Ascension in the Merovingian World

Bobbio Missal, fol. 146v
Bobbio Missal, fol. 146v

Lately, my wanderings have brought me into the sixth and seventh centuries in Gaul and northern Italy — particularly, into places assorted with the Irish mission-monk Columbanus (543-615) who founded several monasteries in Gaul/France and northern Italy, notably Luxeuil and most notably Bobbio where he died. If his letters are genuine, he corresponded with popes and supported the continuation of a two Easter system (Irish [Old Roman] and Roman [Dionysius Exiguus]). He was also in league with northern Italy’s supporters of the Three Chapters, some of whom were in schism with Rome over the issue. (I’ve blogged about the Three Chapters Controversy a few times; most clearly here).

Liturgically, besides the pertinent chapter in Columbanus’ Rule for Monks, I have found myself with Irish and Gallican service books from Bobbio and Luxeuil as a result of this Columbanus investigation. This needs quick clarification before people start ranting about early medieval independence from Rome. First, the Irish service books I’ve been playing with are in Latin, such as the Antiphonary of Bangor and the Stowe Missal (this book has no relation to Columbanus); there are Latino-Irish hybrid litanies, as I’ve found. But a lot of Irish-Celtic-Insular Christian stuff is in the Latin language, despite Ireland and Scotland never really being politically Roman and Wales just barely.

If you read St Patrick’s Confession or the Life of St Columba by Adamnan (or Adamnan’s De Locis Sacris) — or the works of St Columbanus! — you’ll find a sense that these Insular church leaders saw themselves as part of a big Christian church that included the Isles, Gaul, and Rome.

Second, the Church in Gaul did not have a Late Antique or Early Mediaeval independence movement. They were certainly liturgically distinct, and they had their own monastic traditions, and so on and so forth. But they copied far too many papal letters in their canon law books, sought legitimacy from too many popes, and considered too many popes legitimate heads of the western Church to take ancient Gallicanism seriously as an independence movement. I’m sure someone has found a way to read the texts that will seem to prove me wrong. Have at me!

Nevertheless, liturgy before print and before Trent was never united. That’s almost the point of calling the English book of services the Book of Common Prayer. In the Early Middle Ages, it was even less completely united — the regularisation of canon law, biblical texts, monasticism, and liturgy of the Carolingians would work against such local trends, but it there was always a force for diversification in the Middle Ages. I’ve written before about this elusive quest for common prayer.

This is a very long preamble, but this is because most of us have far too many misconceptions about the Early Middle Ages and the mediaeval church. They may not have been as centrally organised as they are now, and they may have disputed just what it meant for the Bishop of Rome to hold primacy, but the Christians and Churches of western Europe saw themselves as structurally and organically united, and division and independence were problems for them.

Anyway, here’s some liturgical stuff from the Merovingians.

Around the year 700, someone put together a lectionary in Luxeuil, one of Columbanus’ monastic foundations. The readings recommended in that book for the Feast of the Ascension are Acts 1:1-11; Ephesians 4:1-13; John 13:33-35, 14:1-14; and Luke 24:49-53. Maybe use some of those in your devotions today or in this season of waiting betwixt today and Pentecost?

A much more significant liturgical product of the Merovingian world is the Bobbio Missal (Paris, BnF, lat. 13246). This manuscript was found in Bobbio Abbey — the monastery where Columbanus died — in the 1600s by Jean Mabillon. Mabillon dates it explicitly to the 600s; Rosamond McKitterick places it towards the end of that century or the turn of the next. It is of southern Gallic origin, and seems to represent some sort of ‘Gallican’ usage — certainly not Ambrosian, Mozarabic, or Roman.

On the feast of the Ascension, we encounter this in the Bobbio Missal (fol. 146v-147v):

O Lord, our God, you are wondrous in the highest—you ascended above the heavens of heavens for the raising of the trophy of your flesh between the service of the angels, you bore it when they rushed to your arrival in the power of heave—grant us something of the ascension in our hearts so that we may also follow you there with faith where we know that you reign at the right hand of the God the Father.

The Secret

The mystery (sacramentum) of the Lord’s Ascension — of our Lord Jesus Christ who, after he was called, ascended to the Father, in order to send the multiplied joys of our faith —  celebrates that he hinders for us the memories of his promise so that we may be worthy to run with joy in his second coming. [apologies for this translation]

Contestum

Truly Almighty God is, indeed, worthy though Christ our Lord who died for our sins and rose for our justification, who broke the bronze doors and iron locks with the bindings of destroyed hell, then rising from the dead, on the fortieth day, with all his disciples watching, he ascended to heaven because he himslef is our expectation whom we expect to come from the heavens to strengthen the body of our lowliness with the body of his glory.

So if you were a catholic Christian in southern Gaul in the 600s, and you turned up at Eucharist on Ascension Day, you would likely have heard those Bible passages read, and those prayers prayed!

The importance of preaching for reform from the Carolingians to us

Admonitio Generalis, Paris lat. 10758, fol. 50v

In 789, Charlemagne issued a General Admonition to the Frankish domains concerning a variety of aspects of church life and canon law. This text sets out the official, governmental impetus behind the Carolingian Renaissance. Driving this renaissance was a desire to see reform in the kingdom whereby people would live Christianly and virtuously, united in peace under the king.

Although this desire seems lost to the sands of time about a hundred years later, when Notker’s Life of Charlemagne portrays the king’s primary interest in church reform as being liturgical and conduct being tied primarily not to morality but to official church discipline, one of the core elements of Charlemagne’s proposed reform is preaching:

61. To all. Before all else, that the catholic faith is to be diligently taught and preached to all the people by the bishops and priests, because this is the first commandment of the Lord God almighty in the law: ‘Hear, O Israel, that the Lord your God is one God. And that He is to be loved with all your heart and with all your mind and with all your soul and with all your strength’ [Mark 12. 29-30: cf. Deut. 6. 4-5] (trans. P D King, Charlemagne: Translated Sources, p. 214)

In the final chapter (ch. 82) of the General Admonition, Charlemagne provides the content of the catholic faith which is to be preached, which is essentially an expanded creed with moral instruction. The text ends:

… let us prepare ourselves withall our heart in knowledge of the truth, that we may be able to resist those who oppose the truth and that, by the gift of divine grace, the word of God may flourish and become general spread, to the benefit of God’s holy church and the salvation of our souls and the praise and glory of the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Peace to those who preach, grace to those who obey, glory to our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen. (King, Charlemagne: Translated Sources, 220)

I am fully aware that there is much debate about reform in the Middle Ages and what it means, but it strikes me that the preaching of the catholic faith and the word of God has always been central to the activity of reforming the church. In the Carolingian world, even if St Boniface (d. 754, saint of the week here) may have exaggerated or misconstrued things in some of his letters from the years prior to Charlemagne, Christianity did not always go very deep. Rosamond McKitterick writes:

In a society half barbarous, with pagan customs still happily observed (especially among the country folk), with only a veneer of Christianity, and largely isolated pockets of scholarship, every reiteration of the urgency of being educated in the Christian faith, of inculcating and absorbing the wisdom of the church fathers, assumes an enormous importance. (The Frankish Church and the Carolingian Reforms, 789-895, 8)

To jump ahead four hundred years, preaching was central to the mission of the Dominicans and Franciscans at a time when lay knowledge of the faith all claimed to know was at an alarming low and when the powerful trod upon the weak and ecclesiastics were becoming great men of the world. The Gospel was taken by the friars from the pulpits to the streets.

In the Reformation, preaching again took centre stage. The sermon, ever an aspect of the Mass, was lifted back to a place of prominence, and the Scriptures were opened up yet again to a biblically illiterate laity. In England, Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer integrated preaching into the daily office as well as lengthening the lessons at Morning and Evening Prayer. Many of the Reformed rebuilt their churches with pulpits at the centre and would have preaching events every morning before the faithful went to work.

In the 1700s, the Wesley brothers, like the mediaeval friars, once again took the Gospel from the pulpits to the crowds, and pioneered open-air preaching to the working classes, revitalising the life of the Church of England while at the same time starting the Methodist movement.

Today, if we wish to see the church change itself and the world, preaching will still be central. Preachers will set forth the Gospel from their pulpits, from their podcasts, from their YouTube channels.  Open-air? Not so sure. But what I do know is that powerful preaching can transform the faithful who can transform the world. Let us all pray for our ministers as they take in hand that task each Sunday morning.