A medieval manuscript is, as the name suggests, handwritten (manu scripta = written by hand). In most of the Middle Ages the preferred material to write on was parchment, which is from animal skins. The size of the skins and the number of times it was folded over, decided the size of a book: this could vary from pocket size to half a meter tall. When the book was written, the quires or gatherings would be sewn together and provided with a cover of wooden boards.
Being handwritten, a medieval manuscript contains more information than the text it transmits. It is also very much an artefact and material object that can reveal interesting things about its makers and the time and place in which it was made. The scribe's handwriting, for instance, can reveal something about how and where a person was trained and when he was working. The quality of the materials can point to circumstances around the making of the book, such as who it was intended for.
Medieval manuscripts show great variety in contents and form: they can be highly learned or made for entertainment, they can be beautifully decorated works of art, or very basic and simple. The majority of the Norwegian fragments, however, happen to be from modest-looking liturgical books.
The celebration of Mass and the Divine Office had such diversity with regard to the songs, prayers and readings over the Church Year that it would be impossible to perform everything correctly without books.
In the first part of the Middle Ages the books were specialized: prayers were in one book, songs in another, readings in yet another. Over time people developed ‘all-in-one’-books: the missal, with songs, prayers and readings for Mass, and the breviary, with songs, prayers and readings for the Divine Office. The chants continued to occur in specialized books, the gradual for Mass and the antiphoner for the Divine Office.
The missal is the priest’s book for the celebration of Mass. It contains the songs, the prayers and the scriptural readings needed for the various Mass celebrations throughout the Church year. A missal can be with or without musical notation. (If the missal did not have musical notation, one would expect that it would be accompanied by a gradual).
The missal is the book type that occurs most frequently in the Norwegian corpus of fragments. Some of them are quite plain, others with modest decoration.
Breviaries are used in the Divine Office. They are comprehensive books containing all necessary instructions and texts for a full run of daily prayers. Most breviaries consist of different sections: the calendar, the psalter, the temporale (texts for weekdays, sundays and feasts throughout the year), the sanctorale (texts for the feasts of the saints), and the common of saints (templates for the feasts of minor saints).
The liturgical books referred to as a ‘gradual’ contains the songs for the celebration of Mass, complete with musical notation. Graduals were made for the schola cantorum or choir, who did not need the prayers or readings for the Mass.
The songs for the Divine Office were collected in an antiphoner. This liturgical book contained the chanted elements with musical notation for day- and night-office, and were intended for the schola cantorum or choir.
Office lectionaries are used for the Divine Office. They are made up of short texts from the Bible, the Church Fathers and other religious authors. These texts are also called lections, and they come in groups of three, nine, or twelve lections depending on the day they are meant for.
As a book type, office lectionaries are especially popular in the twelfth century. They make out approximately 4 % in the fragment corpus.
Mass lectionaries are used during Mass. They contain the biblical texts necessary for a given day, i.e. the Old Testament reading, the Epistle, and the Gospel. The texts appear in the order of their use throughout the year. Often mass lectionaries come in two volumes: the temporale for weekdays, sundays and feasts, and the sanctorale for the feasts of the saints.
The psalter was an essential book genre in the Middle Ages, and it was particularly used in the Divine Office. Its primary content was the 150 Psalms of David from the Old Testament. It would open with a kalendarium with an overview of the saints’ feast during the course of the Church year. At the end of the book were often the canticles from the Old and New Testament, prayers, and sometimes also an office for the dead or for Saint Mary.
Some psalters are lavishly decorated and striking examples of medieval artwork. Others are very simple and made for practical use rather than status. Psalters were one of the most widely used books in the Middle Ages: they were also used to teach children how to read, they were often made for and owned by women, and were among the books kept in churches and monasteries.
The emphasis on the liturgical use of the psalter meant that certain psalms were often highlighted with illuminated initials. These were typically Ps. 1 (Beatus vir) – 26 (Dominus illuminatio mea) – 38 (Dixi custodiam vias meas) – 52 (Dixit insipiens in corde suo) – 68 (Salvum me fac Deus) – 80 (Exultate Deo) – 97 (Cantate Domino) and 109 (Dixit Dominus).
Western Christian liturgy, the habitual worship of God, has two forms: Mass, also called Divine Service, and the Divine Office, also called the Liturgy or Prayer of the Hours. During the Middle Ages, both were celebrated in Latin. The specific contents of the liturgy, the so-called liturgical use, might change from place to place and from time to time.
The main elements of the Mass celebration are reading of passages from the Bible and the celebration of Holy Communion. The Mass differs from, but also complements the Divine Office. The Bible does not only provide the texts for the Epistle and Gospel readings at Mass, but is also the primary source for the texts of the liturgical chants.
The Divine Office is a liturgical routine performed daily by all members of the clergy and monastic or mendicant orders. There were eight times of prayer, which are called horae. All horae share the basic elements of prayers, different types of songs, psalm recitation and the reading of religious texts, which occur in a specific, fixed order.
The actual time of day, at which the horae were celebrated, depends on Roman hours (also called temporal hours). These are based on the idea that each day is divided into twelve hours from dawn to dusk. Accordingly, a temporal hour in summer is much shorter than in winter. The times for the hours given below refer to 21 March.
The church year is the sequence of weekdays, Sundays and feastdays according to their liturgical rank. The order is guided by two principles: Moveable feasts occur on different dates each year, all depending on the calculation of Easter. The calculation of Easter depends on a combination of the solar and lunar calendar. Examples for moveable feasts are all days in Lent, Easter, Pentecost, and the Sundays in summer. Fixed feasts, on the other hand, are determined by date. Examples for fixed feasts are Christmas, Epiphany and all Saints’ feasts. In addition, major feasts were celebrated with an octave, that is a special liturgy for the following seven days.
In order to bring the two principles into agreement, the number of Sundays after Epiphany and after Pentecost was regulated according to the Easter date. When Easter was very early, there would be one Sunday after Epiphany, but 28 Sundays after Pentecost. With a very late Easter date, there were six Sundays after Epiphany and 23 Sundays after Pentecost. This is the general structure of the church year: