An Englishman’s View of Rome in the 16th Century

Thanks to the generosity of one of our loyal readers, we here provide an excerpt from Roma Sancta, an account of the Eternal City written in 1581 by Gregory Martin, S. J., the chief translator of the Douay-Rheims version of the Bible. 

Chapter 20: The Service of God in the Churches Manie Wayes, and the Peoples Devotion, and First of Masses.

Gregory Martin, S. J.

No man sayeth masse, but first allowed by a grave and worshipful priest; who fynding him meete and skilful in al comely ceremonies after the Romane fashion, commendeth him to an higher Officer; who geveth him leave for sixe monthes, and after for other sixe monethes, or more, or without limitation when he is once growen in credit, and that by subscribing his hand to printed paper for that purpose. Which testimonie, if he shewe, or if he be wel knowen otherwise, then (and not otherwise) shal he be admitted to say masse in any place in Rome or in the teritorie therof, wheresoever his devotion serveth. And this is generally and exactely observed toward al straungers, for as for the Romanes them selves that are made priests, they learne the Ceremonies even from children, by nature, custome, and Tradition, in such comely maner, with such reverence and maiestie, that herein (no doubt) Italie excelleth, and Rome especially, as most exactly observing at this very day the grave sinceritie of the old primitive Church. And thus much of the uniformitie and reverent comlinesse.

See now the provision that is there, for al that in this order can and are disposed to say Masse. for example at S. Peters, thou shalt have in the vesterie (verie fayre and large) from early morning until noone, upon a long table, so many Chalices with al their furniture, these many fayre albes with their vestimentes of whatsoever colour thou wouldest, according as masse requireth which thou meanest to say, for martyrs, red; for virgins and Confessors, white; for Diriges, blacke, whearof I wil say more in an other place. There is the cheefe Sacristane or master of the vesterie ready in his surples attending, and under him a number of pretie boys in gownes and surplises, most ready and diligent to attend upon thee. And the first question is, At what aultar thou wilt say, and what masse, and then wil they appoynt thee a vestment accordingly: and if thy aultar be voyd, thou shalt goe at thy pleasure: if not, either stay til he come in that is there before thee, or take an other. but the Privileges of some aultars ar such, namely of the Seven altars, or in other Churches of five Aultars, and the Relikes and bodies of Saintes adde such devotion and religion to other Aultars, namely S. Andrewes, where S. Gregorie the Doctors body is underneath, and S. Andrewes head above: that among so many as come daylie out of al Rome to celebrate in such places, a man some time must stay a good while, and yet the Canons them selves of purpose geve them to straungers, of charitie yelding to other mens devotion.

Now then, when thou art to be revested, there is water and towel for thy handes, a place to lay thy uppoer gowne, (for the under Cassock is downe to the foote,) a chappel to knele in before if it please thee, a body in gowne and surples ready to revest thee, and that done, he taketh the booke, and the Crewettes with wine and water alwaies new and fresh for every Masse, two tapers (for they never use under two,) and so goeth before thee, and thou in modest and solemne maner folowest, thy left hand holding the Chalice, and thy right upon the patent and burse to stay it, thy cappe on thy head, unles thou come before the B. sacrament, then Cap of and one knee to the ground. Now concerning the people, they are there continually expecting the beginning of some masse, that they may heare the whole, and as sone as the boy hath sounded the litle bel that hangeth in the way betwene the vestrie and the Churche, they goe flocking by and by round about the priest, attending upon him unto the aultar, and there kneeling with him, bowing with him, blessing with him, answering him, lifting up their hartes with his prayers and ceremonies, and wholy occupied in harkening to him, and onely attent to the holy mysteries and blessed wordes of the masse, so that they never use booke at that time: and at the Gospel, every man goeth up as neere as he can to the aultar, and afterward returneth to his place agayne as doing a special honour unto it, and desirous to heare it, and in al their behaviour there is such comelinesse, and such silence, that neither in gesture nor voyce is there any thing to offend any man, but to edifie excedingly and to please a straunger wonderfully. only this thou shalt heare verie often, devoute persons by aboundance of good and vehement spiritual motions, breake out eftsones into sighinges and groninges, to see the blessed Sacrament, to heare the passion of Christ, to behold his agonies, and the cruel martyrdomes of his servauntes; upon occasion of such meditations, the mouth sodenly sounded the inward conceite of the hart. And having thus heard masse to the very end, every one saluteth each other, which is solemly observed, and so they that wil, depart.

But in the meane time there ar commonly so many masses, as there be aultars in the body of the Church, which is ful of them according to the custome there, and they are built everie way, North, South, East and west, and in no place so commodiousely for the sight of the people standing round about, and very neere, and yet every one so inant. As I have for example sake spoken of S. Peters, so is it in other Churches in their degree. And in al places where a mans devotion would move him to say masse, there is al provision for him without al difficultie, only in some Chappels and aultars more desolate but of singular reverence and devotion, a man must have his minister or assistant with him.

And thus farre of masses in general, for as concerning the daily masses of al the Religious houses, of al Cathedral Churches, of Confraternities, of Hospitals, of foren nations, either never ceasing from houre to houre for the peoples commoditie, or insituted to special good purposes, as, for al such dead as otherwise have no frendes to care for them, for them that are executed by justice, for labourers that are to worke al day and would heere mass before early in the morning, for these and other godly and charitable respectes, These Masses I say being infinite, the Reader partly of these few wordes may conceave what might be sayd and partly I shal speake somewhat more of them in their places, hearafter. 

One thought on “An Englishman’s View of Rome in the 16th Century

  1. “answering him” What is to be understood by this? That they would say the replies as is the norm in a Sung or High Mass?

    ” only this thou shalt heare verie often, devoute persons by aboundance of good and vehement spiritual motions, breake out eftsones into sighinges and groninges, to see the blessed Sacrament, to heare the passion of Christ, to behold his agonies, and the cruel martyrdomes of his servauntes; upon occasion of such meditations, the mouth sodenly sounded the inward conceite of the hart.”
    I often times joke that Masses back in the day were quite “charismatic”, with people breaking out in tears or sighs, etc., as they were moved during the services. This seems to confirm a bit my intuition.

    Liked by 1 person

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