Before the Reformation, laypersons were not allowed to sing in church. Sacred music was performed by professionals (priests and cantors), played on complex instruments (pipe organs), and sung in an obscure language (Latin).
Church for Men blog
I confess that sometimes I troll certain blogs and web sites which can be counted on to provide a bounty of ignorance, especially about the alleged horrors of the Church before the marvelous light of the Reformation began to shine. I know that this is like shooting fish in a barrel. I know also that folks who are quite certain that the medieval church was a chamber of horrors have little incentive to read the massive literature which paints a quite different picture of the “Dark Ages.”
But running across the quote above while reading Fr. Augustine Thompson’s wonderful study Cities of God: The Religion of the Italian Communes 1125-1325, I cannot resist commenting on this perfectly stated and thoroughly unsubstantiated cliché concerning medieval religion.
In all fairness this blog raises a real problem for the mega church give-em-what-they-like crowd. Apparently there is in these circles a tendency more and more to turn the music into performance and less and less to have congregational singing. It is no surprise to me. Most people’s musical experience is listening to other people play and sing and what people like in music is more or less what the folks who sell the music have told them to like. As a musician myself - not a church musician but a fiddle, banjo, guitar player who specializes in the traditional dance music of the American South – I am acutely aware of the difference between music which arises naturally out of tradition and music which is the result of mass marketing, monopoly and advertising. The music I listen to for fun is mostly poor quality field recordings of ordinary people playing fiddle or banjo, which they learned from their parents and family. I believe that most of us are capable of making some kind of music, even if it is only beating on a trash can, and I vastly prefer this kind of music to anything the music business is able to produce.
I have no need to sing this music in church (even though some of it, quite a lot of it is religious music) because I am not trying to sell my music and I am certainly not trying to support the music industry. What I want in church music is what I want in secular music—that which arises out of the tradition: plainsong and polyphony and hymns valued as much for their theological and liturgical content as for their tunes.
The problem with the current evangelical church music is its conviction that creativity is a supreme good just as in pop music: you have to do your own original material. Tradition is the enemy because tradition doesn’t sell.
Which brings me back to the offending quote. I am not aware of any medieval canonical legislation which forbade ‘laypersons’ (sic) from singing in church. In fact obviously communities of female religious were not clerics or professionals but they sang both Mass and Office. Cantors might be clerics but they could also be laymen. Is the organ a ‘complex instrument’? Any more complex than the electric keyboards commonly used in many churches today? I understand that Latin appears obscure to many now. But was it obscure in the period before the Reformation. Hardly. It was the language of politics and business as well as of the Church.
From Fr. Augustine Thompson OP Cities of God
“That the lay faithful might not fully understand or mouth the language of the liturgy does not mean that they somehow failed to participate in the rite.”
“ The evidence is that the lay faithful understood the rites enacted before them quite well, if not the words themselves, at least the meaning conveyed thereby. The heretics were exaggerating to make a point. Italians got the drift of the lessons at Mass when they took the trouble to listen carefully, as admittedly some failed to do. But the pious who did try could get the basic message. The layman Francis of Assisi's conversion came while hearing the commission of the apostles in Matthew sung at Mass.”
Even writing simple Latin prose was not beyond the capacity of laypeople with a modest education. Throughout the communal period lay Italians composed hymns, prayers, and saints' lives in Latin "as if it were spoken language." The council fathers meeting at Grado in 1'296 order that deacons use no fancy or melismatic intonations in their reading of the Gospel, because "these impeded the understanding of the hearers and so the devotion in the minds of the faithful is reduced."
“ At least some of the simple faithful considered it worth their while to achieve a working comprehension of the sacred language of the cult. . . The Church expected even illiterate believers to say their daily prayers in Latin, and they seem to have accomplished this feat. A group of imprisoned paupers vowed to honor Saint Ranieri of Pisa if he helped them escape. After chanting the Pater Noster three times in Latin, they fell asleep Ranieri appeared to one in a dream and explained how to break out of the prison. They were to use iron bars from the window to dig through the wall. The hagiographer considered the dream a miracle; he took it for granted that the poor wretches could chant their prayers in Latin."
“In any case, this was an age of increasing literacy. The father of Saint Venturino of Bergamc (1304-46) personally taught his son to read his Latin devotions, although hope that the boy might become a friar may have lain behind the lesson. Paolo of Certaldo, writing in the later 13oos, considered it normal that a boy: learn to read, and read Latin, by the age of seven”.
Fr. Thompson documents that the laity of the period were capable and expected to sing much of the ordinary of the Mass, Kyrie, Gloria, Sanctus, Agnus Dei. The Creed might have been a challenge but the people sang a simple Kyrie in response to the Creed to indicate their assent to it.
I have actually seen this borne out at St. Francis. In Advent we sing the old very easy and simple daily requiem plainsong Mass in Latin. The whole congregation, men and women, belts it out loudly and with manifest comprehension.
The music of the Mass the music of the masses.