I have been doing some research and reading about the history of what a church gathering looked like, prior to the Reformation.

One thing I have not been able to find detailed information regarding which languages were employed in church services, for the majority of history up to the beginning of the Reformation.

I understand that religious services were done in Latin, but it seems less clear whether the sermons (homilies), music, prayers and so on were also spoken in Latin or the vernacular instead.


  • What percentage of a typical church service was performed in Latin prior to the Protestant Reformation?

Note: I tagged this Catholicism because that was the primary denomination prior to the Reformation and the time period I am interested in

  • Welcome to Christianity.SE. For a quick overview, please take the Site Tour. Sounds like an interesting question about Christian history and liturgy. I hope you get some good answers! Apr 21 '16 at 6:05
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    Ch 8 of Sess 22 of the Council of Trent has something to say on this. But that was post- and counter-Reformation, and may reflect a clamping-down on pre-Reformation practice as well. Trent allowed sermons to be in the vernacular, but I believe everything else (including Bible readings during Mass) was in Latin. Apr 21 '16 at 10:23
  • Are you asking, "Which percentage of Catholic services in 1516 were done in Latin?" or "From 33AD to 1516AD, what percentage of Catholic services were done in Latin?"
    – Flimzy
    Apr 21 '16 at 14:59
  • @Flimzy "prior to the Reformation" --> so from 33AD to 1516AD. Someone edited this to be a bit more specific for Catholicism, so probably will be a bit after 33AD when that starts :)
    – enderland
    Apr 21 '16 at 15:00

The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass: Dogmatically, Liturgically and Ascetically Explained (1902) by Fr. Nikolaus Gihr writes in the first footnote of §32, "The Language Used in the Celebration of the Holy Mass" (p. 319-328):

Whether the Apostles celebrated the Holy Sacrifice in the language of each individual nation or only in the Aramean (Syro-Chaldaic), Greek and Latin languages cannot be determined with certainty. In any case, from the first four centuries no liturgy can be shown composed in any other than the three languages of the inscription of the Cross [i.e., Hebrew, Greek, Latin]. In the West, for example, in Italy, in Germany, in Spain, in France, in England, Latin was at all times the liturgical language. Toward the end of the ninth century Pope John VIII. (872-882) permitted the Moravian Slavs, converted by Sts. Cyril and Methodius, to celebrate the liturgy in their (Slavonic or Glagolitic) native language, and that probably in order to prevent their apostasy to the Greek Schism. In the East also the Church later on permitted some schismatics and heretics, who had returned to the unity of the Church (for instance, the Copts, Armenians, Ethiopians), to retain their native language in the liturgy.

Fr. Adrian Fortescue's 1917 The Mass: A Study in the Roman Liturgy says, in §3 "Latin as a Liturgical Language" of the ch. "The Origin of the Roman Rite," that (p. 126-127):

Latin was apparently first used by Christians in Africa. Pope Victor I (190-202), who was an African, is generally quoted as the first Roman to use it.³ Novatian (c. 251) writes in Latin; since about the third century this becomes the usual and then the only language spoken by Christians at Rome. When it replaced Greek in Church is disputed. Kattenbusch dates it as the liturgical the second half of the third century,⁴ Watterich,⁵ Probst⁶ and Rietschel⁷ think that Greek was used till the end of the fourth century. In any case the process was a gradual one. Both languages must have beenused side by side during a fairly long period of transition. A certain Marius Victorinus Africanus, writin about 360 in Latin, still quotes a liturgical prayer in Greek.¹ The Bible existed only in the Greek Septuagint for some time.² The lessons were read in Greek at Rome, at any rate on some days, till the VIIIth century;³ some psalms were sung in Greek at the same time.⁴ Amalarius of Metz⁵ († c. 857) and Pseudo-Alcuin⁶ still mention Greek forms. The creed at baptism may be said in either Greek or Latin, at the convert's discretion, according to the Gelasian Sacramentary.⁷ But our present Greek fragments⁸ are later interpolations.

By at least the 12th century, the Latin language in the Roman (i.e., Latin) Rite was most widely used, and, as Fr. Gihr writes (p. 319-320), it was attacked by heretics and schismatics:

The Mass considered in itself could assuredly be celebrated in any language, but by the Providence of God the Latin language has become, and still continues to be of all languages the most widely diffused for divine worship.² The very ancient practice of the Church of celebrating Mass in the West, not in the living language of the country, but in a dead language, that is, in Latin, for the most part a language unintelligible to the people, has since the twelfth century to the present epoch been frequently made the subject of attack.

Between the 12th century and the Council of Trent, there were some oddities or abuses like half-Latin, half-vernacular sequences (cf. Fortescue p. 275), but the Council of Trent curtailed these by saying (Session 22, can. 9):

Canon IX.—If anyone saith, … that the mass ought to be celebrated in the vulgar tongue only… let him be anathema.

Regarding homilies: These are meant for the instruction of the faithful, and thus they were in the vernacular.

For the most recent scholarship on this topic, see:

International Federation Una Voce (FIUV)'s position paper:

FIUV is an international organization promoting the pre-Vatican II Roman Rite Mass in Latin.

  • Any idea about whether homilies were in Latin too, since that was part of the question? Apr 23 '16 at 23:53
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    @MattGutting Sometimes they were in Latin, e.g., St. Thomas Aquinas's Academic Sermons.
    – Geremia
    Aug 30 '16 at 23:30

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