Medieval exuberance: the Sarum Use

Sarum MassThe debate last month over where/how to re-bury Richard III’s body led to my reading up on the Sarum Use – the rite used in most of England prior to the Reformation, having originated in Salisbury (a.k.a. “Sarum”) during the early 13th century.

The Revd Canon Professor J. Robert Wright has written an excellent essay on the Sarum Use (PDF), which is worth reading in full. Prof Wright describes the Use of Sarum as:

…a rather exuberant, elaborate, beautiful, and especially well arranged adaptation of the Western or Roman Rite that was gradually adopted by most of the rest of England as well as much of Wales, Scotland, Ireland, and even some places on the continent.

The Sarum rite was not a single, static, uniform “liturgical resource”, however. Variations exist between different regions and over time, and Prof Wright admits that his descriptions are, necessarily, “generalisations”. Still, many of the details he provides are fascinating, and hard to read without a sneaking sense of regret at our more restrained ways of doing things today. Take this ceremony, for example:

From Septuagesima to Easter, “Alleluia” was suppressed in the Liturgy, and this was dramatized by a chorister called the “Alleluia” who was symbolically whipped while being driven from the church.

Maybe that same choirboy could get his own back, however, if chosen for another of the Sarum rite’s observances:

[P]rominent at Sarum but also popular elsewhere was the custom of the Boy Bishop, who took office on the feast of St. Nicholas (Dec. 6) and whose authority lasted until Holy Innocents Day on December 28, allowance of course being made for major occasions that needed the participation of ordained clergy. The custom was forbidden under King Henry VIII (22 July 1542) but restored temporarily during the reign of Queen Mary.

The purpose of this custom was not merely play-acting or “misrule”, however, but “to give the youth a greater part in church life” and “to impress upon them the high calling of Sacred Ordination.”

The heart of the Sarum usage, as in the liturgy of the church ever since, was the Holy Eucharist, and Prof Wright devotes several pages to a description of Sarum’s Eucharistic rite, which was “exuberant and rather more elaborate than the Roman”:

At [Salisbury] Cathedral itself, there were two daily High Masses as well as the daily singing of the entire Divine Office in addition to the daily offices of the Blessed Virgin and of the Dead. On major feasts there would be three, five, or even seven deacons and subdeacons, two or more thurifers, and three crucifers, with two or four priests in copes acting as cantors ruling the choir.

Though some limits were placed on the service’s elaboration:

No more than seven (!) collects were permitted for any one Mass.

The service commenced with the Collect for Purity, which is still found in Anglican communion services today (“Almighty God, unto whom all hearts be open…”).

I especially love the private prayers said by the priest before receiving communion, which translate from the Latin as follows:

Hail for evermore, most holy Flesh of Christ, to me before all things and above all things the greatest sweetness. May the Body of our Lord Jesus Christ be unto me a sinner the way and the Life.

Hail for evermore, heavenly Drink, to me before all things and above all things the greatest sweetness. May the Body and the Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ be profitable to me a sinner for an eternal remedy unto everlasting life. Amen.

The service concluded with a custom which has (I believe) mostly vanished from the western church, but is still found in the Eastern Orthodox church:

the conclusion of the Solemn Parish Mass on Sundays, Blessed Bread (also called “Kirk-Loaf” or “Eulogia”), provided by the churchwardens, was blessed and distributed to the parishioners; this custom was not, however, unique to Sarum but was common in most countries of later medieval Europe.

All in all, Prof Wright’s essay has made me wish I could have the opportunity to participate in a Sarum Mass. Prof Wright describes some revivals that have taken place, of which the most notable has been mentioned by several commentators in the discussions over Richard III’s reinterment:

In 1984 a proper funeral service according to the Use of Sarum was given to the bodies of the crew of several hundred sailors from the English Tudor warship Mary Rose, which had sunk in the Solent, the channel that separates the Isle ofWight from the English mainland, back in 1545, after the point when King Henry VIII had broken with the Pope but before the appearance of new burial rites in the first English Prayer Book of 1549.

The service took place in Portsmouth Cathedral, with both Anglican and Roman Catholic clergy participating, and was:

…according to the old Sarum rites of Requiem that they would have expected in 1545. The ordinary of the Mass was in Latin with the lessons, bidding prayer, Lord’s Prayer, and committal in English, and the music was of that era, by John Taverner, Christopher Tye, and Thomas Tallis.

To hear what the Sarum Rite sounded like, check out this recording of the Sarum first Mass of Christmas by the Tallis Scholars. To see what it looked like (and to get at least a glimpse of its “exuberance”), see this 2002 photoset recreating a “Sarumised” Prayer Book service (from which the image at the start of this post is taken).


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