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Participating, was Re: Yiddish - medieval Ebonics?

Poster: "S. M. Thorson" <smt2@st-andrews.ac.uk>

On Sat, 13 Jun 1998, C.J. Schaffer wrote:

> Pedro writes:
> Unlike the Mass, where the average person is a spectator, watching the
> priest do stuff in the front of the church, the Jew is an active
> participant.
> --------------------
> This is certainly true in period, but please be sure to put comments like
> these in the past tense.  The average participant in Mass IS an active
> participant, now that it is held in the vernacular, and has been for about
> 30 years now.  While the priest is still the presider, lay people read the
> scriptures, lead prayers, lead music, and distribute communion.

I'd argue that even in the Middle Ages Mass was a more participatory
experience than we sometimes think.  For a Catholic, then as now, the
focus of Mass is the altar - it is a *worship* experience.  You go to Mass
to honour God.  For most Protestants, the focus is more on the pulpit - a
Presbyterian friend of mine sums it up as "going to church to learn

Let me demolish two ideas about medieval worship right off.  First, the
fact that the priest faced the altar and had his back to the congregation
during most of the Mass had nothing to do with "hiding the sacrament from
the people."  During the Middle Ages, (with their somewhat odd ideas about
geography) it was believed that Jerusalem, the Holy City, was in the east
(no matter where you were at the time).  It was customary (and even set
out in decretals, eventually) to face towards Jerusalem while praying or
celebrating the Mass.  This is why medieval churches are laid out on an
east-west axis, with the altar at the east end and the main entrance at
the west.  If the intention had been to hide the sacrament, (1) the host
would not have been elevated in the course of the consecration, and (2)
there would have been no requirement to take communion on a regular basis
(which there was).

Second, the rood screen often seen in cathedral churches was also not
intended to hide anything.  Cathedrals tend to be what tourists go to see
when they visit Europe, but they have about as much to do with the
ordinary day-to-day worship of regular medieval Christians as the great
Temple in Jerusalem had with regular Sabbath observance among Jews in the
days when it stood.  Cathedrals were simultaneously ceremonial spaces and
tourist attractions, but not the place where the ordinary parishioners
would usually go to worship.  Cathedrals were also staffed either by
secular clerics (in orders but not bound by a rule) or, more rarely,
regular clerics (bound by a rule), part of whose function was to sing the
Divine Office and Mass on a daily basis.  The use of the rood screen,
ambulatories, side chapels, etc., was designed to allow the
tourists/pilgrims to see the cathedral and wander around while protecting
the cathedral chapter from disruptions while they performed their
liturgical duties.

If you want an idea about how real medieval Christians worshipped on a
regular basis, then you really need to look at the surviving parish or
mendicant churches (ie those operated by the Franciscan and Dominican
friars).  The space is much smaller, there is no rood screen, aisles and
side chapels are at a minimum.  In fact, the average medieval parish
church was designed to bring the average worshipper as much into the
experience of the Mass as possible.

There is of course no way (now, as then) to force someone to participate
if they don't want to.

Stephanie M. Thorson			|  SCA: Lady Alianora Munro
Dept. of Scottish History		|  Clan White Wing
University of St Andrews		|  Tarkhan, Khanate Red Lion

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