Medieval Manuscripts in Law Book Bindings: Latin Christian Service Books in the Middle Ages

February 15, 2010

The liturgy of the Church in medieval Europe was built around two core elements: the Mass and the Divine Office. The Mass was a once-daily celebration of the sacrament of Holy Communion. The Divine Office was a sequence of eight services that made up the devotional prayers of the canonical hours (Vigils, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, and Compline). Each day members of the clergy were supposed to attend or celebrate Mass and recite the entire Divine Office, though surely some priests found the process onerous and focused on the major services: Matins (a combination of Vigils and Lauds), the Mass, and Vespers. Laypeople were encouraged to attend Mass at least every Sunday (as well as on special feast days), but did not say the Divine Office (though lay devotional books based on the canonical hours did emerge in the 12th century).

The Christian liturgy was elaborately structured and changed from day to day, week to week, and season to season throughout the liturgical year. Furthermore, there were numerous regional variations. As a result, priests and clerics relied on service books to guide them through their local liturgy.

In the early Middle Ages, a “solemn” or “high” Mass was typically celebrated by a priest accompanied by a group of assisting ministers and a choir. They used four separate books: a sacramentary (the prayers), an epistolary (the Epistle readings), an evangelary (the Gospel readings), and a gradual (the sung elements). As demand increased for “private” or “low” Masses celebrated by a priest alone (primarily for the commemoration of the dead), the four books were combined into a single, more manageable volume. The “missal,” as this was called, almost completely replaced the separate service books by the early 13th century.

The story was similar for the Divine Office. Prior to the 11th century, several books were needed for its celebration, including an antiphonal (the musical elements), collectar (the prayers), lectionary (the scripture readings), martyrology (readings on the lives of the saints), and psalter (the Psalms). Eventually these were combined into a single volume, called a “breviary.” The popularity of breviaries grew rapidly in the early 13th century as the itinerant lifestyle of Franciscan and Dominican friars demanded a more portable service book.

It is possible that this consolidation rendered some sacramentaries, antiphonals, and other older service books obsolete, allowing their expensive parchment pages to become a source of durable bookbinding materials.

      – Notes by Benjamin Yousey-Hindes, Stanford University

Fragment of a Breviary, c. 1225-1325, found in Regis pie memorie Edwardi Tertii a quadragesimo ad quinquagesimum. London: Richard Tottell, 1565. Larger versions of this and other images are available from the Medieval binding fragments gallery of the Rare Book Collection’s Flickr site. If you can provide additional information about the manuscript fragment displayed here, you are invited to send an email to .[at]>

“Reused, Rebound, Recovered: Medieval Manuscript Fragments in Law Book Bindings” is curated by Benjamin Yousey-Hindes and Mike Widener, and is on display through May 2010 in the Rare Book Exhibition Gallery, Level L2, Lillian Goldman Law Library, Yale Law School.

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