Who are you seeking? Easter in the Anglo-Saxon church

With the season of Easter upon us, I have been thinking about how the resurrection of Christ might have been celebrated in the Anglo-Saxon church.  How did people relate to the story of Mary Magdalene and her companion arriving at the tomb to find not a body, but an angel – essentially the moment at which the Christian faith begins?  One possible answer can be found in the Regularis concordia, a tenth-century guide to the correct observance of the monastic life for use in English monasteries and convents, produced as part of the Benedictine Reform which took place under King Edgar.

Tib. A iii Edgar
With the church reformers Dunstan and Aethelwold.  London, British Library Cotton Tiberius A. iii, fol. 2v

On Easter Day, at the monastic hour of Nocturns, the church’s liturgy shades into re-enactment of the resurrection of Christ.  As M. Bradford Bedingfield has discussed in depth (in The Dramatic Liturgy of Anglo-Saxon England, pp. 160-3), this ritual has received a lot of attention for its resemblance to a kind of religious drama.  Before the service starts, the Concordia specifies that a cross should be set in an appropriate place.  Later, at Nocturns itself, the abbot begins with the verse ‘O Lord, open our lips’, and several other psalms, antiphons, and readings should be said.  And then …

When the third reading is being read, let four brothers clothe themselves, one of whom, clothed in white and as if about to do something else, should go in and secretly be at the burial place, with his hand holding a palm, and let him sit quietly.  And while the third responsory is being sung, let the remaining three follow: all clothed with cloaks, carrying censers with incense in their hands, and with footsteps in the likeness of someone seeking something, let them come before the burial place.  And let these things be done in imitation of the angel sitting on the tomb and of the women coming with spices, so that they might anoint the body of Jesus.

And when the one remaining has seen the three, wandering and seeking something, approach him, let him begin, with a moderate voice, to sing sweetly: ‘Whom are you seeking?’  When this has been sung to the end, let the three respond with one voice: ‘Jesus of Nazareth’.  To whom he should say: ‘He is not here.  He has risen, as he said before.  Go, announce it, because he has risen from the dead.’  With this command, let those three turn around to the choir, saying, “Alleluia, the Lord has risen.’  When this has been said, let the one sitting turned back, as if calling them back, say this antiphon: ‘Come and see the place’.

Saying these things, let him rise and lift up the veil and show them the place devoid of the cross, but with the linens placed there which with the cross had been wrapped.  When they have seen this, let them set down the censers which they were carrying in the same tomb, and let them take the linen and spread it out in front of the clergy, and, as if showing that the Lord has risen and is not wrapped in it, let them sing this antiphon, ‘The Lord has risen from the tomb’, and let them lay the linen upon the altar.

(Translated from the text found in London, British Library, Cotton Tiberius A. iii, edited by Lucia Kornexl, Die Regularis Concordia und ihre altenglische Interlinearversion, pp. 104-7)

What interests me about this ritual is the overlap between liturgy and re-enactment.  It takes the actions and words of the women and the angel more or less as reported in Matthew 28, but also puts the Easter antiphons into their mouths.  The participants are directed to act out the movements, and speak the very words, of the women seeking Christ’s body, in the middle of the Easter liturgy, and amongst their brother monks.  It is also interesting that the ritual is for performance in a monastery, with men acting the parts of women.  Although the little drama is simple and very short, the directions are clear and specific: the participants are told how to move, how to speak.  The monks playing the women must move about ‘in the likeness of someone seeking something’; the angel must sing ‘with a moderate voice’, to which the other three must respond as if with one voice.  Finally, the ritual moves away from the directly representational to the symbolic: the monks do not see the risen Christ represented in the church, but instead the cloths with which the cross was earlier wrapped show that the Lord is no longer there; and those cloths are placed on the altar, bringing the action back into the Easter liturgy once more.

Tib C vi fol. 13v angel
London, British Library Cotton Tiberius C. vi, fol. 13v

5 Comments Add yours

  1. Do you know anything about how likely it is a drama of this kind might be reworked for, say, a small local church with more secular folk than monks, as part of the Easter mass?

    I’m writing a novel set in 11th-century England and it’s very hard to find out anything about what ordinary liturgies looked like — it’s one thing for an article to say Tuesday mass didn’t look like Holy Week ones, but what /were/ they like? Liturgy, Architecture, and Sacred Places in Anglo-Saxon England is helpful for some of the rarer things, but in a rural town they weren’t dedicating churches every day.

    The college-student budget isn’t fun, either, but ILL has been nice.


    1. katehthomas says:

      Good query, and exactly the kind of question I like to ask! I can’t think of anything off the top of my head, unless John Blair’s *The church in Anglo-Saxon society* sheds any light? I will remember this, though, and respond if I come across anything. And I would love to read your novel!

      Liked by 1 person

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