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How the Carolingian Liturgy Promoted and Preserved Frankish Culture

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The Carolingian period, roughly the eighth and ninth centuries, was a time of great cultural and religious transformation in Europe. The ruling dynasty and the clerical elite promoted reforms that aimed to unify, specify, and sanctify the liturgical practices of the Catholic Church. Yet, from the perspective of those who opposed the intervention of the Franks in their liturgical practices, the religious reforms of the Carolingian Renaissance were an unwanted imposition of a foreign culture. This essay will briefly explore the history of the Carolingian liturgical reforms, the reasons for their opposition, and their legacy.

The Carolingian liturgical reforms took place over a long period of time, from about 740 to 900. The reforms began under the rule of the Carolingian mayors of the palace, Carloman and Pepin III, who sought to correct the abuses and irregularities that had affected the Frankish church during the later Merovingian period. They were supported by the Anglo-Saxon missionary and martyr Saint Boniface, Apostle of the Germans (d. 754), who had established a model of ecclesiastical organization and discipline in the eastern frontier of the Frankish kingdom. The reforms continued under the reign of Charlemagne, who promoted a uniform liturgy based on the Roman rite and encouraged the development of liturgical books, music, art, and architecture. The reforms reached their peak under Saint Louis the Pious, who convened several synods and councils to address various aspects of liturgical practice and doctrine.

The liturgy of the Catholic Mass, or the Catholic Church’s public worship, was not a fixed or uniform phenomenon in the early Middle Ages. There were different traditions and variations of liturgical rites across regions and communities, reflecting the diversity and complexity of Catholic culture. Some of the most influential liturgical families were the Roman rite, which originated in Rome and spread to other parts of Italy and Gaul; the Gallican rite, which developed in Gaul and was influenced by Eastern and Celtic elements; the Mozarabic rite, which flourished in Spain under Muslim rule; and the Ambrosian rite, which was practiced in Milan and northern Italy.

The Carolingian reformers, especially Charlemagne and his successors, sought to impose a more uniform and standardized liturgy throughout their empire, which encompassed most of Western Europe. They believed this would enhance the unity and orthodoxy of the Frankish Catholic Church and the prestige and authority of the emperor. They also wanted to emulate and revive ancient Rome’s classical culture and learning, which they regarded as the ideal model for Christian civilization.

To achieve their goals, the Carolingian reformers adopted and promoted the Roman rite as the normative liturgy for their empire. They imported books, clergy, and relics from Rome to disseminate Roman liturgical practices. They also commissioned scholars, such as Alcuin of York, to revise and edit the liturgical books, eliminating errors and inconsistencies and adding new texts and ceremonies. They also encouraged the use of chant, music, and art to enhance the beauty and solemnity of the liturgy.

The Carolingian reform profoundly impacted the development of the liturgical rites in Europe. It led to the gradual disappearance or marginalization of some of the older rites, such as the Gallican and Mozarabic rites, which were either replaced or assimilated by the Roman rite. It also led to the emergence of new variants and adaptations of the Roman rite, such as the Frankish rite, which blended Roman and Gallican elements; the Benedictine rite, which followed the monastic rule of Saint Benedict; and the Gregorian rite, which was attributed to Saint Pope Gregory I and became the standard form of the Roman rite in the later Middle Ages.

The Carolingian liturgical reform was not a simple or smooth process. It faced resistance and opposition from some regions and groups who preferred to maintain their local traditions and customs. It also involved debates and controversies over theological and liturgical issues, such as the nature of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist or the proper way to celebrate Easter. It also reflected political and cultural tensions between Rome and the Franks, who sometimes competed or conflicted over their roles and influence in shaping the Christian world.

Some of the regions and groups that resisted and opposed the Carolingian liturgical reforms were:

  • Spain: The Mozarabic rite, which was practiced by the Christians living under Muslim rule, had a strong and distinctive identity and tradition. The Mozarabic clergy and laity resisted the attempts of the Frankish missionaries and bishops to impose the Roman rite on them. They appealed to the pope and the emperor for their right to preserve their rite and eventually obtained a compromise that allowed them to keep some of their liturgical features.
  • Milan: The Ambrosian rite, which was named after Saint Ambrose, the fourth-century bishop of Milan, was another ancient and venerable liturgy that differed from the Roman rite in many aspects. The Milanese church defended its autonomy and its rite against the Carolingian intervention, especially during the episcopate of Angilbert II (824-859), who refused to accept the Roman liturgical books and reforms. He also claimed that his rite was superior to the Roman one and that it was derived from Saint Barnabas, the apostle of Milan.
  • Ireland: The Irish church had a rich and diverse liturgical heritage, influenced by Celtic, Eastern, and Roman sources. The Irish monks and missionaries spread their liturgy to other parts of Europe, such as England, Scotland, and Germany. However, they also faced opposition and criticism from some of the Carolingian reformers, who accused them of deviating from Roman norms and practices. For example, Alcuin of York wrote a letter to the Irish monks of Lindisfarne, urging them to adopt the Roman Easter calculation and calendar.

Quotes from Carolingian Rulers about the Liturgy

  • “The liturgy is the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed; at the same time it is the font from which all her power flows.” – Charlemagne, as quoted in Liturgy Quotes
  • “We have ordered that the liturgy of the Mass be celebrated according to the Roman rite, not because we prefer it to any other, but because we wish to preserve the ancient tradition of our ancestors.” – Louis the Pious, as quoted in Carolingian Religion, p. 292
  • “We exhort you, beloved brothers, to be zealous in celebrating the divine offices, for they are the voice of the Church to God, and by them we render to God the praise and honor that we owe him.” – Charles the Bald, as quoted in Carolingian Monasticism: The Power of Prayer, p. 644

Papal Support of the Carolingian Liturgical Reforms

One of the main sources of the Carolingian liturgy was the Gregorian Sacramentary, a collection of prayers and ceremonies for the Mass and other occasions. The Gregorian Sacramentary was attributed to Saint Pope Gregory I (590-604), but it was a later compilation reflecting the Roman liturgy of the eighth century. In 785-86, Pope Hadrian I sent a copy of the Gregorian Sacramentary to Charlemagne, who ordered its adoption throughout his empire. This version is known as the Hadrianum or Hadrian’s Sacramentary.

However, the Hadrianum was not simply copied and imposed on the local churches. It was adapted and modified to suit the needs and preferences of the Carolingian clergy and laity. For example, some prayers and rites from the Gallican and Ambrosian traditions were added or retained, such as the blessing of candles on Candlemas and the blessing of palms on Palm Sunday. Some new prayers and feasts were also composed or introduced, such as those for Charlemagne’s coronation as emperor in 800 and for his death in 814. The result was a rich and varied liturgical tradition reflecting the Carolingian culture’s diversity and creativity.

Several popes supported the Carolingian liturgy and contributed to its development. Besides Hadrian I, who sent the Hadrianum to Charlemagne, there were Leo III (795-816), who crowned Charlemagne as emperor and added his name to the canon of the Mass; Stephen IV (816-817), who crowned Louis the Pious as co-emperor and approved his liturgical reforms; Paschal I (817-824), who restored many Catholic Churches in Rome and enriched their liturgical furnishings; Eugene II (824-827), who revised the Hadrianum and added new prayers; Nicholas I (858-867), who defended the rights and privileges of the Roman church against secular interference; and John VIII (872-882), who supported Charles the Bald’s claim to the imperial title and encouraged liturgical learning.

The Carolingian Legacy

The Carolingian liturgy had a lasting impact on the history of Western Christianity. It influenced the liturgical reforms of later centuries, such as those of the Cluniac, Cistercian, and Mendicant orders. It also shaped the development of liturgical art, music, architecture, and literature. The Carolingian liturgy was a remarkable expression of faith, culture, and politics in the early medieval period. Altogether, Carolingian liturgical reform was a complex and dynamic phenomenon that shaped the history and identity of medieval Europe. It was part of a larger movement of cultural renewal that aimed to restore and reform the Catholic Church and society according to a classical ideal. It also contributed to creating a common liturgical heritage that still influences and inspires the Catholic Church. In fact, it was due to the success of the reforms and exportation of the Carolingian liturgical reforms that laid the groundwork for Pope Pius V’s 1570 papal bull Quo primum, which declared his revised Roman Missal to be the official liturgical of the Catholic Church (except for those places and congregations that had their own rites dating back to at least 200 years) and made it successful.

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