Myths and Facts about the Offertory: Part 2

The Consilium sets out to work.

Previously we outlined some of the missteps that led 20th century scholars down the path toward reconstructing a popular offertory procession with no historical precedent in the Roman Rite. Today we present more recent research, especially by Joseph Dyer, which has upturned both the notion of a primitive Offertory procession and the idea that the Offertory chant was originally antiphonal.

Evidence from Tertullian and St Cyprian of Carthage shows that the faithful were expected to make offerings for the celebration of the Eucharist by the third century in north Africa, but the evidence does not permit one to extrapolate the conclusion that these gifts were ritually presented during the course of the liturgy by the laity. Instead, the Coptic, Arabic, Abyssinian, and Latin versions of the Apostolic Tradition, one of the best surviving witnesses of the pre-Constantinian liturgy, all agree that it was the deacons who presented the offerings to the bishop[1], which perfectly befits the ancient understanding of deacons as the bishop’s liturgical stewards[2]. The Syriac version going under the name Testamentum Domini suggests that the laity left their offerings in some sort of side-room before the Eucharistic celebration began.

St. Clement (Maniple, offertory)
11th century fresco from San Clemente in Rome. Notice the small children offering crown-shaped oblations.

After the reign of Constantine, in north Africa in particular, the custom did eventually arise of laymen bringing their offerings up to the altar during the celebration itself. St Augustine attests to it, as do other contemporary sources, and excavations of certain African basilicas from before the sixth century show that the altar was placed near the middle of the nave, facilitating the laity’s access thereto. But this custom was peculiar to Africa: in the Eastern and Gallican liturgies, the gifts continued to be brought up by clerics, following the Apostolic Tradition, and there is no evidence of lay participation in them.

When it comes to the Roman rite, the earliest detailed description of the liturgical celebration is furnished by the Ordo Romanus I, which dates to the end of the 7th or the beginning of the 8th century and describes the Roman Papal Mass prior to the hybridization with Frankish rites that resulted from the Carolingian reforms. When it comes to the Offertory, the Ordo reads:

The Pontiff, after he says Oremus, immediately goes down to the senatorium[3], while the primicerius notariorum holds his right hand and the primicerius defensorum his left, and he receives the offerings of the noblemen by order of rank. […] Before crossing towards the women’s section, the Pontiff goes down before the confessio and receives the offerings of the primicerius and secundicerius and primicerius defensorum, for on feasts they make their offering for the altar after the deacons. Likewise, the Pontiff goes up to the women’s section and follows the abovementioned order[4].

There is no Offertory procession of any sort: the Pope himself descends from the presbyterium to receive the gifts from representatives of the Roman nobility. That the Ordo does not mention the ordinary laity at all here is important, because it does when describing the communion.

The Roman rite was imported by Blessed Charlemagne into the Frankish lands, where the local Gallican rite did include a clerical offertory procession. Eventually, the laity began to participate in this procession as well. In the first half of the 9th century, Amalarius of Metz describes an offertory procession where gifts were first brought up by the laymen, then by the laywomen, and finally by the clergy. This order is confirmed by the Ordo Romanus V, which dates to the later 9th century, and adds that the schola sang during this procession.

Thenceforth a plethora of sources confirm the existence of lay Offertory procession north of the Alps, and it is the object of edifying exegesis by the great mediæval liturgical commentators. It was widespread until the waning of the Middle Ages, although vestiges thereof survived in parts of France and Germany into the 19th century.[5]However, this procession was not part of the primitive liturgy of Rome. Had it not commended itself so well to the prejudices of 20th century liturgical scholarship, perhaps it would have been contemned as a Frankish mediæval “accretion” to the noble simplicity of the primitive Roman rite, rather than been the subject of so many liturgical daydreams that came true in 1970 with the promulgation of the new Mass.

The case of the ornate Offertory verses is the opposite. They were long assumed to be late compositions. Apel believes he can “safely assign them to the second half of the ninth century, or perhaps, in their final form, even to the early tenth century”[6]. Their complexity obviously made them impossible for congregations to sing, and this might explain why there they saw no general revival in the 20th century. More recent scholarship, however, has shown there is no reason to assume they were composed any later than the other propers of the Mass.

The first mention of the Offertory chant is often taken to be a comment by St Augustine in his Liber retractationum, which mentions a custom that had recently arisen in Carthage of singing “hymns from the book of Psalms either before the oblationem, or while what was offered was distributed to the people”, a practice opposed by a certain layman named Hilarius, against whom St Augustine wrote a book, now lost[7]. This bibliographical passage has been thoroughly abused to draw all manner of conclusions. Jungmann unaccountably concludes that the Offertory chant was introduced through Augustine’s own efforts, and Apel takes it as certain evidence for the antiphonal origin of the Offertory, like the Introit and Communion. As Dyer explains, however, the word oblatio might well refer to the entire Eucharistic liturgy rather than to the offertory specifically, in which case Hilarius might have been complaining against the Introit. In fact, the Liber pontificalis claims that Pope St Celestine I introduced the singing of the Introit at about this very time period. But even if Augustine is referring to the offertory, he is nevertheless clear that this objectionable psalm-singing occurs before it. Dyer plausibly suggests Hilarius was criticizing the introduction in Carthage of a rite akin to the Byzantine Great Entrance; in fact the Byzantine Great Entrance chant was the subject of criticism in the sixth century because some alleged it seemed to refer to the unconsecrated bread and wine in terms appropriate only after the consecration.[8]

There is actual evidence of singing during the Offertory rites in the Byzantine rite by the fifth century and the Gallican rite by the sixth, but the Ordo Romanus Primusis again the earliest reference thereof in the Roman rite. None of the early Roman ordines refer to the Offertory chant as an antiphon; the term only appears in late mediæval and Renaissance books written after the Offertory verses were no longer sung[9]. The Ordo XV is particularly concerned about the correct interpretation of antiphonal psalmody in the Introit and Communion, and describes it in detail, but does not state that this description applies also to the Offertory.

Marginalia (music)
“Belt it out boys, the pesky people are starting to participate again!”

The earliest sources containing the text, but not the music, of the propers of the Mass are the Antiphoners of Mt Blandin (8th-9th c.), Compiègne (9th c.), and Senlis (between 877 and 882). They all contain the same Offertory verses which in later manuscripts with musical notation are set to ornate music. As already mentioned, these verses are free compositions sometimes based on psalms but which draw from other sources as well. They often feature the repetition of words or phrases, a fact already noted by Amalarius in the 8th century in his commentary on the Offertory Vir erat. It is extremely difficult to believe that these verses were ever sung to standard ‘offertory tones’ like the ones for the Introit, Communion, or Mattins responsories. As Dyer states, “The conclusion is inescapable that Amalarius [and the authors of the antiphoners] was familiar with offertories with few, relatively florid verses with the flexibility to handle a subjective treatment of the text”[10].

One final argument defenders of the antiphonal origin of the Offertory chant might proffer are the statements in Aurelianus’ Musica disciplina which seem to reference offertory tones like the ones for the Introit, Communion, and Mattins responsories; it is this very text that Apel adduced to date these verses to the 9th or even 10th century. Aurelianus’ use of the term “tone” is problematic, however, and Dyer convincingly argues he means the final of a musical piece, which allows it to be classified into modes, rather than a “psalmodic formula” to sing verses. In any case, no other source attests to the existence of Offertory psalm tones.

There is no reason, then, to believe that the Offertory was originally an antiphonal chant like the Introit or Communion that suffered a sudden mutation, nor that the ornate Offertory verses are late Frankish insertions into the Roman rite. They almost certainly pre-date the introduction of a long Offertory procession, and one must therefore search for an explanation of their length and ornamentation elsewhere. As the florid melodies of the Gradual, Alleluia, and Tract prepare the soul of the worshipper for the climax of the liturgy of the catechumens— the singing of the Gospel—so the even more florid Offertory elevates the soul before the apotheosis of the liturgy of the faithful, and indeed of the entire Mass—the Consecration itself.

The tale of the Offertory responsory is ultimately a cautionary one. Ideological prejudice led scholars to incorrectly date the introduction of the Offertory procession of the laity in the Roman rite, and that in turn led them to assume the Offertory chant was originally something it was not. This led the magnificent Offertory verses to be deprecated as late insertions into the rite, and they were consequently ignored by reformers who otherwise eagerly pushed for the restoration of “authentic” elements of the Roman rite. And thus even to-day the faithful are still largely deprived of one of the jewels of the repertoire of Western chant.

Jaws of Hell


[1]E.g., in the Verona palimpsest, Illi [the bishop]vero offerant diacones oblationem, quique imponens manus in earn cum omni prebyterio dicat gratias agens : Dominus vobiscum.

[2]Fr Hunwicke has written an illuminating series on this: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5.

[3]An area to the right side of the altar reserved for men of high rank. The pars mulierum is likely the equivalent for high ranking ladies, on the left side.

[4]Pontifex autem, postquam dicit Oremus, statim descendit ad senatorium, tenente manum eius dexteram primicerio notariorum et primicerio defensorum sinistram, et suscipit oblationes principum per ordinem archium. […] Pontifex vero, antequam transeat in partem mulierum, descendit ante confessionem et suscipit oblatas primicerii et secundicerii et primicerii defensorum; nam in diebus festis post diacones ad altare offerunt. Similiter ascendens pontifex in parte feminanim et complet superscriptum ordinem.

[5]See the footnotes in Jungmann, Missarum Solemnia, Vol. II, 22-23.

[6]Apel, op. cit., p. 513

[7]Inter haec Hilarus quidam vir tribunitius, laicus catholicus, nescio unde adversus Dei ministros, ut fieri assolet, irritatus, morem qui tunc esse apud Carthaginem coeperat ut hymni ad altare dicerentur de psalmorum libro, sive ante oblationem, sive cum distribueretur populo quod fuisset oblatum, maledica reprekensione, ubicumque poterat, lacerabat, asserens fieri non oportere. Huic respondi, jubentibus fratribus, et vocatur liber Contra Hilarum.

[8]Dyer, “Augustine and the Hymni ante oblationem: The Earliest Offertory Chants?”

[9]The Roman Missal referred to it simply as “Offertorium” until 1962, probably under the influence of contemporary scholarship, when it was labelled “Ant. ad Offertorium”.

[10]Dyer, “The Offertory Chant of the Roman Liturgy and its Musical Form”.

2 thoughts on “Myths and Facts about the Offertory: Part 2

  1. The most recent synthesis of academic work on the Offertory is Maloy’s “Inside the Offertory”, which also includes a transcription/critical edition of the core Gregorian and Old Roman repertoire (ninety-odd Offertories in all).

    Liked by 1 person

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