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  • The Liturgy in Medieval England: A History
  • Courtney Rydel
Richard W. Pfaff. The Liturgy in Medieval England: A History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009. Pp. 593. ISBN 9780521808477. US$124.00 (cloth).

Richard W. Pfaff candidly declares in his introduction that The Liturgy in Medieval England cannot claim to be totally comprehensive. Yet the reader may be forgiven for thinking otherwise while perusing this ambitious, scrupulously researched, and deeply thoughtful volume, which tackles a massive subject with apparent ease. The Liturgy in Medieval England provides a historical account of the Latin liturgy in England through the Middle Ages primarily based on evidence from liturgical books, archaeological witnesses, and canonical materials. The narrative through lines prove to be mainly [End Page 127] methodological. Pfaff delivers a master class in how to evaluate hundreds of manuscripts, early printed texts (not only incunables, for he directs our attention across the 1501 divide), and modern editions. Surveying these primary materials, Pfaff issues succinct judgments on their salient features while acknowledging decades of scholarship. Indeed, this book may prove most useful to liturgical historians in future decades as a reference work on specific manuscripts, a use anticipated by its “Index of Manuscripts.” Hagiographers likewise will value Pfaff’s “Index of Saints” and his meticulous untangling of precisely which saints and groups of saints distinguish various liturgical strands, as well as his frank admission of the complexities and sometimes irrelevance of certain feasts that may appear more significant in textual evidence than in actual liturgical practice.

The Liturgy in Medieval England illustrates a continual, albeit slow, drive toward greater uniformity and (usually) elaboration of the liturgy within various strands of liturgical history in England, whether they be Anglo-Saxon liturgy, liturgy within religious orders, the development and spread of Sarum Use, or other regional practices. Pfaff lays great stress on the sheer exigencies of obtaining, copying, and using volumes (with the ready availability of Sarum Use volumes in the fifteenth century proving especially influential in their adoption). He continually uses records both written and archaeological to determine the boundaries of the possible and likely in evaluating how things may have actually transpired. Pfaff’s brief sketches of various influential figures, such as Leofric and John de Grandisson (both of Exeter), enliven the chapters and also illustrate how individual figures with a strong interest in liturgy often determine the course of liturgical history in a respective diocese or use. These patches of straightforward narrative and biography, however, are the exception; most of the volume consists of manuscript studies, contextualized and knitted together with other types of historical information.

Given this wealth of scholarship, the nonspecialist reader should perhaps be forewarned that Pfaff’s work is clearly written for other scholars in the field of liturgical history. The Liturgy in Medieval England will likely provide a more rewarding experience if sampled and consulted selectively, rather than read front to back. The introduction may be fairly called the one indispensable chapter of the book, providing an excellent and clearly written overview. Pfaff here helpfully clarifies the main lineaments of his survey and his methodology. He provides some basic background information in the introduction, laying out “what the reader is presumed to know.” Several mini-chapter excursus scattered throughout the text provide freestanding, brief discussions of the following: “On sources,” “On [End Page 128] the terms Gregorian and Gelasian as used here,” “On method in the comparison of liturgical texts,” “On ascription of liturgical books to specific churches,” and “On liturgical books from female religious houses.” Sampling these excursus out of order, possibly even first, may be a good idea, for they deal with matters of method and technical terms that clarify the assumptions of the surrounding chapters. Throughout the text, Pfaff’s frequent references, with page numbers, to other sections that elaborate on a particular figure or strand of an argument facilitate a reader moving around within the text. Overall, the manageable division of Pfaff’s book into chapters and small, clearly labeled sections of no more than a few pages makes this volume far easier to navigate selectively than its bulk might intimate.

As Pfaff explains in his introduction, the story moves in roughly chronological fashion...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2153-9650
Print ISSN
1947-6566
Pages
pp. 127-130
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-29
Open Access
No
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