In art and hymns and liturgy the Church wisely made place for the worship of the Virgin; but in the older elements of her practice and ritual she insisted on the sterner and more solemn aspects of the faith. Following ancient customs, and perhaps for reasons of health, she prescribed periodical fasts: all Fridays were to be meatless; throughout the forty days of Lent no meat, eggs, or cheese might be eaten, and the fast was not to be broken till the hour of none (three P.M.); furthermore, there were to be in that period no weddings, no rejoicing, no hunting, no trials in court, no sexual intercourse.98 These were counsels of perfection, seldom fully observed or enforced, but they helped to strengthen the will and to tame the excessive appetites of an omnivorous and carnal population.
The liturgy of the Church was another ancient inheritance, remolded into lofty and moving forms of religious drama, music, and art. The Psalms of the Old Testament, the prayers and homilies of the Jerusalem Temple, readings from the New Testament, and the administration of the Eucharist, constituted the earliest elements of the Christian service. The division of the Church into Eastern and Western resulted in divergent rites; and the inability of the early popes to extend their full authority beyond Central Italy resulted in a diversity of ceremony even in the Latin Church. A ritual established at Milan spread to Spain, Gaul, Ireland, and North Britain, and was not overcome by the Roman form till 664. Pope Hadrian I, probably completing labors begun by Gregory I, reformed the liturgy in a “Sacramentary” sent to Charlemagne toward the end of the eighth century. Guillaume Durand wrote the medieval classic on the Roman liturgy in his Rationale divinorum officiorum, or Rational Exposition of the Divine Offices (1286); we may judge its wide acceptance from the fact that it was the first book printed after the Bible.
The center and summit of the Christian worship was the Mass. In the first four centuries this ceremony was called the Eucharist or thanksgiving; and that sacramental commemoration of the Last Supper remained the essence of the service. Around it there gathered in the course of twelve centuries a complicated succession of prayers and songs, varying with the day and season of the year and the purpose of the individual Mass, and inscribed for the convenience of the priest in the missal, or Book of the Mass. In the Greek rite, and sometimes in the Latin, the two sexes were separated in the congregation. There were no chairs; all stood, or, at the most solemn moments, knelt. Exceptions were made for old or weak people; and for monks or canons, who had to stand through long services, little ledges were built into the choir stalls to support the base of the spine; these misericordiae (mercies) became a favorite recipient of the wood carver’s skill. The officiating priest entered in a toga covered by alb, chasuble, maniple, and stole—colorful garments bearing symbolical decorations; the most prominent symbols were usually the letters IHS—i.e., lesos Huios Soter, “Jesus Son [of God], Saviour.” The Mass itself was begun at the foot of the altar with a humble Introit: “I shall go in to the altar of God,” to which the acolyte added, “To God Who giveth joy to my youth.” The priest ascended the altar, and kissed it as the sacred repository of saintly relics. He intoned the Kyrie eleison (“Lord have mercy upon us”)—a Greek survival in the Latin Mass; and recited theGloria (“Glory to God in the highest”) and the Credo. He consecrated little wafers of bread and a chalice of wine into the body and blood of Christ with the words Hoc est corpus meum* and Hic est sanguinis meus; and offered these transubstantiated elements—namely His Son—as a propitiatory sacrifice to God in commemoration of the sacrifice on the cross, and in lieu of the ancient sacrifice of living things. Turning to the worshipers, he bade them lift up their hearts to God: sursum corda; to which the acolyte, representing the congregation, answered, Habemus ad Dominum: “We hold them up to the Lord.” The priest then recited the triple Sanctus, the Agnus Dei, and the Pater noster; himself partook of the consecrated bread and wine, and administered the Eucharist to communicants. After some additional prayers he pronounced the closing formula—Ite, missa est—“Depart, it is dismissal”—from which the Mass (missa) probably derived its name.99 In late forms there still followed a blessing of the congregation by the priest, and another Gospel reading—usually the Neoplatonic exordium of the Gospel of St. John. Normally there was no sermon except when a bishop officiated, or when, after the twelfth century, a friar came to preach.
At first all Masses were sung, and the congregation joined in the singing; from the fourth century onward the vocal participation of the worshipers declined, and “canonical choristers” provided the musical response to the celebrant’s chant.† The hymns sung in the various services of the Church are among the most moving products of medieval sentiment and art. The known history of the Latin hymn begins with Bishop Hilary of Poitiers (d. 367). Returning to Gaul from exile in Syria, he brought home some Greco-Oriental hymns, translated them into Latin, and composed some of his own; all of these are lost. Ambrose at Milan made a new beginning; eighteen survive of his sonorous hymns, whose restrained fervor so affected Augustine. The noble hymn of faith and thanksgiving, Te Deum laudamus, formerly ascribed to Ambrose, was probably written by the Romanian Bishop Nicetas of Remisiana toward the end of the fourth century. In later centuries the Latin hymns may have assumed a new delicacy of feeling and form under the influence of Moslem and Provençal love poetry.100 Some of the hymns (like some Arabic poems) verged on jingling doggerel, tipsy with excess of rhyme; but the better hymns of the medieval flowering—the twelfth and thirteenth centuries—developed a subtle turn of compact phrase, a melodiousness of frequent rhyme, a grace and tenderness of thought, that rank them with the greatest lyrics in literature.
To the famous monastery of St. Victor, outside of Paris, there came about 1130 a Breton youth known to us only as Adam of St. Victor. He lived there in quiet content his remaining sixty years, imbibed the spirit of the famous mystics Hugo and Richard, and expressed it humbly, beautifully, and powerfully in hymns mostly designed as sequences for the Mass. A century after him a Franciscan monk, Jacopone da Todi (1228?-1306), composed the supreme medieval lyric, the Stabat Mater. Jacopone was a successful lawyer in Todi, near Perugia; his wife was renowned for both goodness and loveliness; she was crushed to death by the fall of a platform at a festival; Jacopone became insane with grief, roamed the Umbrian roads as a wild vagrant crying out his sins and sorrows; smeared himself with tar and feathers, and walked on all fours; joined the Franciscan tertiaries, and wrote the poem that sums up the tender piety of his time:
Stabat mater dolorosa
iuxta crucem lacrimosa,
dum pendebat filius;
cuius animan gementem
contristantem et dolentem
O quam tristis et afflicta
fuit illa benedicta
Quae maerebat et dolebat,
et tremebat, cum videbat
nati poenas incliti.
Quis est homo qui non fleret
matrem Christi si videret
in tanto supplicio?
Quis not posset contristan,
piam matrem contemplan,
dolentem cum filio? …
Stood the mother broken-hearted
All in tears before the cross
While her Son hung dying;
Through her spirit heavy laden,
Mourning for Him and in pain,
Pierced a sword of grief.
Oh, how sad and deep-afflicted
Was that mother, all so blessed,
Of the only Son!
Wailed she then and sore lamented,
Trembled when she saw the torture
Of her noble Son.
Who is he that would not sorrow
If he saw our Saviour’s mother
In such agony?
Who could help but share her sadness,
Seeing her, the loving mother,
Grieving with her Son? …
Eia, mater, fons amoris,
me sentire vim doloris
fac, ut tecum lugeam;
fac ut ardeat cor meum
in amando Christum deum
ut sibi complaceam.
Sancta mater, illud agas,
crucifixi fige plagas
cordi meo valide;
tui nati vulnerati,
tam dignati pro me pati,
poenas mecum divide.
Fac me vere tecum flere
donec ego vixero.
Iuxta crucem tecum stare,
te libenter sociare
in planctu desidero.
Fac me cruce custodiri
morte Christi praemuniri
quando corpus morietur,
fac ut animae donetur
Come, my mother, fount of loving,
Make me feel your fullest anguish,
Let me mourn with you;
Let my heart be fired with ardor
Loving Christ our God and Saviour,
Let me please Him so!
Holy mother, do this for me:
Plant the blows of Him so martyred
Deeply in my heart;
Of your offspring sorely wounded,
Bearing ignominy for me,
Let me share the pains!
Let me truly weep beside you,
Mourn with you the Crucified,
All my living years.
Standing by the cross together
Would that I might e’er be with you,
Gladly bound in grief.
Let me by the cross be guarded,
Saved by Christ’s redeeming Passion,
Cherished by His grace;
When my body shall have perished,
Let my soul in heaven’s glory
See Him face to face.
Only two poems rival this among medieval Christian hymns. One is the Pange lingua that St. Thomas Aquinas composed for the Corpus Christi feast. The other is the terrible Dies irae, or “Day of Wrath,” written about 1250 by Thomas of Celano, and still sung in the Mass for the Dead; here the horror of the Last Judgment inspires a poem as dark and perfect as any of Dante’s tormented dreams.101
To the moving ritual of her prayers, hymns, and Mass the Church added the imposing ceremonies and processions of religious festivals. In northern countries the Feast of the Nativity took over the pleasant rites wherewith the pagan Teutons had celebrated the victory of the sun, at the winter solstice, over the advancing night; hence the “Yule” logs that burned in German, North French, English, Scandinavian homes, and the Yule trees laden with gifts, and the merry feasting that tried strong stomachs till the Twelfth Night thereafter. There were countless other feasts or holydays—Epiphany, Circumcision, Palm Sunday, Easter, Ascension, Pentecost…. Such days—and only in less degree all Sundays—were exciting events in the life of medieval man. For Easter he confessed such of his sins as he cared to remember, bathed, cut his beard or hair, dressed in his best and most uncomfortable clothes, received God in the Eucharist, and felt more profoundly than ever the momentous Christian drama of which he was made a part. In many towns, on the last three days of Holy Week, the events of the Passion were represented in the churches by a religious play, with dialogue and plain chant; and several other occasions of the ecclesiastical year were signalized with such “mysteries.” About 1240 Juliana, prioress of a convent near Liége, reported to her village priest that a supernatural vision had urged upon her the need of honoring with a solemn festival the body of Christ as transubstantiated in the Eucharist; in 1262 Pope Urban IV sanctioned such a celebration, and entrusted to St. Thomas Aquinas the composition of an “office” for it—appropriate hymns and prayers; the philosopher acquitted himself wonderfully well in this assignment; and in 1311 the Feast of Corpus Christi was finally established and was celebrated on the first Thursday after Pentecost, with the most impressive procession of the Christian year. Such ceremonies drew immense crowds, and glorified numerous participants; they opened the way to the medieval secular drama; and they helped the pageantry of the guilds, the tournaments and knightly initiations, and the coronation of kings, to occupy with pious flurry and sublimating spectacle the occasional leisure of men not natively inclined to order and peace. The Church based her technique of moralization through faith not on arguments to reason but on appeals to the senses through drama, music, painting, sculpture, architecture, fiction, and poetry; and it must be confessed that such appeals to universal sensibilities are more successful—for evil as well as for good—than challenges to the changeful and individualistic intellect. Through such appeals the Church created medieval art.
The culminating pageants were at the goals of pilgrimage. Medieval men and women went on pilgrimage to fulfill a penance or a vow, or to seek a miraculous cure, or to earn an indulgence, and doubtless, like modern tourists, to see strange lands and sights, and find adventure on the way as a relief from the routine of a narrow life. At the end of the thirteenth century there were some 10,000 sanctioned goals of Christian pilgrimage. The bravest pilgrims fared to distant Palestine, sometimes barefoot or clothed only in a shirt, and usually armed with cross, staff, and purse all given by a priest. In 1054 Bishop Liedbert of Cambrai led 3000 pilgrims to Jerusalem; in 1064 the archbishops of Cologne and Mainz, and the bishops of Speyer, Bamberg, and Utrecht started for Jerusalem with 10,000 Christians in their wake; 3000 of them perished on the way; only 2000 returned safely to their native lands. Other pilgrims crossed the Pyrenees, or risked themselves on the Atlantic, to visit the reputed bones of the apostle James at Compostela in Spain. In England pilgrims sought the tomb of St. Cuthbert at Durham, the grave of Edward the Confessor in Westminster, or that of St. Edmund at Bury, the church supposedly founded by Joseph of Arimathea at Glastonbury, and above all, the shrine of Thomas à Becket at Canterbury. France drew pilgrims to St. Martin’s at Tours, to Notre Dame at Chartres, Notre Dame at Le-Puy-en-Velay. Italy had the church and bones of St. Francis at Assisi, and the Santa Casa, or Holy House, at Loreto, which the pious believed to be the very dwelling in which Mary had lived with Jesus at Nazareth; when the Turks drove the last Crusader from Palestine this cottage was carried by angels through the air and deposited in Dalmatia (1291), then flown across the Adriatic to the Ancona woods (lauretum) from which the honored village took its name.
Finally, all the roads of Christendom led pilgrims to Rome, to see the tombs of Peter and Paul, to earn indulgences by visiting the Stations or famous churches of the city, or to celebrate some jubilee, or joyous anniversary, in Christian history. In 1299 Pope Boniface VIII declared a jubilee for 1300, and offered a plenary indulgence to those who should come and worship in St. Peter’s in that year. It was estimated that on no day in those twelve months had Rome less than 200,000 strangers within her gates; and a total of 2,000,000 visitors, each with a modest offering, deposited such treasure before St. Peter’s tomb that two priests, with rakes in their hands, were kept busy night and day collecting the coins.102 Guidebooks taught the pilgrims by what roads to travel, and what points to visit at their goal or on the way. We may weakly imagine the exaltation of the tired and dusty pilgrims when at last they sighted the Eternal City, and burst into the Pilgrims’ Chorus of joy and praise:
O Roma nobilis, orbis et domina,
cunctarum urbium excellentissima,
roseo martyrum sanguine rubea,
albis et virginum liliis candida;
salutem dicimus tibi per omnia;
te benedicimus; salve per saecula!
“O noble Rome, of all this world the queen, of all the cities the most excellent! O ruby red with martyrs’ rosy blood, yet white with lilies pure of virgin maids; we give thee salutation through all years; we bless thee; through all generations hail!”
To these varied religious services the Church added social services. She taught the dignity of labor, and practiced it through the agriculture and industry of her monks. She sanctified the organization of labor in the guilds, and organized religious guilds to perform works of charity.103 Every church was a sanctuary with right of asylum in which hunted men might find some breathless refuge till the passions of their pursuers could yield to the processes of law; to drag men from such a sanctuary was a sacrilege entailing excommunication. The church or cathedral was the social as well as the religious center of the village or town. Sometimes the sacred precinct, or even the church itself, was used, with genial clerical consent, to store grain or hay or wine, to grind corn or brew beer.104There most of the villagers had been baptized, there most of them would be buried. There the older folk would gather of a Sunday for gossip or discussion, and the young men and women to see and be seen. There the beggars assembled, and the alms of the Church were dispensed. There nearly all the art that the village knew was brought together to beautify the House of God; and the poverty of a thousand homes was brightened by the glory of that temple which the people had built with their coins and hands, and which they considered their own, their collective and spiritual home. In the church belfry the bells rang the hours of the day or the call to services and prayer; and the music of those bells was sweeter than any other except the hymns that bound voices and hearts into one, or warmed a cooling faith with the canticles of the Mass. From Novgorod to Cadiz, from Jerusalem to the Hebrides, steeples and spires raised themselves precariously into the sky because men cannot live without hope, and will not consent to die.