At the same time it has been recognized that the purpose and practical effectiveness of law texts varied among western European regions in the early Middle Ages according to their differing political, social, and cultural contexts. In particular, written law was promoted far more effectively, and penetrated legal practice more deeply, in southern Europe, with its greater continuity from the literate legal culture of the Roman Empire, than in the Germanic kingdoms of the north. For instance, in Visigothic Spain the use of specific law codes was enforced by kings, and in the ninth and tenth centuries Visigothic law was cited in charters in Leon and Catalonia.

Huw Pryce, “Lawbooks and Literacy in Medieval Wales” (2000)

Though it may be appealing to romantic natures, it is not exactly legitimate to suggest that everything contained in the liturgical books of the 8th—9th centuries is a mirror image of the usages in the “early Church.” Much earlier sources testify the presence of various important elements of the liturgy: the “Sursum corda” dialogue or the Sanctus (in the third-century layer of the ‘Apostolic Constitutions’); observance of the daily Hours of prayer (Terce, Sext, None in the writings of Tertullian); the existence of responsorial psalmody (e.g. in St. Augustine’s Psalm commentaries). These bits of important information do not mean that the liturgy in the third century was little more than the Sursum corda and Sanctus (for instance). They mean simply that the sources at our disposal are very sparse and fragmentary, hence frustratingly silent about what was actually done in worship services. Thus anyone who wishes to make generalizations about the Roman liturgy as a whole, must perforce take “Roman liturgy” to mean that which has survived in the full liturgical books of the 8th—9th centuries and on into our own times. All else is speculation and hypothesis — not ‘facts’ — when it comes to “early Christian liturgy.”

The Roman Liturgy emerges in the sources not in its entirety, as a completed whole, an opus perfectum, but only as the succession of its elements. It is not so much the development of liturgy that is reflected in these sources; what we have to deal with is the insufficiency of the source material. It is a rather audacious or romantic attitude to refer to “the liturgy of the time of the Apostles or Martyrs,” since the very small number of sources from these periods imposes a serious limit on the level of knowledge we can possibly attain about this early stage of the liturgy. Some elements already appear in the third century sources; some chance references can be found in the sermons of the Church Fathers; a richer source of information is the Rule of Saint Benedict. However, liturgical books including actual texts and ceremonies are not available from this early age. The little we know must be gathered through the analysis of sources that date from subsequent centuries, and by their careful comparison with the early quotations.

In contrast to this disappointing picture, when we take up the earliest surviving books used in actual liturgical practice, we find that all the essential elements and structures known from the Middle Ages and valid up to 1970, are present in them. (Of course, I speak now only of the Roman rite and not of other branches of the Western liturgy which have almost completely disappeared with the passage of time.) This statement should be understood differently as regards the different elements of the liturgy, the different seasons and days of the liturgical year, and the composition, material and arrangement of the celebration itself. While the priest’s prayers and the readings, for instance, are known in different arrangements from the (partly overlapping) collections of the 7th and 8th centuries, the repertory of Mass chants (edited by Hesbert) obligatory until very recent times is about 90 percent the same as in the earliest sources.

The liturgy reflected in the “essentially identical” source material became still more homogenous by the regulation of the Roman rite and its diffusion through all of Europe. The distribution of the pericopes, the sacramentary, the chant books and even more the structure of the main components of the liturgy all exhibit great similarity when charted in hundreds of mediaeval ritual books. In the process of regulation, new contextual values and potentialities evolved: cross-references, associations, confluence of elements all enriched and stabilized the celebration of the sacred rites.

This does not mean, however, a literal identity. The pre-conciliar rites of some religious orders allow us to perceive to a greater or lesser degree the inner variety of the Roman liturgy. The Benedictines, Cistercians, Dominicans and Norbertines preserved the liturgy of their own orders even until recent times, up to the Council and some even beyond. These liturgical families preserve great values for the whole Church, and a special personal attractiveness for those living in the given communities. But in the Middle Ages, variety within unity was not limited to the religious orders. The guardians of continuity were first of all the cathedrals. In a paradoxical way, they guaranteed both conformity to the unity of the Roman liturgy and the variety of the local rites. The liturgy of the cathedral was the norm for the parish churches of the diocese.

The geographical (or rather, institutional) differences caused no confusion for two reasons. On the one hand, both the categories of ubi and quomodo were adequately regulated. By that we mean that the liturgical areas where or in which unity was to be maintained (with the local traditions duly observed) were governed by a ‘hierarchy’ of elements supported by dogmatic and liturgical considerations. On the other hand, it was the Chapter (or the convent or the superior of the religious order) that safeguarded both the continuity and the legal changes or development, and this guarantee against any kind of arbitrariness was not at all less efficient than the activity of a far distant Curial congregation would have been.

If, knowing all this, we again ask the question what the “traditional Roman liturgy” is, the answer will be as follows: it is the liturgical practice of Rome continuously living and organically developing from the 4th century at the latest (if its basic features are meant) and fixed in the 8th—9th centuries; which preserved its identity during diffusion both geographical (in cathedrals) and institutional (in orders), as also amid the local and temporal variations regulated by the liturgical hierarchy. Or more briefly put: the Roman rite is that which emerges in the uniformity of the organic temporal and coherent spatial variety of its daughter-liturgies. The description of its content, the separation of common, general, and differing specific elements can only be achieved by analyzing the rite in its entirety, a task which exceeds the limits of this chapter. The definition given above could not avoid, of course, some superficiality, but for our purposes it is valid and sufficient.

Laszlo Dobszay, The Bugnini-Liturgy and the Reform of the Reform (2003)

One clear indication of the increasing use of the written word in western Europe from the twelfth century onwards was the compilation of an unprecedentedly diverse and numerous body of legal texts. In part, the growing textualization of law built on earlier foundations. This was particularly true of Roman law, whose rediscovery in Italy in the late eleventh century led to a revival in the study of law. At the same time, the expansion of papal power from the second half of the eleventh century accelerated the production of new collections of canon law, whose compilers sought to impose order upon a mass of written law going back to the earliest councils of the church and also to integrate contemporary additions to that law resulting from conciliar and papal legislation.

Yet the diversification of legal writing also owed much to the compilation of texts of secular customary law, in both Latin and the vernacular. In some societies, such as Iceland and Scandinavia, these texts marked the beginning of written law; in others, including England, France, Germany, and, above all, Italy, where law and legislation had been written earlier in the Middle Ages, the custom of particular kingdoms or provinces was committed to writing in new forms with the compilation of coutumiers. Although their relationship to earlier Welsh legal writing is unclear, the lawbooks of medieval Wales provide a further instance of this textualization of secular custom.

The proliferation of compilations of customary law from the twelfth century onwards raises important issues about both law and literacy in medieval western Europe. In general terms, many of these compilations can be interpreted as reflecting an increasingly widespread conviction, stemming from acquaintance with the authoritative books of Roman and canon law, that law should be in written form. It has also been argued that the influence of the learned laws led to a greater emphasis in customary law on the use of written evidence and the keeping of court records, thereby helping to create a more literate and rational legal culture than that of the early Middle Ages.

Huw Pryce, “Lawbooks and Literacy in Medieval Wales” (2000)

Throughout the seventh century, there was increased attention to the deathbed as the focal point where sainthood was proved…A united sisterhood stood at a dying woman’s deathbed to sing her into heaven while her parting revelations strengthened them for their unending struggles to perfect themselves. The troops were thus reassured that they followed a victorious general. The visionary content of seventh-century texts increased, and the saints were credited with powers of prophecy and illumination directed toward making the promises of bliss in another world concrete. As the saint’s miracles in life decreased in number, the power of relics, tombs, and associated artifacts like oil, dust, funeral palls, and candles grew, weapons like the texts themselves in the ongoing battle.

The deeds and even the voices of women speak to us from these documents with a clarity rarely accomplished in historical texts. Although conforming to ecclesiastical prescriptions, at least two of the biographies that follow were written by women who knew their subjects. Others reflect the direct testimony of women within the cloister walls. They lived in a rough and brutal age, an age moderns have condemned as “the dark ages,” but from the peril and suffering of their lives they shaped themselves as models of womanly power, womanly achievement, and womanly voices. They did not hide their lights under a bushel, but lit candles in the darkness and set them high upon a candlestick. Today, their light still shines.

Jo Ann McNamara, Sainted Women of the Dark Ages

The lives of saintly abbesses were shaped to exemplify the need for stern discipline within the context of maternal responsibility. To maintain the community, nuns bonded in a fashion generally reserved to men. The imagery of virility, athletic competition, and military service runs throughout these lives. In patronizing the cults of sainted women and encouraging the composition of their vitae, the church not only rewarded women who contributed to the multifaceted monastic mission, but also forged a powerful didactic instrument for the training of new recruits, peculiarly suited to bridge the gaps between classes and races. Their rules firmly stated that the only acceptable distinctions within a community were those of virtue and office. Indeed, the offices themselves – the abbess and the prioress elected by the community and the adjutants whom they appointed – were intended to be allotted also as rewards for virtue. The other sisters were ranked according to seniority in religion. The sisters who had been longest in the convent took the lead in choir, at table, and in all processional activity unless they were demoted for some lapse in disciple.

Jo Ann McNamara, Sainted Women of the Dark Ages

Seventh-century noblewomen were in an unparalleled position to deploy their resources independently. Our texts insist that they seized upon the monastic life to liberate themselves from the violent secular world and that they sought their own spiritual self-realization. It would be foolish to become so fascinated by their structural position that we forget their own agenda. The monastic life itself was framed in terms of a better and closer family than the world could provide. Moreover, the aristocratic habit of keeping monasteries within the founding family made the community their adopted children…While the physical mothers of saints are commonly called genetrices, the word mater was reserved for the role of the abbess within the spiritual family. Similarly soror, as opposed to the more physical germana, was reserved for sisters in the community. The greatest instances of grief, loss, and familial affection are reserved to the monastic daughters, who regularly bemoan their fate as orphans when their founding mother is taken away from them.

Jo Ann McNamara, Sainted Women of the Dark Ages

In the sixth century, when bishops were more closely aligned to the conquered population than to their rulers, noble women enjoyed an independent footing in their relationships with the church hierarchy…However, as the Frankish aristocracy integrated into the hierarchy, the bonds between the sainted women and bishops tightened…Women often worked with bishops or abbots who validated their personal designs and served them as intermediaries with angry husbands, families, and even kings.

Jo Ann McNamara, Sainted Women of the Dark Ages