Book Review: Liturgy and Society in Early Medieval Rome (Romano)—Review by Darrell Estes

John F. Romano. Liturgy and Society in Early Medieval Rome. Church, Faith and Culture in the Early Medieval West. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2014. 320 pp. £70. ISBN 13: 9781472408235.

In Liturgy and Society in Early Medieval Rome, John F. Romano argues that the liturgy and society are interconnected, and that the liturgy cannot be understood without first contextualizing it in society, further asserting that the society of late Roman antiquity and the early medieval period greatly influenced the liturgy of the time, specifically the papal liturgy. Likewise, he argues that the liturgy of the early medieval Church in Rome greatly influenced the structure of medieval Roman society. Given the title that he has given his book, it would appear that Romano intends to show how strong the bond was between Church and society, and how each influenced the other. The book is heavily centered on Church history, and aspects of early medieval Roman society are considered through the lens of the Church, her laws and her liturgy. While Romano presents good arguments and provides ample support for them, in certain passages of the book the language is cumbersome, requiring that one re-read these passages, sometimes more than once. Nevertheless, the end result is a book that is a good source for all those interested in early medieval Church history, liturgy and liturgics. Romano has divided his work into five chapters, excluding the introduction and conclusion, and each chapter is further divided into subheadings tied to each chapter’s title and overall subject.

The first chapter is dedicated to a description of the liturgy of the early medieval Church in Rome. Romano details how the liturgy was performed, rightly stating that the liturgy is a performance ritual, and that, as in any performance, choreography is extremely important. He refers quite often to the First Roman Ordo (OR I)—which details the function of each one of the clerical participants of the mass—as his primary source for the performance of the papal liturgy. It is in the First Roman Ordo that the choreography of the liturgy is found, including everything from the recitation of prayers and psalms, to the placement of the clerics and acolytes who were active in the performance of the liturgy, as well as the placement of the laity who passively participated in the liturgy through their attentiveness and responses during the mass.

The subject of the second chapter is the shaping of the papal court. Romano argues that one can see some shaping of Roman society as a result of this placement. The closer someone was to the Pope during the mass, the more important the role of that person in the papal court and, in turn, the more important that person was in the greater Roman society. Romano states that the papal court had come to replace the imperial court in the city of Rome, with the Pope standing in the place of the emperor. The closer one was in proximity to the Pope during the mass was an indication of the influence that person wielded in the papal court, and was indicative of how influential he also was in the governance of the city.

Being in close proximity to the emperor indicated that one had some level of influence with the emperor, and favors could be obtained by request and through (apparently) faithful service. Romano indicates that the papal court came to be ordered in the same pattern: the more important the person, the closer he was to the Pope, and the more influence he could levy. In many cases, Romano shows, deacons outranked presbyters and even the Pope’s fellow bishops. Romano illustrates this by naming those papal deacons who became popes themselves without ever having been ordained to the office of presbyter and without ever having been consecrated to the episcopate prior to their election as supreme pontiff.

In the first two chapters, as regards society-at-large, Romano indicates that the early medieval Church influenced society not only in how it was ordered, but also in the way that it governed daily life. However, no explicit examples are provided as to the governing of the people of Rome—such as an example of the legal system of the day—as one can deduce that, since the Pope had become the de facto ruler of the city, Church law had become civil law ad the city of Rome had become a theocracy. While Romano goes into detail as to the city’s governance, he does not include information as to how this form of governance affected the people of Rome and the surrounding areas. This information would have contributed a great deal to the value of the book as it specifically deals with early medieval Roman society.

In the third chapter Romano focuses on the unifying character of the liturgy. He underlines the importance of the liturgy as a ritual expression of the unity of the faith between the west and the east; but in particular, Romano underlines the importance of the liturgy as the expression of the unity between the Pope and the other patriarchs and bishops, the bishops and the priests and deacons, and particularly, the unity between the pope and the emperor. Romano discusses how the ritual of the mass was the external symbol of that unity even if, in reality, that unity was tenuous at best. The liturgy could also be an instrument to show a lack of unity, as was the case between Pope Martin I, Emperor Constans II and Patriarch Sergius of Constantinople, the latter two being proponents of the heresy of monothelitism. Romano illustrates how this lack of unity was illustrated in the mass with the example of the Pope omitting the prayers for the emperor and refusing to receive the imperial images into the Lateran Basilica.

The fourth chapter is dedicated to how early medieval Roman society was defined through worship. Romano focuses specifically on how the ritual of the liturgy was regularized during this period and how the non-orthodox Christians (i.e., heretics) were to be received or readmitted into orthodoxy after repentance. Romano argues that the question of how to receive non-orthodox Christians into orthodox Christianity was answered by Pope Gregory I who decreed that those who had been previously baptized by heretical clergy must be baptized again upon entrance into the orthodox Christian faith because the sacraments of the heretics were invalid. This is a very interesting period of Church history when ecumenical councils were convened not only to define the nature of Christ and his Church but also what Christians should believe and how Christian belief should shape and be reflected in worship.

Chapter five is dedicated to the role of prayer in the life of the Church and Roman society. Romano defines the place that prayer held in contemporary Roman society and argues that prayer was much more pervasive than has been believed. Romano does not go into any detail concerning private devotions and prayers, focusing rather on the public prayers of the liturgy. He does indicate, however, that much of private prayer and devotions were taken directly from the public prayers of the Church. This chapter is probably the most useful in terms of evidence, because Romano provides examples that illustrate how prayer was considered to be an intimate communication with God in every aspect of daily life. Romano demonstrates how the papal liturgy of the day comprised prayers for peace, seasonable weather and fruitful crops, health, and the freedom of prisoners, as well as for the secular rulers and the unity of the faith. Every aspect of daily life was accounted for in the daily prayers of the Roman citizenry. Romano illustrates how the daily private prayers of the citizens of Rome came directly from the Roman liturgy: these prayers offered in private were the same prayers offered in public on a daily basis, bringing the liturgy and the society together in a personal manner.

On the whole, John F. Romano has provided an excellent resource for those interested in early medieval Church history and Church history in general, and on how the life of the Church permeated both the clerical and the secular societies. I would have liked to see more information on the role of the bishops and the presbyters of the Church, and the influence that they had on the society-at-large, as well as the influence that the society-at-large had on the bishops and the presbyters and on the larger Church in Rome. Nevertheless, Dr. Romano has provided his readers with an excellent book on Church history, particularly as concerns the liturgy specific to the city of Rome. While there are a few sections of the book that require rereading because of complexity of language, Liturgy and Society in Early Medieval Rome is still an excellent source for those whose interests lie in the domain of Church history and liturgics.

Darrell Estes


Darrell Estes is a doctoral student at The Ohio State University. His research interests include medieval French hagiography, the images of the saints in secular literature and the medieval history of the Catholic Church, particularly the centuries preceding the East-West Schism.


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