Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

New books, old story?

By Natalia Nowakowska


As the Catholic Church embarked upon its observance of Lent last week, many congregations will be holding in their hands brand new, bright red liturgical books — copies of the new English translation of the Roman Missal (the service book for Catholic Mass), introduced throughout the English-speaking world at the end of 2011 on the instructions of the Vatican.

This is not a new experience for Catholic congregations and clergy. The rare book collections of the world’s research libraries are full of the ‘new’ liturgical books produced for European dioceses between 1478 and 1500, on the orders of bishops making enthusiastic use of the recently developed printing press. Some of these books, missals printed on vellum in full folio size, are too heavy for me to pick up. Others, tiny breviaries with heavily-thumbed pages, would fit in your pocket, or that of a late medieval priest. In their prefaces, bishops explained that the point of printing these new liturgical books was to reform the church. Their aim was to provide parishes with new liturgies which were an improvement upon the service-books already in use, both the “crumbling” liturgical manuscripts from which communities had been praying for centuries, and recent, pirated printed editions. This fifteenth-century initiative was reprised during the Counter Reformation; echoing the actions of late medieval North European bishops, Pope Pius V’s Breviarium Romanum (1568) and Missale Romanum (1570) provided the entire Catholic world with new liturgical editions in Europe and beyond. The printing of improved liturgical books was therefore at the forefront of many high clerical minds in Renaissance Europe, just as it is a priority for the Vatican today.

Pope Pius V by El Greco. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
The links between these Renaissance-era projects and what is currently happening in English-speaking Catholic churches go beyond a general impulse by high clergy to roll out improved worship-books, however. I’ve been struck by how similar the language used by fifteenth-century bishops, Pius V, and the current Roman Catholic hierarchy is. Late medieval bishops, in their neatly printed prefaces, complained bitterly at the “corruption,” “distortion,” and “manifest errors” of old liturgical books. The provision of the 2011 Roman missal is, meanwhile, justified with reference to the oversimplified, “plain,” and possibly inauthentic words of the earlier translation. Fifteenth-century prelates stressed that an authorised, printed liturgy would ensure a “unanimity” in worship which symbolised the essential unity of the church; the modern Congregation of Rites states that the new missal translations will function as “an outstanding sign and instrument of… integrity and unity.” Late medieval bishops took care to stress the academic credentials of the clergy-scholars who had prepared the new editions; Benedict XVI has thanked the “expert assistants” who worked on the new missal, “offering the fruits of their scholarship.” The language of liturgical reform, corruption and renewal, unity and authenticity, which we hear today is also that of the sixteenth and fifteenth-century church, which had in turn inherited it from the early medieval church.

New books, same story. Yet the introduction of new books for worship is about power and authority, as much as reform. A handful of more audacious late medieval bishops, from Würzburg in Germany to Skara in Sweden, legally compelled their parishes and priests to acquire the newly printed ‘official’ liturgy and discard the old editions, or else face a fine and excommunication. Pius V threatened the entire Catholic world with similar sanctions in 1568 and 1570. Today, adoption of the new missal by English-speaking Catholic parishes is not a voluntary matter either; the new books must be purchased and used in the pews, the old books put away forever. The late medieval sources are too sparse to tell us whether German or Swedish parishes meekly complied with this episcopal innovation; I have my doubts. In the sixteenth-century, we know from the work of Simon Ditchfield and others that there was much delay and non-compliance in the localities in the face of Pius V’s bulls. In 2011-12, the new communications revolution of the Internet testifies in turn to the dismay, disgruntlement and discontent of parts of the English-speaking Catholic community — at the unfamiliar words of the new missal, the sense of an unwanted book imposed from above. The launching of new liturgical books, in the 1470s, 1560s, and 2010s alike, therefore exposes some of the paradoxes of the history of the Roman Catholic church, an institution which sees itself as being by definition resistant to historical change. The same episodes play out, again and again, couched in the same language, but always in changing historical contexts, not least in the opportunities and threats presented by new technologies.

Natalia Nowakowska is a Tutor and Fellow in History at Somerville College, University of Oxford. She is the author of Church, State and Dynasty in Renaissance Poland: the Career of Cardinal Fryderyk Jagiellon (1468-1503) and the recent Past and Present article ‘From Strassburg to Trent: Bishops, printing and liturgical reform in the fifteenth century’ which you can read for free online for a limited time now. She has a regular blog on writing and researching history at Oxford, Somerville Historian.

Subscribe to the OUPblog via email or RSS.
Subscribe to only the History articles on the OUPblog via email or RSS.

Read More in…

Recent Comments

  1. Ron Toczek

    It may be nothing new but, at times, certainly necessary. By definition, the Church is universal and one. The language of Vatican II, without intending it, seemed to allow individual renderings of many of the prayers of Mass and there were a lot of priests who took the opportunity to use their own language believing that it was ok as long as the intent of the original was still manifest. Unfortunately, language always builds upon itself and some churches were using language somewhat divorced from the original liturgy. This latest attempt, ignoring the U.S. bishops attempt at a strictly American version, is meant to consolidate the liturgies so that any visitor will be assured they are attending a valid Mass.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *