Week of May 17, 2020

I am continuing with my overview of Church history, architecture, music, and liturgy during this season of reflection and physical distance this week by embracing a fairly long period of time: 1073 to 1517 AD. The political and cultural changes in Europe during these centuries are too vast and various to sufficiently encapsulate here, but the changes in the culture of the Church are much easier to synopsize because they followed one liturgical track: the increased separation of the laity from direct participation in worship.
There were several factors pushing the Church in this direction. The first was the Roman papacy’s attempts to gain greater control of the liturgical rites of the Church, replacing the Frankish hybrid of liturgy with a more Roman-centered one. One of the unlikely but major proponents of this change was Francis of Assisi, who agreed to promote the Roman rite as part of an agreement to having the Pope formally recognize the religious order he had founded.
The Roman rites also had a less stringent monastic liturgical model that suited his more relaxed style of monastic living. Thus the Church began to see implemented less familiar liturgical forms that utilized an unfamiliar language as the norm.
The second major factor was the shifting Eucharistic theological controversies of the time, in particular the question of the nature of the presence of Jesus in the bread and wine. A more literal tone was explored and although formally rejected, stories of bleeding hosts and images of Jesus appearing in the bread became popular stories, and an increased reverential theology of the Eucharistic elements became widely popular. Bread, and to a lesser extent wine, were more observed than consumed by the laity, and churches began to take on the form of giant monstrances (devices that displayed the bread for viewing) rather than communal worship spaces.
The third major factor was the development of Gothic architecture, which allowed for vaulted ceilings to be more easily supported by ribs and buttresses of lightweight masonry rather than thick walls. The thinner walls allowed for more windows, which in turn created a more illumined worship space. The windows also became avenues for education of the laity who were now gathering for worship but separated from the Eucharist by language, architecture, and legions of clergy.
Even the developments in music separated the worshiper from direct participation. Standardized musical notation allowed for polyphonic hymnody with the complexity of multiple vocal parts and instrumentality, but the lack of an identifiable and familiar melody meant that the people in the pews were relegated not just to watching, but also to listening to music as well.
All of these factors led to a period of time in which the theology and behavior of the lay person in the Church lent itself to ignorance and superstition. There are stories of Christians believing that viewing the host would prevent blindness and starvation, and clergy being paid extra to elevate the host for longer periods of time during the service so that it might be seen more. Receiving the wine was unthinkable.
Church leaders, trying to push back against this tendency, had to initiate mandated Eucharistic participation to literally force people to consume the bread. But the overarching culture of distance, rarefication, and practical idolatry would be so conducive to abuse that the groundwork was laid for eventual revolt, conflict, and reform.
Yours in Christ,
Fr. Rob+