In the recent discussion about congregational singing, the conversation went down a highly interesting side path on vernacular singing in the medieval liturgy. I’ve been down this road before, and this is often where the trail leads. Someone is sure that vernacular singing in the liturgy never happened. When presented with the evidence that it did, the position becomes that it never should have happened. When presented with evidence that some clergy in fact supported and promoted it, the position becomes that this was a local abuse and an exception from the universal norm.
I won’t review the evidence from the Middle Ages here – you can find that in the last chapter of my little book. I wish to look rather at what we do with the evidence. What interests do we bring to it? How do cultural biases affect our interpretation? What precedents do we hope to find? There is no absolute neutrality, for me or for anyone else. At our best, we hold lightly to our preconceived opinions so that new information can stretch and change us. At our worst, we hunt for evidence to solidify our pre-existing biases. The question becomes: What can the Middle Ages do for me?
Roman Catholics in past eras have wanted the Middle Ages to do various things for them. German-speaking Cecilians about a hundred and fifty years ago were anxious to find evidence that vernacular hymns were not sung in the Middle Ages at the Missa Cantata (the fully sung High Mass), but only at devotions and spoken Low Masses. Why? They were fighting a battle to eliminate vernacular hymns from the High Mass of their day. They wanted to eliminate ‘secular’ music from the church – especially 18th century Viennese orchestral music – and to restore sacred chant and polyphony. It would have been handy if the evidence showed that their position was the immemorial tradition of the Church.
The nineteenth-century Cecilians weren’t opposed to unearthing evidence of medieval vernacular hymnody – in fact, some of them were leaders in such hymnological investigation. There is no mistaking their counter-Reformation zeal to prove the Protestants wrong, to de-throne Martin Luther, the so-called father of German hymnody, and to show that the pre-Reformation Church deserves all the credit for developing vernacular hymnody. That is, as long as it wasn’t at High Mass. Latin High Mass in the 19th century – that was their issue.
About 75 years ago, in the 1930s and 1940s, some German-speaking liturgical reformers had different hopes in mind for the Middles Ages. Now it would be handy if the evidence showed that vernacular hymns were sung in the medieval liturgy, even at Latin High Mass. Why? The Liturgische Bewegung [liturgical movement] was taking up the 1903 call of Pope Pius X for active participation by promoting both congregational Latin chant and congregational vernacular hymnody. Leaders were noticing that success came quicker with German hymns. The (illegal) custom of singing vernacular hymns at High Mass hadn’t yet died out entirely, despite the Cecilians’ efforts. If this custom could be shown to have deep roots in medieval Catholic liturgy, so much the better. Active participation – that was their issue.
The Cecilians lost an important battle in 1943. The Holy See ruled that the immemorial custom of singing German hymns at Latin High Mass, though praeter legem [outside the law], would henceforth be permitted in Germany (which then included Austria). After Vatican II in 1967, Musicam Sacram extended the permission universally and spoke of “substituting” hymns for Latin Mass propers. Before long, the General Instruction of the Roman Missal spoke not of “substituting” hymns. It simply listed several options, including propers (first option) and vernacular hymns (last option). Now it’s your choice.
And not everyone is happy about that, not by a long shot. Passions run deep about whether the reformed liturgy is legitimate, or beautiful, or sacred, or what Vatican II really intended. Some people think that something has gone badly wrong. Too much inculturation of secular influences, too many options, too much creativity, too much local control, too little obedience to Rome, too little universal legislation from Rome, and on and on – you’ve heard it all.
What can the Middle Ages do for us in 2010? They can provide an alternative to our current woes and a model to which to return. The rather esoteric question of whether vernacular was sung in the medieval liturgy is really about our current liturgical crisis. If only we can find a universally accepted understanding of liturgy in the Middle Age. If only we can find that everyone used Latin, that everyone followed the books, that everyone even had the same books, that everyone excluded secular influence, that everyone knew what the abuses were. Our real issue? The liturgical crisis 45 years after Vatican II.
But asking the Middle Ages to do all that for us is rather like asking what Pope Gregory thought about financial regulation, or William Durandus about universal health care. Consider: the Sacred Congregation for Divine Worship did not exist. Most bishops were not appointed by the Pope. Most Christians had no reason to know the name of the Pope. Thankfully, the major medieval papal document on music, Docta sanctorum patrum of 1324, was ignored by everyone. Had it not been, there wouldn’t be any Renaissance polyphony as we know it. The bishop was the chief liturgical legislator in his diocese. Lots of tropes (text or music or both) were added locally to most every part of the liturgy. Nobody ever sent a trope text to Rome for approval. Most of them were in Latin. But in many places, these “tropes” (if you will) were in vernacular. Nobody asked whether it was approved or Roman or sacred. Nobody was struck by how medievally quaint it all was, compared to the post-Trent settlement.
The bewildering variety of the medieval liturgy need not scare us. It’s not necessarily a model for how things should be now. Our questions are our questions, nobody else’s. But let’s let the medieval questions be theirs too. Believe it or not, they weren’t asking about Summorum Pontificum or the Reform of the Reform. They didn’t have a position on the guitar Mass. Instead of seeing precedents, for good or ill, sometimes it’s a lot of fun just to see as much as we can of what really might have been back there.