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Liturgical manuscripts - Books for the Mass

Introduction Books for the Divine Office

The performance of the Mass is a liturgical practice that is centred around the Eucharist, the sacrament which celebrated the transformation of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. Several different types of books are necessary for the clergy's enactment of the Mass.

The hymns and prayers forming the basic structure of the ceremony are contained primarily in the gradual and the sacramentary. Other individual volumes containing the texts for more specific types of chants and prayers were also produced. These include the kyriale, troper, sequentiary, and tonary.

In the early 13th century, these individual books were combined into one volume called the missal, which integrates both the sung and spoken texts for each feast and ferial, or weekday, and arranges them according to the liturgical year. Also integral to the performance of the Mass are various readings drawn from the Old and New Testament. These are contained in the Gospel book, the Gospel lectionary, and the epistolary.

The prescribed movements of the priest during the Mass are described in the ordinal. Other liturgical books were developed for more occasional ceremonies and special feasts. An Exultet roll contains texts used to bless the Paschal candle on Easter, the pontifical is used by popes and bishops for sacraments performed exclusively by them, such as ordination and confirmation, and the benedictional contains the blessings said by the bishop during the Mass in particular services.

(Click on an image for an enlarged view and detailed description.)

Additional 28962, f.281v
Alphonso V of Aragon celebrating Mass with his court
Additional 28962, f.281v


Gradual, Sequentiary, and Sacramentary
Missal
Gospel Book
Gospel Lectionary
Epistolary
Pontifical

Gradual, Sequentiary, and Sacramentary    Top top

The gradual was the principle book used by the choir in the medieval mass, and it was supplemented by the sequentiary, which contains poetic verses sung after the alleluia and before the Gospel lection. The sacramentary, in turn, provides all the texts for the portions of the mass spoken by the priest. All three of these texts were originally distinct books used in tandem with each other. From the 11th century, the celebrant of the mass was increasingly required to recite not just the spoken portions, but also the musical portions of the ceremony. This, therefore, created the need for one book that would contain both the sung and spoken passages.

Before the early 13th century, when the missal was developed fully to integrate all these texts, a transitional book type appeared, primarily in Germany and modern-day Austria. This “juxtaposed missal” bound the gradual, sequentiary, sacramentary, and also sometimes the lectionary, together into one volume, written continuously from one text to the next, while keeping each section a distinct entity. Due to the utilitarian nature of this type of book, they frequently contain only simple decoration; however, some examples were probably commissioned by individual clerics, and are highly illuminated.

Arundel 156, f. 99
Christ in Majesty, from a German 13th century missal.
Arundel 156, f. 99


Missal    Top top

In the early 13th century the individual sections of the juxtaposed missal became further integrated to form what is now called the missal. In this type of book, the texts for all the sung and spoken portions of the mass are combined into individual "packages" corresponding to each feast day, and arranged according to the liturgical year. The missal is typically divided into three different sections according to type of feast. The temporal contains those feasts of the liturgical year related to Christ's life (Christmas, Easter, etc.), the sanctorale contains texts relating to the feasts of specific saints, and the common of saints addresses feasts for categories of saints, such as martyrs or confessors.

Missals are frequently embellished with decorated initials, especially for important feasts, as well as before the texts for the Canon of the Mass, the actual immutable celebration of the Eucharist.

Arundel 108, f. 146v
Crucifixion miniature from a 15th-century German missal.
Arundel 108, f. 146v


Gospel Book    Top top

Gospel books contain the first four books of the New Testament: the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. By the 7th century the Gospels had been broken down into smaller sections, known as pericopes or lections, which would have been read during the Mass. In order to simplify navigation through the text during the liturgy, capitularies, or chapter lists, were added in most Gospel books. Also facilitating their use were sets of canon tables at the beginning of the text. These are based on a system of numbering individual Gospel passages, which was devised by Eusebius of Caesarea, the emperor Constantine's court bishop, in the 4th century. The numbers are arranged in tables to show the concordance of readings across several different Gospels at once, showing whether they are present in all four Gospels, or three, two or one. These correspond to numbers written in the book's margins next to the text passages.

Gospel books were often lavishly decorated, particularly in their canon tables, and at the beginning of each Gospel text, where images of the evangelists and elaborate incipit pages, in which the opening words of the Gospel are decorated, frequently appear. Many Gospel books survive in pristine condition, which suggests that, in some cases, they were reserved for occasional rather than everyday use; some even adorned saints’ shrines. Some examples maintain their original treasure bindings decorated with gemstones, metalwork, or carved ivory or enamel plaques. This enhances their visual impact if displayed on an altar, or if they are processed to the lectern for use.

Additional 11848, Binding, upper board
Treasure binding of a Carolingian Gospel book.
Additional 11848, Binding, upper board


Cotton Nero D IV, f. 3
Jerome’s letter to Pope Damasus, from the Lindisfarne Gospels.
Cotton Nero D IV, f. 3


Royal 1 E VI, f. 5
Canon tables from the Royal Bible.
Royal 1 E VI, f. 5


Additional 34890, f. 114v-115
St John the Evangelist, from the Grimbald Gospels
Additional 34890, f. 114v-115


Cotton Nero D IV, f. 26v-27
A ‘carpet page’ from the Lindisfarne Gospels.
Cotton Nero D IV, f. 26v-27


Egerton 608, f. 88r
Crucifixion miniature from a Gospel book.
Egerton 608, f. 88r


Additional 5112, f. 135v
Beginning of the Gospel of St John, with decorated headpiece and initial.
Additional 5112, f. 135v


Cotton Nero D IV, f. 29
Chi-Rho monogram from the Lindisfarne Gospels.
Cotton Nero D IV, f. 29


Harley 1775, f. 193
Page from a 6th century Italian Gospel book.
Harley 1775, f. 193


Gospel Lectionary    Top top

The Gospel lectionary, also called an evangelary or evangelistary, contains the readings used during the Mass, and arranges them according to the liturgical year. This type of manuscript is often highly illuminated. Like the Gospel book, it often contains images of the Evangelists, but because readings from the various books are interspersed, they appear mostly at the beginning of the manuscript. Elaborate cycles of narrative images depicting scenes from the life of Christ often appear in the Gospel lectionary as well.

Arundel 547, f. 94v
St Luke, from a 10th century Byzantine Gospel lectionary.
Arundel 547, f. 94v


Egerton 809, f. 17r
Initial ‘A’ historiated with an image of the Last Supper, from a German Gospel lectionary.
Egerton 809, f. 17r


Epistolary    Top top

Readings from various New Testament books outside the Gospels also played an important role in the structure of the Mass. Passages from these texts, along with some from other Old and New Testament books were contained within the epistolary. As in the Gospel lectionary, the readings are arranged according to the liturgical year. The subdeacon would have been responsible for reading the epistle text during the Mass. Epistolaries in the West were decorated less frequently than Gospel books or lectionaries, though some Byzantine examples matched the luxury of other types of books of readings.

Yates Thompson 34, f. 1
St Paul preaching to the Romans, from the Epistolary of the Sainte Chapelle.
Yates Thompson 34, f. 1


Pontifical    Top top

Certain liturgical ceremonies are performed only by the pope or the bishop, and therefore a book known as a pontifical was developed to contain the texts needed for those purposes. Instructions for ordaining clergy, confirming individuals, dedicating churches and altars, and consecrating liturgical objects, in addition to other rituals, are collected in the pontifical.

Yates Thompson 24, f. 2
A bishop administering the tonsure from the Pontifical of Guilelmo Durando.
Yates Thompson 24, f. 2


Introduction Books for the Divine Office
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