When one thinks of liturgical books, one will no doubt begin with a consideration of missals, followed by breviaries, and then if one is more musically inclined, one will also think of the various chant books for the Mass and Office.
What is perhaps not so immediately thought of are martryologies, which, for some reason I have found myself considering this week -- no doubt in relation to the leap year and how that is reflected in the sanctoral. At any rate, I realized that this was a topic that really hadn't come up in any significant way -- other than passing mention -- here on the NLM. In view of that, I thought it might be of interest to review some of the historical aspects of the class of books known as "martyrologies" and place them in the life of the Church.
The word "martyr" comes from the Greek for "witness" and originally the martyrologies were just that, catalogues of the martyrs of a particular region. However, despite the name, it is not only "martyrs" (in the sense we understand it; those who died for Christ) who are found within martyrologies. The Catholic Encyclopedia notes that early on bishops were included as well and eventually, this would expand further to include other saints.
Speaking of a fourth century local Roman version, it notes:
We still possess the martyrology, or ferial, of the Roman Church of the middle of the fourth century, comprising two distinct lists, the "Depositio martyrum" and the "Depositio episcoporum", lists which are elsewhere most frequently found united.
Early on it the history of the commemoration of the martyrs, each church had its own variant upon the martyrology. These expanded to gradually include some of those from neighbouring churches. Some martyrologies are of a type that are very brief, being quite literally a listing, whereas others are classified as "historical martyrologies" which include not simply the name of the saint, but also a short history. This is the type of martyrological account that we are mainly accustomed to thinking of today. For example, here is the reading from the Martyrologium Romanum for today's date:
Romæ natális sanctórum Mártyrum Macárii, Rufíni, Justi et Theóphili.
(At Rome, the birthday of the holy martyrs Macarius, Rufinus, Justus, and Theophilus.)
Alexandríæ pássio sanctórum Cæreális, Púpuli, Caji et Serapiónis.
(At Alexandria, the passion of the Saints Caerealis, Pupulus, Caius, and Serapion.)
Ibídem commemorátio sanctórum Presbyterórum, Diaconórum et aliórum plurimórum; qui, témpore Valeriáni Imperatóris, cum pestis sævíssima grassarétur, morbo laborántibus ministrántes, libentíssime mortem oppetiére, et quos velut Mártyres religiósa piórum fides venerári consuévit. (In the same city, in the reign of Emperor Valerian, the commemoration of the holy priests, deacons, and many others. When a most deadly epidemic was raging, they willingly met their death by ministering to the sick. The religious sentiment of the pious faithful has generally venerated them as martyrs.
Romæ sancti Hílari, Papæ et Confessóris.
(At Rome, St. Hilary, pope and confessor.)
In território Lugdunénsi, locis Jurénsibus, deposítio sancti Románi Abbátis, qui primum illic eremíticam vitam duxit, et, multis virtútibus ac miráculis clarus, plurimórum póstea Pater éxstitit Monachórum. (In the territory of Lyons, in the Jura Mountains, the death of St. Romanus, abbot, who first had led the life of a hermit there. His reputation for virtues and miracles brought under his guidance many monks.)
Papíæ Translátio córporis sancti Augustíni Epíscopi, Confessóris et Ecclésiæ Doctóris, ex Sardínia ínsula, ópera Luitprándi, Regis Longobardórum. (At Papia, the transfer, ordered by the Lombard King Luitprand, of the body of St. Augustine, bishop, away from the island of Sardinia.)
Et álibi aliórum plurimórum sanctórum Mártyrum et Confessórum, atque sanctárum Vírginum. (And elsewhere in divers places, many other holy martyrs, confessors, and holy virgins.)
This quotation from the Roman Martyrology for February 29 shows quite clearly the "historical" type from which the Roman Martyrology is derived; it is also derived from the Dialogues of St. Greogry the Great, various patristic writings and the Greek Menologion according to the Catholic Encyclopedia.
The Roman Martyrology in this form we now are so familiar with was first published in Rome in 1583 but it was the edition of 1584 that was approved and imposed on the Roman Church by Gregory XIII.
Since that time, one can still find some particular but minor variants upon the martyrology, which do contain commemorations of "local" interest. For example, the Dominican order has the Martyrologium S.O.P. (An English translation by the famed Dominican liturgist William Bonniwell can be found online here: Martyrology of the Sacred Order of Friars Preachers). There can be found commemorations for some of the Master General's of the Dominican Order who do not otherwise appear in the Roman Martyrology. Another example, which would likely be similar, is this 1670 edition of the martyrology from the diocese of Rouen pictured to the right.
Martyrologies as Liturgical Books
The temptation might be to think of a martyrology as simply a variant upon Butler's Lives of the Saints, but there is an important difference: while Butler's Lives of the Saints is a devotional book, the martyrology is a liturgical book.
In the ancient form of the breviary of the Roman rite, the readings of the martyrology occur in conjunction with the Office of Prime. (As an aside, this hour was suppressed in the breviary reforms which followed after the Second Vatican Council.) In the modern form of breviary, as of yet I can find no definite answer as to whether it has a new place in that context. That said, one place one will hear of the martyrology appearing in the modern liturgical context is Midnight Mass where a part of the martyrology might be sung -- a stirring custom that can be witnessed at St. Peter's Basilica, Rome each Christmas.
Beyond this liturgical context, it is also customary in many religious houses to hear the martyrology read from at the beginning of the evening meal -- a custom I have experienced a few times in one of the Oratories of St. Philip Neri and which is quite a profound reminder of the things of the soul as you begin to enjoy the fruits of creation.