The Experience of Worship logo

Research contexts

This and the following section unpack the underpinning thinking, process, outcomes and interpretation of the research project. Here we deal with the underpinning thinking, and the constituent elements of the research.

The years 2010 to 2012 represent the most intensive period of the project, facilitated by a major research grant within the Religion and Society research programme, jointly funded by the AHRC and the ESRC. However, at a more modest pace, and through different strands, the project is ongoing. This, therefore, is an account of the story so far.

Underpinning the investigation

Research questions

The following research questions formed the starting point for the project.

1. What was the experience of late medieval worship for all who participated, and how can we use surviving texts, buildings and artefacts to investigate that experience through practice-led research, and particularly ritual enactments of medieval liturgies, informed by current scholarship and research-led observation and analysis?

2. How can participation in, and observation and analysis of ritual enactments develop our understanding of extant buildings, artefacts and texts?

3. How can modern experiences of medieval cathedrals and churches, sacred artefacts and music – either in Christian worship or non-Christian cultural encounter – be
• evaluated by these research processes, and
• enhanced by outcomes of historical investigation and ritual enactment?

4. What methods do we use and what parameters and criteria do we set to:
• establish the practice and context of late medieval worship,
• prepare and undertake the enactments,
• observe, analyse and interpret them, and compare them with modern worship in medieval spaces,
• test the validity of enactment as a research tool in and between different disciplines?

Aims and objectives

We set out to initiate and undertake a programme of research that would:
• contribute significantly to knowledge, understanding and research resources related to religion and society in general, late medieval ritual and its religious, social and cultural contexts in particular, and the specific relationship of texts, spaces, objects, rituals and people;
• explore, test and validate new approaches to and methods of investigation and interpretation through applied and practice-led research with interdisciplinary collaboration between scholars in the fields of liturgy, musicology, architectural, social, cultural and church history, ethnomusicology, practical theology, and anthropology and sociology of religion, and by engagement with clergy, musicians and craftspeople as practitioners;
• expand the research experience, methodology and knowledge base of the investigators through their interaction and interdisciplinary collaboration;
• work with third-sector partners, engaging some of the researched in the research process, and thereby enrich their own understanding of the medieval buildings in their care;
• more generally enable better understanding of the nature and use of medieval cathedrals and churches, both in the past and in the present and future;
• offer opportunities for public engagement at key moments in the project and on a continuing basis after the project – including this website.


The most important principle for this research has been the intention to place the main cycle of enactments at the mid-point of the research, not at the end point. Historical performance grounded in scholarly investigation has been well-established for some decades in music; re-enactment of historical events has also been explored, though inevitably without the tangible evidence available in extant musical score, instruments and (in some instances) treatises, nor – in the case of physical conflict – with the real outcomes of wounding and death; enactment of medieval and early modern liturgies has also been successfully undertaken (though often only as a sonic event, rather than as a full ritual). However, in most instances, these performances, re-enactments and enactments have been the principal outcome of the research process, rather than its central focus for investigation.

The second important principle has been to engage the research team directly in the research process of enactment. This, of course, throws up inevitable challenges: how can a participant also be a researcher of an enactment, and be in a position to measure the outcomes of the event? To which there are balancing questions: how can a researcher as observer know an experience, except in their position and role of observer outside the enactment? And can an observer ever not be a participant, given that they experience the enactment in the process of observing the participants?

The third principle has been to favour enactment over re-enactment, and making over reconstructing. Underlying this is the fundamental question of the validity of the investigating of the historical through present practical enquiry. A historical building, text and object may have been made in the past, but in bringing these into active relation with people in a ritual enactment one is inevitably creating something that is in the present: it is not a historical re-enactment. In the case of Christian liturgies, they are of their nature a compilation of texts, practices and customs that have accumulated over centuries. While they may have been codified and written down at specific times, they are never static, since they depend on the contexts in which and the people by whom they are enacted. Similarly, in commissioning new artefacts, each has been informed by historical research and (where available) historical examples, but it has been important to allow the maker the freedom of a creative input that would have been available and normative in the historical context. The typological nature of the enactments strengthens this approach. However, it does not remove the inevitable limitations of being twenty-first-century researchers, makers, participants and observers. We can report the outcomes and the experiences, but it is in a twenty-first-century context. The challenge which follows is to distinguish between those outcomes and the experiences which can be asserted as comparable with those of the past, and those where we can only report how we behaved, engaged, thought and felt in a ritual, and ask to what extent that might in any ways be indicative of past experience.

Realities: constraints and opportunities

We accepted that what we did was going to be unfamiliar and under-rehearsed to all the participants, but that this was a valid way of investigating the experience of medieval worship; that we were more likely to be alert to the characteristics and qualities of such worship in an exploratory, learning process rather than a polished, accustomed and embedded state. In accepting this, we were aware of the limitations of such an approach, and that it was atypical of practice in past and present rituals. In particular we recognised the extent and impact of memory (text, music, gesture, movement – so both intellectual and physical) in any repeated ritual, but especially in the Middle Ages, and of the greater reliance on a bank of memory in an age when texts were still relatively scarce.

The preparation and enactment of the medieval liturgies offered wide, even unprecedented, opportunities for inter-disciplinary and cross-disciplinary research spanning creative and performing arts, humanities and social sciences, not only in relation to historical investigation, but also to the contemporary: the researchers and the participants were themselves potential subjects for study. The richness of such enquiry offers tremendous opportunities, as does the scope of such a project; at the same time, there is a risk that the quality of any single strand of enquiry within a specific discipline, sphere or method of research may be diluted and less rigorous. That seemed a risk worth taking, particularly when much could be recorded for future reference, and that the project as a whole or elements of it could form the basis of future research. Indeed, since the completion of the main body of enactments in 2011, a series of further enquiries in specific areas has continued in 2012 and 2013. The research is ongoing.

Constituent elements of the research


The same forms of worship, with the same texts and rubrics, were used in different parts of the medieval Church in the West. While there were variations of Western liturgy, principally determined either by geography or by monastic order, there was a common core. In all but four dioceses of England and Wales, the great majority of non-monastic churches in the late Middle Ages followed the regional Use of Salisbury (also known as the Use of Sarum), again with some diocesan or more local variants. The Use of Salisbury, as its name suggests, originated in Salisbury Cathedral, and the earliest evidence of its codification dates from the early thirteenth century, just before the building of the new cathedral.

Salisbury Cathedral, therefore, offered one obvious location and institution in which to explore late medieval rituals: the directions found in the liturgical books were originally formulated to accommodate the specific disposition of that building and its clergy. Salisbury Cathedral remains a working and exceptionally active cathedral with a substantial complement of clergy, singers, other musicians, vergers, and supporting staff, as well as a substantial regular congregation and – at times – significant numbers of occasional visitors at its services.

What happened in Salisbury happened in several thousand other churches whose clergy used books following the practice of the Use of Salisbury. Most of these buildings (including Salisbury) have been altered or physically re-ordered, to an extent that it makes it more difficult to follow the instructions for the rituals found in the medieval books. However, one church is being re-instated as it might have been ordered and decorated at the very end of the Middle Ages: the church of St Teilo, originally located on the east bank of the River Loughar south of Pontarddulais on the western border of Glamorgan, and now rebuilt at St Fagans: National History Museum, just west of Cardiff. This small church was part of the diocese of St Davids, where the Use of Salisbury was adopted in the first half of the thirteenth century. Now being re-instated as it might have been in about 1520-30, St Teilo’s offered an entirely apposite but contrasting setting.

Not only did the two locations offer significantly different spaces in which the same liturgies would have been enacted, they also represented two very different cultures with different expectations: one, a working cathedral with a busy programme of services and other events, and a specific management structure and modus operandi; the other, a museum with its own conventions for the care of its buildings and artefacts, and a different management structure and modus operandi. One practical example serves to illustrate the differences: at Salisbury the mid-thirteenth-century misericords in the quire are used daily as seats for those attending worship; at St Fagans it is forbidden to place anything, let alone sit, on the two medieval seats and two medieval benches in St Teilo’s church.


There are three widespread forms of medieval liturgy: Mass, Office, Procession. Each has been represented in the project. However, it was important to select rituals that are representative, but not restricted to a specific season or feast.

Two late medieval observances of Mass seemed particularly suitable: the long-established Mass in honour of the Blessed Virgin Mary, celebrated daily or at least weekly (on Saturday) throughout the year, and the Mass of the Holy Name of Jesus, usually celebrated on Friday, a much later observance not formally established in England until the late fifteenth century.

In seeking to explore movement around the two contrasting spaces of Salisbury Cathedral and St Teilo’s church, the Procession of the Holy Name of Jesus, which followed the more general pattern of processions on major feast days (whether falling on a weekday or Sunday), naturally suggested itself.

Both forms of Mass and the Procession were enacted at both Salisbury and St Teilo’s. In addition, it was possible at St Teilo’s to explore some Office services with additional votive Antiphon ceremonies: Vespers of the Blessed Virgin Mary followed by the Antiphon of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Antiphon of the Holy Cross followed by Compline, and Compline followed by the Antiphon of the Holy Name of Jesus.


No less significant were spatial relationships – both of all the people present to the building, and of each group within the liturgy to one another within the designated ritual space of the building.

At Salisbury Cathedral, Mass of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Lady Mass) took place in the choir (at Salisbury spelt as quire). This was the space, bounded by the pulpitum at the west (now removed) and the high altar at the east, where the medieval cathedral community conducted the core daily services: the eight Office services from Matins through to Compline (each with accretions) and the principal Mass of the day. The Mass of the Holy Name of Jesus (Jesus Mass) took place in the more intimate space of the Trinity Chapel. The Procession of the Holy Name of Jesus (preceded by the blessing of salt and water, and Asperges) made use of the Trinity Chapel for the blessing of salt and water, choir for Asperges, and then the choir aisles, south transept, cloisters and nave for the Procession, which began and ended in the choir.

St Teilo’s church is around 17 metres long, about the size of one of the transept chapels in Salisbury Cathedral. Yet the same liturgical books and forms, the same ritual actions and movements were used here, on a hugely reduced scale. For the Lady Mass, clergy, servers and singers were in the chancel (the equivalent of the choir at Salisbury, though less than a tenth of its size), while the congregation were in the nave, physically and visually separated from the liturgy by the substantial rood screen. For Jesus Mass, priest, people and singers were gathered in the south aisle, the people now close to the altar with priest to the east and singers to the west – a far more inclusive spatial experience. By comparison with Salisbury, there was scarcely any space within the church for the Procession of the Holy Name, and no cloisters: it was a far more modest journey. Nevertheless, the Procession and the three Antiphon rituals (after Vespers and before or after Compline) revealed a crucial visual, aural and physical impact. During the Lady Mass, the beginning of the Procession, and the whole of Vespers and Compline, those conducting the ritual had been set apart, physically and visually distant in the chancel from the ordinary people in the nave. For the main part of the Procession and for the singing of the Antiphons, clergy and singers were in the people’s part of the church.

Clothing the space: making artefacts and vestments

As a working cathedral, Salisbury is, of course, fully staffed and fully equipped for modern liturgy. Though there may be distinctions of style and decoration, the artefacts and vestments they use for worship today are broadly comparable in form and nature to those of the later Middle Ages. Though there are questions of the historical and of authenticity (discussed further below), these artefacts and vestments met the functional requirements of the liturgies enacted as part of the project. They were part of a measurable compromise in the research process, comparable with changes in the disposition and furnishing of the cathedral building, and in the composition of the worshipping body, so too the artefacts and vestments.

The situation at St Teilo’s Church is very different. The staff of St Fagans National History Museum had from the outset attempted to present both the interior and exterior of the church as it might have been around 1520 or 1530, the date of the wall-paintings found when the church was dismantled and relocated. Historical research informed every part of the process of reconstruction and adornment of the church, and that process was as important. As in our project, imagination and creativity have been important. Over 200 fragments of wall-painting (some more extensive than others) may have indicated both style and subject matter, but modern artists had to be creative in responding to that evidence in making new wall paintings. The surviving medieval woodwork in other Welsh churches, including rood screens had to inform the design, making and decoration of the rood screen at St Teilo’s, of which only the stone supports and doorway aperture survived.

By the time St Fagans Museum became a partner in this research project, a number of ritual artefacts had been made (altar cross and candlesticks, two pairs of chalice and paten, and a thurible) – all based on extant medieval models from Wales, as also hangings for the principal altar and the two small altars in the nave. A double-sided lectern, large priest’s seat, and two small stools had been made for use in the liturgy. (Less useful were the overlong oak benches in the nave.) Nevertheless, there was a list of necessary artefacts, vestments and furniture that needed to be researched and made in order for the ritual enactments to take place: cruets, lavabo bowl, incense boat, pyx, pax-board (or pax-brede), hanging lamp, chasuble, dalmatic, tunicle, cope, burse, pyx cloth, more stools, and two short benches among them. In some cases, as at Salisbury, modern items served: processional candlesticks, thurible (since the museum example was too heavy to use), cassocks, surplices, albs and altar linen. Furthemore, suitable period dress for the nuns and the laity in the congregation was hired.

One item was especially substantial: the medieval organ, designed to complement the scale and dimensions of St Teilo’s Church. This offers a crucial resource to explore the festal embellishment of the liturgy, and in its final, richly decorated state it demonstrates its ritual significance visually and aurally. It also provides an ongoing research tool to investigate the practice of late medieval improvisation, alternation with voices, and early post-Reformation choral accompaniment, in addition to performance of the extant sixteenth-century keyboard repertory, especially in relation to its liturgical use.

The artefacts, vestments and furniture made for and used in the liturgical enactments are discussed individually in the artefacts section of the website, with links to still images.

Populating the space: clergy, singers and congregation

Liturgy needs people as well as a building and artefacts. Salisbury Cathedral is well-resourced with clergy, singers, keyboard players, vergers and other supporting staff; and there is a regular congregation attending both weekday and Sunday services. There are well-established ritual customs as well as administrative and management procedures. All these factors mirrored aspects of medieval provision and practice. The principal distinction is the significant reduction of the large body of canons, vicars choral and other clergy who had occupied the medieval stalls in the choir of the cathedral before the Reformation. The cathedral congregation took the place of the larger body of clergy.

At St Teilo’s there is no human resource: it is no longer a working church, but rather a museum building. The original plan was to have three groups: to invite clergy and assisting servers, singers and keyboard player to officiate at the rituals; to seek local volunteers willing to be the medieval lay congregation in the nave; and to enable any members of the public visiting the museum to attend all or part of the liturgy. Two things changed. First, as researchers and graduate students in various areas of medieval and sacred music studies heard about the project, they offered to be involved. Second, while the original plan had been to use women only in the lay congregation, it became apparent that this excluded a significant number of participants from the experience of liturgy either in the chancel or in the nave. With so many researchers and graduate students with interest in knowledge of either the medieval or the liturgical or the musical, or combinations of aspects of two or all three, the nature of the investigation of the rituals changed. Fortuitously we had established the conditions for first-hand investigation within the ritual, the creation of researcher-participant and participant-researcher, each bringing distinctive skills and knowledge from their discipline and specialist work to the specific role and tasks they were assigned, and to the wider experience of medieval worship both individually, in role-related groups, and collectively.

Texts for enactment

Just as artefacts are discussed and documented in their own section of the website, so too are texts. Texts also represent the largest body of resources available to users of the website.

The largest single problem in providing a performance text for each enactment is the fact that a single text will rarely serve for all the participants. In the case of the Mass at least, it is quite impossible to compile a single ‘master’ text: there are times when four or five different things are taking place at the same time, each needing separate script, score or directions, which cannot be represented in a successive, linear text. Not only that, but there is a significant body of participants (the lay congregation) which has no text, but rather an accumulation of codes of behaviour and religious mores that allow each to know their place and what is acceptable or expected of them, and of individual repertories of prayer, devotion, gesture and movement to draw on during the liturgy.

For those whose part is texted in the Mass, only that of the priest represents the coherent whole. However, there is no single book (or portion of a book) in which everything appears complete and in the right order. For some elements, it is a question of drawing texts from different parts of one or more books; but some instructions may be generic or particular to a season or day; and some were so normative that they were never written down.

Within the different contexts of Salisbury Cathedral and St Teilo’s, the content and presentation of texts (for both recitation and direction) needed to be distinct, taking account of the configuration of the spaces used, the time available for preparation, and the skills and established practices which the two bodies of participants brought to the project.

The research team and additional advisers

Planning, leading, guiding and enabling the whole project has been a core research team: four senior researchers with a range of skills and experience in studies of liturgy, music, buildings and religious culture; a research student, and an administrator.

Given the range of disciplines implicit in the project, an additional group of advisers and observers has been involved, with specialisms in medieval art, ethnomusicology, medieval religious institutions, ritual studies, sociology of religion, and theology, as well as medieval history, liturgy and music.

There has also been research assistance from young scholars working in medieval liturgy and chant studies.

There is more about the researchers in the Information section of the website, About.