly, the faithful in the nave, with men and women on different sides and aristocrats at the front.

The Pope made his way to the altar in a procession headed by a sub-deacon with incense and seven acolytes with candles, while the choir sang the Introit. All three of these ceremonial privileges were derived from secular usage.

En route, the Pope received pieces of consecrated bread from his previous mass, for him to place in the chalice later. Other pieces would have been taken to the various parish churches of Rome for their presbyters to place in the chalice at their eucharistic celebration. This consecrated bread was meant as a leaven; it demonstrated in the one case the connection between successive papal masses and in the other that the presbyters’ masses were part of the papal mass.

The Service of the Word

On reaching the altar, the Pope bowed and gave his main assistants a kiss of peace. After kneeling for the first part of the Gloria Patri, the Pope kissed the Gospel Book and the altar, then sat on his throne for the Kyrie. Next, facing the people, i.e. west, he started the Gloria in excelsis Deo. Facing east, the Pope said the Collect, then sat, as did the whole assembly .

A sub-deacon now read the lesson at the lectern, a soloist sang the Gradual and finally the deacon read from the Gospels. Klauser describes the considerable ceremony surrounding this last. The Gospel Book had been placed on the altar in an earlier ceremony, while the Pope was in the sacristy. First, in Byzantine court style, the deacon approached the papal throne, kissed the feet of the its occupant and was blessed by him. Then the deacon, first kissing it, carried the book from the altar to the lectern, preceded by the two sub-deacons with incense and two acolytes with torches (sic). After the reading, one of the sub-deacons, hands covered, bore the book round the sanctuary for all the clergy to kiss, in order of rank. It was then sealed in its container for safekeeping, its binding being encrusted with precious stones.

Klauser comments on how this first part of the service had expanded from being just the Word of God to include prayers: the Kyrie, the Gloria in excelsis Deo and the Collect. On the other hand, and this is emphasised, the sermon had been lost, presumably, for practical reasons: the size of the basilicas and the length of the services. It is not known whether the Roman presbyters gave sermons in their churches.

Klauser notes that the Kyrie had been a replacement 200 years previously for the Early Church’s Common Prayer and had been moved from the start of the second part of the service. The Creed did not enter the Roman liturgy till the c11th, a borrowing from Frankish usage.

The Offertory

At the Offertory, there was now no longer a procession of the faithful taking their gifts of various sorts to the altar. Instead, while the choir sang that day’s offertory antiphon and psalm, the clergy went round the church receiving just bread and wine: the Pope personally from the aristocracy and the presbyters and suburban bishops from everybody else. This was a very lengthy business. The loaves went into large cloths of linen and the wine into a large vessel.

The Pope placed his own bread on the altar and the archdeacon as much of the faithful's bread was would be needed for communion, along with a large chalice; into this the Pope and his assistants poured wine. The Pope then said the oblation prayer.

The Canon

All the clergy now stationed themselves for the Canon: the sub-deacons in front of the altar, the deacons and acolytes behind, the other clergy next to their bench round the apse. The Pope was at the altar, facing the people. After greeting them, he sang the Preface, then the sub-deacons, along with the choir, doubtless, sang the Tersanctus. Klauser notes that the congregation did not sing at all during the Pope’s mass.

While all others stood, their heads bowed, the Pope said, no longer sang, the words of the Canon: in a way that could be understood in the sanctuary at least. There was no Elevation after the Institution Prayer: and no genuflecting. As he said the last prayer, the Pope placed the bread on the rim of the chalice, which was being held aloft by the archdeacon: obviously to show the consecrated offerings to the people.

Next came the Lord’s Prayer, its introduction here having been an innovation of Gregory the Great (a hundred years earlier). The Pope then placed the bread from the mass of the day before in the chalice and got ready the fragment for the day after.

The Communion of the Pope and Clergy

Before communion could take place, the consecrated loaves had to be broken up into small pieces. For this, the loaves were taken to the clergy seated round the apse by acolytes: in bags that had been filled by the archdeacon. Simultaneously, the Pope’s consecrated bread was taken to him – he had returned to his throne – and he broke that up. At this time the Agnus Dei, newly introduced by Pope Sergius I (687-701), was sung.

Next, the Pope put a piece of the bread in the chalice, which had also been brought to him and, in order to signify ‘that the bread and wine represented the One Lord’ [p 67], said the prayer ‘Fiat commixtio et consecratio’: another recent innovation, probably. The Pope then ate his consecrated bread and drank from the chalice.

The archdeacon returned the chalice to the altar and poured a small part of its contents into the large vessel containing the people’s offertory wine. Thus, the latter was itself consecrated, as was then believed.

The clergy and principal papal functionaries now went to the Pope’s throne in order to receive the consecrated bread from him personally and to the altar to drink from the chalice.

The Communion of the People

After that came the communion of the people. As at the Offertory, the Pope dealt with the aristocracy and the other clergy with the rest of the faithful. The bread was given from the bags and the wine from the chalice, repeatedly replenished from the large vessel. Throughout communion the choir sang the communion antiphon and psalm.

Finally, the Pope returned to the altar and said the Postcommunion prayer, after which a deacon pronounced the ‘Ite missa est’. The Pope returned to the sacristy with his procession, blessing the faithful as he went.

Comment on the Papal Mass

Klauser follows his 8 pages of detailed description with a page of comment. He notes the huge amount of change that had taken place in the eucharistic liturgy since 2nd century AD and expresses doubts regarding the benefits of some of it. For one thing in particular, the Service of the Word was no longer clearly distinguished from the Eucharist, some prayers having migrated from the latter to the former. Secondly, an important element had been lost in that the popes did not preach a sermon.

Thirdly, much of the ‘impressive’ [p 69] ceremonial of the Eucharist had been lost. Thus the offertory procession had been reduced to a matter of the clergy collecting gifts and communion was taken down to the faithful rather than them going up to receive it.

Fourthly, and most significantly, the sacred had been smothered in highly elaborate ceremonial derived from the secular court, starting with the chant which greeted the Pope as he came into the basilica. Klauser finds that the consequence is that what should have been an imitation and a recalling of that simple memorial meal instituted by Our Lord [p 69] is almost unrecognisable. This is explicable in terms of papal aspirations to political power.

We might suppose that the Mass as celebrated by the Roman presbyters was a much simpler affair than that of their bishop, closer to the Last Supper. However, the actual facts are not known: the presbyters’ sacramentary survives, but there is no ordo for them .

We might also suppose that the bishops of France celebrated mass more simply than the Pope. Not so, apparently: Ordo I was binding on them. It appears the presbyters of France followed the simpler practice of their colleagues at Rome, with whom there would have been contact through pilgrimage.

Today’s (pre-Vatican II) practice for the pontifical high mass of bishops and for parish mass can be understood in terms of these c8th arrangements. If, regrettably, the bishops no longer celebrate pontifical high mass every Sunday as Ordo I instructs, that is because of the rise of the obligatory daily mass. It would be impractical for bishops to celebrate pontifical high mass on a daily basis [3].

Imperial Efforts

Pepin, the father of Charlemagne, had decreed the use of the Gregorian liturgy in his realm at his coronation in 754 [4]. His aims were religious as well as political. Most importantly, it is probable that he wanted to put an end to the confusing co-existence of rival Roman and Gallican liturgies in his lands. In practice, rapid Romanisation was not possible, on account of an inadequate supply of Roman books to copy from.

Charlemagne continued the work of Romanisation, receiving a master copy of the Gregorian Sacramentary from Pope Adrian I around 785. He authorised his adviser, Alcuin, to supplement this work for specifically Frankish purposes with prayers derived from Frankish practice.

During the c10th the Papacy went through a bad period and the liturgical life of the city came close to extinction, saved only by devoted efforts in some of the Cluniac monasteries newly founded there. [5]

When a liturgical revival took place at the end of the century, it showed developments that were Franco-German in origin. This Franco-German influence is explicable in terms of partly of the Cluniac presence, but mainly of the efforts of the Saxons, Otto I (912-973) and Otto II (955-983), ‘religious men’ [p 76], who tried to reform the Papacy during their interventions in Italy and supplied liturgical books from beyond the Alps. [6]

Klauser concludes that in a time of crisis:

‘The Franco-German Church succeeded in saving the Roman liturgy not only for Rome itself but for the entire Christian world of the Middle Ages.’ [p 77]

Franco-German Developments

There were no significant liturgical developments in Rome itself after the Gregorian period, the c7th. Klauser points out that the liturgy of the Sundays after Pentecost could have been worked on and that, whereas the liturgy of baptism had been elaborate since around 200, the liturgy of the other sacraments had remained basic. [7]

But there were significant developments in the Franco-German Church: firstly, much of the special liturgy of Palm Sunday and Holy Week, derived from the Eastern Church, from Jerusalem in particular; secondly, the anointing of bishops and priests at ordination, possibly derived from the Celtic Church in Britain and inspired by Old Testament anointings; thirdly, the liturgy for the consecration of churches.

Klauser reiterates the importance of the Franco-German role in the development of the liturgy as passed on to the Middle Ages:

‘which both satisfied the religious needs of the people and provided them with spiritual nourishment’ [p 84]

It was the clergy of Mainz who put together a collection combining elements of both sacramentaries and ordines that was so successful that it was adopted in Rome and throughout the Western Church. This gave what was basically the Roman liturgy, but with additions for Holy Week etc derived from the Franco-German Church.

The Liturgical Year

Klauser now looks at the development of the liturgical calendar from its origins.

The Christian Sunday arose when the earliest Christians made the day of the Resurrection a day for communal celebration of the Lord’s Supper. The choice of Sunday may also have been influenced by the belief that it was on this day that the Lord would return. The Judaic Sabbath is unlikely to have been the model because it was a day of rest, not of worship. It was only in 321 AD that Sunday became a day of rest for Christians, by order of the Emperor Constantine.

The Christian Paschal feast started as the primitive Christian version of the Judaic Passover feast, celebrated on 14th Nissan, which could be any day of the week. In all probability, the Christians from the outset saw Jesus as the Paschal Lamb whose sacrifice they were celebrating. But the Christian festival soon moved to a Sunday and in the West had lost any association with the Passover by the end of the c2nd.

The fifty days of the Christian season of Easter originated in the fifty day Jewish Paschal season. Celebration of the Ascension and Pentecost did not start immediately. Ascension Day as the 40th day was probably created during the c4th.

Feast days commemorating the deaths of martyrs, a feature of Judaism, first appeared in the mid c3rd. These feasts gradually became more numerous; the oldest known Roman listing of them dates from 354.

Christmas on 25th December was introduced in the c4th as a substitute for a major official festival of the period, the birthday of the late Roman Sun God. The Epiphany on 6th January had already been introduced in the Eastern Church with a similar intention, to rival a popular feast of the Eastern Sun God; it soon got added to the Western calendar, as celebrating the visit of the Magi etc.

Lent began as a 40 day period of prayers and fasts for candidates for baptism. The community seems to have joined in from an early date and the practice developed into preparation for Easter. Importantly, the Eucharist came to be celebrated almost every day during this period, not just on Sundays.

The penitential Ember Days may have appeared sooner. These were the Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays coming at the start of the seasons . They were originally designed to replace pagan festivals, to seek help from God for the harvest in the one case, though they were later claimed to be derived from the Old Testament.

The extremely popular Martin of Tours was the first person not a martyr to enter the Liturgical Calendar .

Advent appeared in the c6th, modelled on Lent.

Noteworthy are five feasts introduced from the Eastern Church by Pope Sergius (687-701). The Presentation of the Lord (2nd February) was originally intended to be one of the series of feasts relating to Jesus’s life, though until recently it was understood as a feast of Our Lady. The Annunciation of the Lord (25th March) had its significance similarly changed. This pope also introduced the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin (15th August), the Birthday of the Blessed Virgin (8th September) and the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. Klauser sees in these feasts the Syrian Sergius trying to bring the Western and Eastern Churches closer together.

Klauser supposes that the attentive reader must be wondering how far the development of the liturgical calendar resulted from the particular inclinations of individual popes, thereby making it to a considerable degree the work of ‘pure chance’ [p 91]. He claims that Easter ‘and its weekly repetition, Sunday’ [p 91] are so fundamentally important that they should not be lost from view at the behest of any individual or on account of an innovation, however popular.

Easter and Sundays have been diminished by the presence of so many other festivals of Our Lord, of the saints By the end of the c8th, there was already an abundance of these distractions and the Middle Ages had not even begun.

The liturgy is in need of three sorts of reform. The status of Sundays must be restored, existing secondary festivals must be pruned back and the desire to introduce new ones be nullified.

The chapter ends with some extracts from the c8th forgery, the Donation of Constantine, which we shall not summarise.


1 Presbyters

These were the predecessors of today's parish priests.     [Back to the main text]

2 The Choir

This is the first mention of the choir. It is surely one of Klauser's most remarkable omissions that he offers no section on the history of the choir as a feature of the liturgy and on its impact on lay participation in the liturgy.     [Back to the main text]

3 Pontifical High Mass

Klauser’s argument here does not seem to make a lot of sense. When first commenting on the pontifical high mass he had spent 8 pages describing, Klauser seemed to be regretting that it buried the Last Supper beneath court ceremonial. Now he’s regretting bishops not celebrating pontifical high mass more often.     [Back to the main text]

4 Pepin

Pepin, aka Pippin, had been elected King of the Franks in 751, with the help of papal backing and anointed at Soissons by the Archbishop of Mainz. What happened in 754 was that Pope Stephen III, having travelled to Paris, re-consecrated Pepin at St Denis.     [Back to the main text]

5 Ordo L

Klauser more or less skips a couple of centuries here, not even mentioning the c9th. We must suppose that Charlemagne kept up the drive for Romanisation till his death in 814, but what happened after that in the Carolingian Empire (or what became of it) for the next century and more, we are not told.

In his introduction to this chapter, p 60, Klauser had mentioned a key ordo, Ordo L, originating from St Alban’s Church, Mainz, around 950, and later he is going to spend a paragraph, p 84, on a key collection of elements from existing sacramentaries and ordines, produced by the clergy of Mainz at some unspecified date. We must suppose from the references to Mainz that Ordo L and the key collection are one and the same.

As for Rome, we must suppose at this stage that in the c9th the liturgical arrangements described for the early c8th (the Gregorian Sacramentary and Ordo I etc) were still in force. In fact, Klauser lets us know a bit later, on pp 77-78, that there were no significant developments emanating from Rome itself after the Gregorian period, the c7th.     [Back to the main text]

6 The first two Holy Roman Emperors

Otto I and his son, Otto II, were Dukes of Saxony, Kings of the Germans and the first two Holy Roman Emperors (not counting Charlemagne). Otto I used the German Church to consolidate his domestic rule, had two popes deposed and insisted on approving papal elections.     [Back to the main text]

7 Klauser in two minds

As suggested in note 2, Klauser seems to be in two minds about the development of the liturgy. He laments on the one hand a lack of creative enhancement and on the other hand a loss of primitive simplicity.     [Back to the main text]

(c) John C Durham, 2007

Pages for Klauser:    Intro |  Ch 1 |  Ch 2 |  Ch 3 |  Ch 4