Catholic CornucopiadCheney

Part II: The Middle Ages

Chapter I: The Formation of the Breviary in Its Early Stages

From St. Gregory to Charlemagne, 591-814

Section 1.—St. Gregory the Great

The Roman Breviary: Its Sources and History

1. The Roman Office at the Accession of St. Gregory the Great.—This office, as we have said, was already in existence, and our object in turning our attention to it once more is that we may the better appreciate St. Gregory’s influence on the liturgy, and on the arrangement of the canonical hours in particular. Several popes before him, especially St. Damasus, had expended some labour upon it, and so it is not without reason that St. Benedict, in his rule, speaks of the component parts of the office—the antiphons, responds, hymns—as well known at the time he wrote. At the beginning of the seventh century there existed in the neighbourhood of Rome all the elements of a Liber antiphonalis and a Liber responsoralis. We must not exaggerate. “St. Gregory did not create the Roman office. Many popes had contributed towards its formation. In the seventh century it was possible to place its composition as a whole, as a divine office, at as early a date as one pleased.” 1 As has been seen in the first part of this little book, it is difficult to determine with exactness the origin of those elements in the Roman church which St. Gregory arranged in better order. Speaking broadly, we can endorse what Dom Guéranger says of St. Gregory’s Antiphonary: “The ecclesiastical chant resembles all other great institutions inasmuch as the first time we come across them in the records of tradition they appear as already existing, and their origin as lost in an impenetrable antiquity.” 2

2. What did St. Gregory achieve in regard to the Office?—In spite of the fact that we possess no MS. of the Gregorian Liturgy belonging to the period of St. Gregory, nor even to the following century, we have no hesitation in saying, with Dom Lévêque, Dom G. Morin, and many others, that St. Gregory “collected, re-arranged in better order, completed more perfectly, and, above all, gave definite form to the chants, more or less ancient, of the Roman liturgy.”3

This is specially true of the Gregorian Antiphonary. Dom Morin4l thinks that the part taken by St. Gregory is strictly defined in the following words: “Ipse patrum monumenta sequens renovavit et auxit.” He took as a basis of his work the compositions of his predecessors, re-arranged them, and completed them by new additions. In spite of what may be said to the contrary, there is no lack of texts in support of this statement. Dom Leclercq (art, Antiphonaire in the Dictionnaire d’Archéologie, vol. i, 2453 et sqq.) gives these texts after Dom Morin (Revue Bénédictine for 1890), and by them we mount up not only to the end of the eighth and beginning of the ninth centuries, from which dates an interesting treatise edited by Gerbert, but even to the first half of the eighth century, when we meet with a prologue in verse which Pope Adrian I. (772-795) placed at the beginning of the Antiphonary, and which is not applicable to any other pope of the name of Gregory. We have also the testimony of Egbert of York, who claimed to follow “the authority of our teacher St. Gregory, who has thus ordained in the copies of his Antiphonary and Missal brought to us by our master the blessed Augustine.” Finally, Dom Leclercq concludes (ib. 2461), there is one text hitherto ignored which must not be passed over in the controversy concerning the Gregorian Antiphonary. In 732, the date to which the evidence of Egbert of York extends, Acca, Bishop of Hexham, was forced to abandon his diocese, over which he had ruled since 709. The Venerable Bede, whose friendship with Acca dates apparently from this period, tells us that Acca had acquired his knowledge of the ecclesiastical chant from a certain Maban, who had himself been taught by the successors of the disciples of the blessed Pope Gregory, at a time when Maban resided in Kent. According to Bede, these lessons began in 720, and the chant taught by Maban was merely a reform of that existing chant which had become corrupt through long usage. The same historian, speaking of Putta, Bishop of Rochester (669-676), declares: “Maxime autem modulandi in ecclesia more Romanorum, quem a discipulis beati papæ Gregorii didicerat peritum.” Bede can no longer be regarded as having passed over in silence the work of St. Gregory I., for he fully recognises its existence, and thus the interval between 604 and 732 is reduced by half.

In considering the internal evidence, we must always remember that our oldest MSS. are two centuries later than St. Gregory’s time. Still we may draw attention to the fact that the text of the chants in the Antiphonary is taken from the “Itala” version of the Scriptures. This translation was already losing ground in St. Gregory’s time, and was almost entirely abandoned after his death. The Antiphonary, then, was not composed in the centuries following. 5 We repeat, with Dom Bäumer (vol. i. pp. 299-300), that the fifth century, at Rome as elsewhere, was a period of great liturgical activity, while the seventh and eighth centuries were, viewed from this point of view, a period of decline. The prayers of our liturgy are for the most part very striking and fine compositions, and so it is more probable to ascribe their origin to the fifth century, and to grant that St. Gregory completed and retouched them, and arranged them in better order. This would explain the existence of a Gregorian tradition which appears towards the end of the seventh century and in the subsequent period. “Everything,” says Mgr. Duchesne,6 “was modelled on the Gregorian tradition. This did not certainly prevent the introduction of necessary modifications, but, even when anything was altered, it was still the usage of St. Gregory which people thought they were following.”

Dom Bäumer thus describes St. Gregory’s labours in the domain of liturgy: 7 “It is he who collected together the prayers and liturgical usages of his predecessors, and assigned to each its proper place, and thus the liturgy owes its present form to him. The liturgical chant also bears his name, because it was through his means that it reached its highest state of development. The canonical hours and the formulary of the Mass now in use were also carefully arranged by him.” Further on, Dom Bäumer admits that there are difficulties in determining the extent of St Gregory’s work, but maintains that the study of the sources of the Cantatorium, of the Antiphonary, and of the Responsory is closely connected with the study of the Sacramentary of the Antiphonary and Responsory, and that the following points can be proved: (i.) the probability of a codification of the Antiphonary and Responsory, as well as of the Sacramentary, previous to St. Gregory’s time ; (ii.) the care taken by St. Gregory with regard to the books used in the schola which he founded; (iii.) the impress of his own character which St. Gregory gave to these books by means of the revision and simplification to which he subjected them; (iv.) the care taken by him to keep up the obligation of the daily Vigils, while at the same time he shortened the office in order to make it easier for the clergy; (v.) the development of the Roman chant in the seventh century, which cannot be better explained than by the fact that St. Gregory founded a Schola Cantorum. There may be difficulties in establishing the precise part taken by St. Gregory in the modification and codification of the music books of the Roman office, “but the whole history of the Western liturgy supports us in maintaining that these books received from the great pope, or from one of his contemporaries, a form which never afterwards underwent any radical or essential alteration.”

1 Dom Lévêque in the Revue des questions historiques, vol. lvi. p. 235, 1894, in answer to M. Batiffol on the origin of the Liber responsoralis.
2 Institutions liturgiques, i. p. 163. Cf. what is said above (p. 32) of the Antiphon.
3 Dom Lévêque, Revue des questions historiques, loc. cit.
4 Quoted in the Dictionnaire d’Archéologie chrétienne et de Liturgie, under the word Antiphonaire, vol. i. 2458.
5 Dom Leclercq, Dictionnaire d’Archéologie chrétienne et de Liturgie, art. Antiphonaire, vol. i. 2458-2459.
6 Origines du Culte chrétien, p. 122 (2nd ed.), à propos of the Gelasian Sacramentary.
7 Histoire du Bréviaire rom., vol. i. pp. 289, 301-303.