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"Thus," wrote Isaac Jogues, "on the 29th of September, René Goupil, an angel of innocence and martyr of Jesus Christ, was immolated in his thirty-fifth year for Him who had given His life for ransom. He had consecrated his heart and his soul to God, and his work and his life to the welfare of the poor Indians."
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“The authority of the Pope is not unlimited. It is at the service of Sacred Tradition. Still less is any kind of general ‘freedom’ of manufacture, degenerating into spontaneous improvisation, compatible with the essence of faith and liturgy. The greatness of the liturgy depends—we shall have to repeat this frequently—on its lack of spontaneity.”
— Josef Cardinal Ratzinger (2000)
What Are The Mass Propers? Installment no. 2
published 17 November 2011 by Corpus Christi Watershed

In our times, we are very comfortable with dates. We say, “Oh, that happened in 1862.” However, in the Middle Ages, many folks were not aware of the year: they lived life according to the liturgical seasons. This is just another thing that makes it hard to know when liturgical MSS were written. Also, sometimes the MSS were not completed in a year, but over a period of time. Furthermore, books were so rare that they were often used for a long time, with additions written in. Finally, all the wars and fires and famines that happen down through the centuries also tend to confuse the origin of books (as we can imagine!).

One of the greatest experts in Gregorian chant explained to me several years ago that (to a large degree) the problems “dating” MSS have been solved by comparison of handwriting and formation of letters (paleography). However, not all of us are experts in this field (obviously), and sometimes we come across a MS that has no date assigned to it. I certainly don’t doubt that paleography is the best way, but I know that we can also learn some “clues” by other methods. For instance, I currently have photographs of a MS that has no date assigned. It might be amusing to look at a feature or two and see what can be deduced.

First of all, here is the same section of the Canon we looked at yesterday (upper right). We notice some cool abbreviations (especially of the letter “m” which takes up so much space), and also the rubrics (in red) that say to kiss the altar and make the sign of the Cross. Others, smarter than I, could probably date the MS based on that excerpt alone.

The next excerpt shows a little more. First of all, we see clearly that this is a Missal (not a Sacramentary) that contains all the parts of the Mass (Missale plenarium), even those sung by the choir. This would strongly suggest a date later than 1200 (AF, 190). The Introit (Dominus illuminatio mea) is called “officium,” and this is a characteristic of the Sarum rite (a mediæval derived rite, whose parent is the Roman rite). Its text does not match our current Introit for that Sunday, which is typical of the Sarum rite. Also, “Sarum counted Sundays not after Pentecost, but after Trinity, a late and altogether indefensible practice” (AF, 203). We note that feature in this MS. There are numerous other clues of a “Sarum” MS, especially the insertion of the Kyrie and Pater Noster before the Confiteor.

Incidentally, Fr. Adrian Fortescue (202-205) explains in great detail how little the Sarum rite modifies the Roman parent rite. Living in England, he probably heard silly statements about the Sarum rite on a regular basis. Here is but an excerpt (from a footnote on page 205):

“That is to say, many High Church Anglicans now use an older shape of chasuble, light two candles instead of six and so on. And people think that these little details of external ornament make a rite. The Communion Service in the Anglican Prayerbook is essentially a new service made up by the Reformers; its chief element, the Consecration prayer, is adopted from a Lutheran form. It has hardly more in common with the Sarum form of our Roman Mass than have the Lutheran Communion services. You do not turn it into a Sarum Mass by tacking on alien ornaments or by using red on Good Friday.”

I encourage you to read the entire passage (see below for more information).

Finally, if the other clues were not enough, looking at the musical notation in the Missal, it is possible for me to make an educated guess about the MS. I would guess that it was written around 1400. Hopefully I am not too far off.


What Are The Mass Propers? is an ongoing series dedicated to exploring the Catholic Liturgy. Although this series will focus on the Graduale Propers, other subjects will also be included. The views presented here do not necessarily represent the views of Corpus Christi Watershed. Comments, advice, and criticism are welcome, and can be E-mailed. E-mails will be read, but cannot always be answered (due to time constraints). To learn more about how Watershed is helping spread the love of Propers, please visit the Vatican II Hymnal website. “AF” refers to Adrian Fortescue, The Mass: A Study of the Roman Liturgy (1912).

Pictures of ancient manuscripts appearing in this blog come from various sources. The author has collected his own color photographs of manuscripts from libraries and monasteries in the United States and Italy. A Canadian chant scholar who has been taking photographs of MSS since the 1960’s has generously made his collection available as well, and the author is grateful. Some photographs also come from online archives hosted by libraries and universities the world over. All photographs are used with permission.