Voyages Liturgiques, Rouen (2): The Major Feasts

Part (1): The Cathedral Chapter of Rouen

Our ancient Ordinal states that Mass was not said before 9 in the morning, nor after 3 in the afternoon. On fast days, it was said at about 2 or 3 in the afternoon, for the fast continued until that time.

From Advent to Christmas, and from Septuagesima to Easter, if a feast fell on Sunday, it was moved to the next day.

On solemn feasts of the year and the first vigil of the night or the first sounding all the bells were rung, like today, and the altar was incensed at each Nocturn, which they do still in Paris, Orléans, and Angers. The altar was incensed also at the Te Deum, as they are still incensed currently on all triple feasts, on which the Magnificat and Benedictus antiphons are tripled and two thuribles are used for the incensations, except at Second Vespers of triples of the second class when only one is used.

The Annunciation in Aleni’s Life of Christ

(The Christmas Cycle)

On Christmas night the first stroke of Matins sounded at 10 in the evening, prima noctis vigilia. The three Gospels of the third nocturn were sung with incense and candles, like at present. The principal priest of the church, major ecclesiae sacerdos, vested in dalmatic and chasuble, solemnly read the Genealogy of Jesus Christ.[1] It is also chanted today on Epiphany, in a very beautiful chant, with a very ancient chasuble that has not been clipped, but without dalmatic; instead there is a subdeacon vested in tunicle.

Immediately after the Te Deum the clergy and people leave to wash themselves at the fountain before beginning the Mass, as we also find in the Customary of Cluny and Fontevrauld.

The three Masses of Christmas were (as in Lyon and among the Carthusians) celebrated by three different priests.

The second Mass used to be sung just before dawn, incipiente diluculo, according to the Ordinal (and this is the case today in the parish churches) but in the cathedral it is sung following Lauds, which were supposed to be sung just before dawn like the second Mass. […]

Once Low Masses were introduced, simple priests thought they had just as much right to say three Masses as the curé did. This is the origin of the three Masses that most particular priests now say.

On solemn feasts the procession was held before the High Mass, and all the clergy stayed in copes for the Mass.

I pass over a number of things in the ancient Ordinal that are neither beautiful nor useful. […]

On Epiphany, there were three Gospels and one Genealogy at Matins, just like at Christmas and with the same ceremonies. The antiphons and responsories of the third nocturn were taken from the Baptism of Jesus Christ.

On Ash Wednesday, the Archbishop neither received ashes nor imposed them upon himself. This was also the case in Vienne and Orléans at one point.

On that day, and throughout all of Lent, Prime was sung once the sun was up. Chapter was held after Terce, and the morning Mass was said thereafter, followed by Sext.[2] This is still observed.

It is clear from the Ordinal that at that time they avoided saying the little Hours one immediately after the other, so that there was a space of time between Sext and None.[3] This is still the case in Lyon, Vienne, and Sens, and the Ritual of Rouen exhorts clerics to keep this practice. There was also a prohibition on anticipating None before the hour at which it ought to be be said: Nona hora sua dicatur, quam Missa diei sequatur. After None, the Mass of the day was said at 3 in the afternoon. After Mass, Vespers of the Dead is said, to which is currently added Vespers of Our Lady, and then Vespers of the day. One sees therefore that they did not eat until 5 or 6 in the evening. This is the proper way of saying Vespers before eating: Vesperae ante comestionem. We have seen many monasteries of both sexes that still strictly observe this today, for they act in simplicity of heart, and have not refined themselves. Everywhere else they have had the ingenuity to anticipate Vespers in order to anticipate the meal, and in most churches they are said at 10 or 11 in the morning. But this custom has not yet arrived here. It must be said, to the praise of the cathedral church of Rouen, that of all the churches in France it is the one that has anticipated Vespers the least, and Vespers sometimes finish at 1 in the afternoon. I have seen this happen many times on semi-double feasts in Lent, and if the three Vespers had not been sung with haste, then surely they would have left choir around 2 p.m.

After Vespers they went to take their repast. Before Compline, at the sounding of a bell all the clergy assembled and sung Matins of the Dead. Then they held a conference where they usually read the Dialogues of St. Gregory the Grand; this was still being down a hundred years ago. Then the bell rang again for Compline.

Although the reading at conference is no longer done (and which, according to the Rule of St. Benedict and the custom of some monasteries of his order, lasted an hour) at least they still ring the bell on ferias before Compline at two moments. I think that one rings more or less at the hour for reading, and the other for Matins of the Dead. If someone does not think this is the case, I would ask that he say why this bell rings: for after it has stopped, another larger bell rings for Compline. Thus God has allowed that the bell continue to be rung, even though the reading is no longer done, perhaps as a sign that someday will serve for its restoration.

After each Hour of the Office, a Gradual Psalm is added for the brethren—pro fratribus—and then the psalm De profundis is said for the departed, together with certain collects, as is still done in Lyon today on ferias, as well as psalm 50, Miserere mei Deus, which was still said less than a hundred years ago in Rouen at all the little Hours as well as Vespers and Lauds.

After Lauds and Vespers in Lent, there was a suffrage for the remission of sins; it was still said less than a hundred years ago.


No feasts were celebrated in Lent. Instead, only at Saturday Vespers and Sunday Lauds and Mass a commemoration was done of those saints whose feasts had fallen during the course of the week.

The ancient Ordinal reads, In Vesperis et Matutinis nulla sanctorum commemoratio fiat, nisi tantum in Vesperis Sabbati et Matutinis vel Missa Dominicae diei, in quibus est sanctorum agenda memoria, quorum festa in praeterita evenerint hebdomada, secundum Laodicensis Concilii decreta, quae cum aliis quamplurimis statuunt aliter in Quadragesima nullius sancti recolere festa.

On Ash Wednesday after None the clergy and people made their confession before the altar. After receiving penance, their prostrated themselves and received the absolution of the archbishop or the principal priest of the church. He imposed ashes on each and sprinkled them with holy water. Then he expelled the public penitents and put them out of the church.

Image result for mandatum jerusalem

After the expulsion of the public penitents there was a procession to a church or chapel. When they had arrived and the antiphons were finished, everyone prostrated themselves on the earth and said the Lord’s Prayer. In this humble posture they said Psalm 50 Miserere mei Deus along with prayers and the Collect. Then two choir boys rose and chanted the litany which they finished on the way back to the choir, where Mass was celebrated. This procession was done (and is still done) on all Wednesdays and Fridays of Lent. It is a vestige of the processions that were formerly done every day to the stational churches where they went to say Mass.

(Holy Week and Easter)

On Wednesday of the fourth week in Lent something peculiar happened. A Prophecy and Gradual were added to the Mass in view of the examination or Scrutiny of the catechumens (which are still done today in Vienne). In the Scrutiny, the catechumens were instructed, interrogated about faith and morals, and were taught the Lord’s Prayer and the Creed, which they were obliged to learn and recite on Holy Saturday before being baptized: Quod in Sabbato sancto debent reddere.

Vespers of Spy Wednesday were sounded with all the bells. On Thursday and the following days at Matins a great candle-stand or hearse with twenty-four candles was put behind the altar. Note that at that time there was no reredos. Since there is one now with a large altarpiece this hearse with twenty-four candles is placed in the center before the altar. One candle is extinguished at each Psalm and at each Lesson.[4] In parishes and monasteries there are only thirteen or fifteen candles, which are extinguished at the end of each Psalm. However, far from extinguishing candles in these parish and monastic churches, and in nearly all the churches of France, on these days when Matins begins at four in the afternoon, on the contrary they should have lighted them toward the evening, since light is more needed at that time than at four in the afternoon. This was not taken into account when people stopped saying this particular office near the end of night. Doubtless certain mystics who are ignorant of the true reasons for the institution of ceremonies will find some mysteries in these three days: as if they really thought that people acted differently on these three days than they did on every other day. Once when I was at Matins in the famous church of St. Jean in Lyon, I saw them extinguish many candles during the last psalms of Lauds, and this was on the day of the Blessed Sacrament. I saw no mystery in this except that because as the day grew brighter there was less need of light. In the end, our cathedral church of Rouen does nothing against sound reason when it extinguishes candles one by one in these three days: since it has the honor of never having ceased to say this office at night during those three days. On Good Friday it takes place at 4 in the morning and on Thursday and Saturday at 5. Daughters should imitate the model of their mothers.[5]

Like today, they did not chant the Gloria Patri on these three days, because originally in the church the Responsories and Psalms were sung without the Gloria Patri,[6] and because it is no more fitting to add it during these three days than to the Office of the Dead.

At the end of Lauds they extinguished even the last candle, because it was then day and they had no more need of it. But since they needed to light candles for the office of the Mass, they lit them from new blessed fire,[7] and this is still done on these three days in the cathedral church, no longer in the porch but in the parish church of St. Etienne, the large church close to the western portal on the right side. All the parishes do this on Holy Saturday, quite nonsensically in my opinion, since they could find a lit candle in a chapel or a lamp hanging before the Blessed Sacrament. But the ceremony has become necessary due to the edifying use the mystics have put it to.

On Holy Thursday the people assembled at midday. All the clergy went to the porch and there blessed the new fire. The bishop convoked the public penitents there and finally let them into the church and reconciled them by giving absolution. (This is still done today in Rouen, and later I will describe the ceremony.)

Finally the bishop consecrated the chrism and oil of the catechumens at the Mass, during which the Gloria in excelsis was said if the bishop was present. The Mass was sung as a semi-double and the deacon and subdeacon wore dalmatic and tunicle. The peace was not given.

When the celebrant held the chalice to receive the Blood of Jesus Christ, he sang the Antiphon Calicem salutaris as the antiphon for the psalms of Vespers. Then all the bells were rung, after which they no longer rang until the Gloria in excelsis of Holy Saturday. Still today in the Cathedral the bells for Vespers are rung at the Agnus Dei of the Mass, but in parishes bells are not rung after the Gloria in excelsis. During the two remaining days, instead of bells they use certain tablets which the common people call Tartevelles. It must be noted here that although the bells for Vespers in the Cathedral church are usually rung on that day before noon [during the Mass], the great bell still strikes twelve at noon like on other days of the year. This is doubtlessly a sign that this church has never lost sight of the fact that Vespers always belongs to the afternoon, and so it is thought that the ringing at noon ought to precede them. The altar is incensed at the Magnificat and Vespers concludes with the Postcommunion.

The clergy and people communicated with the hosts that were consecrated, half of which were reserved on an altar in carefully enclosed corporals for communion on Good Friday: for not only was communion permitted on Good Friday to both the clergy and the people, but it seems it was even some sort of obligation for the clergy.

This stopped less than a hundred years ago, as one can see in all the ancient missals of Rouen and other churches of France.

A candle burned before these sacred Hosts until the end of Lauds, when it was extinguished.

On Good Friday, the Mass and communion were ex praesanctificatis, as on all Fridays of Lent in Milan.

The Ordinal states that the Sacrifice of the Eucharist was not done on Good Friday and Holy Saturday: Isto biduo non celebratur sacrificium. This is even clearer in the rubrics for Maundy Thursday: Ab ipsa die ad Missam noctis Dominicae non fit Sacramentorum consecratio.

After Vespers on Maundy Thursday, they went to eat. After the meal, they assembled in church and stripped the altars while singing a responsory. The altars were cleaned with wine and holy water, and the walls and floor of the church were washed with water only. Then they went into a large room to do the Mandatum, that is to say, the Archbishop and the most senior canons washed and wiped the feet of the poor and then those of the canons and other clerics. During this ceremony, the proper antiphons were sung, and at the end the deacon, vested in an alb and dalmatic as at Mass, with the lit candles and incense, sang the Gospel Ante diem festum Paschae in the lesson tone. Thereafter, they went as if in procession to the refectory, where the deacon continued to read the Gospel from the point where he had stopped until the Passion. The archbishop or dean presented a glass or cup of wine to each of the clergy; this, as we will see, is still in use in the other churches of Rouen. Unicuique fratrum vel episcopus vel decanus phialam vini exhibeat. Then the archbishop, the deacon, and the others who had served as ministers sit down, and Compline was said in silence. 

On Good Friday, besides Matins which was sung, all the Hours were said in silence, and Vespers and Compline in private. After Matins of Good Friday, the entire clergy went to the cloister to say the psalter. After saying it, they went back to the church, where they sat and prayed in silence until None, when they blessed the new fire at the door of the church like yesterday. (This is still done on these three days in the Cathedral of Rouen as well as that of Reims.) After that they went back into choir and began the Office of the Mass with a lesson taken from Exodus and then one from Hosea, with two tracts. Then the Passion according to St. John was read in the lesson tone, except the proper words of Our Savior, which were sung in the Gospel tone. Then, the main priest of the church said the prayers and the rest as is still done today.

Popule meus and Ecce lignum crucis were sung. As soon as the priest uncovered the Cross, all the clergy prostrated themselves. Then the priest and his ministers went to adore the Crucifix, followed by the entire clergy and the people, laying flat on the ground, which according to St. Augustin is the state of the greatest adoration. Adoratio omnium ita fiat, says the Ordinal, ut uniuscujusque venter in terra haereat: dum enim (juxta Augustinum in Psalmo XLIII) genuflectitur, adhuc restat quod humilietur: qui autem sic humiliatur, ut totus in terra haereat, nihil in eo amplius humilitatis restat.

I have seen this still practiced in Rouen by well-instructed people. The two canons who sang the Popule meus lie prostrate during the adoration of the Cross, as the Carthusians do before celebrating Mass. After this ceremony, the Crucifix was washed with water and wine, which the clergy and the people drank after communion.

The two priests in chasuble who bore the Cross go to get the sacred Hosts that were reserved the preceding day. They bring them to the high altar, where the Celebrant incenses them and sings only Praeceptis salutaribus moniti until Sed libera nos a malo. Then all receive communion from the eldest to the youngest: postea a majore ad minorem omnes communicentur. We will see elsewhere that it was not permitted to forgo communion, unless with the permission of the Superior.

Then the tablets were sounded, and each said Vespers in silence by themselves. Thereafter, they went to the refectory to take their meal of bread and water: ad refectionem panis et aquae pergant. Thus did the canons go through Good Friday six hundred years ago. (And we shall we that more than two hundred years later the same practices continued, or that at most they added raw herbs.)

They went back to the church to say Compline in silence by themselves.

On Holy Saturday they sung Matins and said the little Hours in silence as on the preceding day.

It was not permitted at that time for the Mass of Holy Saturday to begin before the afternoon, as seen in a council held in Rouen held on 1072, because this Mass is proper to the night of the Resurrection of Our Lord: ad noctem enim Dominicae Resurrectionis respicit. And indeed the blessing of the Paschal Candle and the Preface of the Mass show and presuppose that it is nighttime. I have said already in page 137 the reasons for this. A canon from the aforementioned council states that “he who eats during Lent earlier than three or four in the afternoon does not fast at all.”

On Holy Saturday, then, at 3 in the afternoon, at the sound of the tablet the people assembled in the church. The clergy went in procession to the door of the church to light and bless the new fire. This fire was taken to the homes of the Christians, whose hearth-fire had been previously extinguished. Even today, at 10 in the morning, this is practiced in the Cathedral church and the better-run parishes, where the fire is given to people who have been properly instructed. From this new fire, they lit a candle in the church placed on top a long stick, at the top of which was the image of a serpent.[8] The archbishop or officiant held it at the bottom and the deacon at the middle, and they went back to the choir singing the Psalm Dominus illuminatio mea. All of this is still practiced in Rouen both in the Cathedral church as well as the other well-run churches, except that there is no longer a serpent at the top of the stick.

It is truly unfortunate that one or two pages are missing here in the manuscript of the ancient Ordinal, which might have taught us beautiful things about the blessing of the candle, the prophecies, tracts, prayers, the three litanies, the blessing of the fonts, and the baptism of the catechumens and children. It picks up again to say that the neophytes were clad in albs or white habits, and each of them was given a candle to hold with their hand, and that they wore these white habits during eight days, and took them off on the Saturday called in albis depositis, which was elsewhere dubbed La Desauberie.

The entire Mass and Vespers of Holy Saturday was celebrated in Rouen as it is today, and as everywhere else, except that the altar was incensed at the Gloria in excelsis, that the clergy and people received communion (communicato clero et populo), and that the altar was incensed at the Magnificat.

After the meal they went back to say Compline.

At 10 at night they rang all the bells and said Matins. After the third responsory they said the Office of the Sepulchre,[9] more or less how it is said today at Angers. (Representations like this have been wisely abolished, for they are not to the taste of our century.)

Already in that time the antiphon of the Benedictus was repeated thrice, as well as that of the Magnificat, as is still done today on all triple feasts.

After a procession held after None on Easter day and the five days thereafter in the nave before the Crucifix, they had, as they still do, a procession to the fonts after Vespers.

The last day of the Octave of Easter was celebrated solemnly like the first day, as did the Jews following the command God had given them. (Cf. Leviticus 23:35-36.)


[1] Cf.

[2] So as to sing Vespers before breaking the fast with lunch, as was obligatory in the Roman rite too until 1960.

[3] Since Vespers used to be said early, before breaking the fast with lunch, the custom arose of saying all or some of the Little Hours one after in the morning.

[4] Gemma animae, 3.87: On the extinction of candles and on their number

During these three days we celebrate the burial of the Lord. We calculate that three days and nights make up 72 hours, and so we extinguish that same number of candles [lumina], since during these days we mourn that the true light [lumen] has been extinguished. We also express the grief of the 72 disciples which they experienced at the setting of the everlasting day and the Sun of justice, for they were the hours of that setting. During three hours, namely from the sixth hour to the ninth, there was darkness when Christ hung upon the cross. We represent these three hours by the three nights which we darken by extinguishing the candles. The day, lit up by the Sun, represents Christ; the night, lit up by the moon, represent the present Church; the twelve hours of the day or night represent the twelve apostles, who follow Christ the day and the Church the night. Since the day and night comprise 24 hours, and in festal nights the Gloria Patri is sung 24 times, therefore these nights are lit up with 24 lights. They are extinguished after each canticle, since, following the Apostles, we waste away with sadness on account of the setting of the true Sun. Since the crown of our head has fallen, our singing turns into lamentation.

The Gloria Patri is sung first at the verse Deus, in adiutorium, then at the psalm Venite, third at the hymn, nine times during the psalms, three times for the responsories, and once at the Te Deum laudamus. Then again at the verse Deus, in adiutorium, then five times during the psalms, once again in the hymn and the Benedictus. These twenty-four are considered to be twenty-four hours, and in place of this hymn of gladness we weep for the extinction of the Sun of Justice.

[5] De Moléon is arguing that the practice of extinguishing candles during the service of Tenebrae is a senseless holdover from when the office was held in the morning. The candles were extinguished gradually during Matins as the light grew brighter. The current practice of extinguishing them during the afternoon service of Tenebrae makes no sense, since the darkness is growing deeper and there is more need of light.

[6] De Moléon’s note: Amalarius, ch. 1 de ord. Antiph.

[7] Apparently there was a blessing of fire just like on the Easter Vigil on all the three days of the Triduum.

[8] See a post on these at the Liturgical Arts Journal.

[9] A liturgical drama recreating the exchange between the angels and the three Marys visiting Our Lord’s sepulcher. Arising in the 10th century and initially limited to a short dialogue, this Office, said after Easter Matins, became increasingly elaborate in the course of the Middle Ages.

Interrogatio. Quem quaeritis in sepulchro, o Christicolae?

Responsio. Jesum Nazarenum crucifixum, o caelicolae.

Angeli. Non est hic; surrexit, sicut praedixerat. Ite, nuntiate quia surrexit de sepulchro


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