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

Polittico del 1476, s. stefano.jpg

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]

Screen Shot 2018-12-26 at 1.24.19 PM


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.

Farced Introits: A Prologue for Christmas Day Mass

Hodie cantandus est nobis puer, quem gignebat ineffabiliter ante tempora pater, et eundem sub tempore generavit inclita mater.

Quis est iste puer, quem tam magnis præconiis dignum vociferatis? Dicite nobis, ut collaudatores esse possimus.

Hic enim est, quem presagus et electus symnista Dei, ad terras uenturum preuidens, longe ante prenotavit sicque predixit:

Puer natus est nobis…

To-day we must sing of that child, Whom His Father ineffably begot afore time, and Whom His glorious Mother bore in time.

Who is this child, whom you proclaim worthy of such great acclamations? Tell us, that we too might praise Him.

For He is Whom the soothsayer and chosen companion of God, foreseeing that He should come to earth, foreshewed and foretold:

A child is born unto us…

The Hodie cantandus est verses, diastematic notation from Nevers (PA 1235), East-Frankish neumes (Minden Be 11). Click to enlarge. (Source)

Farced introits represent the largest repertory of tropes after Kyrie tropes 1, and one of the most fascinating. Like sequences, they had their origin in that hotbed of liturgical creativity that was the Abbey of St Gall in modern-day Switzerland.

The earliest account of their composition in found in the continuation of the Casus sancti Galli, a chronicle of the abbey written by Ekkehard IV. Towards the end of the ninth century, a precocious young monk (plane iuvenis acutissimus) named Tuotilo wrote introductory verses for the introit of the Mass of Christmas Day—Puer natus est—which begin Hodie cantandus est. These verses proved popular, like the sequences that Tuotilo’s confrère and close friend Notker had invented some years earlier, and Tuotilo went on to write several other tropes throughout his life. Although he was nowhere near as prolific a composer as Notker, Tuotilo’s pieces were much admired; one of those who delighted therein was Emperor Charles the Fat:

The melodies Tuotilo composed are distinctive and easily recognisable, for his music is sweeter, whether on the psaltery or the rotta, at which he excelled, as is manifest in Hodie cantandus and Omnium virtutum gemmis. Indeed, he presented these tropes to Charles to be sung at the offering the king himself would make [i.e. during the offertory of the Mass, when the king would present his offerings]. When Tuotilo had composed the offertory Viri Galilæi 2, the king even bade him to add verses, [which were,] as they say, Quoniam Dominus Jesus Christus cum esset, Omnipotens genitor, fons et origo, with the following: Gaudete et cantate, and others indeed; but we mention these, so that, if you be a musician, you might know how different his music is from that of others.3

The Hodie cantandus est trope itself is an example of the melodic peculiarity that characterises Tuotilo’s compositions: the trope is in the first mode, whereas the subsequent introit is in the seventh mode; a striking modulation in the third phrase of the trope allows it to conclude in G to match the first note of the introit. 

Howsoever idiosyncratic the melody of this trope may be, its text a classic example of exegesis one expects of a trope. Its dialogical structure, reminiscent of Psalm 23, is almost catechetical—Statement, Question, Response. The statement is a dogmatic proclamation of the mystery about to be celebrated in the Mass, and it elicits the question that allows the announcement of Christ’s birth to be tied into the words of the Prophet Isaias (presagus et symnista Dei) that form the introit antiphon. And at the same time the initial proclamation is a scholium on the words Puer natus est nobis, et filius datus est nobis: this son is born in time of the blessed Virgin, but is given to us by the Father, who begot him before all ages. 

The Hodie cantandus est trope enjoyed great popularity throughout the Middle Ages, and is found in liturgical books as late as the 15th century, well after the general decline in the popularity of tropes.

Tuotilo’s example, moreover, proved influential in the composition of introit tropes in the succeeding centuries. In particular, there arose an entire genre of chant verses to be sung before the introit which served almost as introductions to the feast commemorated in the Mass of the day, often labelled Tropi ad processionem in northern French manuscripts and Versus ad officium in English ones. Since they were part of the procession before Mass, or even sometimes of a pre-Mass ritual, some scholars have rather pedantically decided to argue they are not true tropes. Howbeit, in some instances they do seem to have acquired a life beyond that of a mere trope, taking advantage of the dramatic possibilities inherent in the dialogical structure of the Hodie cantandus est verses. Such is the case of the Quem quæritis dialogue on Easter, whereon we hope to dedicate a future post. 

cambrai trope
In this version of the Hodie cantandus est trope, from an 11th-century gradual from the Abbey of St-Vaast d’Arras (Cambrai, F-CA 75 [76]), the original verses have become part of a larger pre-introit ritual with the heading “ad processionem”. This sort of chanted dialogue would eventually develop into so-called “liturgical dramas”.


1. By way of example, in volumes I and III of the Corpus Troporum, which contain tropes for Christmastide and Eastertide respectively, one finds 1,044 introit trope verses, against 250 trope verses for offertories and 113 for communions.

2. This offertory responsory is different from the one preserved in the Tridentine missal, and can be found on pp. 4-5 here (without the added verses).

3. Que autem Tuotilo dictauerat, singularis et agnoscibilis melodie sunt, quia per psalterium seu per rotham, qua potentior ipse erat, neumata inuenta dulciora sunt, ut apparet in Hodie cantandus et Omnium uirtutum gemmis, quos quidem tropos Karolo ad offerendam quam ipse rex fecerat, obtulit canendos. Qui rex etiam Viri Galilei offerendam cum dictasset, Tuotiloni versus addere iniungit, ut aiunt: Quoniam Dominus Ihesus Christus cum esset, Omnipotens genitor, fons et origo; cum sequentibus: Gaudete et cantate, et alios quidem; sed istos proposuimus, ut quam dispar eius melodia sit ceteris, si musicus es, noris. (Ekkehard IV, Casus sancti Galli).

On the ‘O’ Antiphons and the Nativity (GA 3.5-7)

Ch. 5
On the “O” Antiphons

Nativity 1
The Nativity, The Hague, KB, 74 G 38, fol. 38r.


The seven “O’s” are sung more as expressions of wonder than invocations. In them we signify the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, by which the Incarnation is carried out, and through which Christ is invited by the Church. For he is the Wisdom in which the Father made all things, and came in the spirit of wisdom to teach us “the way of prudence.” He is Adonai, who revealed his name to Moses when he gave him the Law on Sinai, who comes in the spirit of understanding to redeem us. He is the Root of Jesse, who “stood as a sign to the peoples” when he willed to be adored everywhere through the sign of the cross, and he comes in the spirit of of counsel to deliver us. He is the Key of David who “opened” heaven for the just, “shut” the gates of hell, and came in the spirit of fortitude to “free those who were bound in the prison house.” He is the Morning Star and the Sun of justice who comes to “enlighten” us with the spirit of knowledge. He is the King of the nations and the Cornerstone, who comes to save man through the spirit of piety. He is Emmanuel coming to us in Israel, “coming to save” us through the spirit of fear, giving to everyone the chrism oils of love. The singing of the twelve “O’s” expresses the twelve apostles who preached Christ’s advent, as we read.

CAP. V. – De antiphonis O.

Septem O admirando potius quam vocando cantantur, in quibus septem dona Spiritus sancti notantur, per quae haec administratur incarnatio, et per quae Christus ab Ecclesia invitatur. Ipse quippe est sapientia, in qua Pater fecit omnia, qui venit in spiritum sapientiae, docere nos viam prudentiae. Ipse Adonai quod nomen Moysi indicavit, cui legem in Sina dedit, qui venit per spiritum intelligentiae, nos redimere. Ipse radix Iesse, qui in signum populorum stetit, dum per signum crucis ubique adorari voluit, qui in spiritu consilii nos liberare venit. Ipse clavis David, qui coelum iustis aperuit, infernum clausit, et per spiritum fortitudinis vinctos de domo carceris educere venit. Ipse Oriens et Sol iustitiae, qui venit nos illuminare spiritu scientiae. Ipse Rex gentium et lapis angularis, qui venit salvare hominem per spiritum pietatis. Ipse est Emmanuel veniens ad nos per Israel, qui venit ad salvandum nos per spiritum timoris, dans cunctis charismata amoris. Si duodecim O cantantur, tunc duodecim prophetae exprimuntur, qui Christi adventum praedicasse leguntur.

Nativity 2
« Livre lequel entre aultres matieres traitte de la nativité Nostre Seigneur Jhesu Crist, de sa vye, de sa passion, de sa resurrection et d’aultres belles et devotes matieres, compilé par Jehan Mansel, notable clercq lay, demourant a Hesdin en Artois ». Volume 1er Source: gallica.bnf.fr
Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal, Ms-5205 réserve, fol. 10v.

Ch. 6
On the Vigils of the Saints

Vigils originated with the shepherds who kept watch (vigilias) over their flocks by night as Christ was being born (Luke 2). The ancient custom was to perform two night offices on the major feast days: one at night’s beginning by the pontiff with his chaplains without the Invitatorium Venite, another at the middle of the night with the clergy, as in the solemn celebrations we observe today. The people who had gathered in great numbers for the feast used to watch through the whole night singing praises. In later times, however, fools turned a good thing into a mockery, and gave themselves over to bawdy songs and dances, drinking and fornication. Vigils were forbidden and days of fasting took their place, but retained the name of Vigils. According to the ancient custom, therefore, two offices are assigned to the night of Our Lord’s Birth. In the first one, the antiphons Dominus dixit ad me, In sole posuit, and Elevamini, and the Responsory Ecce Agnus Dei are sung along with everything else [as usual]. In the other, the antiphons Dominus dixit, Tanquam sponsus, Diffusa est gratia, and the Responsory Hodie nobis are sung with all the rest [as usual].

CAP. VI. – De vigiliis sanctorum.

Vigiliae a pastoribus coeperunt, qui vigilias supra greges suos nascente Christo custodierunt (Luc. II). More antiquo duo nocturnalia officia in praecipuis festivitatibus agebantur: unum in initio noctis a pontifice cum suis capellanis absque Venite; aliud in media nocte in clero, sicut adhuc solemniter celebratur. Et populus, qui ad festum confluxerat, tota nocte in laudibus vigilare solebat. Postquam vero illusores bonum in ludibrium permutaverunt, et turpibus cantilenis ac saltationibus, potationibus et fornicationibus operam dederunt. Vigiliae interdictae et dies ieiunii dedicati sunt, et vigiliarum nomen retinuerunt. Secundum antiquum ergo morem duo officia nocti Natalis Domini ascribuntur. Unum in qua antiphona Dominus dixit ad me. In sole posuit, Elevamini et responsorium, Ecce Agnus Dei, cum reliquis canuntur. Aliud in quo antiphona Dominus dixit, Tanquam sponsus, Diffusa est gratia, et responsorium Hodie nobis cum aliis concinuntur.

Ch. 7
On the Lord’s Nativity

Nativity 3
Horae ad usum Parisiensem ou Petites heures de Jean de Berry.
Source: gallica.bnf.fr

Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des Manuscrits, Latin 18014, fol. 40v.

The word “festival” comes from fasti divinitas, i.e. the anniversary or right of divinity, because every year on this day the divinity is given its due. “Celebration” comes from celibum, i.e. the ritual of the chaste, because in it the rites of heaven are performed by chaste people. “Socan” means frequent, hence we have the word solemnitas because in a solemnity the people frequent the church. The feast is called the Lord’s Nativity because we believe that on that day Christ was born in the flesh. The Church celebrates this Nativity because formerly everyone, not only kings, celebrated their birthdays. So we celebrate his temporal birth because through him we are reborn to eternity. Christ willed to be born at the end of the year because he came into the world at the end of the age. It also pleased him to be born at night because he came in secret, hidden in the form of flesh. After his birth the days get longer, because those who believe in him are called to the light of eternity.

The Invitatory Christus natus est nobis is sung in the person of the angels, by whom the shepherds, or rather all people are invited to pray to Christ. We sing joyfully to him in three psalms, and give him applause in the readings through the oracles of the prophets. In the Responsories we sing with the angels. These Responsories portray the restoration through this nativity of all things in heaven and on earth, and the damnation of all infernal things. In the first Responsory Gaudet exercitus angelorum we sing the restoration of heavenly things. In the second Pax vera descendit we sing the reparation of earthly things. In the third Introivit in regionem nostram we recall the liberation of those sitting in the region of the shadow of death. Because there is no doubt that the Trinity accomplished all these things, the Gloria Patri is sung in every Responsory.

CAP. VII. – De Nativitate Domini.

Festivitas, quasi fasti divinitas, id est, annua vel ius divinitatis dicitur, quia illa die annuatim ius divinitati persolvitur. Celebritas quasi celibum, id est, castorum ritus dicitur, quia in illa ritus coelestium a castis agitur: Socan dicitur frequens, inde solemnitas appellatur, quia in ea a conventu populi Ecclesia frequentatur. Natalis itaque Domini inde dicitur, quia in eo Christus natus in carne creditur, quem Natalem Ecclesia ideo celebrat, quia olim non solum reges, sed et quique natalem suum celebrabant. Ideo et nos celebramus eius temporalem natalem, quia per eum renascimur ad aeternitatem. Ideo Christus in fine anni nasci voluit, quia in finem saeculi in mundum venit. Ideo in nocte nasci ei placuit, quia clam scilicet sub carne latens venit. Post eius natalem dierum lux prolongatur, quia in eum credentes ad aeternitatis lucem vocantur. Invitatorium Christus natus est nobis, sub persona angelorum cantatur, a quibus pastores, vel potius omnis populus ad orandum Christum invitatur. Cui in tribus psalmis gaudentes psallimus, in lectionibus per oracula prophetarum plaudimus. In responsoriis cum angelis canimus. Quae responsoria repraesentant cuncta in coelis et in terris per hanc nativitatem instaurata, et infernalia damnata. In primo responsorio in quo Gaudet exercitus angelorum, cantatur restauratio coelestium. In secundo in quo Pax vera descendit, cantatur reparatio terrestrium. In tertio in quo Introivit in regionem nostram, cantatur, liberatio recolitur, in regione umbrae mortis habitantium. Et quia haec cuncta Trinitas operata non dubitatur, ideo etiam ad singula responsoria Gloria Patri cantatur.

Deux tropes, à propos de rien

To recall the words of an introductory post on tropes, one of the most fascinating fruits of the mediaeval love for the liturgy is the vast corpus of tropes that age has bequeathed to us. “Trope” is the collective term applied today to musical additions to the preexisting liturgical chants; the medievals themselves variously referred to them as tropi, versus, laudes, prosae, prosulae, or verba.

Troping (or farcing) was a distinctly Western method of elaborating liturgical texts, an aspect of the Roman Rite’s medieval development that was more or less curtailed (though never clearly forbidden) in the post-Tridentine centuries. They are born out of the spirit of lectio divina, the loving rumination, commentary, and elaboration of the sacra pagina, applied to the texts of the sacred liturgy. Previously, we’ve shown troped Kyries and Introits, but few parts of the Mass escaped being farced. Glorias, Introits, Epistles, and even Creeds bloomed with verses grafted by the liturgy’s medieval gardeners.

Music 2 (H)
Horae ad usum romanum. Source: gallica.bnf.fr Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des manuscrits, Latin 1156 B, fol. 31r.

Until the French Revolution, a farced Regina cæli used to be sung as a final hymn to Our Lady after Lauds, Vespers, and Compline on Easter in the Antiphonal of the Royal Convent of Rivoli in Paris. The intercalated three triplets Virgo, Infrementis, and Veri are a sort of response or solo sung by a part of the choir or by children or cantors, and were sung after the full choir had finished its verset with an alleluia.

Regina cæli, lætare, alleluia!
Quia quem meruisti portare, alleluia,
Virgo, Mater resurgentis,
Vetustatem nostræ mentis,
Clementer evacua.

Resurrexit, sicut dixit, alleluia!
Infrementis, corrumpentis
Mundi carnes et serpentis
Mixturam attenua.

Ora pro nobis Deum, alleluia!
Veri lumen Orientis,
Fac nos pacem permanentis
Possidere pascua, alleluia!

Queen of heaven, rejoice, alleluia!
For He Whom thou didst deserve to bear, alleluia,
O Virgin, Mother of the Resurrected, mercifully cleanse the old dross of our mind. 

Is risen again, as He said, alleluia!
Soothe the flesh of the frenzied and corrupting world and the craft of the serpent. 

Pray for us to God, alleluia!
Grant us the peace of possessing the Pasch of the eternal and true light of the East, alleluia!

In Codex 42 of the library of the monastery of Einsiedeln, a 10th-century manuscript that contains the second part of the Homiliarium or Lectionary of Paul the Deacon, one finds in fol. 268b, written by an 11th-century hand, sundry Tropi sive farcitiones for the Tu autem Domine which was and is still said at the end of lessons. They appear to have been sung after the lessons of Matins on the great feast of Christmas.


Tu autem, Domine, qui hodie humanitatis nostræ particeps fieri dignatus es, miserere nobis.

Tu autem, Domine, qui hodie pro salute humani generis nasci dignatus es, miserere nobis.

Tu autem, Domine, qui hodierna die per uterum intactæ Virginis ad nos venire dignatus es, miserere nobis.

Tu autem, Domine, Alpha et Omega, qui in principio cum Patre omnia creasti ex nihilo et in præsenti die nasci dignatus es ex Virginis alvo, miserere nobis.

Tu autem, Deus de Deo, lumen de lumine, Domine, miserere nobis.

Tu autem, Domine, lux lucis, dies Domini, miserere nobis.

But thou, O Lord, who deignedst today to participate in our humanity, have mercy on us.

But thou, O Lord, who deignedst today to be born for the salvation of the human race, have mercy on us.

But thou, O Lord, who deignedst today to come to us through the womb of the intact Virgin, have mercy on us.

But thou, O Lord, Alpha and Omega, who in the beginning createdst all things from nothing with the Father, and on the present day deignedst to be born from the Virgin’s womb, have mercy on us.

But thou, O Lord, God from God, light from light, have mercy on us.

But thou, O Lord, light of light, day of the Lord, have mercy on us.

Translated from Dom Suitbert Bäumer’s Histoire du bréviaire, translated and expanded by Dom Réginald Biron, Vol. 2, pp. 422-3.