Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Historical Recreation of a 15th Century Mass

Ben stumbled across this very interesting video which was published a bit less than two weeks ago, an historical reenactment of Mass as would it have been celebrated in a parish church in Sweden on Sunday, October 4, 1450. On the Youtube channel it is described as the 18th Sunday after Pentecost, but the video itself correctly notes it as “Dominica XVIII post Trinitatis (festum) - the 18th Sunday after (the feast of the) Trinity,” according to the system widely used in the north of Europe in the later Middle Ages.

Some of the differences from the Tridentine Mass as celebrated today which you may note here can be attributed to the many variants and vagaries of medieval liturgical custom. The most obvious is the the use of a red vestment instead of green; this was common enough in the Middle Ages, and continues in use to this day in the Ambrosian Rite for the season after Pentecost.

Someone posted in the comments on YouTube an English translation of the introduction, which occupies the first 3:45 of the video; I will post part of it below. However, I feel that there is one very significant problem here which ought to be addressed, namely, the fact that throughout the service, the congregation remains completely silent. Obviously, one cannot exclude absolutely the notion that such Masses happened in the Middle Ages. However, common experience would strongly indicate that this was not typical, and that a sufficient number of people would have known at least the Ordinary, and perhaps rather more than that, well enough to join in with the cantor.

While there are many EF Masses celebrated today where only the schola sings, there are also many where the congregation does join in for at least the Ordinary, and things like the hymns sung at the Offertory or Communion. Surely this must have been all the more common when attendance at the regular Sunday liturgy was so much more the focus of peoples’ lives, when they did not depend anywhere near as much as we do on printing, and when most of them lived their whole lives in the same church, hearing the same chants year in and year out.

To this day, if one attends a Divine Liturgy celebrated in Church Slavonic for a Ukrainian or Slovak congregation, people still sing along with the invariable parts such as the Creed and the Cherubic hymn, and very often with a great deal more besides. One may argue that the language of a modern Ukrainian is nowhere as far from Church Slavonic as medieval Swedish is from Latin; to this I answer that my own regular attendance at the liturgy in Church Slavonic has enabled me to learn a great deal of it without any particular effort, despite no knowledge at all of any Slavic language. Earlier this year, I attended the first part of the Easter vigil on Julian Holy Saturday in a Russian Orthodox church, and heard several people sing along with the Cherubic hymn “Let all mortal flesh keep silent”, which is only sung once a year, at that service.

I say this, not to run down the creators of the video, who clearly put a great deal of effort into it. Nevertheless, we as Catholics ought to always keep a clear and accurate understanding of what the religion, the prayer, and the liturgical life of people really was in the Age of the Faith, as the historian Will Durant rightly proposed to rename the “Middle Ages.” Modern scholarly works such as Eamon Duffy’s The Stripping of the Altars and Fr Augustine Thompson’s Cities of God have shown that medieval people knew, understood, participated, and above all lived the liturgy far more than they and their culture are generally given credit for.

Translation of the Swedish introduction:

“Five hundred years ago, the universe seemed much more understandable than it does for us. All of existence was framed by a number of ceremonies and behavioral patterns which were a matter of course for people at the time. And the most important of them was the Holy Mass - that ring of charged words and actions which surround the central mystery in the Christian faith: That Jesus becomes man anew in the creatures of bread and wine.

We have reconstructed a High Mass from 500 years ago in an ordinary Swedish parish church, namely in Endre Church, one mile east of Visby in Gotland. We imagined ourselves to be participating in this high mass on an autumn Sunday in the middle of the 15th century. It is local people who are participating in clothes typical for the time, and we have tried as much as possible to reconstruct [something to do with (worship) services] in the Diocese of Linköping at that time - since Gotland belonged to that diocese.

The service is conducted in an incomprehensible language, a language incomprehensible to the people: Latin. Because church services at the time were not considered a medium for communicating information, except for silent prayers. Just as one cannot describe what is fascinating about a melody or a sight, one shouldn't be able to understand or describe the central mystery of the universe. The congregation waits for the central moment, when the bread and wine shall be transformed into the body and blood of Christ.

The priest was helped by a chorister, perhaps the [experienced?] youth whom [his soul has discovered?] and who with time would be sent to Linköping in order to attend the cathedral school. Songs, mostly from the Bible, were sung by the local cantor. We don't know exactly how the music went in the medieval churches. Maybe Endre Church had a specific order which required a qualified cantor like the one we shall see here.

The Sunday service began when the priest sprinkled Holy Water on the congregation. This was to remind them that they had become members of the Christian church through baptism. The Holy Water would drive away all the powers of evil. "Let us now place ourselves in the Middle Ages. Let us try to grasp the atmosphere in a normal Swedish parish church, in a time where man still believed himself cast out into an empty, cold existence, when Europe was still unified, and when the central mystery around which everything revolved was that Jesus Christ, had become man, had died, and risen again for all.”

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: