Learning Liturgy

Liturgy is the practice of public worship that concern a whole community. In the Middle Ages, liturgy was at the centre of the spiritual and social life of the clergy and laypeople, and it defined the organisation of the time and a system of terminological references that constituted the basis of the intellectual, artistic and scientific production of the time. Understanding liturgy os then essential, in order to correctly interpret the various aspects of the medieval society.

The Liturgical Year

In the Middle Ages, liturgy plays a fundamental role in the perception of time: the reoccurrences of liturgical periods and feasts constitutes a frame of references for all people and the organisation of time is based on the liturgical rhythm that divides the year in months, weeks, days and hours. The liturgical year is thus the framework in which worship develops. The various feasts of the liturgical year are divided into two main categories, the Temporal and the Sanctoral.

The Temporal [or Proper of Time]

The Temporal contains Sundays and the feasts of the Lord. The ferial days (or weekdays) belong to the Temporal as well. The arrangement of periods is based both on fixed-date feasts (as Christmas and Epiphany) and mobile-feasts (as Easter and Easter-linked dates). The Easter date depends on the alignment of the solar cycle, the lunar cycle and the distribution of Sundays within the year.

The Christmas cycle includes the time before Christmas, called Advent, and the weeks just after it, called Christmas time; it is determined by the superposition of the solar cycle and the weekly structure. The Temporal begins with Advent: this period is formed by the time – whose length is slightly variable – that runs from the fourth Sunday before Christmas and the date of Christmas. As an example, let’s take the year 810. In that year, Christmas fell on Wednesday, so in this case Advent began on the 1stof December:

Dec. 1st> 1stSunday of Advent

Dec. 8th> 2ndSunday od Advent

Dec. 15th> 3rdSunday of Advent

Dec. 22nd> 4thSunday of Advent

Dec. 25th> Christmas

It is clear that the first three Advent weeks are complete; the fourth is a complete week only when Christmas falls on Sunday. The third week of Advent coincides with the first week of Quatuor Tempora(or Ember days). After Christmas, there is the Sunday after Christmas, followed by the Circumcision on January the 1st. If Christmas falls on Sunday, the Circumcision falls on Sunday too, and there is no Sunday after Christmas. Then there is the second Sunday after Christmas, and the  Epiphany (on January the 6th).

In our 810-811’s Calendar, we would have:

Wednesday Dec. 25th> Christmas

Sunday Dec. 29th> Sunday after Christmas

Wednesday Jan. 1st> Circumcision

Sunday Jan. 5th> 2ndSunday after Christmas

Monday Jan. 6th> Epiphany

Epiphany is followed by the Sundays after Epiphany. Their number is variable – between 1 and 6 – depending on the date of Septuagesima, which is linked to the date of Easter. 

The Easter cycle is based on the superposition of the solar cycle, the lunar cycle and the distribution of Sundays. It begins with the Septuagesima and ends with the Vigil of Pentecost. At the centre of this period is Easter; it is held on the first Sunday after the first full moon occurring or after the vernal Equinox (March 21st). The period before Easter, called Lent, begins 40 days before Easter with the Ash Wednesday. But in the Middle Ages there were three supplementary Sundays before Ash Wednesday: Septuagesima, Sexagesima and Quinquagesima. 

In the year 811, here taken as an example, Easter fell on April the 13th. There were 4 Sundays after Epiphany, and the Septuagesima fell on February the 9th.

Feb. 9th> Septuagesima [Dominica in Septuagesima – Dominica in LXX]

Feb. 16th> Sexagesima [Dominica in Sexagesima – Dominica in LX]

Feb. 23rd> Quinquagesima [Dominica in Quinquagesima – Dominica in L]

Feb. 26th> Ash Wednesday [Feria IIII cinerum – Feria IIII de ieiunio]

March 2nd> 1stSunday of Lent [Dominica I in Quadragesima]

March 9th> 2ndSunday of Lent [Dominica II in Quadragesima]

March 16th> 3rdSunday of Lent [Dominica III in Quadragesima]

March 23rd> 4thSunday of Lent [Dominica IIII in Quadragesima – Dominica in Laetare]

March 30th> Passion Sunday [Dominica de Passione]

As we can see, there are five Sundays in Lent; the fifth is called Passion Sunday and the week that immediately follows is called Passion week. The first week of Lent corresponds to the second week of the Quatuor Tempora(or Ember days). Some of the Sundays could be called from the incipit of the introit chant, the first chant of the mass; as an example, the introit of the mass for the fourth Sunday of Lent is Laetare Ierusalem, that’s why this Sunday can be called “Laetare Sunday” (Dominica in Laetare). 

The Sunday after Passion Sunday is Palm Sunday; it is officially the beginning of the Holy Week. This is one of the most important parts of the liturgical year, and also a time in which ancient traditions last. The most significant days are Maundy Thursday, Holy Friday and Holy Saturday, called the triduum sacrum. The following Sunday is Easter Sunday, and the subsequent time is Easter time. In the example regarding the year 811, we would have:

April 6th> Palm Sunday [Dominica in ramis palmarum]

April 10th> Maundy Thursday [Feria V in coena domini]

April 11th> Holy Friday [Feria VI in Parasceven]

April 12th> Holy Saturday [Sabbato sancto – In vigilia Paschae]

April 13th> Easter Sunday [Dominica Paschae]

April 20th> In Albis Sunday [Dominica in Albis – Octava Paschae – Dominica Quasi modo]

April 27th> 1st Sunday after Easter’s octave [Dominica I post octavam Paschae]

May 4th> 2ndSunday after Easter’s octave [Dominica II post octavam Paschae]

May 11th> 3rdSunday after Easter’s octave [Dominica III post octavam Paschae]

May 18th> 4thSunday after Easter’s octave [Dominica IIII post octavam Paschae]

Easter is followed by its octave, called “in Albis” because the people who have been baptized at Easter Vigil wear a white robe during the week, until Saturday. Then we find four Sundays after Easter, and then the Rogations days – Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday before the Ascension, which occurs on Thursday. Then a Sunday after the Ascension, and then Pentecost Sunday, followed by its octave. The week that begins with the octave of Pentecost is the third week of the Quatuor Tempora(Ember days).

May 19th> Rogations Monday [Feria II rogationum]

May 20th> Rogations Tuesday [Feria III rogationum]

May 21st> Rogations Wednesday [Feria IIII rogationum]

May 22nd> Ascension [In Ascensione domini]

May 25th> Sunday after Ascension [Dominica post Ascensionem domini]

June 1st> Pentecost Sunday [Dominica Pentecosten]

June 8th> Octave of Pentecost [Dominica in octava Pentecosten]

Summer time is marked by a long series of Sundays after Pentecost. Their number is variable (usually between 23 and 27) depending on the date of Pentecost and the date of the following first Sunday of Advent. The week that follows the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross (September 14th) is the fourth week of the Quatuor Tempora (Ember days), that correspond to the 17thor 18thweek after Pentecost. The Ember days, called Quatuor tempora, are four separated weeks that occurs in different periods of the liturgical year. In these weeks, three days – namely Wednesday, Friday and Saturday – are a time of abstinence and prayer. Saturdays are especially developed, with a number of added lessons, originally 12 (Sabbato in XII lectionibus), then reduced to 8 or 6.

The Sanctoral 

The Sanctoral concerns the feasts of saints and those of the Blessed Virgin Mary. It is divided in the Proper of saints and the common of saints. The Sanctoral is one of the most important section of liturgical books, because it can help not only to define its dating but also its localisation. Some saints are in fact typical of a region, a city or even a specific church or monastery.

The Proper of saints begins in alignment with the first Sunday of Advent: conventionally, it coincides with the feast of saint Andrew (November 30th), which is preceded by its vigil (November 29th, also feast of saint Saturnine), and it usually ends with saint Catherine (November 25th). Sometimes, the Proper of saints begins with saint Stephen (December 26th) and ends with saint Thomas apostle (December 21st), because, according to the ancient tradition, liturgical books were copied from Christmas’s Eve. The principal feast of a saint is his « dies natalis » – or day of his death – but there are additional feasts for some important saints, like the translation of the body or the commemoration of a miracle. Il is worth noting that in liturgical books the feasts of saints that immediately follow Christmas are usually copied in the Temporal section of the book, rather than in the Sanctoral.

The Common of saints contains the texts of the masses and offices of the saints who haven’t a proper; they are divided by category, namely Apostles and Evangelists, Martyrs, Confessors, and Virgins. Sometimes we can find some additional categories, like “confessors bishops” and “confessors not bishops” or “widows not virgins”.

Votive liturgy 

This term refers to masses and offices that have no place within the liturgical year and that are the expression of a vote or a particular demand addressed to God. Votive liturgy developed greatly during the 13thcentury, and it progressively replaced the ferial office. Its success is determined by the problems that arise in the co-occurrence of feasts of the Temporal and the Sanctoral, problems that increased greatly with the development of the Sanctoral in the late Middle Ages. Ferial days are then replaced with a series of votive masses that changes according with the day. Friday is generally devoted to the Cross and Saturday to the Virgin Mary; other days can be devoted to the Angels, the Dead, the Holy Spirit, the Body of Christ, the patron saint.