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Mass and Parish in Late Medieval England: The Use of York

02 November 2006


Spire Books £24.95 (1-904965-02-4); Church Times Bookshop £22.45

Revival of a long-ago rite: David Stancliffe enjoys a historians' view of the Use of York

This is a book of the talks given at a day conference before a recon-struction of a requiem according to the Use of York was celebrated in All Saints', North Street. The talks were given by members of the Centre for Medieval Studies at York University, who are enthusiasts for their subject; and they were designed to make the liturgy come alive.

The text of the requiem, complete with its rubrics in red, is set out with an English translation in parallel columns. Some of the translation is unexpected, and does not always use the familiar English phrases, but it is pretty literal, to aid those who are coming fresh to the Latin. Where the rubrics seem too sparse to give an idea of what is going on, the compilers have added rubrics - clearly indicated - from the Sarum Rite; they have also left in - in the Latin text - their English stage directions to the ministers.

This is all sensible stuff for those who know little about how mass was celebrated in the late medieval period, and want to get a general idea. Alongside woodcuts (which reproduce well) from Percy Dearmer's edition of Dat Boexken van der Missen (originally published in Antwerp in 1507), there are photographs of the reconstructed rite, in rather dark tones.

The opening talks vary in quality. There is interesting local history in the chapters on "The Mass in its Urban Setting", "A York Priest and his Parish: Thomas Worrall at St Michael's, Spurriergate", and a concise and well-presented piece on compositional techniques in 15th-century music in York.

The section on the ornaments of the altar and the ministers is heavily dependent on Francis Bond and Dearmer, who both wrote in the early years of the 20th century, and the author does not sound really familiar with the history of vestments.

The same lack of familiarity with nuanced theological and liturgical language is true of the introductory section: "the consecration when the bread and wine were turned into the body of Christ" is an inadequate description of the heart of the mass. And is it really true that the front hangings of the ciborium over the altar were abandoned only after the elevation had become central to the rite? Were "matins and evensong" the other obligatory Sunday services in the late Middle Ages?

But these are historians, trying to give a broad-brush picture of the beliefs and practices of the late-medieval inhabitants of York for their successors who live in an unimaginably different world. The speakers clearly captivated their audience, who will be grateful to have a record of the day. And a publication such as this reminds us that very little is available, in accessible terms, on how the medieval liturgies of the British Isles were celebrated, and what impact they made on worshippers. We can be grateful to the team that produced it.

Dr Stancliffe is Bishop of Salisbury. The book is available from Spire Books, P. O. Box 2336, Reading
RG4 5WJ; 0118 947 1525.

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