The Codification of Liturgical Books – A Short History of the Roman Rite of Mass: Part VIII
Sep 28, 2021

The Codification of Liturgical Books – A Short History of the Roman Rite of Mass: Part VIII

The age of transition from late antiquity to the early Middle Ages saw a codification of liturgical books for the celebration of Mass and other sacramental rites. These books typically contained the texts needed for specific liturgical ministers, above all the sacramentary for the officiating bishop or priest, the lectionary (and its preceding forms) for the deacon, subdeacon or lector, and the gradual or Mass antiphoner for the singers.[1]


The sacramentary can be described as the book containing the texts recited or chanted by the bishop or priest officiating at the celebration of Mass and other sacraments, as well as at various consecrations and blessings. In the case of the Mass, formularies for particular occasions seem to have originated as small booklets (libelli missarum), which were collected and then organized into a book to be used throughout the liturgical year. Two types of Roman sacramentary have been identified, the Gelasian and the Gregorian. These differ from each other in significant ways, but were both in use at the same time, in Rome and the Italian peninsula, as well as north of the Alps.

The Gelasian-type sacramentary is believed to have been compiled originally for the use of priests in the city’s titular churches. Its oldest representative, the manuscript Reg. lat. 316 from the Vatican Library, known as the Old Gelasian, is organized in three distinct parts, and keeps the temporal and the sanctoral cycles separate. Moreover, Mass sets typically have two collects (oratio), a secret (secreta),[2] a proper preface (also called contestatio or contestata), a postcommunion (post communionem) and usually a prayer of blessing (ad populum).

The Gregorian-type sacramentary emerged from the collection of Mass books for the use of the pope when he celebrated at the Lateran (his cathedral) and in the stational churches of the city. Its earliest redaction may have been under Pope Honorius I (r. 625-638), and it was expanded in the course of the seventh and eighth centuries. The temporal and sanctoral cycles are combined into one sequence of Sundays and feast days. The Mass sets in the Gregorian tradition typically have three orations: a collect (oratio), a prayer over the offerings (super oblata), and a concluding prayer (ad completa or ad complendum); many formularies also include a prayer of blessing (super populum). The number of prefaces is much smaller than in the Gelasian sacramentaries: the Hadrianum[3] only has 14, compared to 54 in the Old Gelasian.


Lectionaries containing the texts of the scriptural readings (also called pericopes) for the Mass and the Divine Office developed, first, from marginal notes in biblical manuscripts designating the pericopes to be read and, secondly, from lists indicating the beginning (incipit) and the ending (explicit) of the readings for a particular liturgical celebration. Such lists, to be used with a Bible manuscript, are known as capitularia and were compiled for the epistle readings (chosen from the New Testament letters, the Acts of the Apostles, or the Old Testament), or for the gospel readings, or for both sets of Mass readings. As a subsequent step, the full text of the scriptural readings was copied in a manuscript, either for the epistle (epistolary) or for the gospel (evangelary), or for all the readings in a single Mass lectionary (later to be included in a plenary missal together with the orations and the chants).

Non-Roman Western rites, such as the Gallican, Milanese, or Visigothic, show considerable variety in the selection of biblical pericopes for the celebration of Mass; however, they have features in common that distinguish them from the Roman Rite, above all the use of three readings, the first from the Old Testament (usually a prophecy), the second from the New Testament, and the third from the gospels. In the Roman and Byzantine rites, only two readings are ordinarily given, and in the Byzantine tradition the non-gospel reading was strictly limited to the New Testament. There is no clear evidence that the early Roman Mass ever had a system of three readings.[4] The surviving documents indicate a complex development that is connected with the progressive organization of the liturgical year.[5] The choice of scriptural pericopes was sometimes related to the particular church in Rome where the stational Mass was celebrated.

Epistle and gospel readings were organized in two distinct cycles and were recorded in two kinds of liturgical books, which remained independent during this period. There was certainly no systematic construction of the lectionary as happened in the liturgical reforms after the Second Vatican Council. At the same time, however, there was some correspondence between the epistolary and the evangelary in the different stages of their development.[6]

The oldest extant lectionary source in which epistle and gospel readings are joined together for a complete cycle of Sundays and feast days is a document that was to assume a crucial role for the subsequent history of the Roman Mass: the late-eighth-century Comes of Murbach.[7] Originating from an abbey in Alsace that acquired considerable religious and political importance in the Carolingian age, the extant capitulare lists the initial and in many cases also the concluding words of the epistle and gospel readings and is meant to be used in conjunction with a Bible manuscript containing the full text. The arrangement of readings has been identified as a Frankish adaptation of earlier Roman epistolary and evangelary types. This fully developed cycle of Sundays and feast days was adopted in the missals according to the use of the Roman curia of the 13th century and is largely the same as in the Missale Romanum of 1570.

Chant Books

The earliest Western sources for chant texts in the Mass originate from fifth-century Gaul and are associated with scriptural readings. Roman chant books are mentioned in Anglo-Saxon sources from the mid-eighth century. However, the oldest available sources of chant texts for the Roman Mass only stem from the late eighth century and were written in northern Francia.[8] These manuscripts do not contain musical notation. David Hiley explains that chant melodies “had previously been performed, learned, and transmitted without the aid of any written record (and thus they continued, to a considerable extent).”[9]

The codification of chant melodies most likely resulted from the considerable expansion of their repertory in the Carolingian period. The increasing number of chants and the greater stylistic variety of liturgical music (including sequences, tropes, and more settings of the ordinary) stretched the capacities for oral transmission and necessitated written aids for memorization, at least for the purpose of rehearsal, if not performance. Books with a complete cycle of notated chants emerge around the year 900, and the earliest examples are the manuscripts Chartres, Bibliothèque Municipale 47 (hailing from Brittany), Laon, Bibliothèque Municipale 239, and St Gall, Stiftsbibliothek 359.


An invaluable source for our understanding of early medieval Western liturgy is the collection of documents known as Ordines Romani, which describe actual rites and serve as practical instructions for actors in a variety of liturgical celebrations, including Mass, Divine Office, baptism and other sacraments, as well as sacramentals (to use the later, scholastic distinction). These ordines were copied, adapted, and modified while being in liturgical use. The earliest manuscripts from the Carolingian period do not originate from the city of Rome, but were written in Frankish territory and document a process of reception and adaptation of the Roman liturgy. For the history of the liturgy’s actual performance (as well as its social and cultural impact) ordines are more informative than sacramentaries, because they offer us ritual “stage directions.”


By the early eighth century, the Roman Rite was established as a recognizable body of liturgical texts and ritual forms, which were codified in liturgical books. These books were not composed originally with the intention of being copied and used beyond the city and its environs. For a variety of reasons, Roman liturgical practice was adopted in northern and western Europe, especially in the Carolingian reform. This important historical process will be the topic of my next instalment.

For previous instalments of Father Lang’s Short History of the Roman Rite of Mass series, see:

  • Part I: Introduction: The Last Supper—The First Eucharist
  • Part II: Questions in the Quest for the Origins of the Eucharist
  • Part III: The Third Century between Peaceful Growth and Persecution
  • Part IV: Early Eucharistic Prayers: Oral Improvisation and Sacred Language
  • Part V: After the Peace of the Church: Liturgy in a Christian Empire
  • Part VI: The Formative Period of Latin Liturgy
  • Part VII: Papal Stational Liturgy


  1. For a detailed account, see the indispensable work of Cyrille Vogel, Medieval Liturgy: An Introduction to the Sources, rev. and trans. William G. Storey and Niels Krogh Rasmussen (Washington, DC: The Pastoral Press, 1981).
  2. The prayer more likely derives its name from the fact that it was said over the offerings that were “set apart” for the Eucharistic consecration, rather than from its recitation at a low voice.
  3. The exemplar of the Gregorian sacramentary, the Hadrianum, was sent by Pope Hadrian I to Charlemagne in the late eighth century.
  4. See Aimé-Georges Martimort, “À propos du nombre des lectures à la messe”, in Revue des Sciences Religieuses 58 (1984) 42–51, and Les lectures liturgiques et leurs livres, Typologie des sources du Moyen Age occidental 64 (Turnhout: Brepols, 1992).
  5. See the classic work of Thomas J. Talley, The Origins of the Liturgical Year (New York: Pueblo, 1986), and the excellent summary of Vogel, Medieval Liturgy, 304-314.
  6. See Antoine Chavasse, Les lectionnaires romains de la messe au VIIe et au VIIee siècle: Sources et dérivés, Spicilegii Friburgensis Subsidia 22, 2 vol. (Fribourg Suisse: Editions Universitaire, 1993).
  7. The text was edited by André Wilmart, “Le Comes de Murbach”, in Revue Bénédictine 30 (1913), 25-69.
  8. The six oldest manuscripts were published by René-Jean Hesbert, Antiphonale Missarum Sextuplex (Paris – Brussels: Vromant, 1935; reprinted Rome: Herder, 1967).
  9. David Hiley, Western Plainchant: A Handbook (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993), 362.
Father Uwe Michael Lang

Father Uwe Michael Lang, a native of Nuremberg, Germany, is a priest of the Oratory of St Philip Neri in London. He holds a doctorate in theology from the University of Oxford, and teaches Church History at Mater Ecclesiae College, St Mary’s University, Twickenham, and Allen Hall Seminary, London. He is an associate staff member at the Maryvale Institute, Birmingham, and on the Visiting Faculty of the Liturgical Institute in Mundelein, IL. He is a Corresponding Member of the Neuer Schülerkreis Joseph Ratzinger / Papst Benedikt XVI, a Member of the Council of the Henry Bradshaw Society, a Board Member of the Society for Catholic Liturgy, and the Editor of Antiphon: A Journal for Liturgical Renewal.