Sundry Remarks on the History of the Office of the Dead

From a Flemish Book of Hours

In the Tridentine liturgical books, as in most of the mediæval rites that preceded their promulgation, 2 November was liturgically the second day in the Octave of All Saints. The commemoration of the faithful departed was, as it were, a supplement to the day within the Octave, consisting in an obligation of saying the Office of the Dead in addition to the office of the day, and of saying a Mass of the Dead.

Supplementary offices, although they have fallen into desuetude after the liturgical revolutions of the 20th century, were an ancient element of the Roman rite. Indeed, the origin of the term “double” (duplex) to describe major feasts in the Roman calendar before the reforms of John XXIII seems to hark back to the pre-Carolingian practice in Rome of having a “double office” on major feast days. Originally, in the Roman basilicas only the dominical and ferial offices were sung. Offices in honour of a saint were celebrated at the respective tomb on the saint’s feast day as part of a vigil rite which comprised Vespers, three Nocturns, and Lauds.

When offices in honour of saints first began to be sung in the basilicas, they were a supplement to the ferial office, resulting a double office. Eventually, both began to blend together. Pierre Batiffol analyzes some passages from Amalarius of Metz about the antiphonary of Corbey, attributed to Pope Hadrian I, and explains:

It results from these two passages that the most solemnly observed festivals of the saints had, at Rome, two nocturn offices, one at nightfall, without invitatory, and the office in the middle of the night, with invitatory. I conjecture that the office celebrated at nightfall without invitatory was the proper office of the saint, the vigil office of the festival; and the office with invitatory celebrated in the middle of the night was the ferial office, now transformed into the office of the saint.

But this ferial nocturn was destined in the end to be ousted even from the precarious position which had remained to it: every vestige of duality of the office, of the joint celebration of the offices of the feria and the Saint’s day, was effaced: there was no longer more than one nocturnal office, and that office was altogether given up to the saint.

A vestige of the old system of double offices seems to have survived, however, in the Office of the Dead. It appears first in the 8th century, as attested by Amalarius, the Ordo Romanus X, and other sources. By this time a vigil had developed as part of the funerary rites, akin to the vigil primitively kept in honour of a saint’s feast. Upon someone’s passing, his body was borne to St Peter’s Basilica and received at the door with the singing of the psalm Miserere with two antiphons. After the body was taken within, the vigil began; like a saint’s vigil, this office comprised Vespers, three Nocturns, and Lauds. Mass would then be sung in the morning, followed by the Diaconia, later called Absolutio, and the burial.

The beginning of Vespers of the Dead, from a 15th century French Book of Hours

The structure of this Office is of the primitive Roman form. Vespers and Lauds have no hymn or short lesson and conclude with the Kyrie eleison and Lord’s prayer, and the Nocturns begin without an invitatory, like in the vigils of saint’s days. The readings of the Nocturns were taken entirely from the book of Job.

It was thus brought over by Bl. Charlemagne across the Alps, and although at first the recitation of this Office was only attached to actual funeral Masses as part of the obsequies, it soon began to be said in attachment to any solemn Mass of the Dead, and as these multiplied, especially in monasteries, so did its accompanying Office. The spirit of the monastic reform of St Benedict of Aniane, so partial to the singing of supplementary offices, surely helped fillip its diffusion.

Already in the 9th century Amalarius reports that Vespers, Matins, and Lauds of the Dead were sung daily in certain places, except on feasts. Such was the custom in Cluny and its daughter-houses, where on ferias and simple feasts Vespers and Lauds of the Dead were sung in choir after Vespers and Lauds of the day, and Matins of the Dead was sung after supper.  

Cluny was also responsible for setting aside 2 November as a day particularly devoted to prayer for the poor souls in Purgatory. Around the beginning of the 11th century, having been told by a pilgrim that the poor souls earnestly yearned for the prayers of his monks, Abbot St Odilo ordered that the day after All Saints be devoted to prayer for this purpose. Liturgically, of course, this involved the celebration of the Office and Mass of the Dead.

Part of the Office of the Dead, from a Flemish Book of Hours.

The custom quickly spread throughout northern France and England, and reached Rome by the 13th century. The Ordo Romanus XV, describing the papal liturgy at the time of Martin V, states that, on the evening of 1 November, after Second Vespers of All Saints, the Pope would preside over Vespers of the Dead, incensing the altar at the Magnificat, and then at Matins and Lauds of the Dead. During the day, he would attend a Requiem Mass sung by one of the cardinals.

By the 16th century, St Benedict of Aniane’s ideals had triumphed insofar as the obligation to say the Office of the Dead on all ferias and simple feasts—as well as the Little Office of Our Lady, the Penitential Psalms and Litany in Lent, and the Gradual Psalms in Advent and Lent—had become general for all the clergy. The spirit of the age was, however, far from St Benedict’s own, and the recitation of these supplementary offices were widely considered too onerous. Pope St Pius V acquiesced to remove the obligation to say them with his bull Quod a nobis, although the rubrics of the Tridentine breviary do suggest that the Office of the Dead continue to be said on the first day of the month not impeded by a nine-lesson feast, as well as on Mondays of Advent and Lent similarly unimpeded. When said in choir, the old rule would remain that Vespers, Matins, and Lauds of the dead would follow Vespers, Matins, and Lauds of the day. The only supplementary office that did remain obligatory was the Office of the Dead on All Souls.

As found in the Tridentine breviary, the Office of the Dead has generally preserved its ancient structure, lacking the Deus in adjutorium, a hymn, and a short lesson. The Kyrie eleison has dropped out, however, and after the Lord’s prayer some preces are said consisting of the versicles A porta inferi, Requiescat in pace, Domine exaudi orationem meam, followed by Dominus vobiscum and the collect. The office concludes with the versicles Requiem æternam and Requiescant in pace.

The Tridentine breviary codified the practice that had arisen in the later Middle Ages of saying only one of the three Nocturns when reciting the Office of the Dead outside the more solemn context of a funeral or All Souls, and distributes the Nocturns across the days of the week: on Monday and Thursday the first Nocturn is said; on Tuesday and Friday the second; and on Wednesday and Saturday the third. On days when only a single Nocturn is said, psalm 145 is sung without an antiphon the Lord’s prayer at Vespers and psalm 129 similarly at Lauds.

In the course of the Middle Ages, various customs arose for solemn celebrations of the Office of the Dead, especially on All Souls. As mentioned above, the Office of the Dead originally had no Invitatory at Matins, but the Invitatory Regem cui omnia vivunt begun to be sung in the Abbey of St Gall in the 9th century on more solemn occasions, and became relatively widespread in the 13th century. In the post-Tridentine books, the Roman and Norbertine breviaries call for this Invitatory to be said with psalm 94 whenever the full three Nocturns are said, and the Carmelite breviary only on All Souls, but it is absent from the Cistercian, Carthusian, and Dominican books. The traditional use of Lyons has the Invitatory In manu tua instead, borrowed from Wednesday Matins.

Some uses also began to modify some of the readings of Mattins of the Dead on All Souls’, replacing the ancient readings taken from Job with pericopes from St Augustine’s Enchiridion and De cura pro mortuis gerenda. The Parisian use, for instance, reads Job for the first two Nocturns and and St Augustine on the third. The Dominican use reads St Augustine on all three Nocturns, and the Carmelite use reads Job on the first Nocturn, St Augustine on the second, and, rather unusually, an excerpt from chapter 15 of St Paul’s first Epistle to the Corinthians on the third.

From an English Book of Hours

Indeed, some dioceses in northern France, including Paris, All Souls was actually transformed into a full liturgical day by providing the Little Hours missing from the Office of the Dead, and this practice was retained by the Dominican use. All Souls still began by saying Vespers of the Dead after Second Vespers of All Saints, but the following day was devoted exclusively to All Souls, rather than to the second day within the Octave of All Saints.

After the usual silent prayers, Prime, Tierce, Sext, and None begin immediately with the three psalms in the psalter for that feria said without Gloria Patri, with Requiem æternam at the end of the triplet, as a simple verse in the Parisian use but as an antiphon in the Dominican use. In the Parisian use, this is followed by one of the responsories sung at Mattins: Qui Lazarum resuscitasti at Prime, Credo quod Redemptor at Tierce, Hei mihi at Sext, and Ne recorderis at None. Then comes the collect, and the verse Requiescant in pace to conclude. In the Dominican use, however, after the antiphon Requiem æternam the hour concludes with the the preces that begin with the verse A porta inferi, as in Vespers and Lauds of the Dead (the Confiteor is said between the antiphon and the preces at Prime).

Outside of the Parisian and Dominican uses and those akin thereto, then, All Souls was the last relic of the ancient practice of saying double offices, and the only remaining day with an obligatory supplementary office. As we shall see in a future post, the following centuries saw various efforts to alter the Office of 2 November to bring it into line with other liturgical days, which culminated in the reforms of St Pius X.

3 thoughts on “Sundry Remarks on the History of the Office of the Dead

  1. Thank you for this fascinating essay – I had always assumed the 1962 version of the little hours on November 2 was a complete ahistorical fabrication, so interesting to learn it actually had some Dominican antecedents!

    Presumably the move in the seventh century Roman office from only celebrating Offices and Masses of a saint where their relics were held (typically the shrines outside the city), to celebrating them in the main church(es) of Rome itself, and the practice of doubling, reflects in part the increased liturgical resources of the city, with the establishment of the schola cantorum, and more basilicas with monasteries attached to them?

    I also wonder if it reflects a theological shift to give more emphasis to intercessory prayer (especially for the Dead), not least as a result of Book IV of Gregory the Great’s Dialogues?

    Liked by 1 person

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