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

Ch 3: The Later Medieval Liturgy (1073-1545)

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

Sections:    Overview  |  The loss of participation |  The private mass |  The offertory procession |  Genuflexion |  Notes

Overview [1]

Gregory VII (1073-86) attempted to identify and restore the original Roman Ordo, but too much water had flowed under the bridge for that to be possible. He also tried to require all other Western bishops to adhere to the liturgical practice of Rome.

Liturgical uniformity in fact came about as a result of the activities of the itinerant Franciscans from the 1320s onwards. For convenience on their travels, they had adopted liturgical books pared down for the Pope on his journeys. These proved popular throughout the Western Church and became the norm.

Klauser notes that during the medieval period the liturgical calendar accumulated saint’s days for nearly every day of the year, along with more feasts of Christ and of the Blessed Virgin.

The amount of daily prayer required of priests became excessive, particularly for monks. However, the Franciscans cut back and their practice came to be adopted by secular priests.

Of greater importance was the rise of the private mass.

Another change, the abandonment of communion being given from the chalice, made the Eucharist even less like a meal. Devotion at mass came to be focussed on the Suffering of Christ, as in Grunewald’s altar-piece.

For Klauser, the most important liturgical change in the medieval period, more momentous than the greater uniformity of practice, was the disappearance of lay participation in the liturgy:

‘For the liturgy, which was once and always should be the common act of priest and people, became now exclusively a priestly duty.’ [p97]

Now, instead of taking an active part, the faithful occupied themselves in private devotions while the priest celebrated mass. [2]

The Loss of Participation

Because, in the early Church, it was intended for the faithful to participate, all the prayers were said out loud and the bishop called upon the congregation to join him in the eucharistic thanksgiving, signalling their having participated in the Canon with an amen.

Therefore, the transition to pronouncing the key prayer to a whisper that the faithful could not hear excluded them from participation. It was only a matter of time before they were denied participation in the rest of the liturgy. [3]

Klauser explains the whispering of the most sacred part of the liturgy may well in the East have been largely a borrowing from the pagan mystery cults in the c4th, at the time of mass conversions from paganism. But in the West the innovation seems to have first appeared in the c8th in the Frankish Church and to have been intended to show extreme reverence and to restrict the sacred eucharistic action to the ordained celebrant. By around the year 1000 the whispered Canon had reached Rome, whence it was promulgated to the Western Church generally.

This change and its rationale marked the liturgy of the Middle Ages and after.

Another development militating against lay participation in the Eucharist was the positioning of the altar in parish churches against the rear wall, probably a result of the practice of masses being said in side chapels with only a few present. This change meant that the celebrant had his back to the congregation, who were thus prevented from seeing the action as well as hearing it. The innovation first appeared in the c6th and was general by about the year 1000 except in Rome itself. Later came the altar candles (c11th) and the crucifix (c13th).

In the early Roman basilicas, the altar could be walked round, meaning the celebrant could face the faithful. The absence of candles, crosses etc on the flat table meant that the faithful had an unencumbered view with no distractions.

Klauser regrets this development, which fundamentally changed the faithful’s understanding of the liturgy, and sees hopeful signs of its reversal in newly built churches.

The Private Mass

The private mass did not develop out of the practice of masses being celebrated with small numbers of participants: in private houses etc. Rather it came from the monasteries.

Originally, monasteries did not have priests as monks, but later, St Benedict (c 480-543) allowed them in his Rule (c 530). Their numbers gradually multiplied, all wanting to exercise their priestly function and say mass. At the same time, the idea gradually took hold that having a mass said or saying mass improved your own chance of salvation and those of the dead.

The private mass was the answer to these demands. It was fairly general in monasteries by the c8th and among secular priests soon after.

By the c9th, ordines suitable for the particular circumstances of the private mass were being worked on in certain monasteries. In the c13th, the Franciscans disseminated an ordo which they had got from Rome; this eventually replaced other ordines in use among secular priests and must lie behind the later private mass ordines.

A consequence of the private mass was the rise of the more convenient ‘full missal’, replacing the set of separate books for the various parts of the liturgy: for the antiphons, the epistles, the gospels, the liturgical prayers. Widespread from the c14th, the ‘full missal’ included rubrics, instructions from the ordo written in red.

There was a certain amount of resistance to the private mass. Thus St Francis of Assisi desired his monasteries to celebrate mass only once per day. But the trend proved unstoppable.

By the c13th the private mass was affecting the public mass. Thus the Introit came to be chanted not as the celebrant and his assistants entered, but during the initial prayers at the foot of the altar. Again, various first person, subjective prayers of the celebrant worked their way into the eucharistic ritual: sickness had now entered those parts of the liturgy not already affected, according to Klauser.

Before the end of the Middle Ages, it was generally held that all priests should celebrate mass daily in person, this being more valuable than participating in community worship. Modern theology does not suggest any retreat from this development.

The Offertory Procession

For almost the whole of the first millennium it had been customary for the faithful to take their offerings to the altar as part of the celebration of the Eucharist. The offerings were partly items needed for the celebration, bread, wine etc., and partly items to support the clergy and good works. In an age in which people traded in kind with the results of their own efforts, the offerings must have meant a lot to those providing them.

But in the new millennium, the offertory procession soon disappeared. The primary reason for this was the rise of the private mass. For with the faithful not able to participate in this most prevalent form of mass, they had to contribute a ‘stipend’ to have a mass said: at first in kind, but eventually in cash.

Today, we have the collection, with a verger takes round an offertory plate or similar round the congregation, while the celebrant continues the mass regardless.


The Early Christians had refused to genuflect before the images of the pagan gods or of the emperors, to do so being an act of adoration. But under the rule of Constantine, the situation changed. Christians might genuflect not only to honour the Emperor and images of him, but also to show reverence for holy objects such as relics and images of the saints, the altar and eventually the crucifix. Imperial decree gave the bishops the right to be geneflected to and this was allowed even in church.

Today, genuflexion needs to be consider in liturgical reform. It needs to be restricted and made more meaningful. Similarly with other ritual gestures, such as making the sign of the cross and the celebrant kissing the altar.


1 The Medieval Liturgy

It is not possible to detect from Klauser's account any major changes to the actual liturgy during his third period, from the later c11th to the Reformation. We must suppose there were none. Things happened around it, but not to it.     [Back to the main text]

2 Private devotions

Klauser replaces a rosy myth of medieval religion with a rosy myth of pre-medieval religion. It is hard to believe that the majority of the faithful participated significantly in the mass at any time after the period of wholesale conversions, even supposing they did before. Certainly, they would not have done so where Latin was not the vernacular: everywhere, eventually.     [Back to the main text]

3 The people disinclined to participate?

Klauser ignores other considerations. E.g., once the people could no longer understand Latin, what was the point of saying it out loud. Again, maybe the priests stopped bothering because the people had stopped participating. Klauser never considers that the people may be responsible for developments: with the clergy merely responding.     [Back to the main text]

(c) John C Durham, 2007

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