Palmer: Origines Liturgicæ 06.
Vol. I: Diss. on Primitive Liturgies, Sect. VI.


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IT has been much debated among learned men whether the Roman liturgy can justly claim any considerable antiquity. Some have referred its composition to Gregory the First, commonly called "the Great," patriarch of Rome, A.D. 590. Others think it impossible at this day to ascertain the text, even as it stood in the time of that prelate.1 This subject has been confused, by mistaking for each other two very different things, the missal and the liturgy. The Roman missal (formerly called Sacramentary, or book of sacraments) was a large volume containing a number of missæ or offices for particular days, which, were to be added, in the proper place, to the canon in which the more solemn prayers and the consecration were contained. By the Roman liturgy I understand the canon which did not vary, and the number and order of the prayers which were to be added from the missal.

[112] The various readings of manuscript sacramentaries are supposed to render it impossible to determine the text as it stood in the time of Gregory; but on examining these difficulties, it will be found that they do not prevent us from ascertaining the liturgy: for all the variations, interpolations, and uncertainties of these MSS. relate to the individual missæ. In these I readily admit that a great variation, both of words and sentiments, may be found; and it is therefore a matter of some difficulty to decide which of the missæ are as old as the time of Gregory. Such doubts and difficulties, however, do not extend to the number and order of the prayers in each missa, nor to the canon. On the contrary, we find in all, the same number of prayers, arranged in the same order, and designated by the same titles. The canon, or invariable part, preserves the same text in all MSS. The only difference that occurs is the introduction of some short prayer, or of the name of some person to be commemorated: but such interpolations are very rare, and when found are easily detected; and in no case is the canon itself either mutilated or altered. We can therefore ascertain both the invariable and the variable parts of the Roman liturgy. This agreement of MSS. in one common order and text derives strength from a consideration of the different ages and countries in which they were written. Manuscripts of Italy, of England, Germany, and Gaul, whether written at the same period or not, all furnish the same order of prayers and canon. To this evidence we may add the writings of various liturgical commentators in the eighth, ninth, and tenth centuries; which, though composed indifferent countries, [113] all concur in establishing the same facts as the manuscripts.

It appears, then, that there is no difficulty in ascertaining what the Roman liturgy was in the time of Gregory the Great. It may however be inquired, whether Gregory is to be considered the author of that liturgy. To answer this question, we must have recourse to ancient history. We are there informed with minuteness of the amount of Gregory’s alterations and improvements. He collected, arranged, improved, abbreviated the collects of the individual missæ2. He inserted a short passage (which is known) into the canon3. And he joined the Lord’s Prayer to the canon4, from which it had previously been separated by the breaking of the bread. All this amounts to positive proof that Gregory was the reviser and improver, not the author of the Roman liturgy.

An attempt has been made to prove that the Roman liturgy was composed between the time of Vigilius and Gregory5. The former, who lived fifty years before the latter, speaking of the canon, said, [114] "that they had received it from apostolical tradition."6 Gregory spoke of the canon extant in his time, as having been composed by a scholastic, or learned man7. It is argued, that if the canon in Vigilius’s time had been received from apostolical tradition, and if that in Gregory’s time had been composed by a scholastic, the canons of Vigilius and Gregory must have been different, and the latter must have been written since the time of Vigilius.

I reply, first, that Gregory and Vigilius may very well have spoken of the same canon; for even if a scholastic had composed the canon, yet he might be supposed to have received its order, and substance, and principal expressions, from apostolical tradition; and therefore the canon so composed might be said. to have come from apostolical tradition. It has been answered, "that this is no proof that the scholastic lived before Vigilius."8 It certainly is not; but on the other hand, there is no proof from what Gregory says, that the scholastic lived after Vigilius. Gregory does not hint when he lived. The scholastic may have lived five hundred years before Gregory or five only, as far as his testimony goes. But that the author of the Roman canon did not live within fifty years before Gregory the Great, may be considered certain from the silence of all antiquity on the subject. While ancient writers speak repeatedly of the care of Gregory, and of many of his predecessors, [115] in regulating the Roman liturgy, they never speak of any author of that liturgy, who lived between the time of Vigilius and Gregory. To this argument may be added the improbability, that a form which Vigilius declared to have been derived from apostolic tradition, should in the course of a few years be exchanged for another, composed by a scholastic, whose name and character have been ever since unknown. These arguments, and the total absence of all proof to the contrary, impel me to the conclusion, that the Roman liturgy was substantially the same in the days of Vigilius, as it was when Gregory was raised to the patriarchal chair of Rome.

Vigilius, patriarch of Rome, wrote in A.D. 538 an Epistle to Profuturus, bishop of Braga in Spain, in which he says, that they had received the text of the canon from apostolical tradition. He also speaks of the various prayers which were used along with this canon, which he calls "capitula" and "preces." "In these," he says, "they made commemoration of the holy solemnity, or of those saints whose nativities they celebrated." The whole description which Vigilius gives, coincides accurately with the Roman liturgy in subsequent times9. The canon [116] and order of prayers were therefore esteemed very ancient in the time of Vigilius, A. D. 538; and the correctness of this opinion is in fact supported by the testimonies of various writers. Symmachus, bishop of Rome before Vigilius, is said by Walafridus to have appointed the hymn Gloria in excelsis to be sung on Sundays and the nativities of the saints, before the liturgy10. Here is nothing of a newly composed office or canon. It is related that Gelasius, patriarch of Rome A.D. 492, performed a work somewhat similar to that of Gregory the Great. He ordained prayers or collects, and prefaces composed with caution11; and these he arranged in a sacramentary, which in subsequent ages commonly bore his name12. Gelasius, however, did not alter the canon, or order of prayers. We do not read of any such alteration being made by him. Modern times have brought to light an ancient sacramentary13, which is with good reason considered by learned men to represent the Roman sacramentary as [117] regulated by Gelasius14. It contains several books, as his appears to have done. A comparison of it with any ancient copy of Gregory’s sacramentary will shew alterations in the latter, exactly corresponding with those which Gregory is said to have made in Gelasius’s sacramentary. This ancient manuscript appears to have been written in or after the time of Gregory the Great in some remote province, and therefore it contains a few things which were added to the Roman liturgy after the time of Gelasius; but it represents the order of prayers and canon generally as they were in the time of Gelasius, and that order and canon are the same as those which were used in the time of Gregory, one hundred years afterwards.

The Roman liturgy is therefore as old as the time of Gelasius A.D. 492, and there is neither proof nor presumption that he was its author, though doubtless he composed many collects, and a considerable part of the sacramentary. In fact, a manuscript sacramentary is in existence, which is supposed by learned men to have been written before the time of Gelasius15, and evidently refers to the same order and canon as that used in his time. By Muratori it is referred to the time of Felix, patriarch of Rome, [118] A.D. 483; but it is more generally known by the appellation of the Leonian sacramentary. Leo the Great, bishop of Rome in the time of the council of Chalcedon, A.D. 451, is said to have added to the canon certain words which are specified16, and hence we may infer that the remainder of the canon was in existence before his time. Critics discover in the writings of this bishop many passages which seem to have been transcribed almost verbatim into the sacramentary, and they also detect in several parts of that book a style, which, as they affirm, bears internal evidence of the authorship of Leo17. It is certainly by no means improbable that he may have written several missæ. The fifth century was remarkable for the number of persons who composed missæ in the west, and Leo may very well have been amongst the number. Some time before Leo, Innocentius, bishop of Rome, speaks of the Roman rites in his time as having descended from St. Peter the Apostle; and there is no sort of reason to think that they differed materially from those used in the time of Gelasius at the end of the same century18. We find from his directions to Decentius, bishop of Eugubium, that the kiss of peace was then, as in after-times, given after the canon, according to the [119] Roman rite19. It appears also, that the names of those who offered were recited after their oblations had been commended to the acceptance of God in the canon20. as we find to have been the case afterwards at Rome; and not before the canon, as in the Gallican and Spanish liturgies. As far then as the testimony of Innocentius goes, it proves the substantial conformity of the Roman rite at the beginning of the fifth century with that at the end of the same century.

The deficiency of more ancient evidence, at least of any generally known, forbids me to penetrate further into the darkness of antiquity. I leave to those who are more interested in the subject, the task of investigating minutely the writings of those Fathers who lived in Italy and Sicily, and whose works may be supposed to throw light on the ancient Roman liturgy. Suffice it to say, that this liturgy was substantially the same in the time of Gelasius as it was in that of Gregory, that it appears to have been the same in the time of Innocentius at the beginning of the fifth century, and was esteemed at that time, and in the subsequent age, to be of apostolical antiquity.

[120] But though we are left at the end of the four first centuries by Innocentius, the earliest Roman writer who has been quoted as alluding to the liturgy, we may, perhaps, by looking in another direction, acquire some further information on the subject. The period at which Christianity penetrated into Africa is uncertain; but it is very likely that the first missionaries may have come from Rome, as being the nearest apostolical church, and abounding in every thing which could assist such an enterprise. It is probable, for the same reasons, that the first bishops of Africa may have been ordained at Rome. These circumstances would induce us to conjecture, that the African liturgy was originally the same as the Roman; and in fact it appears, from an investigation of the few notices relative to the liturgy which are extant in the writings of the African Fathers, that the Roman and the African liturgies were alike21. If we consider the independence of the African churches in the time of Cyprian, A.D. 250, and therefore the improbability that they should have received their liturgy from the church of Rome, unless it had been brought by their first bishops; and if we reflect that these bishops must have been ordained long before the time of Cyprian and Tertullian, we may perhaps see some reason for tracing back the general order and substance of the ancient Roman liturgy, as used in the time of Gregory the Great, to the second century. Another proof of the antiquity of the same liturgy is derivable from the liturgy of Milan, commonly called the Ambrosian. Various circumstances prove the great [121] antiquity of the latter formulary, and its diversity from the Roman, at least since the time of Gregory the Great, but probably from the fifth century. Yet the Milan liturgy is evidently derived originally from the Roman22, and as the bishop of Milan possessed the authority of patriarch or exarch over the Italic diocese, and was not ordained by the patriarch of Rome, but perfectly independent of him, there seems no more probable way of accounting for the use of the Roman liturgy during the primitive ages in the Italic diocese, or all the north of Italy, than by supposing that it was introduced by the first bishops, who were probably ordained at Rome. Combining these circumstances together, there seems nothing unreasonable in thinking that the Roman liturgy, as used in the time of Gregory the Great, may have existed from a period of the most remote antiquity; and perhaps there are nearly as good reasons for referring its original composition to the apostolic age, as there are in the case of the great oriental liturgy, which I have noticed in the three first sections of this Dissertation. That several particular words and expressions and prayers were of a more recent date, is indeed apparent. We are well aware that the primitive liturgies were not committed to writing at first, but to memory; and thus, of course, many variations would be introduced; yet the principal substance and order might still be preserved; and it is only for the antiquity of the main order that I contend, not for that of every individual part.

Let us, then, examine briefly the order of this ancient liturgy, omitting those parts which appear [122] from competent evidence to have been introduced after, or not very long before, the time of Gregory the Great. It began at first with a collect, and lessons from scripture, amongst which a psalm was read or sung, until early in the fifth century an anthem or psalm was appointed to precede them23. Then followed the sermon, the dismissal of catechumens, and silent prayers made by the priest and people24; after which, the oblations of the people, consisting chiefly of bread and wine, were received while the offertory was suing. The elements being selected from these, and placed on the altar, the priest read the collect called "secreta," or [123]  "super oblata,"25 and then began the preface or thanksgiving, with the form "Sursum corda," &c.; at the close of which the people chanted the hymn "Tersanctus."26 The canon now commenced with commending the people’s gifts and offerings to the acceptance of God, and prayers for the king and the bishop, with a commemoration of the living, and especially of those who had offered liberally27. This was succeeded by a prayer, that the oblation of bread and wine might "be made to us the body and blood of Jesus Christ our Lord God." The commemoration of our Saviour’s deeds and words in celebrating the eucharist followed28. After which came an oblation of the sacraments, as a sacrifice of bread and wine, and a petition that they might be presented by the angels on the altar in heaven. Then followed a commemoration of the departed faithful, and prayer for communion with them29. The canon being now completed, the bread was broken, and divided into portions for distribution, and then the Lord’s Prayer was recited30. After which, the clergy and people interchanged a kiss of peace, and all communicated, and the priest concluded the office with a short prayer. This we may certainly affirm to have been the order and substance of the Roman liturgy in the fifth century, [124] and it will be difficult to adduce any reason for thinking, that the same had not prevailed for a very great length of time before.

I am not aware that any one has yet attempted to give a correct edition of Gregory’s sacramentary, on the principle of comparing manuscripts of various countries. It seems to me that such a course would afford the best prospect of attaining a correct text. Much, at all events, might thus be fixed, though a portion would still remain uncertain. English manuscripts particularly should be collated with Italian, because Gregory’s sacramentary was sooner used in England than in any other country beyond the Roman patriarchate. German manuscripts should come next, and the Gallican sacramentaries, used before the Roman rite was introduced, would furnish some illustrations. With regard to the ancient Roman liturgy, or the order of prayers and canon, there is neither doubt nor difficulty, as I have already shewn.

The Roman liturgy was illustrated with much learning by John Bona, presbyter cardinal of the Roman church31; and the works of Menard32, Gavanti33, Martene34, and, Le Brun35, may be consulted by those who wish to acquire further information on the subject.


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1 Dupin, Hist. Ecc. cent. vi. tom. v. p. 102. Brett’s Collection of Liturgies, p. 333, &c.

2 "Gelasianum codicem de missarum solemiiiis, multa subtrahens, pauca convertens, nonnulla vero superadjiciens—in unius libri volumine coarctavit." Joannes Diaconus in Vita Gregorii Magni.

3 "Sed in ipsa missarum celebratione tria verba maximæ perfectionis plena superadjecit: ‘Diesque nostros in tua pace disponas, atque ab æterna damnatione nos eripi, et in electorum tuorum jubeas grege numerari.’" Ven Bedæ Hist. Eccles. lib. ii c. i. Compare Menard. Sacramentar. Gregorii p.2.

4 "Orationem vero Dominicam mox post precem dicimus, quia mos apostolorum fuit, ut ad ipsam solummodo orationem oblationis hostiam consecrarent." Gregorii Mag. Epist. ad Joannem Syrocusan. Epist. xii. lib. ix. edit. Benedict (olim 64.)

5 Brett’s Collection of Liturgies, part ii. p. 331.

6 "Quapropter et ipsius canonicæ precis textum direximus subteradjectum, quem (Deo propitio) ex apostolica traditione suscepimus." Vigil. Romanens. Epist. ad Eucherium vel Profuturum Episcopum Bracarens.

7 Gregor. Magnus, lib. vii. epist. 64.

8 Brett, ut supra, p. 332.

9 "Ordinem quoque precum in celebritate missarum nullo nos tempore, nulla festivitate significamus habere diversum, sed semper eodem tenore oblata Deo munera consecrare. Quoties vero Paschalis, aut Ascensionis Domini, vel Pentecostes et Epiphaniæ, sanctorumque Dei fuerit agenda festivitas, singula capitula diebus apta subjungimus, quibus commemorationem sanctæ solennitatis, aut eorum facimus, quorum natalitia celebramus. Cætera vero ordine consueto prosequimur. Quapropter et ipsius canonicæ precis textum direximus subteradjectum, quem (Deo propitio) ex apostolic traditione suscepimus. Et ut charitas vestra cognoscat, quibus locis aliqua festivitatibus apta connectes, Paschalis diei preces similiter adiecimus." Vigil. Romanens. Epist. ad Profuturum Bracarens.

10 Walafridus Strabo, de Reb. Eccl. c. 22.

11 "Fecit sacramentorum præfationes et orationes cauto sermone." Anastasius, Bibliothecar. in Vita Gelasii.

12 In a list of books belonging to the abbey of S. Richerius, A.D. 73I, the following passage occurs: "De libris sacrarii, qui ministerio altaris deserviunt, Missales Gregoriani tres; Missalis Gregorianus et Gelasianus modernis temporibus ab Albino ordinattis; MissalesGelasiani xix." Lib. iii. c. 3. Chronic. Abbat. Centulens. sive S. Richerii apud Dacherii Spicileg. tom. iv.

13 The sacramentary of Gelasius was first published from a manuscript of great antiquity in the queen of Sweden’s library, by Thomasius, in his work entitled "Codices Sacramentorum," &c. Romæ, 1680. Muratori in his "Liturgia Romana vetus," &c. tom. i. ed. Venetiis 1748, reprinted this sacramentary, as did Assemani in his "Codex Liturgicus," tom. iv. Its authenticity is acknowledged by Mabillon, Muratori, Cave, and other eminent critics.

14 Cave, Historia Liturg. tom. i. p. 464. Thomasius, Codices sacramentorum. Muratori, de Reb. Liturg. Dissertat. Liturg. Rom. tom. i. p. 51, &c.

15 This sacramentary was first published by Blanchinius in the fourth volume of Anastasius Bibliothecarius, under the title of the Sacramentary of Pope Leo. It was copied from a MS. in the library of the Chapter of Verona, written 1000 (1100) years ago. Muratori has given a learned dissertation on this sacramentary in the first volume of his Liturgia Rom. vet. in which also he has reprinted the Leonian sacramentary. See also for an account of the controversies relative to this document Zaccaria Bibliotheca Ritualis lib. i. c. 3. p. 41, &c.

16 "Sanctum sacrificium," "immaculatam hostiam." Anastas. Biblioth. in Vita Leonis. Walafrid. Strabo, de Reb. Eccles. c. 22. Compare Menard. Sacramentar. Gregorii, p. 3.

17 See Muratori Liturg. Rom. vet. tom. i. p. 19, &c.

18 "Si institute ecelesiastica, ut sunt a beatis apostolic tradita, integra vellent servare Domini sacerdotes, nulla diversitas, nulla varietas in ipsis ordinibus et consecrationibus haberetur—quis enim nesciat, aut non advertat, id quod a principe apostoloruin Petro Romanæ ecclesiæ traditum est," &c. Innocent. Epist. ad Decentium Eugub. Labbe, Concil. tom. ii. p. 1245.

19 "Pacem ergo asseris ante confecta mysteria quosdam populis mperare, vel sibi inter sacerdotes tradere, cum post omnia, quæ aperire non debeo, pax sit necessario indicenda," &c. Ibid. p. 1246. Compare Menard. Sacr. Gregor. p. 4.

20 "De nominibus vero recitandis, antequam preces sacerdos faciat, atque eorum oblationes, quorum nomina recitanda sunt, sua oratione commendet, quam superfluum sit et ipse pro tua prudentia recognoscis—prius ergo oblationes sunt commendandæ, ac tunc eorum nomina, quorum sunt oblationes, edicenda, ut inter sacra mysteria nominentur, non inter alia quæ ante præmittimus, ut ipsis mysteriis viam futuris precibus aperiamus." Ibid. p. 1246. See Menard, Sacr. Gregor. p. 377. Bona, Rer. Liturg. lib. ii. c. 16. §. 6. p. 473, &c.

21 See section viii. of this Dissertation.

22 See section vii.

23 The preparations, Psalm Judica, Confiteor, &c. preceding the anthem called Introitus in the Roman liturgy of modern a times, are little older than the eleventh century. The Introit was appointed by Cœlestine, bishop of Rome, A.D. 423. "Hic—constituit ut Psalmi David 150 ante sacrificium psallerentur antiphonatim ex omnibus, quod antea non fiebat, sed tantum Epistolæ beati Pauli recitabantar, et sanctum Evangelium." Vita Cœlestini e libro Pontificali. Labbe, Concilia, tom. ii. p. 1610. Compare Missale Romanum, ordo Missæ, p. 187, 188. The Kyrie eleëson had been introduced from the East into the Roman church before the year 529, when it is mentioned by Concil. ii. Vasens. canon 3. Gregory the Great, Ep. ad Jo. Syracus. Ep. xii. lib. ix. edit. Benedict., says that they repeated it at Rome differently from the Greeks, namely, by saving Christe eleëson as often as they said Kyrie eleëson. Comp. Miss. Rom. p. 188. The Gloria in excelsis was appointed to be sung by Symmachus, bishop of Rome, in the sixth century. Walafrid. c. 22. The collect appears in the sacramentaries of Leo and Gelasius, and is mentioned by the fourth council of Carthage, A.D. 416. After this came on certain occasions the Prophet, and always the Epistle, Psalm called Gradual, and Gospel. See Bona, Rer. Lit. lib. ii. c. vi. vii.

24 Of the secret prayer a relic remains in the Roman missal, where the priest, immediately before the anthem called Offertory, says, "Oremus." Miss. Rom. p. 190. This custom is mentioned by several ancient ritualists, as Amalarius, lib. iii. c. 19. p. 415. The priest. recited an apologia, or confession, privately in this place; see Menard, Sacr. Gregorii, p. 242. et notæ, p. 322.

25 The oblation intervening in the modern Roman missal, beginning "Suscipe," &c. and the "Lavabo," &c. are much more recent than the time of Gregory. See Miss. Rom. 190, 191.

26 See Menard, Sacr. Gregor. p. 1.

27 See Menard, Sacr. Gregor. p. 2.

28 Ibid. p. 2.

29 Ibid. p. 3.

30 This ancient order of the Roman liturgy is still visible in the liturgy of Milan. Since the time of Gregory the Great, the Lord’s Prayer has been joined immediately to the Roman canon, and the bread is broken afterwards.

31 In his work, entitled Rerum Liturgicarum libri duo. Paris. 1672.

32 Divi Gregorii Liber Sacramentorum, Paris. 1642.

33 Commentaria in Rubricas Missalis et Breviarii Romani cum notis Merati. Augustæ Vindel. 1763.

34 De Antiquis Ecelesiae Ritibus libri iv. Rothomag. 1725.

35 Explication de la Messe, &c.