Introduction to Medieval Christian Liturgy
II. 1 Introduction to the Liturgy



The English term liturgy comes from the Greek word leitourgia. Its roots are leos (people) and ergon (work). Basically it means public work or public service. The ancients employed the term leitourgia for any work, such as building a bridge or road or bathhouse, done on behalf of the common good, that is to say for the entire city or empire. The Greek-speaking translators of the version of the Hebrew Bible known as the Septuagint also used the word to name the sacrificial rites of the Temple in Jerusalem. By the time Christians came to employ the term for their system of worship, it was already rich in sacred and secular meanings. For Christians, sacred liturgy was the public service owed to God and rendered by the Church on behalf of itself and of the world. At root this service was twofold. It consisted of thanksgiving and supplication: thanksgiving for a world created and redeemed through the Messiah and intercession through the same Messiah on behalf of a world not yet fully redeemed.

The most striking feature of late antique and medieval Christianity was the public nature of its liturgy. When most of us think of liturgy today, we imagine the short, discreet, essentially congregational or parochial events that take place periodically within the confines of churches. Ancient and medieval Christian liturgy was an entirely different affair. From the fourth to the seventh century, Christian worship, like Christianity itself, became a fundamentally urban experience. Bishops, their clergy, monks and nuns, the holy dead and all the noisy faithful transformed the cities of the Roman empire into powerful symbols of redeemed space and time. Christian liturgy took up many hours of every day, filled the city's largest meeting halls, spilled out into the city's streets, broke through the city's walls.

Another striking feature of late antique and medieval Christianity was the presence and power of the monastic movement. Again, today when we think of monks and nuns we think of quiet contemplatives who live far from our city centers surrounded by their fields, wrapped in their essentially private prayers. In Antiquity monks and nuns were very much caught up in the urban nature of Christianity. They were not so much non-urban as anti-urban. When the Egyptian fathers and mothers of monasticism sought out the desert, they retired to the wastelands that surrounded the cities' hinterlands. There they relied on an almost unending stream of pilgrims from the cities for their physical sustenance. Many other holy men and women, set apart from the civilized world only by their extreme ascetic practices, sought out the spiritual desert in the hearts of imperial cities. In this way their reference point remained the world as embodied in the ancient civitas.

Although Western Europe throughout the Middle Ages became a thoroughly deurbanised region, Christian liturgy remained a fundamentally urban or monastic event. Even as the economic diversity and power of cities declined in the West, even as their populations dwindled, they remained, nonetheless, imposing figures on the cultural landscape, emaciated bodies held up by the powerful skeletons of their ancient basilicas, animated by the numinous presence of their dead and the perambulating rhythms of their liturgical processions. The Church of Rome was the city of Rome, The Church of Toledo, Toledo, of Lyon, Lyon.

In the beginning, however, Christians met to worship not on the town but in private homes. As their numbers grew and consequently their cultic needs grew with them, they purchased houses and transformed them into cultic centers. This was the same procedure followed by other marginalized religious groups within the empire whether adherents to so-called Mystery Cults or Judaism. The excavations of a small town called Dura Europas demonstrate the situation beautifully. In the heart of town stood temples dedicated to the city's official gods. Along the town's periphery were houses that had been purchased and transformed into religious centers for non-dominant religions. Among these houses were a mithraeum, a synagogue and a church.

After Constantine's conversion to Christianity, this new religion moved quickly from a peripheral religion to the dominant religion in the empire. Christians soon had both the need as well as the financial and political patronage necessary to build newer, larger structures for worship. To this end, they adopted the architecture not of Hellenistic temples (they were much too small and exclusive) but of the large public buildings called basilicas. By the end of the fourth century Christians had built large basilicas in virtually every city in the empire. Yet the basilica was not usually the fundamental unit of Christian liturgy; the city was. The powerful need to express the catholicity of the Christian Church, its unity, moved Christians to structure their worship life around the figure of the bishop and the community of the city. Just as the empire was one but divided into cities each with its local leaders, so too was Christianity one, but divided into cities each with its local leader, the bishop.

One of the first cities to develop a fully urban liturgy was Jerusalem. The city was fairly small and did not have the deeply rooted pagan traditions of most other cities in the empire. Neither did it continue to maintain its Jewish traditions. They had been violently uprooted over two hundred years earlier when Roman authorities tore down the Temple and either expelled or massacred much of the Jewish population. Jerusalem also distinguished itself from other Roman cities in that it also possessed the historical sites of Jesus' life. It, therefore, quickly became a Christian tourist site of the first importance. The Jerusalem Church incorporated all of these historical sites into its liturgical life. It celebrated Jesus' nativity in the nearby village of Bethlehem, his passion and resurrection in town at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, his triumphal entry into the city on the road between the Mount of Olives and town. Hagiopolite liturgy was as much the procession from place to place as the services which were conducted in each place. We still have vivid account of this liturgy as it took place in the later fourth century in the travelogue of one of those tourists, a nun by the name of Egeria, who came from somewhere in what is today Spain or perhaps France.

Other cities, such as Rome, were neither as blessed with Christian tourist sites nor as free of deeply rooted pagan traditions. Nevertheless, they too developed full urban liturgies, just not as quickly as Jerusalem. The result of these urban liturgies was the transformation of imperial cities into complex expressions of the Christian faith.

[This system of urban liturgies] reveals that the city itself was sacred space an that its walls enclosed not only a geographical area but also an idea. This is why Augustine chose civitas as the point of reference for his theology of history. The city itself represented civilization, and as such was an apt place for public worship.
The urban character of ancient Christian liturgies remained an important aspect of Christian worship throughout the Middle Ages.

One consequence of this urban character of Christian liturgy was a great variety of detail and even of structure in medieval liturgy. Romans did not celebrate the Eucharist in exactly the same way as Constantinopolitans or Toledans. Important cities, however, did influence the liturgical development of lesser cities and especially the cities in their regions. Even the bishops of great cities such as Rome borrowed from the liturgies of other centers such as Jerusalem or Constantinople. Eventually, large liturgical families called rites developed. In the West some of the most important rites were the Roman, the Ambrosian (that from the city of Milan), and the Gallican.

The services of the Christian liturgy were the principal means by which both Christians and non-Christians experienced the Christian Church. Thus liturgy came to articulate both space and time for large segments of the population in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages. The study of the liturgy, therefore, opens up rich possibilities for interpreting the fundamental worldview generated by or imposed upon, accepted lovingly or resisted valiantly by the peoples of medieval Europe, North Africa and the Near East.


Further Reading

John F. Baldovin, The Urban Character of Worship: the Origins, Development, and Meaning of Stational Liturgy, (Rome: Pontifical Institute of Oriental Studies, 1987).

Paul F. Bradshaw, Early Christian Worship: a Basic Introduction to Ideas and Practice, (London: SPCK, 1996).

Paul F. Bradshaw, The Search for the Origins of Christian Worship: Sources and Methods for the Study of Early Liturgy, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992).