15.05.19, Romano, Liturgy and Society in Early Medieval Rome

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Timothy Thibodeau

The Medieval Review 15.05.19

Romano, John F. Liturgy and Society in Early Medieval Rome. Church, Faith, and Culture in the Medieval West. Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate, 2014. pp. x, 308. ISBN: 9781409443933 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Timothy Thibodeau
Nazareth College of Rochester, NY

Reconstructing the earliest history of the papal court and analyzing its liturgical functions are daunting tasks. Students of early medieval liturgy and papal history must conduct their research with documentary sources that are meager and often problematic. The sometimes questionable material found in the Liber Pontificalis--which purports to provide running biographical entries for all the medieval popes, beginning with St. Peter--must be carefully critiqued and compared with more trustworthy archival material for the early papacy (for example, the papal register of Gregory I). Most of the physical spaces for the earliest liturgies of the Roman curia are either lost to the ravages of time or were substantially altered and refurbished during the era of the Renaissance papacy.

Yet, in the face of such significant obstacles, John Romano has managed to produce a rigorous and engaging monograph that successfully broadens our understanding of the early history of the papacy and its liturgical activity. Through his meticulous research, Romano shows how the liturgy functioned to shape public perceptions of the papal court and how it helped to negotiate the power of the papacy in Roman society. He fruitfully employs primary sources that are often neglected by medieval historians who work outside the narrowly defined field of liturgical studies. In the end, Romano achieves his stated objective of reconstructing the papal Mass liturgy (c. 590-c. 752) and situating the solemn liturgical ceremonies of the papacy within the broader context of the social order and power structures of early medieval Rome.

At the outset of his inquiry, Romano justifiably laments the antipathy that many medieval historians have towards what they consider to be the inconsequential subject of liturgical studies. On the other hand, he provides a short bibliographic essay covering a wide range of well-known publications that focus on the liturgy but that are not integrated with medieval social, cultural or political history. In this discussion, however, Romano neglects recent works that have taken the very approach to liturgical studies that he is advocating. At the top of the list is the Oxford History of Christian Worship, whose early chapters cover the liturgy from the Apostolic period to the end of the Middle Ages, often highlighting and underscoring the connections between liturgy, the visual arts, and social and political structures. [1]

Romano then provides a compelling counterargument to those who would dismiss the relevance of liturgy to the field of medieval social or political history: "This book aims to demonstrate that liturgy, far from being ancillary or insignificant, was the 'social glue' that held together the society of early medieval Rome. Worship was a key factor in basic social relationships in the seventh and eighth centuries in Rome... It created a new power constellation in the papal court and provided a unifying symbol for the city" (6).

The centerpiece of Romano's inquiry is a rather plain and simple type of documentary source whose study is largely confined to liturgical scholars, and mostly ignored by medievalists in general: the Ordines Romani. Medieval Ordines (Ordo, in the singular) are Latin texts describing in detail the ministers, vestments and ceremonies associated with the performance of the medieval liturgy (mostly the Mass and the Divine Office). Later Ordines also included instructions for the dedication of churches and the coronation of the Holy Roman Emperor. In form and content, an Ordo was a pedantic "how-to" booklet for the performance of a specific rite of the Roman Church. It included only the incipit of the prayers associated with a liturgy and would by necessity be supplemented with liturgical service books, such as the sacramentary, for the prayers of the Mass. In his magisterial critical edition of the Roman Ordines, Michel Andrieu identified and reconstructed fifty such documents, dating from the seventh to the eleventh century. [2] As Romano notes, many of these texts were not purely "Roman" but were hybrid collections that combined Roman and Frankish-Germanic practices (this is particularly true of the later Ordines).

At the heart of Romano's study is an Ordo which he believes represents a purely Roman liturgy: Ordo Romanus Primus (OR I in Andrieu's edition). Dating from the late seventh century, it is the oldest extant text describing the celebration of a papal Mass during Easter week in the diocese of Rome. Not only can this Order be employed to reconstruct the liturgy itself, but as Romano argues, it can be scrutinized to learn how the hierarchic configuration of the seventh century papal court and its rituals influenced Roman society: "The success of the papacy and the papal court was attributable, at least in part, to their mastery of ritual and the organization of people within it. Elaborate ceremonial would be one of the main strategies to cement and maintain the court's power. The form of the papal court on display in OR I would serve as a model for the future" (107).

With OR I as the cornerstone of his study, Romano produces five chapters that in various ways support his thesis: 1) "The Mass in Early Medieval Rome;" 2) Shaping the Papal Court by Liturgy;" 3) "Unifying the City Through Liturgy;" 4) Defining a Society Through Worship;" 5) "Prayer in Roman Society." On the whole, these chapters succeed admirably in documenting and analyzing the historical, structural and social dimensions of the celebration of the papal Mass in early medieval Rome. But for this reviewer, Romano's four appendices (that number more than forty pages) have made an especially noteworthy contribution to our understanding of the sources for the study of early Roman liturgy.

Appendix 1 provides a careful analysis of Andrieu's reconstruction of OR I and exposes the challenges that he faced in producing his critical edition. For example, the original Latin of the earliest exemplars was often contaminated by monastic scribes who sought to "improve" the original text, leading to significant orthographic changes and wildly variant spellings (220). A cursory look at Andrieu's publication of this Order reveals a massive critical apparatus with substantial variant spellings from the MSS on every page of his edition. On many pages there are even double or triple columns of variant readings from the MSS.

Appendix 2 provides a new English translation of OR I, with a facing Latin text from Andrieu's edition. As Romano wryly notes: "OR I will never be mistaken for a literary product. Rather than transform it into something stylistically elegant, what I have attempted to do instead is to render its technical phrasing as accurately as possible in English" (249). Romano's clear and compact translation is a welcome addition to the long antiquated Atchley version that was, until very recently, the only readily available English text. [3]

Appendix 3 provides a detailed commentary on the philological problems encountered in the reconstructed Latin text of Andrieu. Though densely written, this detailed review and definition of key terms (including ministers, members of the papal court and liturgical vestments) is of tremendous value for liturgists, musicologists and historians of the papacy alike.

Appendix 4 reconstructs, in box form, the entire papal Mass described in OR I; there are five parallel columns titled: "Section; Actor(s); Action; Prayer/Chant; OR I Reference." For those who are new to the field of liturgical studies, this type of schematic representation of the Mass is indispensable for understanding the form and structure of that liturgy.

In his conclusion, Romano recapitulates his main arguments, while underscoring an essential tenet of his work: that liturgical studies should not be dismissed as irrelevant to historians and simply viewed as the esoteric domain of liturgists and theologians. His painstaking research demonstrates how the performance of liturgical rites and ceremonies played a critical role in shaping the public perception of the papacy and the articulation of its power over the city of Rome in the early medieval period (205; 214). In the final analysis, I cannot emphasize enough how exemplary the research of this monograph is and how useful it will be to graduate students in particular. (Any doctoral student in medieval liturgical studies or papal history would do well to procure a copy of this book). Romano is to be commended for his careful use of the extant primary sources--well represented in the numerous footnotes that he provides--and his nuanced understanding of the challenges that we face when navigating through the complex sources for the history of early medieval Rome. Serious students of the early Roman liturgy and the early history of the papacy will find this monograph to be an essential starting point for their own research.



1. Geoffrey Wainwright and Karen B. Westerfield Tucker ( eds.), The Oxford History of Christian Worship (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2006). I would also include Didier Méhu (ed.),Mises en scène et mémoires de la consécration de l'église dans l'Occident médiéval (Turnhout: Brepols, 2007).

2. Michel Andrieu (ed.), Les Ordines Romani du haut Moyen Age, 5 vols. (Spicilegium Sacrum Lovaniense 11, 23, 24, 28, 29; Louvain: Spicilegium Sacrum Lovaniense, 1931-1961).

3. E.g., Cuthbert F. Atchley, Ordo Romanus Primus, With Introduction and Notes (London: Alexander Moring, 1905). This version is still available in a reprint edition (2012). There is also a new translation by Alan Griffiths, Ordo Romanus Primus: Latin Text, With Translation and Notes (Joint Liturgical Studies 73; Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2012).

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