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