The mother of Jesus Christ, the Blessed Virgin Mary, was a principal focus of devotion and prayer in the Middle Ages. Because she had given birth to Jesus, God’s son, she was regarded as a channel of approach not only to Jesus but to God the Father. The cult of the Virgin Mary was particularly strong among lay people, not least because she was an ordinary human being singled out by God for a unique purpose.
By the end of the Middle Ages, there was a sequence of feasts associated with Mary’s life-cycle, principal among which were her conception (8 December), nativity (8 September), and assumption into heaven (15 August). Two further feasts with Marian emphasis are associated with the narrative of the life of Jesus found in the Gospels: the annunciation of his conception by the angel (25 March), and his presentation in the Temple (and Mary’s purification – 2 February). Additionally, there were regular liturgies in honour of Mary: first, from at least the eighth century, a weekly commemorative Mass on Saturday; and then, from at least the thirteenth century, a daily Mass often celebrated by a designated priest (or group of clergy and singers) in a Lady Chapel or at a Lady altar (i.e. a chapel or altar dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary). These Masses in honour of the Blessed Virgin Mary are commonly called ‘Lady Mass’.
In late medieval Britain, Saturday Lady Mass at the principal altar of the church, and daily Lady Mass in a specific chapel or at a dedicated altar, were widespread. Lady Mass therefore offers a particularly good example to investigate as a model of how medieval worship was conducted, and what kind of experience it offered to all those present. The same texts and ritual directions were followed in most places. There were four versions of Lady Mass for different parts of the church year:
• Lady Mass per annum (literally ‘through the year’, the default form except in the periods listed below)
• Lady Mass in Advent (for the four weeks before Christmas)
• Lady Mass in Christmastide (from Christmas Day to the feast of the Purification, 2 February)
• Lady Mass in Eastertide (from one week after Easter Day until one week after Trinity Sunday)
(Lady Mass in Eastertide was a variant of the per annum version)
Video recordings and full texts
Two versions of Lady Mass can be explored here with video recordings and full texts:
Lady Mass for Christmastide was not recorded, but there are texts and a report.
All three represent the ritual of Lady Mass celebrated weekly on Saturday at the principal altar of the church as the main Mass of the day.
A tabular summary of what happens when and where in the Mass can be found here.