Mysterium Mysteriorum: How the Ambrosian Rite Survived Charlemagne

ambrogio
The frontispiece for an edition of the Ambrosian Missal published in 1640.

We have previously seen how hardily if unsuccessfully the Castilians of Burgos defended their traditional Mozarabic rite against the efforts of King Alphonse VI, backed by Pope St Gregory VII, to impose the Roman rite. It is particularly interesting that the chronicles report that God’s judgement on the Mozarabic and Roman missals was invoked by subjecting them to a trial by fire, from which the former emerged unscathed whilst the latter burned. As we saw a fortnight ago in M. Henri de Villiers’ article on the Ambrosian rite, a similar event took place in 9th-century Milan, as recounted by Landulf in his Historia Mediolanensis.

Continuing the policy begun by his father Pippin, the Blessed Charlemagne attempted to establish liturgical unity in his kingdoms by imposing the Roman rite throughout, to the detriment of the Gallican and Ambrosian rites. The Gallican rite was indeed suppressed (although several of its elements merged into the Roman rite), but the people of Milan successfully defended their indigenous rite, and it has survived till the present day.

Landulf asserts that the survival of the Ambrosian rite was due to a test the conflicting missals were made to undergo, whence the Ambrosian book emerged with divine approbation. Later writers, such as Durandus, repeat his account.

Landulf’s history was written around 1080, when Milan was racked by the often violent conflict between the reformist pataria, backed by the papacy, and its opponents, who saw themselves as the defenders of the traditions bequeathed to Milan by St Ambrose. Landulf himself was a married priest who claimed clerical marriage was one of these ancient Milanese customs. In terms of the liturgy, the reformist popes who backed the pataria, such as Nicholas II, were also those who most forcefully attempted to impose the Roman rite on all the West, and the anti-patarini obviously became the great advocates of the Ambrosian rite. Since Landulf’s objective in writing his Historia is largely to defend what he considered to be Ambrosian traditions against Roman claims, some have cast doubt upon the veracity of his account of the events described here. Ludovico Antonio Muratori, in his Antiquitates italicæ, accuses Landulf of being prone to writing fables (pronus in fabulas) and specifically questions the story about how the Ambrosian rite survived Charlemagne’s persecution, although he grants it must have some grounds in truth, given Charlemagne’s known efforts to create liturgical uniformity in the Empire. Anton Baumstark suggests the story was circulated by Landulf in response to the efforts by Nicholas II to impose the Roman rite on Milan in 1060.

Nevertheless, as M. de Villiers points out in his article, the fact remains that no records of the Ambrosian rite before the age of Charlemagne survive (except for the remains of a 7th century Ambrosian libellus missarum preserved in a palimpsest from the monastery of St Gall), and Landulf’s account furnishes an explanation thereof which, although dramatic in expression, is not lacking in overall verisimilitude:

 



ecc81ginhard_vita_caroli_magni_imperatoris-lettrine_v_historiecc81e_charlemagne_assisDURING the first years of Charles’s reign, when he was in Rome surrounded by magnificent and innumerable army of knights of the Empire, and Hadrian sat as pope, an immense synod was held with many bishops from all parts of the globe. During it, when they had discussed many and sundry matters, they unwisely set themselves against the holy rite (
mysterium) of God and the blessed doctor and confessor Ambrose, scarcely or not at all recalling with what reverence and what love the blessed Gregory was once united by affection to the Ambrosian church. And so, as if blinded and demented, and bereft of any judgement, they sought to mar, as it were, and to darken, and, what’s more, to altogether destroy what was illustrious and for a long time stable and hallowed.

Charles, therefore, having informed by a number of bishops, set out throughout the whole Latin land to entirely destroy whatever he might come upon that was different from the Roman use in chant or the divine ministry, and bring it to unity with the Roman rite (mysterium). And so it was done: the Emperor went to Milan and laid waste to Pavia, which he loathed with unquenchable wrath on account of his enemy the Emperor Desiderius, whom the knights of Pavia had manfully defended against Charles with arms and wit. Then all the books marked with the Ambrosian label which he could grab ahold of by purchase or gift or force he either burned or took with him across the mountains as if into exile. But pious men, seeing so many such books, piously preserved them. Yet God, who sees and knows all things, and foreknows to investigate the hidden things of men’s hearts and open up souls and foresees the intentions of all, did not suffer what He had recognized as ordained by the Holy Ghost and drawn up by the bishop Saint Ambrose to the praise and honour of His name to be violated and torn apart by evil men.

pope_adrian_i_illustrationHowever, Eugenius of glorious memory, a bishop over the mountains, a lover and as it were the father of the Ambrosian rite [mysterium] as well as its protector, and Charles’s spiritual father, set out to Rome, and found that the Apostolic Lord Hadrian, who was the first to give the rings and staves to Charles for episcopal investiture, had already been holding council for three days. He investigated all that had been done diligently and in order, for he was a sensible man, judicious in prudence and wisdom, mild of soul, serene of countenance, affable in teaching and words; and, as his dignity demanded, kinder than all, what seemed to him worthy of praise, he duly ratified. In the end, he wrenched out of them as if by force in what way or manner the synod had adjuged the Ambrosian rite (mysterium). When Eugenius heard their account, much frightened and grieved, calling himself a wretch with a tearful voice, with tears flowing from his eyes like water, he said:

“O woe is me, what will I do? The world and its judge have died: the all the world’s teaching, all that hinders the vanities of this life has passed away! The beauty of the entire Church, Latin as well as Greek, is darkened! The good, the just, and the holy are cast away! The column of the Church, the foundation of the faith, the champion of justice, the lover of the word of God is brought low! A brilliant doctor, renowned for his experience in all the arts, has been crushed! A most excellent rite [mysterium mysteriorum] has perished, on which Gregory, as the Lord and Most Reverend Pope, never dared to lay a finger, and from which Gregory, as teacher and doctor, devotedly drew so many wonderful and brilliant flowers and added them to the Roman rite [mysterio], where they remain to this very day.” 

He recovered his spirit and energy, and then, backed by a papal order and the wishes of the majority of the Roman nobility and people, he recalled all the bishops, archbishops, abbots, religious, laymen and clergy who had been at the council to the court of the Supreme Pontiff, though they had departed Rome already three days before. When they had been assembled, the holy bishop Eugenius advocated at length in favor of the Ambrosian rite [mysterio], to which they had given such short shrift. Having heard him out, the foreign clergy recognized that he was an upright man and lover of justice, and began to wonder and feel ashamed. Need I say more? The Apostolic Lord, all the bishops, the whole clergy and the entire Roman people clamoured and insisted that both the Ambrosian book and the book of blessed Gregory should be placed upon the altar of blessed Peter by the religious, clearly sealed with the apostolic signet. Then all the doors of the Church should also be firmly sealed, and a three-day fast proclaimed, during which all from the youngest to the oldest should fast with fervent devotion. Then whichever book they should find open and unsealed by God’s grace they would hold fast to with unshaken devotion; and whichever they found unmoved and sealed they would burn, having been given the clearest possible permission.

And so it was done: after all the bishops and the entire clergy and people of Rome had observed the fast, on the third day, on Tuesday of that week on which the Ambrosians devoutly sing Misericordia Domini plena est terra [The earth is full of the mercy of the Lord] even to this day1, when all had come together for the unseen and unheard of miracle, in the presence of the Apostolic Lord the doors of the church were unsealed and opened of their own accord. When everyone had entered, they found both books as they had left them, sealed and altogether intact. Having seen this, whilst everyone marvelled and was astounded and groaned exceedingly, the books, breaking their ties by themselves, gave forth a great and frightful noise in the hearing of all, and opening themselves up by God’s finger, they were both opened so that one could not find a further page in one part more than the other.

Immediately everyone felt a great joy and burst out in tears. Meanwhile, having seen how both books appeared opened, all cried out as if with one voice, saying: “Let the Gregorian and Ambrosian rites [mysterium] be praised by the universal Church, confirmed and preserved entirely.” For they said, “It is determined that the will of almighty God and blessed Peter the Apostle is that these rites [mysteria] may be praised and steadfastly maintained by all the bishops of the globe.” Although to some these words seemed to be good, to others however they were difficult and very hard. Finally, it was highly commended by the Lord Pope and the other wise and discerning men that the Ambrosian see remain content with that rite [mysterio] alone by which she was ordered and exalted by blessed Ambrose, and that the rest of the globe that resounds with the Latin tongue should strive to keep the Gregorian rite diligently and carefully, to the exclusion of any other.

After all these things were over and done, Eugenius, exulting with great joy, reached Milan as if going to see his own children. In that city, a few days earlier, the Emperor, by order of the council that took place in Rome, wishing to wipe out the Ambrosian rite entirely from the face of the earth, had butchered many clerics in minor and major orders and eliminated all the Ambrosian books, which had been established according to Ambrose with respect to passages of the New and Old Testament as well as to the musical arts. Nothing indeed remained except for a missal, which a certain good and faithful priest had hidden and faithfully preserved for six weeks in the caverns of the mountains. Afterwards, however, with the aid of the most faithful bishop Eugenius, those wise priests and clerics who remembered much of the rite came together and, with God’s help, handed over to posterity what they had once come upon entire.

steugenio
According to Milanese tradition, the Gaulish bishop St Eugenius (his see is unknown) tarried in Milan after ensuring the survival of the Ambrosian rite and died there. His body was eventually transferred to the Basilica of Sant’Eustorgio, where it remains to-day. His feast is commemorated in the Ambrosian rite on 30 December. This mediæval statue, now in the basilica’s museum, was originally next to the altar where his remains rest. An 18th century inscription referring to this statue calls St Eugenius rituum Ecclesiæ Mediolanensis mirificus propugnator.

Karuli primi tempore, cum idem apud Romam imperii magnifice et inenarrabili militum exercitu stipatus frueretur, et papa resideret Adrianus, synodus inmensa multis diversarum terrarum episcopis congregatis celebrata est, in qua cum de multis atque diversis tractassent negotiis, indiscrete erga mysterium Dei et beati doctoris et confessoris Ambrosii sese intulerunt, parum aut nichil quantae reverentiae quantique amoris beatus Gregorius olim ecclesiae Ambrosianae per affectum contulisset, reminiscentes; propterea quasi caecati et ementati, et absque ullo iudicio, quod inclytum et per multa tempora firmum atque sancitum, quodammodo decolorare et obnubilare, et plus dicam, omnino delere aggressi sunt.

Edoctus itaque Karolus imperator a quampluribus episcopis, ut per totam linguam proficisceretur Latinam, et quicquid diversum in cantu et ministerio divino inveniret a Romano, totum deleret, et ad unitatem mysterii Romani uniret. Unde factum est, veniens imperator Mediolanum, devastata Papia quam ipse ira inextinguibili ob imperatorem Desiderium suum haemulum oderat, quem milites Papiae contra Carlonis imperium viriliter armis et ingenio tutaverant, omnes libros Ambrosiano titulo sigillatos, quos vel pretio vel dono vel vi habere potuit, alios comburens, alios trans montes quasi in exilio secum detulit. Sed religiosi viri tales et tantos libros videntes, religiose tenuerunt. At Deus qui omnia videt cunctaque cognoscit, et cordium occulta investigare et aperire praenovit animos et intentionem cunctorum praevidens, quod ad laudem et honorem nominis sui per Spiritum sanctum sancto Ambrosio episcopo dictante ordinatum noverat, violari aut a malis dilacerari non passus est.

Proficiscens autem gloriosae memoriae Eugenius transmontanus episcopus, amator et quasi pater Ambrosiani mysterii nec non et protector, pater spiritualis Karlonis, causa concilii Romam, invenit apostolicum Adrianum, qui primus annulos et virgas ad investiendum episcopatus Karloni donavit, iam per tres dies celebrasse concilium. Qui studiose omnia, ut gesta erant, per ordinem inquirens, prout erat vir discretus, conscilio ac sapientia providus, animo placidus, vultu serenus, doctrina et verbis affabilis, atque ut eius dignitas exposcebat, ultra omnes benignus, quod dignum laude esse sibi videbatur, competenter affirmabat: tandem qualiter aut quomodo super mysterium Ambrosianum sese synodus habuisset, quasi vi ab illis extorsit. Quod ubi Eugenius audivit, plurimum expavescens condoluit, et voce lacrimabili miserum se vocans, lacrimis velut aqua ab oculis decurrentibus inquit:

« O miser, quid agam? mundus et eius iudex periit; orbis doctrina, cuncta huius vitae quae vanitates sunt obfuscans, elabitur. Decus totius ecclesiae tam Latinae quam Graecae obnubilatur, bonum, iustum, sanctum eliminatur. Columpna ecclesiae, fundamentum fidei, assertor iusticiae, verbi Dei amator deprimitur. Doctor egregius omnium artium peritia imbutus disternitur, mysterium perit mysteriorum, de quo domnus et reverentissimus papa Gregorius aliquid sinistrum proferre timuit, de quo quanta et quam magna quasi lucidissimos flores beatus magister et doctor Gregorius curiose attrahens Romanoque mysterio interserens usque hodie adiunxit. »

Spiritu demum animoque resumpto, iussu papae et magna nobilium parte Romanorum cum plebis simul voluntate laudante, omnes episcopos, archiepiscopos, abbates, quoscunque religiosos, laicos et clericos, quos concilio interfuisse cognovit, quamvis per tres dies recessissent a Roma, ad curiam summi pontificis revocavit. Quibus congregatis beatus Eugenius episcopus de mysterio Ambrosiano voce benigna, unde incomposite tractaverant, multum conquestus est. Quo audito, extranei clerici cognoscentes virum valde probum iustitiaeque amatorem, partim satis mirari ac verecundari coeperunt. Quid multa? Ab apostolico et universis episcopis et a toto clero ab universoque populo Romano conclamatum et conlaudatum est ut librum Ambrosianum et beati Gregorii librum ambos super beati Petri altare optime sigillatos, videlicet evidentissime apostolico sigillo signatos, viri religiosi supponerent; quin etiam omnibus hostiis ecclesiae apertissime sigillatis, indito ieiunio per tres dies cuncti a minimo usque ad maximum devote ieiunarent; et sic Deo propitio, quemcunque apertum et reseratum invenirent, illum summa cum devotione et indubitanter tenerent; et quemcunque immotum ac sigillatum reperissent, illum evidentissima dispensatione comburerent.

Quod factum est, ieiunio ab episcopis omnibus et universo clero et populo Romano celebrato, in tertia die tertiae feriae illius hebdomadae, in qua Ambrosiani « Misericordia Domini plena est terra » usque hodie devote cantant, in unum universis convenientibus ad invisum et inauditum miraculum, ecclesiae ianuae stante apostolico reseratae et ultro apertae sunt. Quibus introgressis, ambos libros ut dimiserant sigillatos et omnino intactos invenerunt. Quo viso cunctis mirantibus valdeque obstupescentibus nimiumque congemescentibus, libri ligaturas per se rumpentes, sonum magnum atque terribilem audientibus universis, dederunt, et sese digito Dei aperientes, ita ambo aperti sunt, ut aliquis unam illorum foliam non inveniret plus in unam partem quam in alteram.

Itaque ingens gaudium omnes abruptis lacrimis illico invasit. Interea libris ambobus visis, qualiter aperti apparuerunt, omnes quasi una voce proclamabant dicentes: « Gregorianum et Ambrosianum misterium ab universa ecclesia laudetur confirmetur simulque ex toto teneatur. » Dicebant enim: « Ut haec mysteria laudentur firmiterque ab universis totius orbis episcopis teneantur, Dei omnipotentis et beati Petri apostoli cernitur esse voluntas. » At quibusdam hoc verbum videbatur fore bonum, quibusdam vero difficile atque durissimum. Tandem domini papae et aliorum sapientium atque discretorum virorum collaudatum est ut sedes Ambrosiana, in quo mysterio ordinata et a beato Ambrosio exaltata est, illo solo contenta permaneat, nec non cetera pars orbis, quae linguae Latinae vocibus resonare videtur, omnibus aliis praetermissis, Gregorianum studiose et curiose tenere studeat.

His omnibus rebus factis, finitis et terminatis, Eugenius gaudio magno tripudians, quasi ad proprios filios tendens Mediolanum pervenit. De qua urbe paucis antea transactis diebus imperator iussu concilii quo Romae interfuit, omne mysterium Ambrosianum desuper faciem terrae omnino delere desiderans, trucidatis multis clericis minorum et maiorum ordinum, omnes Ambrosianos libros, tam in sententiis novi quam veteris testamenti quam in musica arte secundum Ambrosium descriptos, abrasit. Nichil enim praeter missale remansit, quod quidam bonus atque fidelis sacerdos absconsus in cavernis montium per sex ebdomadas fideliter reservavit. Manualem autem postea astante Eugenio episcop[o] fidelissim[o], sapientes tam sacerdotum quam clericorum, qui multa memoriter tenebant, convenientes in unum, Deo opitulante, ut antea integer fuit invenientes, in posteris tradiderunt.

Notes

1. I.e. on the Tuesday following the Second Sunday after Easter.

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