By Jeffrey F. Hamburger, Department of Art & Architecture, Harvard University
Edmund Bishop, the famous historian of Catholic liturgy, once posed the question: “Is the subject ‘An Old Prayer Book’ a ‘dull’ one?” Tongue-in-cheek, he replied that he would prefer the dullest form possible, namely, a tabulation of its contents, adding that “any subject is sure to prove dull to somebody.” By Bishop’s definition, a Liber ordinarius, which offers little more than a list constituting the ordo or order of the liturgy for a given church or community, would be a very dull book indeed. However, the Liber ordinarius of Nivelles (which has been fully digitized and now bears the Houghton call number MS Lat 422) demonstrates the contrary.
Acquired by Houghton Library in 2010 at the initiative of Professor Jeffrey F. Hamburger of Harvard’s Department of History of Art & Architecture, and William Stoneman, Curator of Early Books and Manuscripts at Houghton until his retirement in 2018, the Liber ordinarius served as a guide to the corporate prayer of the canonnesses of the abbey of Saint-Gertrude in Nivelles in modern-day Belgium. Located between Brussels and Charleroi, the abbey was, through much of the Middle Ages, a strategically located center closely associated in turn with the Merovingian, Carolingian, and Ottonian imperial houses. Among extant manuscripts, the Liber ordinarius is the oldest known to survive from an institution that exercised tremendous power and influence over the course of many centuries.
Much like the script of a play, Libri ordinarii lay out the order of the liturgy, complete with instructions regarding its performance, props, staging and setting. Therefore, they are of great interest to a wide array of academic disciplines, not only the history of liturgy, but also of music, monasticism, art and architecture, and religion. Consisting of little more a seemingly endless series of cues, the contents of Libri ordinarii are by their nature skeletal in character. Yet they offer a wealth of information that has permitted those who used them in the past and those who study them in the present to flesh out that skeleton and lend it life.
Read attentively, they provide critical insight into the history of ideas, attitudes, and mentality as well as the relationships among the various groups that constituted a given community and the liturgical interactions among them, all of which were freighted with social as well as religious significance. In the case of female monastic communities, such as that at Nivelles, a Liber ordinarius also sheds light on constructions of gender in the social, political and religious spheres. Detailed descriptions of how ceremony unfolds in time and space, they permit at least a partial reconstruction of elements of historical experience that are otherwise inherently ephemeral.
In addition to reflecting the formative beginnings of the monastery, the Liber ordinarius of Nivelles documents religious, political, and charitable functions into which both its female and male communities were integrated. The book permitted the community to structure its collective memory in terms defined by liturgy. It also reveals how ritual responded to changing political and social contexts. Rarely does a document provide such direct insight into the particularities that distinguished a female from a male community as well as the many ties that bound them together.
Two recent publications focus on MS Lat 422. The Liber ordinarius of Nivelles: Liturgy as Interdisciplinary Intersection, edited by Jeffrey F. Hamburger and Eva Schlotheuber (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2019), is a volume of studies based on a 2016 workshop held at the Radcliffe Institute. Part of the Studies in the Late Middle Ages, Humanism, and the Reformation (SMHR) series, it includes 15 scholarly essays and an edition, with translation and commentary, of the important historical documents included in the manuscript.
A full edition of the entire manuscript has also just been published by Thomas Forrest Kelly, Professor emeritus in Harvard’s Department of Music, with the collaboration of Martin Klöckener: The Liber ordinarius of the Abbey of Saint Gertrude of Nivelles, Harvard University Houghton Library MS Lat 422 (Münster: Aschendorff Verlag, 2020).