During a Catholic Mass, there are a great amount of readings and prayers and scripture extracts/arrangements. There are different reading and set of prayers for almost every day of the year. This applies to both the Novus Ordo and the older, Tridentine Mass, as well as to various liturgies that existed before that too.

I've noticed that a lot of parts gets read by the priest from liturgical books (I think the most important one is called a Missal) during the mass.

This has got me wondering, how did the church function liturgically for the first 1600 years before the printing press? As I understand it, books were insanely and prohibitively expensive to produce back in the day. I seriously doubt that your average parish in the countryside of the British Isles could afford a handwritten missal. But that leads me to wonder, how did the average parish cope?

Readings from the bible and set prayers from the missal are absolutely essential to the liturgy. There is way too much there for a priest to memorise it all, so what did they do if they had to say mass but didn't have access to a bible or missal for the readings and prayers?

Or maybe I'm underestimating the Church and in actual fact your average countryside parish did have access to all the liturgical books, in which case my question is instead, how did they afford it?

  • Lots of memorisation and less participation from the laity.
    – curiousdannii
    Jan 20, 2017 at 5:10
  • Indeed, in simpler times, without TV and other distractions, people focused more on the faith, that is true after the revolt as well as before. The true answer however, it the big "T" Tradition, passed on by those that came before.
    – Marc
    Jan 20, 2017 at 14:06
  • Yes, it is called a missal, but there is also the lectionary nowadays. Jan 20, 2017 at 14:09
  • Great question and I hope you get a very well developed response.
    – Ken Graham
    Jan 20, 2017 at 14:52
  • The vast majority of commoners prior to the late Middle Ages were illiterate. I would guess they memorized Our Father, Hail Mary, the Creed, and a few hymns. It seems it was up to the clergy (and religious orders) to study and preach the Gospel.
    – Stu W
    Jan 21, 2017 at 2:27

2 Answers 2


From Herbert Thurston's Catholic Encyclopedia article "Missal" (§ "Origin of the Missal"):

The printed Missal of the present day, reproducing in substance the manuscript forms of the latter part of the Middle Ages, has resulted from the amalgamation of a number of separate service books. In the early centuries, owing to the lack of competent scribes, the scarcity of writing materials, and various other causes, economy had greatly to be studied in the production of books. The book used by the priest at the altar for the prayers of the Mass usually contained no more than it belonged to him to say. It was known commonly as a "Sacramentary" (Sacramentarium) because all its contents centred round the great act of the consecration of the sacrifice. On the other hand those portions of the service which, like the Introit and the Gradual, the Offertory and the Communion, were rendered by the choir, were inscribed in a separate book, the "Antiphonarium Missae" or "Graduale" (q.v.). So again the passages to be read to the people by the deacons or rectors in the ambo (pulpit) — the Epistle and Gospel, with lessons from the Old Testament on particular occasions — were collected in the "Epistolarium" or "Apostolus", the "Evangeliarium", and other lectionaries. Besides this an "Ordo" or "Directorium" (q.v.) was required to determine the proper service. Only by a slow process of development were the contents of the sacramentary, the gradual, the various lectionaries, and the "Ordo" amalgamated so that all that was needed for the celebration of Mass was to be found within the covers of one volume. …

Medieval Books of the Hours (and illuminated manuscripts in general) were common, especially among the wealthy laity, before the printing press.

See also the "Manuscript" Catholic Encyclopedia article for the history of manuscripts and copyists.


Ut In Omnibus Glorificetur Deus

I wish to take to somewhat different approach to this question than did Geremia and his excellent answer.

First of all, as the comment from curiousdannii makes allusion to the fact that in former days (Middle Ages and earlier) monks and nuns had great memories and that there was less active participation from the laity. Much of the laity could not read Latin and the priest and ministers generally read the various parts of the Mass, including the readings.

This was also a time to memorize, as there were not many printed texts of Scripture available. Monks and nuns did not have personal Bibles, but they did have the special memorization techniques and prodigious memories of medieval readers. It was also done in the group setting, “so that seeing one another they could encourage one another.” The aim was always to increase each brother’s awareness of God’s presence. Says Stewart, “a 14th-century Benedictine urged his readers to remember each evening’s common reading so that throughout the night, whether desiring sleep or prayer, they would have something to ruminate lest the devil find them at loose ends.” - But what did monks do all day? The holy routines of medieval monasticism

This is only part of the equation. Another point of interest comes from the Rule of St Benedict itself. St Benedict is known as the Father of Western Monasticism.

Before the thirteenth century, medieval manuscripts were initially produced in monasteries by monks working in the scriptorium, or writing room where books were made. More than five hundred monasteries existed in England alone by the twelfth century, and a typical monastic library might possess over three hundred books in its library. By the beginning of the thirteenth century, the growth of towns and the establishment of universities in Paris, Oxford, and Bologna led to the rise of secular scribes and artists who served students and professors as well as the nobility.

Later in the fourteenth century a rise in literacy and the development of an upper middle class created a large demand for illuminated manuscripts. The production of illuminated manuscripts of prayer books for personal devotions, called Books of Hours, increased dramatically. - About Medieval Manuscripts

Although St. Benedict's Rule obliged the monks to work for several hours a day. the whole Benedictine lifestyle was centered on the faith. Manuscripts were indeed expensive. but St Benedict was also a great promoter of the Catholic faith. We can see a glimpse of this in relation to this in Chapter 57 of the Rule. In the Life of St Benedict by Pope St Gregory the Great, we see can see this man of god freely giving things away, especially to the poor (Of the Life and Miracles of St. Benedict). As one could imagine, monks could have gifted poor churches the books they needed at a very reduced price or even completely free, that in all things God may be glorified (Ut In Omnibus Glorificetur Deus).

Of the craftsmen of the monastery

Should there be craftsmen in the monastery, let them exercise their crafts with all humility and reverence, if the Abbot so commands. But if one of them grows proud because of the knowledge of his craft, in that he seem to confer some benefit on the monastery, let such a one be taken away from this craft and not practice it again, unless perchance, after he has humbled himself, the Abbot may bid him resume it.

If any of the work of those craftsmen is to be sold, let those through whose hands the business is to be transacted see to it that they presume not to mingle into it any dishonesty. Let them be mindful of Ananias and Saphira, lest perchance they, and all who deal dishonestly with the goods of the monastery, should suffer in their souls the death which these incurred in the body. In setting the price of these things, let not the sin of avarice enter in; but let the goods always be sold somewhat cheaper than is done by men of the world, that in all things God may be glorified.

It could be noted that there are still monasteries that use the Extraordinary Form (Tridentine Rite) and one could still be amazed as to the ease in which these monks are able to recite those ancient texts of tradition by heart in Latin.

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