Update: I read more stuff. It said more things.

We interrupt this description of a layperson’s view of the medieval mass for an important update:

Update: I read more stuff.  it said more things.

In my last entry, I observed that Elsa and Georg were probably pretty bored: their job so far has been to pay attention to a liturgy, sung in a language that they didn’t understand, by people (clergy) who were not them.

Since that entry, my advisor lent me her copy of Frank C. Senn’s The People’s Work: A Social History of the Liturgy, for which I was deeply grateful, because so many of you have mentioned him.

Senn has some pretty interesting things to say about the use of the vernacular in the liturgy that directly contradicts the stuff I read before I wrote that last entry.[1] The most annoying and therefore the most interesting contradictions are as follows:

  • I told you the sermon probably got skipped (Maxwell & Johnson).  Senn thinks that a sermon in the vernacular (i.e.: the everyday language of the people) was more likely rather than less.
  • I told you that the mass was sung in Latin by a choir (Nelson Burnett).  Senn suggests that the laity sang “carols,” metrical hymns in the vernacular in between (and perhaps during?) the “official” parts of the liturgy;
  • I told you about the bidding of the bedes (prayers of the people), but definitely underplayed them (can’t even find where I originally read about them, because no one seems to mention them).  Senn argues that they were a big deal, a regular thing, and were preceded by announcements by the parish priest that everyone would have paid attention to because they didn’t have cable back then.

In other words, Senn argues that people like Elsa and Georg actually would have had plenty of points of engagement during the liturgy. It would have been hardly boring at all!

If nothing else, these contradictions do demonstrate something useful: what I’m trying to do for you is rebuild what the mass in a specific time and place (late medieval Germany) to specific people (Have you met Elsa and Georg? They’re charming.), and while I and the scholars who research social histories of the liturgy are doing our best, most vexingly, Georg and Elsa never broke out a camcorder. Nor do the official liturgical books of the period record “unofficial” bits of the service that Senn argues happened all the time. It’s like they just didn’t care about the liturgical scholars of the future at all. Sigh.

So: I continue to solicit your help in working this stuff out. Please keep asking questions and making comments about things that seem a little weird to you, or other (legit!) sources you’ve encountered, and I will keep working to try to make sense out of these different pieces of the liturgical puzzle. Your feedback has been amazingly super helpful so far. Keep it up!

“Concerning the Order of Public Worship”

In the meantime, my opinion on Senn’s points above: I’m really intrigued by the idea that a lot of Luther’s reforms didn’t involve re-inventing the wheel, but were instead building on and making official things that were already happening in some masses in some places.

BUT: in 1523, Luther wrote a pamphlet called “Concerning the Order of Public Worship,” naming three “abuses of the mass” that undermine Senn’s portrait of the mass. The first abuse:

  • “God’s Word has been silenced, and only reading and singing remain.”

In my opinion as someone Luther wasn’t writing for and never knew of, Luther does a terrible job of explaining what he’s talking about here. With the whole God’s Word has been silenced thing, it seems most likely that Luther was complaining that the scripture, being chanted in Latin, was never made accessible to the laity.

This wasn’t the case everywhere: if you had a good preacher, he might have taken the time to repeat the scripture he was preaching about to you in your own language. But this presumes a good preacher; see Luther’s second point:

  • Scripture reading had been replaced by a “host of un-Christian fables and lies, in legends, hymns, and sermons.”

Lookee at the comment about the hymns! Maybe Senn was right, and Elsa and Georg would have sung some! But Luther doesn’t seem to be a great fan of this, because whoever was choosing the hymns was apparently not so hot on theological content.

This problem will strike many of the pastors, laypeople, and church musicians reading this blog as a totally foreign issue, I’m sure.

Luther argues in this tract for the need for priests to preach sermons that they themselves wrote for their communities, in their language. Another common enough occurrence was for priests to read sermons that someone else wrote. Granted, not just any someone else—sometimes bishops would write sermons that the priests under their purview to preach. I haven’t found direct reference to this in my research, but I also suspect that sermons by early church fathers like Origen and Augustine might have gotten read.

There was also a thriving strain of Christian fables that Luther’s comment seems to suggest became fodder for preaching. One example I can think of is the legend of the Knight of Cologne.


Once upon a time, in the city of Cologne, there was a very valiant Knight who had a brother. One day that brother got into a fight with another man—let’s call him Friedrich—and they came to blows, and Friedrich killed the brother.

The Knight swore revenge on Friedrich, who immediately fled. Tracking him through the country, the Knight finally came upon Friedrich in a chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary, where he was praying.

Well, as Hamlet taught us all, it’s terribly bad manners to kill someone while they’re praying, so the Knight decided to wait ‘til Friedrich was finished until he took his revenge. But as the Knight watched Friedrich pray, he suddenly noticed an extraordinarily beautiful woman standing by his side. And then, weirdness of weirdness, he noticed that flowers were falling from Friedrich’s mouth as he prayed—a red rose, followed by ten white roses, over and over again. The beautiful lady was taking them up as he prayed and weaving them into a garland, which she placed around the neck of the unsuspecting Friedrich.

Immediately the heart of the Knight was softened, because beautiful ladies have that effect on people in fables.  When Friedrich finished his prayers, the Knight went to him and forgave him for killing his brother, asking only to know who that beautiful lady was. (She, being a mysterious and beautiful lady in a fable, had of course disappeared by this point.) Friedrich had absolutely no idea what he was talking about.

“What, then, were you praying?” asked the Knight of Cologne.

“The rosary,” replied the man. “That is, fifteen ‘Our Fathers’ and one hundred fifty ‘Hail Marys.’”

The Knight of Cologne immediately asked Friedrich to teach him the rosary, which Friedrich did, and they parted in peace.


Isn’t that a nice story? Lots of people in medieval times thought so too. In fact, they liked it so much that a bunch of monks in Spain decided to have artwork representing it illuminate a liturgical book called a Kyriale. Oh, but not just any Kyriale, my friends. A GIANT Kyriale, SO BIG that each piece of vellum used to put it together was made out of ONE WHOLE CALF.

(Illuminated manuscripts: not a vegan-friendly option.)

You can go see that Kyriale today in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Or, if you don’t feel like coming to New Haven and trying to lift an enormous honker of a tome, you can just look at the images of its content online.


(Seriously—I got to see this book, the Rosary Cantoral, for one of my classes. The library staff who went to retrieve it accidentally dropped it on a table. The book was fine, but the table is scarred for life.)


This is the kind of unchristian fable that Martin was likely to have been complaining about. Because while it is a very pretty story, it does not proclaim Christ or the gospel. Not even a little bit.

I did mention that Luther named three abuses of the mass in his 1523 tract, and I’ve only told you two of them so far. The third one is:

  • The mass was performed as a work through which God’s grace and favor might be won.

And it’s to this final point that we turn at least. Really this time. The mass, through Georg and Elsa’s eyes. Tune in early next week.

[1] Two worth mentioning: Paul Bradshaw’s and Maxwell Johnson’s The Eucharistic Liturgies and Amy Nelson Burnett’s “The Social History of Communion and the Reformation of the Eucharist.”


2 Replies to “Update: I read more stuff. It said more things.”

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