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Enactment texts

Overall, the texts prepared for the enactments were of six kinds:

• for recitation (though not always audibly)
• for singing
• of instruction, especially for posture, action, gesture and movement
• as guides to personal devotion, especially for those in the role of medieval laity
• to provide context and assist with inculturation for participants
• to be a companion to the ritual for those attending the enactment, whether as observers, congregation or casual visitors.

All of these are represented in the Resources section of the website, and can be accessed there directly, or as each liturgy is explored individually in the Enactments section of the website.

In every case, the texts we prepared for the enactments within the project had to be shaped to the needs of different locations and circumstances.


In part that had to do with physical configuration of each building, and the consequent positioning and movement of those taking part in the liturgy. Although the rituals had originally been codified at Salisbury Cathedral, the building is no longer configured as it was in the late Middle Ages; and in a number of instances it is difficult to know just where exactly certain actions took place – for instance the ‘place of preparation’ of the sacred vessels in the Mass is not defined.

At St Teilo’s Church, as we have already observed elsewhere on this site, the scale of the building is tiny by comparison with Salisbury Cathedral, yet the same instructions have to be used as the basis for the ritual even though it is often physically impossible to do what they direct. (You cannot process out around the north and south choir aisles or the cloisters if they do not exist.) The decisions it was necessary for us to make in reconciling rubrics with the configuration of the building were comparable to those made in late medieval parish churches that used the Use of Salisbury – literally thousands of places.


At Salisbury Cathedral, the enactment had to be prepared with minimum rehearsal, given the pressure of the cathedral’s overall and choir timetables. So far as possible, the texts needed to impart the necessary information (textual, musical and ritual) in the most accessible way possible. Instructions to bow or to turn (done instinctively by habit in the Middle Ages) needed to be written in – and succinctly over the exact place in the musical score. (A singer who has learnt music and ritual in one rehearsal simply cannot absorb written directions in prose rubrics.)

Modern cathedral choirs are rarely used to singing from four-line staves with plainsong notation (with shapes derived from neumes): they instinctively use five-line staves with modern clefs. Plainsong does not have regular metre or consistently measured length of notes, so modern note forms (crotchets, quavers etc) may be misleading. The compromise has been to set the plainsong melodies on modern staves with stemless black note-heads, but grouping them spatially to indicate the composite neume forms of the original chant notation.

The same compromise was used at St Teilo’s for the small groups of singers, some of whom did not sing from plainsong notation with any regularity. However, those who were used to plainsong notation found the modern notation less helpful: for them the plainsong signs conveyed information about melodic shaping and articulation lost in the modern form.

While notation offers a particular example, it is indicative of a more general question: how far does the visual style and presentation of any text (musical or verbal) have an impact on the way it is understood and articulated?

Unscripted conventions

Medieval Latin texts include abbreviations of regularly used words, and often only the opening word (or musical phrase) of items either that everyone knew or were found elsewhere in the book (or even another book). Not all directions were written down. Who needed to be told how to hold their hands at worship when it was what you did in eight or more services every day?

In a modern cathedral or church there are comparable conventions which do not need to be written down: that is simply the way it is done. At Salisbury Cathedral, those modern conventions could be applied to the enactments of medieval liturgy. For instance, there was no need to instruct the boy choristers acting as servers about setting pace or keeping distance in procession: they instinctively applied the usual cathedral practice. We could not know how it was done in the past, beyond knowing that it was normative. To use modern norms was to follow principles shared with medieval practice.

Categories of participant and their texts

In the enactments at Salisbury Cathedral, there were four principal categories of participant:

• ordained clergy, responsible for presiding or officiating at the liturgy:
• servers who assisted the clergy,
• singers with music director and organist responsible,
• the congregation attending the service (a mixture of regular members of the cathedral congregation, those who had come especially for the enactment, and visitors who arrived by chance).

Each needed their own text. As in the Middle Ages, a single book would not serve for everyone present.

At St Teilo’s Church, there were the same four categories, but the final category was subdivided. There was a ‘historical’ congregation, taking the part of an early sixteenth-century local community attending church, and dressed in appropriate attire according to their social station. There was also a public congregation, some of whom attended the enactment by intention, and others who wandered into the church by chance as part of their visit to the whole museum.

Few sixteenth-century lay persons would have had a book in church; only, perhaps, those who were both literate and wealthy enough to own such a book. Even then, the texts would more likely have been devotional, rather than containing the texts recited during the liturgy. Most would have known the conventions of being in church, where they stood, and how they used the time. Non-verbal texts may have been provided by painted windows, walls or screens; or by statues and images. These would enable a lay person to draw on that accumulation of Christian resource, understanding and devotion garnered week by week through their lives.

However, we needed to help our modern ‘late medieval congregation’, indeed all the participants in the enactments at St Teilo’s, to sense something of the expectations, spirituality and devotional practice of their late medieval forebears: to encourage them to engage with the visual stimuli of the church, with specific moments and actions in the liturgies, and with written resources to read beforehand and re-visit during the week. Some of these written materials were in Latin with modern translation; others were taken from late medieval vernacular texts. (All these texts can be seen in the Background material for inculturation included in Resources on this site.)

Practicalities: aides-memoires

As with the late medieval congregation, apart from the priest celebrating the Mass, no one else in the sanctuary or presbytery had access to a written text unless (as subdeacon or deacon) required to recite it. Each of the assisting clergy and servers had to be familiar with the overall structure of the Mass, and both with their own part in the ritual and how it fitted in with actions undertaken by others. Where this was part of the daily pattern, this became instinctive, embedded in the memory.

In the enactments, much of this was entirely unfamiliar (and in Latin), and there was neither book nor memory to rely on. The successive events of the liturgy (texts and actions) served as cues and reminders to an extent, but not always enough. A solution (learnt from the head server at Bangor Cathedral) was to supply ‘sleeve notes’ for each of the assisting clergy and servers, listing what had to be done and where, on a small piece of paper that could be tucked away and consulted unobtrusively.

Texts unheard and overlaid

Analysis of a typical medieval Mass (in this case Lady Mass per annum) reveals that less than a quarter of the texts recited by the priest are heard: many are private to the priest; others are overlaid by sung texts. While the total of words recited (by priest, other clergy and singers) numbers around 3,500, fewer than 1,000 are audible, i.e. less than 30%.

There are significant periods in the Mass where what is said by the priest (in some cases with other clergy) is overlaid by singing – especially during the singing of Introit and Kyrie, Sanctus and Benedictus, and during Agnus Dei. At times it feels as though there are two separate enactments – one in sanctuary or presbytery, the other in chancel or choir. A tabular summary of the Mass of the Day illustrates this overlaying.

Texts sung

The medieval liturgy was primarily sung worship: the spoken word was rarely heard at all. The priest and other clergy officiating at both Mass and Office intoned many texts on a single note (e.g. prayers and readings), with simple melodic inflections to indicate punctuation and conclusion; the singers’ chants ranged from comparable melodic formulae (e.g. for psalms and canticles) to extended melismatic melodies (as is often the case in the Gradual and Alleluya at Mass).

Mass might literally be ‘said’ at a side altar with only priest and server present, but even in parish churches Mass in the chancel or Lady chapel was commonly sung: it was the usual way in which you articulated text in church.

Unwritten musical texts

By the late Middle Ages it was commonplace for plainsong formulae and melodies to be embellished at sight with polyphony. Learning to improvise polyphony on a plainsong melody was a standard part of a boy chorister’s training. Even in parish churches where there were at least three singers with basic competence, the simplest form of polyphonic improvisation could be used – faburden. One of the three sang the chant at pitch, another sang the same melody a fourth higher, and the third (who needed to have more skill) sang the faburden part – either a fifth or a third below the melody, creating three-part polyphony. A single person could improvise faburden on an organ. From parish records, it becomes apparent that the parish clerk often had responsibility for singing the low faburden part (as at Faversham) or playing the organ (as at Ashburton).

In the enactments ‘improvised’ polyphony was explored in the Jesus Mass: sung in simple faburden in the Sanctus and Agnus Dei at both Salisbury and St Teilo’s, and played on the organ more elaborately in the Kyrie at St Teilo’s, though in neither case entirely improvised at sight. In the workshops at Bangor in February 2012 there was more genuine improvisation.

Texts physically shared

The physical engagement with text became increasingly important in the enactments, especially among the singers. There are medieval illustrations of monks, nuns or clergy sitting on each side of the choir in their stalls, each singing from their own small, individual book. There are also illustrations of small groups of singers gathered around a single large book. Some books containing polyphonic music (e.g. the Eton Choirbook, c. 1500) set out the individual singers’ parts across an opening of two pages, making it quite clear that all gathered around the book, placed on a lectern.

At the Lady Mass at St Teilo’s two of the four singers not only shared a single book on a lectern, but also sang from images of the original printed Sarum Gradual of 1528. At Jesus Mass at St Teilo’s, six women (taking the part of singing boys), used individual books on the first day. Spatially this seemed not to work. On the second and third days of the enactment, therefore, they gathered as a group around a lectern and sang from a single copy, which looked and felt ‘right’. During the same week, the men singing Compline stood in two groups on either side of a double-sided lectern, with a single copy on each side. A single book provided a single text to be read or sung collectively, eliminating the risk of divergent texts. More significantly, the physical experience had both a psychological impact of consolidating the group in common purpose, thereby imparting greater confidence in collective endeavour, a musical impact in consolidating ensemble, and a sonic outcome in terms of a focused sound.

Using the original books

In the later Middle Ages, not even the singers would necessarily have access to books. Much was committed to memory, including all 150 psalms, the canticles, over 100 hymn texts, and many other regularly used items. A new vicar choral in a cathedral had two years at most to commit this repertory to memory. Books might be used for teaching and learning, or for a choir director to give out the beginning of a chant (as precentor or ruler). Only with the advent of printing could books be more widely available, and for memory to become less essential.

The priest presiding at Mass or officiating at the Office would need a Missal and Breviary respectively; but the singers would need a Gradual (with Mass chants) and an Antiphonal (with Office chants), perhaps supplemented by a Psalter (with psalms, hymns and canticles). In none of these books did a service appear as a single complete sequence; rather, different parts of a service were found in different parts of the book. A priest would need to use the section of the Missal with the Ordinary and Canon of the Mass for the unchanging texts (often at the middle of the book, where it lay open easily), and the Proper or Common sections of the book for texts particular to that day or season. Furthermore, the instructions for celebrating Mass at different times of the year might not appear: general instructions were found in a general rubric or rubrics for Advent Sunday, and more particular instructions for other times and seasons might appear as statements of differences or exceptions, rather than as complete instructions.

This experience of melding the normative with the particular, of the memorised with the read, was not something that could be explored in the medieval enactments, where almost everything was unfamiliar. Nevertheless, it is possible to engage with this in comparable modern situations, and to consider what this might tell us about the medieval experience.