Politics and Text: Bringing the Liturgy to Print

Mary Kay Duggan, SHARP Conference 2000, 4 July 2000, Mainz, Germany

The text of the liturgy was among the first to feel the impact of the new technology of printing as it encouraged or even demanded standardization of texts and required centralized control of formerly local versions. Much has been written about the efforts of humanists to examine and edit manuscripts to prepare texts for printing. That same process went on for decades during the Council of Basel (1431-1448) whose documents stress the importance of Unitas and reform. While Benedictine houses had historically been independent financially and administratively, conciliar reform created international confederations of monastic houses that would celebrate a unified liturgy. It is no surprise that the text that emerged was as split as the Council itself which broke into factions on either side of the Alps and elected an antipope in Basel. The Council had created a text for newly confederated German Benedictines that preserved the sequences written in the north and a calendar with many northern feasts. Rome, surely forseeing the impact of hundreds of copies of a conciliar text on such monasteries as Subiaco, supported the text of the Roman rite already in use throughout Italy.

A culminating meeting for a vote on the text occurred in Mainz in November, 1451, with papal legate Nicolas of Cusa presiding over leaders of the ecclesiastical province of Mainz, a territory that extended from Switzerland north nearly to Bremen which was under the control of the archbishop of Mainz. After lengthy negotiations and authorization from the pope to resort to arms if necessary, Cusa turned down the Mainz text in favor of the Roman liturgy, and urged further reform work to make that text acceptable. With the exception of the psalter printed in Mainz in 1457 and 1459 apparently under commission of the Benedictines of St. James, no liturgical books appeared in print until the 1470's when two rather clandestine editions of the missal appeared, one somewhere in Central Italy and another somewhere in South Germany. The latter used an early form of Gutenberg's 42-Line Bible type whose punches must have lain on a shelf for two decades; its text was issued in two forms, one with the northern sequences and one without. In the 1480s and 1490s a great flowering of liturgical printing began, mostly of the Roman rite in Italy but of diocesan reformed texts with sequences in the north. The inexorable march to a single text for the Catholic liturgy made possible by the new technology would end in the mid-sixteenth century as the Council of Trent approved a single text under a Roman monopoly printer.