Worship on the Eve of the Reformation

Today, friends, we are going to begin to explore the history of liturgical reform in the Lutheran tradition. Doesn’t that sound fun?

The answer is no. “History of liturgical reform in the Lutheran tradition” actually sounds pretty boring. Why are we doing this again?

Try to introduce new hymns/worship styles/worship languages/liturgical forms into worship, and sooner or later you’re bound to steer your beautiful, beloved, baby-deer ideas straight into the maw of the dreaded phrase, “That’s not the way we’ve always done things,” where you will be forced to watch traditionalism chew your poor little liturgical Bambi into a despairing pile of disappointed hopes and broken dreams.

And all for the sake of a fib we tell ourselves: that there is actually a “way we’ve always done things.” There’s not.

And our history tells us that there’s not. Our history is so much better, more resilient, more interesting than simply being “the way we’ve always done things.” So that’s why the history of liturgical reform in the Lutheran tradition is about to happen on this blog. Are you coming, or what?

Late Medieval Sunday Mass

Ok, let’s start with the basics here. There was a guy named Martin Luther. He was kind of important. And while liturgical reform wasn’t his very favoritist thing in the world, he did begrudgingly participate in it.

But in order to understand or appreciate the changes he made, we must figure out what it was that he was changing.

So. Imagine, if you will, a late medieval German layperson. We shall call him Georg.

Whatcha lookin’ at, Georg?

 Georg has a wife. We shall call her Elsa.

Great taste in hats, Elsa.

It’s 1510, and Elsa and Georg goes to mass every Sunday. And this is what that was like for our friends Elsa and Georg:


They show up at church bickering about whose turn it really was to feed the chickens that morning, and enter through separate doors. Georg goes to the men’s side, and Elsa goes to the women’s side.

Fun fact: most churches were built so that the altar was set against the east wall, because that was believed to be the direction from which Christ would come during the Second Coming. And you don’t want that guy sneaking up on you.

Today you might still hear church people talk about “east-facing altars.”  By this they mean altars that are set up against the back wall of the nave, even if it doesn’t necessarily face east.  (The alternative is usually called a “free-standing” altar.)

Anyway.  Georg and Elsa’s church looked something like this:

Looking toward the altar inside All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg, Germany. There probably wasn’t a statue of Luther back in 1510.  Notice the east-facing altar, and the wooden pulpit-y thing to the right.

Georg sits on the right (south) side, because during the Second Coming it’s the sheep on the right who are the elect. Elsa sits (rather huffily, because she knows she was right about those damn chickens) on the left (north) side, because, well, that was the side for the goats, the chaff, the damned, conveniently located nearer to the devil’s door, etc.[1]

This is also why women are supposed to stand on the left during wedding ceremonies. Mazel tov.

Introit, Kyrie, Gloria, Collect

Anyways. After the priests performed some preparatory prayers, the service would begin with an introit: usually a few phrases from a psalm, chanted by the choir.

Next up: the Kyrie. The Western Church totally lifted this from the East, where it was sung as a processional by everybody on their way to church.

Next came the Gloria in excelsis, also chanted. Again, this hymn is from Eastern practice, where it was originally sung as the final song in Morning Prayer.

Because the Kyrie and Gloria were sung every Sunday and didn’t really change, Georg and Elsa could probably sing them, and even if they didn’t understand the words they sang, they knew the general thrust.

Then the priest would offer a collect. It’s called a collect because back when it was invented, it was said at the end of the prayers of the people, “collecting” all of the petitions. And it was chanted.

Okay, let’s save ourselves some time: everything you see in this rite was chanted, and it was chanted in Latin.

Liturgical Thing Modern-Day Equivalent
Introit Prelude
Kyrie Kyrie
Gloria Hymn of Praise
Collect Prayer of the Day

The medieval church was a hoarder

You might well have noticed at this point that three of the four elements of the liturgy that Elsa and Georg have seen were either lifted from some other tradition, taken out of its original liturgical context, or both.

This happened a lot. The medieval church was a hoarder: people would travel to other places, see nifty liturgical things, and bring them back to their home parish with varying degrees of regard for the original purpose/placement/intent of the liturgical thing. The home parish would popularize it among a lot of other parishes, and the Church would end up with a lot of different localized rites.  Some of these rites gained enough traction to be used all over a particular area, like the Ambrosian rite (Milan), the Gallican rite (France), and the Hispano-Mozarbic rite (Iberian Peninsula).

As the city of Rome gained more power throughout the medieval period, eventually these local rites gotten eaten by the Roman rite, which is what I’m sharing with you here.[2]

Rome eats other ritesHOWEVER: the liturgical impulse of the Church is to conserve, and this continued to happen in two ways even after the Roman rite came to rule them all.  First, the Roman rite itself incorporated a lot of stuff from those localized rites.  Second, local bishops continued to adapt the Rome rite to suit local practice, even when adding all those liturgical elements together didn’t always make sense.

There are two takeaways from this:

1) Even though there was, in theory, one universal rite throughout the late medieval church, in reality worship looked a little bit different from place to place.

2) Sometimes, bits of the liturgy would get changed/adapted/stop making sense.

Hold onto that fact. It will come in handy later.

Reading scripture

At this point, Georg and Elsa settle in for the readings. The readings would be in Latin, from a version of the Bible known as the Vulgate. It was translated, rather well for the most part, by St. Jerome in the fourth century. “Vulgate” means common, and though I know this, it does not prevent me from having this visual whenever I see the word:

A Vulgar Gate.
A Vulgar Gate.

Also, though this seems weird to us, the readings would not come from the Old Testament except for rare occasions during the liturgical year. And the readings would be chanted (not read) from things called ambos, elevated pulpits–the wooden pulpity thing in the picture of the Schlosskirche I posted a couple of images ago. In some churches there would be one ambo, and in some there would be two: one on Elsa’s side for the reading of the Epistle, and one on Georg’s side for the reading of the Gospel.

Between the readings, two songs would happen: the first was called the gradual, because it was sung on the steps (gradus) of the ambo.  The gradual—composed of lines from a psalm—would originally have been sung by a soloist, with the congregation singing a refrain. By Georg and Elsa’s time, however, the gradual had gotten so musically complex that the choir would handle the whole thing.

The second song would be either a tract (during Lent) or a sequence (during not-Lent).

About the sequence, which Elsa and Georg had better enjoy, because Luther’s about to give it the heave-ho. The sequence was originally an Alleluia refrain:



But then, in order to convey the joyful joy that joyfully overflows from the Alleluia, medieval monks added a thingy called a jubilus to the second “ah,” which made the Alleluia like this:



But this was not sufficient to convey the positive ecstasy of the medieval monks, so they added entire sentences following the second “ah.” And because they followed, they were called sequences (yay, Latin).

See more at: http://www.e-codices.unifr.ch/de/csg/0342/265
See more at: http://www.e-codices.unifr.ch/de/csg/0342/265

Fun Fact: There were over 5,000 sequences on the eve of the Reformation, and a bunch of the ones Georg and Elsa would have known were written by one monk, the unfortunately named Notker Balbulus (Notker the Stammerer). This is his portrait.

Notker ain’t got no time for your Reformation nonsense.


As you have probably already guessed, the sequence was way too complicated for Elsa and Georg to participate in. Sorry, Elsa and Georg.

Liturgical Thing Modern-Day Equivalent
Epistle Reading First Reading
Gradual Psalm
Second Reading
Sequence Alleluia
Gospel Gospel

What about the other stuff?

You are probably wondering about a sermon. Chances are good that Elsa and Georg would not have heard one.

There may or may not have been prayers of intercession; while there’s not an official space for them in the liturgical books of the time, from the 9th century on some congregations did a Bidding of the Bedes (which means Praying of the Prayers). If this happened in Elsa and Georg’s parish, it would have been the only part of the mass done in German.

But Elsa and Georg definitely for sure would have joined in on the Nicene Creed, opening their mouths for the first time since they helped sing the Kyrie and Gloria.

Liturgical Thing Modern-Day Equivalent
Hymn of the Day
Nicene Creed Creed
Bidding of the Bedes(?) Prayers of Intercession
(Moved to communion) Sharing of Peace

At this point, I imagine that Elsa and Georg would be pretty bored. I could be wrong, because there’s no accounting for taste. But what we’ve seen so far is a service performed in a language that our friends don’t understand, in which they’ve had very little to do except pay attention. Let’s face it: they’re probably not doing that anymore.

But now we’re about to move into the part of the liturgy that Elsa and Georg would have recognized as the liturgical big kahuna: the Eucharistic action.

Things are about to get interesting. And complicated. Tune in later this week for another blog post in which I attempt to explain medieval eucharistic theology in 1500 words or less.

[1] Women and Gender in Medieval Europe: An Encyclopedia. Ed. by Margaret C. Schaus. Pg 772.

[2] My version comes from Paul Bradshaw and Maxwell Johnson’s The Eucharistic Liturgies: their Evolution and Interpretation (Liturgical Press, 2012).


8 Replies to “Worship on the Eve of the Reformation”

  1. Dear V, you are the best! I love this stuff and wrote an epic paper on it a few years ago. I still have tons of tables of (liturgical) data left from the research phase — please do let me know if you think they might be of use to you.

      1. I’m actually starting to work on a similar project here in Finland on making church accessible. Maybe we should skype and talk some more about this. You might have an interest in it. I can see you being a part of it too. Let me know if you want to hear more.

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