The Tools

Under this general heading are grouped various kinds of information to aid in navigating the complexities of the medieval liturgy and its books. Missing from the physical exhibit of manuscripts, and conspicuous for its absence, is a Latin grammar; some are, however, included in the web exhibit. Latin was the language of the liturgy until the Second Vatican Council in 1962-65, and while we recognize that Latin is foreign to us today, we tend to forget that it was also foreign to most of the Middle Ages. By the early Middle Ages, few men could understand Latin without formal training, particularly in northern and eastern Europe. In a proclamation that Charlemagne issued in the year 789, he ordered that monasteries and cathedrals should all have well corrected copies of the psalms, the "notes" (perhaps the shorthand system for texts, or perhaps the musical notation itself), the chants, a computus and a grammar. He added that young boys should not be allowed to copy gospel books, psalter or missal, but only mature men should do so, whose greater knowledge --including, presumably, that of Latin itself-- would preclude profusion of errors in the manuscripts.

A deeply internalized knowledge of the liturgical year and of the calendar was the second crucial tool. Just as we might casually refer to some event as having happened "the day before Thanksgiving" (on the Wednesday before the last Thursday in November), a notary in medieval Italy might date a will "feria quarta post festum sancte Catharine" (the Wednesday after the feast of St. Catharine of Alexandria; in 2002, incidentally, both datings will refer to 27 November). Both kinds of datings --for moveable and for fixed feasts-- function as signposts for working through liturgical manuscripts.

A third category of tool are the books that explain the occurrence and the performance of the liturgy. These books are discussed below under the rubric, Directions.

Plimpton MS 145, f. 9:A grammar copied in Italy during the 15th century, showing here a vocabulary list from Latin to Italian. Plimpton MS 150, f. 1:A grammar copied in Germany in 1462. Plimpton MS 136, f. 35:A grammar copied in Italy ca. 1467 showing here a chart of deponent verbs.