The Privilege of St. Romanus: Procession for the release of a criminal on Ascension Day, Rouen (7)

3) Procession for the release of a criminal on the day of Our Lord’s Ascension

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One of the most beautiful rights of the church of Rouen is the right she has to free a criminal and all his accomplices every year on Ascension day. The ceremony draws a large number of spectators to the city. If they want to entirely satisfy their curiosity, they have to go at nine or ten o’clock in the morning to the great Hall of Parliament by the great stair in the Court of the Palace. At the end of this hall they will see a small, very well kept chapel where the parish priest of St. Lô celebrates a Solemn Mass with the organ and musicians of the Cathedral church, with twelve choir-boys. The presidents and counselors of Parlement all assist in red robes. They make certain reverences at the Offertory. After Mass they go to the great gilded chamber, where they are served a magnificent lunch at midday.

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After lunch around 2 o’clock in the afternoon, the chaplain of the Confraternity of St. Romanus goes in surplice, almuce, and biretta to present a paper on behalf of the members of the chapter of the cathedral church, indicating which prisoner they have chosen. (They cannot choose someone guilty of lèse-majesté or treason). The paper is examined, the prisoner is given a hearing and interrogated (his trial is carried out and recorded), and he is condemned to the punishment that his crime deserves. Then in virtue of the privilege given in commemoration of St. Romanus,[6] he is pardoned and released into the hands of the chaplain, who leads the bareheaded criminal to the place of the old tower. When the procession has arrived there, the archbishop, assisted by the celebrant, deacon, subdeacon and several canons, goes up to the platform on top with them and the two priests who carry the feretry or reliquary of St. Romain. They place this under the arcade on a dressed table. Then the archbishop or in his absence the canon officiant makes an exhortation to the criminal who is on his knees and bareheaded, representing to him the horribleness of his crime, and the obligation he has to God and St. Romanus by whose merits he is delivered. Then he orders the criminal to say the Confiteor, places his hand on his head and says the Misereatur and Indulgentiam, and makes him put his shoulders under one end of the reliquary. He orders him, still on his knees, to raise it slightly. Immediately he puts a crown of white flowers on his head. Then the procession returns to the church of Notre-Dame in the same order it came, the prisoner carrying the reliquary in the front. When the procession enters the Church and the criminal has put the reliquary on the high altar, they say the High Mass, though it is late, sometimes five or six in the evening. The archbishop makes another short exhortation to the criminal and he is led before the dignitaries in the chapterhouse, where he is given another exhortation before being led to the chapel of St. Romain where he hears a Mass. Then he is taken to the Vicomté de l’Eau[7] where he is given a light meal, and thence to the Master of the Confraternity of St. Romanus, where he has supper and rests. The next day at 8 o’clock in the morning the criminal is led by the chaplain into the chapterhouse where another canon gives him another exhortation and hears his confession. He is made to take an oath on the book of the Gospels to lend his arms to the members of the chapter whenever they are required, and then he is set free.


[6] The legend of St. Romanus, bishop of Rouen (7th century), holds that a certain man condemned to death was the only one willing to help this holy bishop slay a dragon (called the Gargouille) who was ravaging the left bank of the Seine. Hence the custom arose of freeing a prisoner in the saint’s honor.

[7] A judicial district where Lyon was located, and by extension the headquarters thereof.

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.

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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


A Farced Epistle for the Holy Innocents

Many thanks to Henri de Villiers at the Schola Sainte Cecile for permission to translate and publish his article of 28 December 2016. It is also being published at New Liturgical Movement today.

Here is a beautiful proper tone for the traditional epistle of the feast of the Holy Innocents, Apocalypse 14, 1-5. (Click here to see a downloadable pdf version in two pages.)




Here are Henri de Villiers’ notes on the chant:

This special chant for the Epistle of the feast of the Holy Innocents (28 December) was once chanted with interwoven French verses that paraphrased the Latin text. In the Middle Ages this was called a farced epistle. These epistles were chanted by two or three subdeacons on certains feasts of the year, especially during the period around the feast of Christmas, from St. Nicholas to Epiphany. We find farced epistles very frequently in liturgical manuscripts from the 12th to the 13th centuries, after which the practice seems to decline and disappear. Some however were composed as late as the 14th century, and were still sung with their texts in Old French in certain provinces of France into the middle of the 18th century, especially the epistle of St. Stephen, which is probably the most ancient. For linguists who study the history of the French language, these farces are very valuable because they represent some of the most ancient written witnesses of French, as expressed in numerous regional forms.

Here is the beginning of the Epistle of the Holy Innocents transcribed by Fr. Lebeuf in his famous Treatise on ecclesiastical chant, with tropes in Old Picard. (See the full trope with musical notation here):


Now listen, old and young, draw near to this writ. If ye listen to what this lesson sayeth and what it singeth, I ask you all that each one pray, that the Lord God may come dwell in us, and take his rest in our hearts, and not forget our end.

A Lesson from the book of the Apocalypse of blessed John the Apostle. Hearken ye to the sense and reason of Saint John’s vision. They call it “Apocalypse,” the raising of the house, and of the lofty house that God promiseth us in his name, by the Gospel and by the sermon. We must not doubt that he sayeth in his lesson.

In those days, I saw the Lamb standing upon Mount Sion, and with Him a hundred and forty-four thousand having His name and the name of His Father written on their foreheads. In those days whereof I sing to ye, Saint John saw a very large mount. Sion is its name, and on its slope there is a standing Lamb. Accompanying Him are a hundred and forty thousand children, and four thousand more withal, and in the midst of their forehead above their faces they bear the name of the living God. Mount Sion is the Holy Church, which the Lord God made and placed upon a firm and well-founded stone, and He taught Her with Scripture, which doth crush and break the haughty, and doth blow and kindle charity. But the sinner hath chosen another way, by evil counsel and by lust. He rendereth a smoky wind for flame, and doth separate himself from God’s love exceedingly. This Lamb is atop the mount, very beautiful, very good, with true wool. With Him is a very large company, but none in this multitude matches Him. It is Jesus Christ of Nazareth, Who through the heavens, on a broad plain, taketh up again and again the Innocents, they who praise God with healthy voice.

And I heard a voice from heaven like a voice of many waters, and like a voice of loud thunder; and the voice that I heard was as of harpers playing on their harps. From afar I heard the waters turn, just like the sea, and then I heard loud thundering and the clash of thunder. Then I heard the sound of harps, harpers with song. Now, we must explain this well: Our deeds, our words, and our thoughts, that we can bring together, we must give over to the Lord God. The waters are the great multitude, the bad, the good, and the incredulous, which God made to be born on earth, as many as there are flowing waters. All must in their lives praise the Lord God almighty. And the thundering I heard from God is what he shall threaten us with, thrashing us with want, and chastising us with hunger and war, as a father his child. The harps produce a melody, while man says a psalmody, and he afflicts himself with fasting when he hath no hypocrisy. Without pride and without envy, he singeth to God in symphony, and rendereth to Him a sweet harmony.

And they were singing as it were a new song before the throne, and before the four living creatures and the elders; and no one could learn the song except those hundred and forty-four thousand, who have been purchased from the earth. Those whom I mentioned, the children, will sing a song the like whereof no man hath ever heard. The news was of a new sound: it is called the Gospel, and none can hold the tone, besides the companions.

These are they who were not defiled with women; for they are virgins. These follow the Lamb wherever He goes. Those who love virginity, and resolved in their hearts to keep their bodies in purity, can serve the Majesty that is of such great power. Those who have besmirched themselves and amused themselves in filth, and have shriven themselves well, and purified and cleansed themselves, shall be able to follow in tranquillity the Lamb of such great holiness.

These were purchased from among men, first-fruits unto God and unto the Lamb, and in their mouth there was found no lie. These Innocents are the first whom God suffered to be martyred, and be struck and broken down, and be defleshed on the rocks. The tyrant and the butcher, for the sake of Jesus Christ our prince, sought to kill and slay them, for Herod who wished to reign alone, with no other heir. When the tyrant beheaded them, their vermilion blood did flow, and while milk appeared, which they had first suckled from their mother, from the mouth that held her. And when the children beheld the bright sword that shone, they laughed on account of their age, for without fail when they looked they bethought that they were playing in that spot.

They are without blemish before the throne of God. For they are without any blemish, and without care of this world. To God’s holy nature they have well offered their likeness and figure as a pure offering. They shall never suffer a harsh word, if, as Holy Scripture sayeth, throughout all the days that the world should last, God shall grant them sweet pasture, and God, as good nourishment! Now, let us pray to God very simply that He might grant us amendment, and He shall sweetly hearken to us. He desireth to take us at His will hither to our end, and stand for us soit on the judgement day. Thereafter he shall give us a dwelling in Paradise, as His gift. Now, say ye all: Amen! Amen!


The French paraphrase is set in the same 7th mode as the cantillation for the Latin text, but the chant is not set to the same melody. In other farced epistles, all the strophes reproduce the same melody, distinct from that of the Latin which develops more freely from one verse to the other. It is probable that the French verses were composed to be inserted into the pre-existing Latin cantillation.

Are these cantillations, at least with regard to the Latin text, very ancient? Probably. They are found with similar melodies from one diocese to another. The two examples Fr. Lebeuf gives of the farced epistle of the feast of St. Stephen (26th December), taken from the books of Amiens (1250) and from a church in the province of Lyon or Sens (1400) contain very similar melodies—both French and Latin—but with different words for the French paraphrases (except the first strophe).

Hence the farced Epistles are precious because they let us hear an echo of the great variety of liturgical cantillations that must have been in use to chant the various Epistles and Gospels of the year. Thus they are a memory of an ancient stage of the liturgy, much richer than what has come down to us. (The Roman liturgical books since the 17th century contain only two tones for the Epistle, one being recto-tono.[1])

The chant for the Epistle of the Holy Innocents cited by Lebeuf is taken from the ancient liturgical books of Amiens. The French trope contains a full 130 verses all in masculine rhymes to facilitate their adaptation to plain-chant. Our schola preserves the chant of the Latin verses, without the French paraphrases, and we have completed the first verses provided by Fr. Lebeuf based on a 19th-century work by Dr. Rigollot. The 7th mode, which naturally has a wide range, was perhaps chosen based on the meaning of the text. The melody rises in the second verse to express the text:

Et audivi vocem de coelo, tamquam vocem aquarum multarum, et tamquam vocem tonitrui magni.

And I heard a voice from heaven, as the noise of many waters, and as the voice of great thunder. (Apocalypse 21:14)

Note that the 4th verse especially (and to an extent the 5th verse) imitates the psalmody of the 7th mode, and this psalmody might have inspired the entire cantillation for the Epistle on Childermas.

Although the Parisian books do not preserve any farced epistles, this might be because few liturgical manuscripts from Paris from before the middle of the 18th century have survived. Must we conclude that the diocese of Paris rejected the singing of farced epistles?

No! In an interesting ordinance promulgated in 1198 by bishop Odo of Sully to regulate the celebration of the feast of the Circumcision on the 1st of January in Paris, we find the following passage, which demonstrates that this city, like the other dioceses of France, also farced epistles: 

Missa similiter cum ceteris Horis ordinate celebrabitur a aliquo prœdictorum, hoc addito quod Epistola cum farsia dicetur a duobus in cappis sericeis.

The Mass shall be celebrated like the rest of the Hours by one of the aforesaid, with the addition of a farced Epistle which shall be said by two ministers in silken copes.


[1] A 16th-century Missal from Cluny, for instance, provides different melodies for each rank of liturgical day.

A Farced Epistle of Saint Stephen in Old Provençal

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Tropes are a genre of liturgical pieces that enjoyed some success in the Middle Ages, and in this genre, the species of farced Epistles and Gospels.[1] These were readings of the Mass in which the text of sacred Scripture is punctuated, verse after verse, by either a Latin paraphrase or a translation into the vernacular. The paraphrase or translation constitutes the farce of the Scripture text. The farce usually takes a musical and verse form.

For the feast of St. Stephen (26 December) many farced epistles of this kind have come down to us: one in langue d’oïl, Oyez trestout, of which there exists a translation in Langue d’oc, Entendes tug, and another known only from various Occitan versions and which we will designate by the incipit of one of them, Sesta lesson.”[2]

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See the rest of the manuscript here (pp. 140 et sqq.).

Leis planchs de Sant Esteve is the rhymed history in old Provençal of the martyrdom of St Stephen. It is taken from the Epistle of his feast day and, since time immemorial, it is sung every year on the feast day, at 7 in the morning, in the Cathedral of Aix-en-Provence at High Mass, which is called the Mass of the People. Attendance is surprisingly great, and the Mass is celebrated in a chapel dedicated to this same saint in the following way. When the time comes for the Epistle, a cleric, dressed in his choir dress, goes up to the preaching pulpit. The subdeacon of the Mass stands in front of it. After saluting each other (which they do again after they have finished), they sing in alternation: the subdeacon sings part of the day’s Epistle in a special tone, and the cleric in the pulpit follows with a couplet from the planchs to the melody of the Veni Creator. M. Raynouard published the planchs as they were written in 1318.”[3]

Translation from the 1318 version.

Sit down, my Lords, and be at peace,
Hearken well to what I will say.
For the lesson is true,
No word therein is falsehood.
Sezes, Senhors, e aias pas,
So que direm ben escoutas:
Car la lisson es de vertat,
Non hy a mot de falssetat.
A Lesson from the Acts of the Apostles.

This lesson which we will read
We take from the deeds of the Apostles,
We will recount the sayings of Saint Luke,
We will speak of Saint Stephen.

Lectio Actuum Apostolorum.

Esta lisson que ligirem
Dels fachs dels Apostols trayrem;
Lo dich San Luc recontarem,
De Sant Esteve parlarem.

In those days.

In that time when God was born,
And was resurrected from death,
And then went up into heaven,
Saint Stephen was stoned.

In diebus illis.

En aquel temps que Dieus fom nat
Et fom de mort ressuscitat,
Et pueys el cel el fom puiat,
Sant Esteve fom lapidat.

Stephen, full of grace and power, was working great wonders and signs among the people.

Hear ye, my Lords, for what reason
The wicked men stoned him,
For they saw that God was in him,
And he performed miracles by His gift.

Stephanus plenus gratia et fortitudine faciebat prodigia et signa magna in populo.

Auias, Senhors, per qual razon
Lo lapideron los fellons;
Car connogron Dieus en el fon,
Et fes miracle per son don.

But there arose some from the synagogue which is called that of the Freedmen, and of the Cyrenians and of the Alexandrians and of those from Cilicia and the province of Asia, disputing with Stephen.

Again him they hasten and go,
The wicked Freedmen,
And the cruel Cilicians,
And the other Alexandrians.

Surrexerunt autem quidam de synagoga, quae appellatur Libertinorum, et Cyrenensium, et Alexandrinorum, et eorum qui erant a Cilicia, et Asia, disputantes cum Stephano.

En contre el corron e van,
Los fellons Losbertinians,
Et los cruels Cilicians,
Els autres Alexandrians.

And they were not able to withstand the wisdom and the Spirit Who spoke.

The servant of God in virtue,
Did know their lies.
He rendered silent the most learned,
And overcame all, good and evil.

Et non poterant resistere sapientiae, et Spiritui, qui loquebatur.

Lo ser de Dieu, e la vertut
Los messongies a connogut;
Los plus savis a rendut mutz,
Los bons el malz totz a vencutz.

Now as they heard these things, they were cut to the heart and gnashed their teeth at him.

When they had heard the reason,
They knew that they were defeated.
With wrath they puff up their lungs,
Their teeth they grit like lions.

Audientes autem haec dissecabantur cordibus suis, et stridebant dentibus in eum.

Cant an auzida la razon,
Els connogron que vencutz son;
D’ira lur enflan lo polmon,
Las dens cruysson coma leons.

But he, being full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God; and he said,

When the Saint saw their will,
He sought not the succor of armed men.
He looked up to heaven;
Hear ye, my Lords, how he spake.

Cum autem esset plenus Spiritu Sancto, intendens in caelum vidit gloriam Dei, et Jesum stantem a dextris Dei. Et ait:

Cant lo Sant vi lur voluntat,
Non quer secors d’ome armat;
Sus en lo cel a regardat,
Auias, Senhors, como a parlat:

Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.

Now, hear ye, let it not be grief to ye,
Above the open heaven I saw,
And knew there the Son of God,
Whom the Jews did crucify.

Ecce video caelos apertos, et Filium hominis stantem a dextris virtutis Dei.

Or, escoutas, non vos sia grieu,
Que sus el cel ubert vech yeu;
E connost la lo Filh de Dieus,
Que crucifixeron Juzieus.

But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed upon him all together. And they cast him out of the city and stoned him.

Wherefore they were sore wroth
The faithless Jews, and they cried:
Let us seize him, who hath spoken too much,
Let us cast him without the city.
Pride can no longer be concealed,
They seize the Saint to torment him.
They shall take him outside,
They begin to stone him.

Exclamantes autem voce magna, continuerunt aures suas, et impetum fecerunt unanimiter in eum, et ejicientes eum extra civitatem, lapidabant.

D’aisso foron fort corrossat
Los fals Juzieux, e en cridat:
Prennam lo, que trop a parlat,
Gittem lo for de la ciutat.
Non se pot plus l’orgueilh celar,
Lo Sant prenon per tormentar;
De foras els lo van menar,
Comensson a lo lapidar.

And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul.

Lo, at the feet of a young man
They place their garments, the better to throw.
Saul did the first ones call him,
Saint Paul those that came last.

Tt testes deposuerunt vestimenta sua secus pedes adolescentis qui vocabatur Saulus.

Vevos qu’es pes d’un bachallier
Pausan lur draps, per miels lancier;
Saul li appelleron li premier,
Sant Paul cels que vengron darrier.

And while they were stoning Stephen he prayed and said:

The Saint saw the stones come.
They are soft to him; he does not try to flee.
For his Lord he suffered martyrdom,
And began to speak thus:

Et lapidabant Stephanum invocantem, et dicentem:

Lo Sant vit la peyras venir,
Doussas li son, non quer fugir;
Per son Senhor suffri martir,
E comensset aysso a dir:

Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.

Lord God, who madest the world,
And tookest us out of the depths of hell,
And gavest us thine hallowed name,
Receive my spirit on high.

Domine Jesu, suscipe spiritum meum.

Senher Dieus, que fezist lo mont;
E nos trayssist d’unfer pregon,
E nos domnest lo tieu Sant nom,
Recep mon esperit amont.

And falling on his knees, he cried out with a loud voice, saying

After speaking, he knelt,
Whereof he gives us example.
For he prayed for his enemies,
And what he willed he did.

Positis autem genibus, clamavit voce magna, dicens:

Apres son dich, saginolhet,
Don annos exemple donet;
Car, per sos enemios preguet,
E so que vole el accabet.

Lord, do not lay this sin against them.

Lord God, full of great sweetness:
Thus said the Saint to his Lord,
Forgive them the evil they do,
Let them have neither punishment nor pain.

Domine, ne statuas illis hoc peccatum.

Senher Dieus, plen de gran doussor,
So dis lo Sant a son Senhor,
Lo mal quels fan perdona lor,
Non aian pena ni dolor.

And with these words he fell asleep in the Lord..

When his speech was wholly finished,
Martyrdom was fulfilled.
What he asked for was heard,
And he fell asleep in God’s kingdom.

Et cum hoc dixisset, obdormivit in Domino.

Cant lo sermon fom tot fenir,
El martire fom adymplit;
Do so quel quer et fom auzit,
El regnum Dieus s’es adormit.


[1] Edm. Martene, De antiquis ecclesiae ritibus, vol. 1 (1736), p. 281-282.

[2] From Victor Saxer, “L’épÎtre farcie de la Saint-Étienne ‘Sesta Lesson’: Inventaire bibliographique,” Provence historique 93-94 (1973), pp. 318 – 326.

[3] From Les Planchs de Sant Esteve, ed. P. d’Aix.

Knights and Emperors in Papal Matins of Christmas

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Midnight Mass of the Nativity at Santissima Trinità dei Pellegrini in Rome. (Photo courtesy of Selina Fang, Juventutem London)


In L’année liturgique, Dom Prosper Guéranger recounts what must have been one of the most sublime ceremonies in Christendom: Papal Matins. The ceremonial calls for a knight to read the fifth lesson and for the Holy Roman Emperor himself to read the seventh, bearing witness to the organic whole that was mediæval society.

The Divine Infant, who is to be born amongst us, is the Mighty God, the Prince of Peace, whose government is upon his shoulders (Isa. ix 6), as we shall sing to-morrow, with the Church. We have already seen how the God of Hosts has honoured this power of Emmanuel, by leading powerful Nations to acknowledge him to lay in the Crib of Bethlehem as the Lord to whom they owed their adoring fealty.

The same recognition of that Babe as the Mighty God is made by the ceremony to which we allude. The Sovereign Pontiff, the Vicar of our Emmanuel, blesses, in his name, a Sword and Helmet, which are to be sent to some Catholic warrior who has deserved well of the Christian world. In a letter addressed to Queen Mary of England and to Philip, her husband, Cardinal Pope gives an explanation of this solemn rite. The sword is sent to some Prince, whom the Vicar of Christ wishes to honour in the name of Jesus, who is King: for the Angel said to Mary: The Lord will give unto him the Throne of David his father (St Luke i 32). It is from him alone that the power of the sword comes (Rom. xiii 3, 4); for God said to Cyrus: I have girded thee (with the sword(Isa. xiv 1, 5); and the Psalmist thus speaks to the Christ of God: Gird thy Sword upon thy thigh, O thou most Mighty! (Ps. xliv 4) And because the Sword should not be drawn save in the cause of justice, it is for that reason that a Sword is blessed on this Night, in the midst of which rises, born unto us, the divine Sun of Justice. On the Helmet, which is both the ornament and protection of the head, there is worked, in pearls, the Dove, which is the emblem of the Holy Ghost; and this to teach him who wears it that it is not from passion or ambition that he must use his sword, but solely under the guidance of the divine Spirit, and from a motive of spreading the Kingdom of Christ.

[… During the second nocturne, after the psalms have been sung] the Book of the Sermons of the Holy Fathers is opened, and a passage is read from one of those magnificent discourses of St Leo the Great, which enraptured the people of Rome in the fifth century.

At Rome, if there be in the Holy City the Knight, who has received the Helmet and Sword, blessed, as we have described, by the Sovereign Pontiff, the fifth Lesson is given to him to sing, because it speaks of the great Battle between Christ and Satan in the glorious mystery of the Incarnation. Whilst the Choir is singing the Responsory O magnum mysterium, the Knight is taken by the Master of Ceremonies to the Pope. Standing before the Holy Father, he draws his sword, thrice sets its point on the ground, thrice brandishes it in the air, and then wipes the blade upon his left arm. He is then taken to the Ambo, or reading-desk, takes off his helmet, and, having vested the Cope over his armour, he sings the Lesson. These ceremonies of our holy Mother, the Church of Rome, were drawn up in days when might was not right, and brute force was made subservient to moral power and principle. The Christian Warrior, cased in his steel armour, was resolved, as indeed he was bound, never to draw his sword save in the cause of Christ, the conqueror of Satan: was there anything strange in his expressing this by a sacred ceremony?

[… After the third nocturne] are read the beginnings of the three Gospels which are said in the three Masses of Christmas Day. To each portion of these Gospels is appended a passage from a Homily by one of the Holy Fathers.

The first of the three is that of St Luke, and the Homily given is that of St Gregory the Great. It relates the publishing of the Emperor Augustus’s edict, commanding a census of the whole world. This seventh Lesson, according to the Ceremonial of the Roman Church, is to be sung by the Emperor, if he happen to be in Rome at the time; and this is done in order to honour the Imperial power, whose decrees were the occasion of Mary and Joseph going to Bethlehem, and so fulfilling the designs of God, which he had revealed to the ancient Prophets. The Emperor is led to the Pope, in the same manner as the Knight who had to sing the fifth lesson; he puts on the Cope; two Cardinal-Deacons gird him with the sword, and go with him to the Ambo. The Lesson being concluded, the Emperor again goes before the Pope, and kisses his foot, as being the Vicar of the Christ whom he has just announced. This ceremony was observed in 1468 by the Emperor Frederic III, before the then Pope, Paul II.

(Translation by Dom Laurence Shepherd, OSB)

L’Enfant divin qui va naître est le Dieu fort, le Prince de la Paix ; il porte la marque de la royauté sur son épaule, comme nous le chanterons demain avec l’Eglise. Pour honorer cette puissance de l’Emmanuel, déjà, ainsi que nous l’avons vu, le Seigneur des armées a amené aux pieds de la Crèche les deux grands chefs de la nation franque, Clovis et Charlemagne ; et voici que le Pontife suprême, le Vicaire de l’Emmanuel, bénit en son nom, dans cette nuit même, une épée et un casque destinés à quelque guerrier catholique dont le bras victorieux a bien mérité de la république chrétienne. Cette épée, dit le grand Cardinal Polus expliquant ce rite dans une lettre célèbre adressée à Philippe II et à la reine Marie, son épouse, est remise à un prince que le Vicaire du Christ veut honorer, au nom du Christ lui-même qui est Roi ; car l’Ange dit à Marie : Dieu lui donnera le trône de David son père. C’est de lui seul que vient la puissance du glaive; car Dieu dit à Cyrus : Je t’ai ceint de l’épée; et le Psalmiste dit au Christ : Ceignez-vous du glaive, ô prince très vaillant ! Mais le glaive ne doit se tirer que pour la justice; et c’est pour cela qu’on le bénit en cette nuit, au milieu de laquelle se lève le divin Soleil de justice. Sur le casque, ornement et protection de la tête, est représentée par un travail de perles l’image de l’Esprit-Saint, afin que le prince connaisse que ce n’est point d’après le mouvement de ses passions, ni pour son ambition, qu’il doit faire usage du glaive, mais uniquement dans la sagesse du divin Esprit et pour étendre le royaume du Christ sur la terre.

[…] A Rome, si le chevalier auquel ont été destinés le casque et l’épée, qui ont été bénits avant les Matines par le Souverain Pontife, se trouve présent, c’est lui-même qui doit lire la cinquième Leçon, parce qu’il y est parlé du grand combat du Christ contre le démon, dans le glorieux mystère de l’Incarnation. Pendant le chant du Répons O Magnum mysterium, les maîtres des cérémonies le conduisent aux pieds du Pape, en présence duquel il tire son épée, en touche trois fois la terre avec la pointe, la brandit trois fois d’une façon martiale, et enfin l’essuie sur son bras gauche. Il est ensuite conduit au pupitre, ôte son casque, se revêt du pluvial par-dessus son armure, et lit enfin la Leçon. Telles sont les dispositions du Cérémonial de la sainte Eglise Romaine, dressé à une époque où la force matérielle aimait à s’incliner devant l’idée morale, où le chevalier bardé de fer attestait qu’il voulait marcher à la suite du Christ, vainqueur de Satan.

[…] On lit ensuite successivement le commencement des divers textes du saint Evangile qui seront lus plus tard en entier, à chacune des trois Messes par lesquelles l’Eglise honore la Naissance du Sauveur. Les saints Docteurs commentent ces sublimes mystères dans leurs Homélies.

Le premier texte, qui est de saint Luc, est expliqué par saint Grégoire le Grand. Il rapporte l’édit de l’empereur Auguste pour le dénombrement de l’empire romain. Cette septième Leçon, suivant le Cérémonial de la sainte Eglise Romaine, doit être lue par l’Empereur lui-même, s’il se  trouve  à Rome,  afin d’honorer la puissance impériale dont les décrets, appelant à Bethléhem Marie et Joseph, procurèrent l’accomplissement des volontés du Très-Haut, manifestées par les Prophètes. L’Empereur est conduit devant le Pape, comme le chevalier qui a chanté la cinquième Leçon; on le revêt du pluvial; deux Cardinaux-Diacres lui ceignent l’épée et l’accompagnent au pupitre. La Leçon étant lue, l’Empereur se présente de nouveau devant le Pontife et lui baise le pied, comme au Vicaire  du Christ qu’il vient d’annoncer. Ce cérémonial fut encore observé, en 1468, par l’Empereur Frédéric III, en présence du Pape Paul II.