Monday, August 07, 2006

Review: Book on the Use of York

Review: Mass and Parish in late Medieval England: The Use of York, ed. P.S. Barnwell, Claire Cross and Ann Rycraft. Spire Books: 2005. 224pp.

Spire Books is an architectural publisher based out of England who publish many fine books, not the least of which a beautiful cloth bound reprint of A.W.N. Pugin's True Principles and Contrasts. Recently, they have published a book which constitutes a series of essays on the Use of York, and that which surrounded it, from its liturgical actions and ornamentation to the parish church architecture of York. The Use of York is one of the reasonably well known liturgical variants upon the Roman rite, but not so well known as its more famous cousin, the Use of Salisbury, or Sarum use.

The book contains a number of interesting items, not the least of which the texts and rubrics for a Requiem Mass according to the Use of York (with the addition of the Creed and Gloria and many of the rubrics supplemented from the Sarum use), and also a corresponding chapter showing pictures of a re-enacted liturgy according to the aforesaid use in the York (now Anglican) parish of All Saints.

One of the most interesting chapters of the book is the discussion of the ornaments of the altar and clerics during this period, including photographs which are intended to represent the vestments as they would have approximately looked at that period. This essay presents some very interesting insights into the variances in medieval English parish worship as compared to what we are accustomed to in post-Tridentine arrangements – for example, the use of the hanging pyx more frequently than the tabernacle on the altar, the use of two candlesticks rather than six, the fact that there may or may not be an altar cross on the altar, and other interesting rubrical details.

In other chapters we gain insight into the life, piety and liturgical practices of medieval England, not to mention the destruction wrought at the time of the Reformation. Through the various essays, aspects of this history are brought to life, gaining us a sense of what it was like in the region of York before, during and after the reformation. When reading the accounts of the dismantling of rood screens, the whitewashing of walls, the dismantling of altars, the carting away of precious vessels and vestments, and the destruction of the liturgical books (pages torn out of chant manuals, now used as packaging paper, or used in the rebinding of books), one has a palpable sense of loss, not only as a Catholic, but also from a purely cultural and historical perspective. One is left asking, if the reformation had not happened in England, what might its parish churches look like today? What sacred art would we still be able to see in a country that had been so imbued with the Catholic Faith? What liturgical books might fill the shelves of libraries, monasteries and parishes? One is now left only to speculate.

It must be noted that the book appears to be written primarily, if not entirely, by members of the Anglican communion, and while many of the chapters are quite neutral, some of the writers are distinctly protestant in their approach to the questions at hand. For example, the belief in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist is declared to be a later medieval development of belief:

“The emphasis was therefore on witnessing the Mass, rather than on direct participation by the congregation. This... was the result of changes in belief which had occurred between the middle of the eleventh century and 1200... Central to the late medieval Mass was belief in transubstantiation... One of the consequences of the spread of this belief, which was a requirement following its official adoption as a Doctrine of the Church at the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215, was that the bread and wine were treated with increasing reveence.”

Many protestants, of course, earnestly believe this and do not always make the requisite distinction between the definition of an extant belief in the face of opposition to it, and the formulation of new doctrines. Nor in this particular case does enough consideration seem to be given to the potential lack of co-relation between the development of Eucharistic doctrine and belief, and the development of particular Eucharistic piety; nor for that matter the development of forms of piety which are intended to react against theologies and beliefs which are novel and attack the traditional doctrine.

A final criticism of the book relates to the re-enactment wherein one is immediately struck by the presence of female acolytes. One commentator does note that this would not have been permitted. That being said, typically those pursuing a historical re-enactment do attempt to make each detail as historical as possible – this is a significant part of what makes it “historical”; it is to represent a snapshot of things as they were. This is particularly emphasized given how recent a development this is, not only within the Catholic Church, but even the Anglican communion, and given its nature as a modern political issue, influenced by feminist understandings of what constitutes equality. As such, the historical re-enactment that one sees in the book seems unnecessarily tinged by modern politics and ideological agendas – whether or not that was the intention.

As already mentioned, the book does have a number of interesting features and does give a view into some of the religious life and culture in late medieval England and York specifically. That being said, the book is probably more valuable as a look into the tumultuous times of the schism in England. While the book is not “confessional” (i.e. explicitly attached to this or that ecclesial body), the subject of the study is confessional. Thus it seems that in a final assessment of the book, it might have been better had there been a more distinctly Catholic presence within its pages. Which is to say, one whose theology is distinctly Catholic. This would perhaps lend a greater sense of objectivity to the book and increase its value as a historical study.

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