The Later Middle Ages: All Decay and Decline? – A Short History of the Roman Rite of Mass: Part XIV
Mar 30, 2022

The Later Middle Ages: All Decay and Decline? – A Short History of the Roman Rite of Mass: Part XIV

Standard liturgical textbooks have tended to dismiss the later medieval period as marked by decline. The Mass, it is argued, had developed into an almost exclusively clerical exercise of an overgrown ritual system in an incomprehensible language. Consequently, lay participation largely disappeared, including the reception of Holy Communion. The faithful would rather occupy themselves with private devotions.[1] This reading fit into a general narrative of a Church in crisis that almost inevitably led to the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century. In recent decades, however, historians have offered new perspectives on Christianity in the later Middle Ages and have highlighted that elements of decline and vitality existed side by side. In liturgical scholarship, the traditional focus on texts is now enriched by multi-disciplinary studies of late medieval worship from musical, artistic, literary, social, and more general religious perspectives.

Popular Participation

The prevailing use of Latin as a sacred language certainly removed the liturgy from the vast majority of the lay faithful, but it did not raise an impenetrable barrier to popular participation, as is often assumed. At least in Romance-speaking countries, where the vernacular language developed from Latin, there was a basic understanding at least of the meaning conveyed in liturgical texts.[2] Moreover, the vernacular Prayer of the Faithful at the main Sunday Mass in the parish church offered to the laity a form of involvement that corresponded to their spiritual and temporal needs. The oldest known example of such “bidding prayers” from England precedes the Norman Conquest and has been dated to the early 11th century. In other countries, as well, the Prayer of the Faithful employed local languages, such as Catalan, Basque, and Breton, as well as Occitan and German dialects.[3] This vernacular rite was inserted at some point during the offertory, and commonly after the incensation of the gifts and the altar and before the priest’s washing of hands (lavabo).

Liturgical participation cannot be reduced to the comprehension of texts, and Frank Senn has proposed a broader conception that includes “other ‘vernaculars’ than language, not least of which were the church buildings themselves and the liturgical art that decorated them.”[4] From a similar perspective, Éric Palazzo has explored the sensory dimensions of the liturgy: the stimulation of seeing, hearing, smelling, touching and tasting made participation in the Mass a synesthetic experience.[5] Lay participation was by its very nature unscripted: it was not regulated by the official liturgical books that gave detailed instructions to the clergy regarding what to say and how to perform the sacred rites. Thus, the faithful were able to engage with the Mass in a variety of ways that are not easy for us to grasp precisely because they were not scripted. Paul S. Barnwell speaks of “the meditative and affective nature of much lay devotion in the period.”[6] The sensory dimensions of the late medieval liturgy offered important stimuli for such meditation.

The faithful who attended Mass weekly (and many of them daily) would be familiar with the stable chants of the ordinary of the Mass. It is worth noting that the laity found the parish Mass celebrated at the high altar less approachable, since they were at considerable physical distance from the priest and their view was restricted not only by the rood screen but also by servers and singers in the chancel. “Private” Masses at a side altar offered a more direct way for the faithful to engage with the liturgical action both visually and aurally, and this contributed to their popularity. Woodcut representations of the Mass in moral and devotional literature from the period show lay men and women in close proximity to the priest at a side altar of a church.[7]

The “vernaculars” other than language, evoked by Senn, spoke eloquently to worshipers both as private individuals and—in a juxtaposition typical of the religious practice of the later Middle Ages—as a body. To quote an influential essay by the historian John Bossy, the Mass was a “social institution”[8] and created a bond that was not only expressed verbally through praying for one another, but became tangible in two particular rites: in the giving of the peace by kissing and passing the tablet known as pax, pax-brede or pacificale, and in the distribution of blessed bread after the Mass. Both rites can be understood as substitutes for the sacramental communion, which for most laypeople did not extend beyond the annual reception at Easter as prescribed by the Fourth Lateran Council (1215), but at the same time expressed the community-building power of the liturgy.

Preaching at Mass

There is scarce evidence from the post-Carolingian period for preaching in a liturgical context. This does not mean that there was no proclamation of the Gospel and transmission of the faith, however: Christian teaching was embedded in a culture that was largely oral, and it was not considered an integral part of the Church’s public worship, which relied on a written text.[9] From the 12th century, however, preaching is given increasing importance in both liturgical and canonical sources. While sermons could be given on various occasions, some of them extra-liturgical, they acquire a stable place in pontifical celebrations. The ordo of the papal Mass established by Gregory X (r. 1271-1276) includes a sermon by the pope after the gospel, partly in Latin and partly in the vernacular, which is followed by a general confession, (non-sacramental) absolution, and a blessing.[10] In the pontifical of William Durandus, written between 1292 and 1295, the bishop’s preaching is particularly associated with such a penitential rite, to which indulgences are attached.[11] This practice was soon adopted in the Mass celebrated by a priest.

Parish priests throughout Europe were expected to preach on Sundays and major feast days.[12] Not all of them may have been sufficiently trained to do so and not all of them may have fulfilled their duty conscientiously, but in general preaching was popular among the ordinary faithful. North of the Alps, benefices were founded for secular priests to exercise the office of preacher (Prädikatur) from the late 14th century and especially in the second half of the 15th century. The importance of regular sermons was widely recognised and was promoted by the conciliarist reform movement.


Liturgical practice in the later medieval period offers a complex picture, but it was not all decay and decline. The Church’s sacramental system remained remarkably resilient and was deeply rooted in the people’s cycle of life. In the next instalment I will look at the rite of Mass at the eve of the Council of Trent (1545-1563).

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

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 Editor of Antiphon: A Journal for Liturgical Renewal.


  1. See, for example, the devastating assessment of Anscar J. Chupungco, “History of the Roman Liturgy until the Fifteenth Century,” in Handbook for Liturgical Studies, Vol. I: Introduction to the Liturgy, ed. Anscar J. Chupungco (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1997), 131-152, at 150.

  2. See Augustine Thompson, Cities of God: The Religion of the Italian Communes 1125–1325 (University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2005), 239-241.

  3. Jean-Baptiste Molin has published collections of medieval formularies in various European languages in “L’oratio communis fidelium au Moyen Âge en Occident du Xe au XVe siècle”, in Miscellanea liturgica in onore di Sua Eminenza il Cardinale Giacomo Lercaro, 2 vol. (Rome: Desclée, 1966-1967), vol. II, 315-468, and “Quelques textes médiévaux de la prière universelle,” in Traditio et Progressio. Studi liturgici in onore del Prof. Adrien Nocent, OSB, ed., Giustino Farnedi, Studia Anselmiana 95, Analecta liturgica 12 (Rome: Pontificio Ateneo S. Anselmo, 1988), 338-358.

  4. Frank C. Senn, The People’s Work: A Social History of the Liturgy (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2006), 145.

  5. See Éric Palazzo, “Art, Liturgy and the Five Senses in the Early Middle Ages,” in Viator 41 (2010), 25-56.

  6. Paul S. Barnwell, “How to Do Without Rubrics: Experiments in Reconstructing Medieval Lay Experience,” in Late Medieval Liturgies Enacted: The Experience of Worship in Cathedral and Parish Church, ed. Sally Harper, Paul S. Barnwell and Magnus Williamson (London and New York: Routledge, 2016), 235-254, at 238.

  7. See Gabriela Signori, Räume, Gesten, Andachtsformen: Geschlecht, Konflikt und religiöse Kultur im europäischen Mittelalter (Ostfildern: Jan Thorbecke Verlag, 2005), 43 and 70.

  8. John Bossy, “The Mass as a Social Institution, 1200-1700,” in Past & Present, no. 100 (August 1983), 29-61; see also Thompson, Cities of God, 235-271 (“The City Worships”), and Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England 1400-1570, 2nd ed. (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2005), 91-130 (“The Mass”).

  9. See R. Emmet McLaughlin, “The Word Eclipsed? Preaching in the Early Middle Ages,” in Traditio 46 (1991), 77-122.

  10. Ordinal of Gregory X (c. 1274), in The Ordinal of the Papal Court from Innocent III to Boniface VIII and Related Documents, ed. Stephen J. P. van Dijk and Joan Hazelden Walker, Spicilegium Friburgense 22 (Fribourg Switzerland: The University Press, 1975), 586.

  11. William Durandus, Pontificale, III,18,34: ed. Michel Andrieu, Le pontifical romain au Moyen-Âge, vol. 3, Studi e testi 88 (Vatican City: Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, 1940) 639.

  12. See Thompson, Cities of God, 251 and 335-337, for northern Italy; McLaughlin, “The Word Eclipsed?”, 77, for Germany; Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars, 57-58, for England.

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