Claude de Vert’s Simple, Literal, and Historical Explanation of the Ceremonies of the Mass: A Watershed of the Catholic Enlightenment

Recently we discussed how the Voyages Liturgiques, a layman traveler’s account of French liturgical life in the late 17th century, seemed to favor contemporary reform movements in the Gallican church, shaped by the classical and archeologizing “taste” so characteristic of its age. The author’s “classical ideal” has much to commend it, and the work remains an invaluable witness to the 17th-century Catholic worldview.

Today we shall discuss an author of far greater importance, whose influence on liturgical scholarship and reform was far more consequential. Guéranger called him, more or less justly, “the apostle of the rationalist spirit” and “the voice of his century.“[1]

Not so long ago, we introduced readers to Pierre Lebrun’s commentary on the Mass, his Literal, Historical, and Dogmatic Explanation of the Mass, a work directly provoked by De Vert’s own Simple, Litteral, and Historical Explanation of the Ceremonies of the Church (1709-1713, 4 voll.). The title of our post (“The Origins of Liturgical Ressourcement”) was perhaps rather tendentious, but it did express something of our conviction that liturgical scholarship in that era had become noticeably estranged from the classical tradition. Sometimes by accident and sometimes by intent, churchmen everywhere had subjected the mind and heart of the Church to modern thinkers’ peculiar standards of reasoning, and proved generally ignorant or contemptuous of the previous tradition, to the point that a fresh representation of the classical tradition in all its vigor was desperately called for.

This had widespread ramifications for Catholic belief and practice, not the least of which was a new approach to the sacred liturgy, manifesting itself in new genres of liturgical commentary that diverged sharply from the medieval and Patristic tradition.

Liturgy and the Catholic Enlightenment

The 18th-century was the dawn of a systematic application of “science” and “reason” in service of wholesale reform of social and ecclesial life. This was a complex and multi-faceted movement that offered many benefits, while also posing many challenges to the Church. Churchmen everywhere participated with enthusiasm in the century of lights, promoting new forms of church government, education, and scientific inquiry. In its more radical manifestations, under the influences of Gallicanism, Febronianism, and Josephinism, local churches everywhere became departments of ascendant nation states, strictly regulated to serve the needs of political economy: religion within the bounds of pure reason.

Behind its splendorous veneer, the Gallican Church was a welter of factions. After Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes (1685), the mass conversion of Protestants caused a sort of “pastoral crisis.” The bishops worked with an already reform-minded Versailles to manage the transition, and the result was a variety of reform projects. Vernacular missals, Mass commentaries, and pastoral tracts were sanctioned and widely distributed. At the same time bishops and cathedral chapters destroyed the great medieval rood screens, alleging among other reasons that they blocked the faithful’s view and posed an unnecessary obstacle to Protestant sentiment. These efforts were all linked by the new enthusiasm for universal knowledge, a zeal to illuminate all “superstition” and “mystery” with the light of reason.

Catholic Classicism. It was the high tide of Classicism, a turning back toward the forms and sources of antiquity (such as they were available or understood, at times very poorly). Jungmann explains:

“The desire was to get free from all excess of emotions, free from all surfeit of forms; to get back again to ‘noble sim­plicity.’ As in contemporary art, where the model for this was sought in antiquity and attained in classicism, so in ecclesiastical life the model was perceived in the life of the ancient Church. And so a sort of Catholic clas­sicism was arrived at, a sudden enthusiasm for the liturgical forms of primitive Christianity, forms which in many cases one believed could be taken over bodily, despite the interval of a thousand years and more, even though one was far removed from the spirit of that age.”[2]

High esteem for St. Augustine and the “golden age” of the Fathers led some to idealize an imaginary liturgy of the 5th century–imaginary since we have no liturgical books that go back that far, and only a few scattered references to liturgical customs in the writings of the Fathers. The Gallican Church especially had a marked archeologizing tendency. Many viewed medieval developments with suspicion, disparaged the cult of the saints and other traditional devotions, moved for drastic simplification of church decoration, and tried to return to what they perceived to be the most “primitive” and classical Church practices.

Enlightenment. It was also the age of Enlightenment, which valued simplicity and strove everywhere for “the elimination or radical restructuring of institutions seemingly little more than unproductive relics from the past.”[3] Everywhere feudal forms of administration gave way to modern bureaucracy; traditional exegesis was rapidly replaced by historical-critical scholarship; and even among very devout Catholics, Scholasticism was largely ousted by enthusiasm for Descartes and the New Learning, which some saw as a powerful ally for religion.[4]

English agnostic literature also exerted powerful influence. Geoffrey Hull (“The Proto-History of the Roman Liturgical Reform”) cites a contemporary ecclesiastic’s bitter complaint about the spirit of the age:

“Such is the frailty of human nature that involuntarily and without even suspecting it, people are taking on the tastes, fashions, language and idiom of the country and age in which they live… Our century is the age of Anglomania. It is the dominant strain in the agnostic movement, which rails against the superstition of the populace, the credulity of the devout, the excesses of the cult of the Blessed Virgin and the Saints, the despotism of the Pope, the neglect of Sacred Scripture and the Church Fathers, and so on. They would deprive religion of all its flesh if they could, leaving just the skeleton. To this end they abolish, polish, simplify, reduce to nothing the little that has been preserved.”[5]

Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet 1.PNG
Bishop Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet

Gallicanism. In France, all these movements took place in the wider context of Gallicanism, a cluster of claims about the French Church’s right to self-governance and independence from Rome and about the inviolability of her perennial customs. Gallicanism meant that the French liturgy was largely out of the Pope’s control, so that bishops were free to carry out liturgical revisions under the pretext of exemption from Roman jurisdiction.

Amidst seismic shifts in European thought and culture, the Church adopted new strategies of apologetics, trying to showing that the faith could measure up to the new standards of reason. Many Catholics–sometimes called “Enlightened Catholics”–advocated for adopting the new historical, scientific, and administrative methods, seeing them as the only hope for the Church’s continued relevance. Not until late in the next century would the Roman Church’s stance toward all these different movements coalesce and harden,[6] so that there was much freedom and openness of discussion at this time about the proper role of the new methods and forms, a freedom that rarely tolerated the periodic papal interventions.

In Scripture studies, many began to adopt historical methods that would later come to be known as Wissenschaft. Sensible to its dangers, they also saw that it could bear good fruit for the Church.

In the realm of liturgy, the 17th and 18th centuries saw the rapid production of new rites (Neo-Gallican) to replace traditional missals and breviaries. Bishops hired scholars who employed historical methods to reconstruct “primitive” liturgical rites[7] more suited to the tastes of their age. The reformers introduced major rearrangements of offices, and as a working principle eliminated nearly all non-Scriptural texts from the Mass and Office, replacing them with new compositions by contemporary Latin literary figures. Much the same would happen in the 20th century, when the hymns and over 70% of the Roman collects were rewritten.

Claude De Vert, O. Cist.

Claude De Vert, a monk and officer at Cluny (1645 – 1708), finds his place in this drama. He became interested in liturgical rites after a trip to Rome where the splendor of the ceremonies left a lasting impression. He wrote some minor works before he finally began his major work, the Explication simple, littérale et historique des cérémonies de l’Église (Paris, 1709-1713). The immediate provocation, he explains in a preface, was a pamphlet controversy with the Protestant minister Pierre Jurieu over certain Catholic ceremonies, and over the allegorical interpretation of the Mass.

Image result for pierre jurieu
Pierre Jurieu

Encouraged by Reformed ministers and Catholics ecclesiastics (among them Bossuet) to expound his insights at greater length, he became convinced that a thoroughgoing rational presentation of the divine worship would have a widespread appeal for contemporary Protestants and Catholics alike. Specifically, it would settle Protestant disgust for sacrament and mysticism, while also assuaging agnostics’ doubt and flattering the modern “taste” for historical inquiry. As others were already doing in other disciplines, so in liturgy, De Vert sought for a common standard of “reason” that could settle confessional disputes and measure up to the requirements of modern reason.

For De Vert, the “mystical,” symbolic, or spiritual explanation of divine offices, such as that purveyed by the medieval commentary tradition, is pernicious mystification and bad scholarship.

Related imageasically, each ceremony serves a simple, physical, hygienic convenience or reflects a simple historical accommodation. Incense dispelled bad odors. Immersion baptism was a hygienic practice meant for cleaning newborn babies. The chasuble was an ordinary Roman garment. The rood screen simply amplified a lector’s voice, a purpose just as easily achieved by a small lectern. The commixing of water and wine in the chalice is a simple imitation of historic Jewish practice. “Mystical” reasons are added later.

The principle is thoroughgoing: in no case can a spiritual-symbolic reason be the first cause for the institution of a ceremony. At best, a symbol can be edifying. For example, full-immersion baptism borrowed (for decency’s sake) the pagan practice of cleaning newborns in large baths. The hygienic practice was later exploited by St. Paul, who saw in it a fortuitous allegory for our death and rising in Christ. The Pauline allegory edifies, but it is entirely extraneous and fortuitous to the original institution.

At worst, symbolism is a sort of death mask that one imposes on a ritual whose original, simple, natural, and historical reason is no longer understood. Symbol petrifies the ritual by linking it necessarily to an unchanging dogmatic truth; since the truth cannot change, the ritual cannot change. In this way ritual becomes un-elastic, unable to respond to the Church’s contemporary needs: especially the needs of a learned class with no “taste” for mysticism. Symbol is the rigor mortis of ritual, freezing it forever and rendering it useless for Christian progress.

The learned man’s job is to scatter the clouds of mystical obfuscation to reveal the (simple, physical, historical) rational structure underneath: like an architect renovating a Gothic church for modern use–removing votives and side-altars, taking down rood screens, etc.–to reveal to clear view the clean geometrical lines of the fabric.

If the Church is to have a liturgy that is sensible and adapted to the present moment, She must remove the offending edifice of allegorical-mystical commentary once and for all.[8] Once symbol is chased away, and the liturgy appears in all its rational simplicity, it will no longer be a stumbling block to Protestants or the Enlightened: it can stand as a beacon of good sense, whose rational simplicity we can contemplate with admiration.

Further, significantly, it can once again pliably evolve and adapt to urgent contemporary needs. Ceremonies instituted for transient historical reasons should be allowed to change when modern historical circumstances call for it.

De Vert was not the first to apply historical methods to the study of Church offices. The 16th and 17th centuries had been the age of collectors and editors of liturgical sources. Historical explanation began to crowd out the mystical, and “application of the historical-critical method gradually exhausted all straightforward interest in researching its spiritual meaning.”[9] By our author’s day, historical commentary had already become a genre parallel to the historical-critical turn in Scripture studies, and largely borrowing the same methods: the faith-based search for the totus Christus behind the letter of the Old Testament yielded to (supposedly) neutral, scientific studies of Scripture from various points of view. The same happened in liturgy at this time.

So Dom Edmond Martene, in his “De antiquis ecclesiæ ritibus libri 4” (Rouen, 1700-1702), observed that earlier authors had appealed to “mystical reasons” which were “a style of writing distasteful to the learned men of our age” (rationes tantum mysticas adhibuerunt, quod scribendi genus saeculi nostri studiosis minus sapere solet). and in his own work he resolved that, “setting aside the mystical explanations that anyone may consult in the published sources, I shall present all the rites of the Church from a historical perspective.”[10] Note that Martene does not so much challenge the legitimacy of the spiritual senses, as politely excuse himself from the task of spiritual exegesis. He is writing history, not theology. It is a genre choice.

In other words a new genre is being born, and the ground is being laid for a new scientific study of liturgy, posthabitis rationibus mysticis. If the Carolingian age witnessed the founding of the expositiones missae as a genre–though one largely in continuity with Patristic commentary–the early modern period saw the foundation of the “scientific” commentary, often predicated on a rejection of the former. Henceforth, neglect or outright contempt for the allegorical tradition became de rigeur–even if it was not unopposed, and De Vert’s prefaces document this change coming about in his conversations with contemporary scholars.

Golgotha: The temple veil is torn, attributed to Vicomte Ludovic Napoleon Lepic, 1873

One almost has the sense that these authors thought they were part of a new Dispensation, performing a second “unveiling” of the Christian religion: as Christ had lifted the veil and dispelled the shadows of the Old Testament cult with his light, so De Vert banishes the shadows of Christian primitivism to reveal the truth of the rites in their bare historical reality, denuded of all mystery. To use the words of Guéranger, De Vert comes as the apostle of a new, more rational dispensation.

Enduring Relevance

If his eulogist can be considered any fair judge, the Explication was a game-changing event, a watershed in the brave project of Enlightenment:

“We can say with confidence, that this book has changed the whole picture. The physical causes for the institution of ceremonies were smothered underneath mystical and allegorical ones. A false piety had fooled itself and others, losing sight of the true reasons: we had the shadow instead of the body. Dom de Vert came with his torch in hand to dispel these thick shadows. This book has made the scales fall from the eyes of innumerable people, and now no other way of thinking is possible” (Elegy for Dom De Vert, Explication…, vol. 3, xxxi – xxxii)

De Vert’s method is not to be simply discounted outright. He is right to point out the primacy of the literal sense. But he is wrong to imagine that the literal reason for a ceremony can never be symbolic. Hence Lebrun:

The true literal and historical sense of a writing or a ceremony is that which the author or institutor had in mind, and it is often a figurative sense, of symbol and of mystery. If we consider the scepter of kings and the crosier of bishops and abbots in a coarse and material fashion, we might say that it is given to them for support while walking, because this is the more ordinary use of staves and because in fact in ancient times bishops and abbots availed themselves of staves in their travels. But since we are seeking the reason for the institution of the ceremony of the pastoral staff, we would distance ourselves from the true sense of the Church if we gave, as a reason of institution, the ordinary usage of support while walking; for the scepter and the crosier are given to both young and old to be used only in actions of magnificence and ceremony. The proper and historical significance of the scepter is to be the symbol of the power of the king in all his dominions, just as the pastoral staff is given by the Church to bishops and abbots to mark their authority in their diocese and in their monasteries, and because as pastors they have the crook to protect their flock and to chastise those who trouble its peace and good order. The Church herself teaches us these symbolic senses in her pontificals[11].”

Nor is the new scientific approach unhelpful. It would be absurd to dismiss the benefits of progress in knowledge of the historical origin of rites. In many cases it really does dispel superstitions about the meaning of liturgical ceremonies.

Nevertheless, De Vert’s willful misreading of liturgical texts, cherry-picking from sources, and deafening silence about the witness of Christian tradition to the primacy of the spiritual sense is really not to be forgiven, and can only be seen as a prejudiced effort at reconstruction for political purposes. He uses history amateurishly. He first equates the meaning of a practice with its historical origin, then he dismisses it out of hand. (In this sense, he does not fit the mold of either an antiquarian or a Biblicist, but rather sings a more secular strain.)

On the other hand, in early modern liturgical scholarship no less than in physics and in Scripture, new methods were being devised and tested whose precise value and limits had not yet been (and perhaps have never been) definitively decided. The whole early modern period presents a strange (to us) spectacle of halting attempts and half-baked methods. A very charitable reading of De Vert would excuse his too-radical application of New Learning, chalking it up to the excessive enthusiasm (and poor theological formation) of his generation.

All told, M. de Vert’s work gives us a fascinating glimpse into the world of 18th-century Catholic scholarship, and into the cradle of the modern historical method, when no less than a Benedictine monk attempts to give an entirely literal explanation for the origins of liturgical prayers and ceremonies. All imaginary causes–allegory, mysticism, etc–are dismissed as “bad taste,” for this is “the taste of learned men, who in every genre of science and literature always come back to the simple and the natural, and thus to the truth.”

Image result for scipio de' ricci
Scipione de’ Ricci, Bishop of Pistoia

The high-water mark of the pre-Revolutionary project to re-interpret and re-fashion the liturgy (like Scripture) in the light of new historical awareness, to simplify the Church’s liturgical life and bring it more in line with modern tastes, was the Synod of Pistoia in 1786, which put many Enlightened liberal reforms into place. Though De Vert was certainly not the only or even the main ideological influence behind this synod, his work is a particularly clear and thorough exposition of the radical wing of the new liberal, Enlightened Catholic worldview, and a sort of arch-nemesis to Prosper Guéranger and the Romantic and ultramontane reaction.


This week we will translate the prefaces of voll. 1 and 2 of De Vert’s work, the Simple, Litteral, and Historical Explanation of the Ceremonies of the Church (Tome 1)(Tome 2)(Tome 3)(Tome 4), in which he explains and justifies the new rational method of liturgical commentary. The other two volumes are without prefaces.

We hope the translation will give insight into that turbulent century, the cradle of modernity, the origin of so much of what has come to be taken for granted in later scholarship. In the end, despite his serious defects as a theologian, De Vert is a useful source of information about contemporary French liturgy, and (in our opinion) a case study of how the historical method can be misapplied when allied with dubious preconceptions.

Preface to Volume 1 (1709)
Preface to Volume 2 – Coming Friday


[1] “The rationalist spirit of which Dom Claude de Vert, the voice of his century, was the apostle, contributed to the clergy’s neglect of religious aesthetics. To the eyes of a spiritualist religion, only one thing can elevate form, and that is mysticism. But since this rationalism deprived the ceremonies of their proper objective—viz. to sanctify visible nature by making it serve the expression of the invisible world—it is easy to understand how the clergy, already deprived of the poetic elements of the ancient liturgy, could reach such an indifference to art with respect to worship” (Institutions Liturgiques, vol. II, Ch. XX,, 387).

[2] Missarum Sollemnia, vol. 1, 152.

[3] John O’Malley, Vatican I: The Council and the Making of the Ultramontone Church, 30.

[4] For example, Cardinal Melchior de Polignac (1661 – 1742) wrote his famous Anti-Lucretius, an elaborate scientific-didactic poem showing that God’s agency can be clearly perceived and worshipped in the works of nature uncovered by science and Cartesian philosophy. He argued that modern science only makes the works of God’s hands stand out in clearer relief.

[5] Marie-Madeleine Martin, Le latin immortel (Chiré-en-Montreuil: Diffusion de la Pensée Française, 1971), 173.

[6] Not that Rome took no interest in Gallican developments. Jansenism and all its works was repeatedly condemned, and Rome lodged protests, usually in vain, against some liturgical experimentation. See our post on Vernacular Translations of the Missal.

[7] As Geoffrey Hull, Alcuin Reid, and László Dobszay among others have argued, the Neo-Gallican rites were the real forerunners of the 20th century Novus Ordo. Their architects were guided by similar principles, and achieved similar results.

[8] See our post on Lebrun for a more extensive discussion of De Vert’s method.

[9] See Claude Barthe, “The Mystical Meaning of the Mass in the Middle Ages,” in The Genius of the Roman Rite, 179 – 197, 193.

[10] De antiquis ecclesiae ritibus, vol. 1, Preface: His igitur attente consideratis, alicuius opellae pretium visum est, si quantum per imbecilles ingenii mei vires licet, posthabitis rationibus mysticis, quas apud editos scriptores quisque consulere potest, universos ecclesiae ritus more historico hic repraesentarem

[11] A stab at De Vert’s stubborn insistence that the Church herself teaches his simple, natural method.

6 thoughts on “Claude de Vert’s Simple, Literal, and Historical Explanation of the Ceremonies of the Mass: A Watershed of the Catholic Enlightenment

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