This short series continues with an examination of Christian liturgy in Rome and Western Europe during the Dark Ages.

Those who missed the first two instalments on early Christian liturgy and that of the East might find them helpful in comparing and contrasting with the information below.

Source material is taken from W.D. Maxwell’s 1937 book A History of Christian Worship: An Outline of Its Development and Form, available to read in full online (H/T: Revd P. Aasman). Page references are given below.

Although the liturgies discussed in this post will be seen as purely Catholic by Protestants, it is useful for all Christians to know how our church services originated and developed pre-Rome and pre-Reformation.

N.B.: Those wondering about public confession of sin should note that this did not occur until Diebold Schwarz’s (Theobaldus Niger) modification of the Confiteor for Strasbourg Protestants in 1524 (p. 88) and Zwingli’s 1525 service in Zurich during the Reformation. Public confession was later adopted by Bucer in Strasbourg and Calvin in Geneva. More will appear on this next week.

Two different rites

During this era, two different rites emerged in Europe.

The austere Roman rite was peculiar to Rome and the surrounding region. Roman ecclesiastical control did not extend further until the ninth century (p. 45).

Meanwhile, other parts of Europe — including Milan — used their own elaborate regional liturgies, historically known as Gallican rites.

It was only near the end of the Dark Ages, characterised by tribal barbarian invasions (e.g. Goths, Gauls), that the Roman rite became predominant, but not before it had absorbed aspects of Gallican rites (p. 45).

It should be noted that, wherever one was in the West, services were in Latin once Constantine legalised Christianity at the end of the fourth century. Prior to that, they were said in Greek (p. 45).

Gallican rites

The Gallican rites, whether used in France, Spain, Milan or the British Isles, were much more elaborate than the Roman rite.

In fact, until the 19th or early 20th century — Maxwell does not specify — it was thought that they the Celtic Gallican rites were brought to the West from Ephesus, which would have used an Eastern form of liturgy. Maxwell tells us that the Ephesus connection was documented in a book from the eighth century called Cursus Scottorum (p. 51, also footnote p. 51, 52). Maxwell explains that, while the book is useful in several areas, its conclusions about liturgy have been proven wrong in light of more recent research. That said, it seems that at least one aspect, the Grand Entrance, was imported from the East (p. 48).

Understandably, given the rampages occuring after the fall of the Roman Empire, documentation from this period is thin on the ground. Texts which have survived describe the (p. 47):

– Ambrosian rite of Milan;

– Mozarabic rites of Spain;

Libellus missarum, Missale Gothicum and Missale Gallicanum of France;

– Various Celtic rites from the British Isles.


Historical research tells us that these cities and regions developed new prayers during the sixth century for various church feast days and occasions (p. 46). Rites were colourful and flamboyant. That said, the most essential prayers, i.e. Consecration, and liturgical format followed the earliest established Christian liturgy of the first century AD.

Other characteristics of Gallican worship included (p. 48):

– Services created for active participation by the congregation, including singing;

– Very few sanctuary screens hiding the sanctuary;

– Deacons having an active role — not as much as in the Eastern churches but more than that of an acolyte;

– Lengthy prayers;

– Services designed to appeal to the congregation’s senses, lifting them up to the ethereal; along with this was a copious use of incense;

– The Lord’s Prayer as a permanent part of the liturgy; it might have been said by everyone or perhaps the clergy and deacons in the sanctuary;

– Two main processions, one at the beginning of the service and the other prior to the Gospel reading.

– The retention of the diptych of the third and fourth centuries with the names of the sick and the dead for whom the deacon said a litany;

The Gallican service retained the traditional division of the Liturgies of the Word and the Upper Room. The following aspects were added or changed:

– The recitation of either the Benedictus or the Gloria in Excelsis;

– The placement of the Kiss of Peace between the Offertory and the consecration prayer;

– Three readings: the first from the Old Testament, especially prophecy; the second from Acts or the Epistles, then the Gospel.

– A dismissal using the words Missa acta est (‘the Mass is ended’) or In pace (‘In peace’).

Celtic rites, also Gallican

It is understandable that early historians thought Celtic rites arrived from Ephesus, as the Celts were the first in the West to add the Creed to their liturgy. They also recited the Eastern Trisagion before the Gloria in Excelsis (p. 53). Furthermore, as in the East, their clergy also privately confessed to each other and prayed whilst putting on their vestments before the service (p. 52).

However, the liturgy also included a lengthy section of intercessions to Celtic saints in the prayer of consecration, not unlike that to the saints and Mary which was part of the Roman prayer (p. 53).

Documentation which has survived throughout the centuries includes the (p. 52):

Bangor Antiphonary used at St Columba’s monastery (Welsh, late seventh century);

Stowe Missal, also monastic (English, early tenth century);

Bobbio Missal (Irish, seventh century).

The Roman rite

The Roman rite was much less elaborate than the Gallican and Eastern liturgies.

It is unclear how it came to be so. Maxwell tells us that very little documentation has survived over the centuries (pp. 55, 56). What historians have had at their disposal includes the:

de Sacramentis, possibly authored by St Ambrose (fifth century);

Leonine Sacramentary, named after Pope Leo the Great, a collection of fourth and fifth century collects, prefaces and other variable prayers;

Gelasian Sacramentary of Pope Gelasius I (fifth century), compiled during the eighth century;

Gregorian Sacramentary of Pope Gregory the Great (seventh century), compiled a few centuries later.

Roman rite documentation became more available after the ninth century (p. 56).

The Roman rite was largely based on the earliest liturgy from the first through the third centuries, although the Lord’s Prayer was a regular feature, said before the distribution of Communion. Also added to the Prayer of Consecration was a lengthy litany of saints.

Most of the lesser prayers, such as the collect, did not vary much between services. They were also very short, only a few lines long (p. 57).

Incense was used only at the Gospel reading.

The dead were not prayed for until the ninth century (p. 62). This was a possible reflection of the admixture of Gallican influences to the Roman rite of that era.

The dismissal also used the words Missa acta est (‘the Mass is ended’) or In pace (‘In peace’).

Although catechumens were dismissed after the Liturgy of the Word, so were any congregants eligible to communicate but who chose not to do so (p. 58).

Curtains were sometimes used to hide the celebrant and the sacristy during the consecration (p. 59).

As in the Eastern churches, those participating in the Roman rite saw increasingly fewer communicants.

The Canon — Prayer of Consecration

The Canon, the Prayer of Consecration following the Sanctus, was central to the Roman rite. Parts of it dated from the fourth century (p. 59). It is faithful to the earliest liturgy and was not unlike the Eastern one, in general.

However, its overall intent was to re-enact our Lord’s actions at the Last Supper (p. 63), the ‘Sacrifice of the Mass’. That said, during this era, the words of the Canon made clear that what happened during the consecration was a miracle in the sense of a holy mystery. Maxwell explains that at this time theological philosophers understood the event to be of ‘substance’ and of ‘accident’.

Possibly because the prayer referred to the Host — the meaning of which is ‘Holy Victim’ — the understanding differed from the Middle Ages onward. It was then that the concept, if not yet doctrine, of ‘transubstantiation’ became more prevalent.

Maxwell cites a Church historian by the name of Burkitt (p. 63):

It may be that ‘transubstantiation’ is incredible; it is certain that many superstitious ideas had come to be connected with the Mass by the beginning of the sixteenth century, and it may be these were inevitable. But before we can appreciate the Reformed worship, or condemn the unreformed service, it is necessary to have a clear idea of the structure of that service and of the principles underlying it.

Liturgical convergence

Once Rome began extending her ecclesiastical reach in the ninth century, the French rulers Pepin and Charlemagne suppressed the Gallican rite in France (p. 45).

The Gallican rite in the British Isles disappeared during the reign of (St) Margaret of Scotland towards the end of the 11th century when the Sarum Missal began to be used (p. 52).

However, although the Roman rite prevailed in most regions by the tenth century, it had incorporated elements of the Gallican rite and was no longer as austere as it had been five centuries before.

Rome and the other Western churches began referring to their services as the Mass, referring to the aforementioned words used in the dismissal blessing.

The veil, the altar and celebrant’s position

In common with the Eastern liturgies, the elements of bread and wine were covered. This ‘veil’, which exists today, symbolises the one our Lord’s face was draped with for burial. The Offertory included the Prayer of the Veil, during which the elements were uncovered (p. 50).

The altar was so called in the West from the earliest days of Christianity (p. 44).

The celebrant’s position varied. Some were able to face the people behind the altar, but, in other churches, saint’s relics were placed in a vault in front of the altar. As such, the priest or bishop had no choice other than to turn his back to the people for many of the prayers (pp. 54, 58-59).

Next time: Different types of Mass during the Middle Ages