The sacramentary of Odilbald?

The arrival of Willibrord and his followers in the Low Countries in 690 turned Utrecht into the ecclesiastical centre of the region. From Utrecht large parts of the Low Countries and adjoining districts were converted to Christianity. From this period only a few manuscripts have come down to us. In 2011 a new find was added to this small number: two half leaves of a 9th-century sacramentary, which was special in more ways than one. It was probably made for the Utrecht bishop Odilbald (c. 870-898).

Medieval recycling

Just as nowadays unnecessary things were thrown out or recycled in the Middle Ages. The same was true for books. When new books needed to be bound, pieces of parchment coming from old manuscripts were used to make flyleaves. This is also the case with the two half leaves which were bound in a 15th-century manuscript from St Paul’s Abbey in Utrecht (Ms. 163). We know for sure that the manuscript is coming from that particular library because of the stamped binding and the owners’ mark crosswise over the flyleaf: Liber monasterii sancti Pauli in traiecto inferiori (‘Book from the abbey of St Paul’s in Utrecht’). Together the two half leaves are the only remains of what once used to be a sacramentary which was housed in the library of St Paul’s Abbey (Jaski 2011).


A sacramentary is a book for a priest and contains the texts needed for the Eucharist, the celebration of the sacrament in the Catholic Church commemorating the Last Supper. Jesus shared bread and wine with the Apostles saying that they were his body and blood. To commemorate Jesus this ritual was repeated, on Sundays and holy days during the celebration of the Eucharist. This is also called the Mass, after the Latin words the priest spoke at the end of the gathering: Ite, missa est (Go, this is the dismissal’).

The three books for the Holy Mass

During the Mass the priest had to know what prayers to pray, what texts from the Holy Scriptures and the life of the saints to recite, and what hymns must be sung. Some prayers and hymns recurred at every Mass, but there were also prayers, Scripture readings and hymns which had been adapted for the occasion, for instance because a certain martyr or saint was commemorated, or a special Mass was celebrated, for instance at Christmas, Easter or Whitsun or on the holiday of the local saint (Willibrord in Utrecht). In the early Middle Ages the priest usually used three different books for the varying prayers, scripture readings (lectures) and hymns, respectively a sacramentary, lectionary and gradual. Two or three of them were sometimes bound in one volume, but some of them could also consist of more than one volume.

Contents of the sacramentary

Around the 9th century the varying prayers for each Mass were:

  • the prayer of the day (collecta ‘the collection, communal prayer’)
  • the prayer for the offertory, the offering of bread and wine to God (the super oblata ‘over the offer’)
  • the preface (praefatio) introducing the Eucharistic prayer (only during special Masses)
  • the prayer after Holy Communion (the (oratio) ad complemendum (prayer) at completion’).

The prayers were usually connected with regard to content. They ended with the words still familiar nowadays: Per Dominum nostrum Jesum Christum, qui tecum vivit et regnat in unitate Spiritus Sancti, Deus, per omnia saecula saeculorum (‘Through Our Lord Jesus Christ, Who liveth and reigneth with Thee in the unity of the Holy Ghost, one God, forever and ever).

The lectionary and the gradual

In a lectionary the varying lectures were assembled, taken from the gospels, the letters and the Acts of the Apostles, and from the lives of the saints. These three parts could also be collected in separate manuscripts. In the gradual the varying hymns were collected, which from approximately the 10th century onwards could be accompanied by simple music notations (neumes). In this period the hymns were sung in a way we now call Gregorian chant. The hymns for the choir were collected in an antiphonary, so called because the choir sang antiphonally (i.e with ‘counter-voices’), meaning in turn.

The Gregorian mass

Between 784 and 791 Charlemagne asked pope Hadrian for a sacramentary which could serve as an example for the uniformization of the Eucharist in his realm. The manuscript that was sent was attributed to pope Gregory the Great (d. 604), and the tradition it represents is therefore known as the Gregorianum However, the sacramentary did not quite meet the requirements, and so soon elements from already existing traditions in the Frankish realm were added. These traditions could be found in the so-called Gelasian sacramentary, because it was (incorrectly) attributed to pope Gelasius (d. 496). Moreover, Benedict from Aniane (d. 821) added a supplement to the Gregorianum of which, in due course, the lectures were integrated into the text itself. In the middle of the 9th century sacramentaries were circulating that combined the Roman and Frankish traditions, the so-called Gregorianum mixtum. In some cases the scriptures from the supplement were added to the prayers. The Utrecht fragment is a product of this development.

First studies

In 1953 Frans Ketner was the first to mention the flyleaf in Ms. 163. He was particularly struck by its early date. Next it was included in the list of early medieval liturgical manuscripts by Klaus Gamber (1968, p. 522, no. 1386). Here it is described as an antiphonal sacramentary which according to expert Bernard Bischoff was produced in Reims in the third quarter of the 9th century. According to him the manuscript comes from Reims. It is pointed out that the actual text of the sacramentary is preceded by the hymns (often only the first line). In the list by Peter Jeffery (1983, 321) it is mentioned as the oldest example of a sacramentary with complete song texts. A more detailed analysis was not carried out.

Textual analysis

In 2009 Desiree Scholten, Bart Selten and Nike Stam researched the fragment as part of the course ‘The handwritten book’. They made a textual connection with the Leofric Missal (ca. 900). A year later Evina Steinová carried out an extensive analysis of the fragment (see Steinová 2012; her transcription can be found in the digitized version under 'Related documents') in which she compared it to the texts of a number of sacramentaries dating from the same period. She found that the prayers (for 3, 6, 10, 12 and 13 May) belong to the Gregorianum mixtum. The basis is the Gregorianum (cf. Deshusses 1971, 216-219 §§485-496) but for instance on May 12 the anniversary of the death of Pancratius, Nereus and Achilleus is celebrated, which originates from the Gelasium. Also two lectures from Benedict’s supplement were added to the prayers.

A connection with Saint-Amand?

From Steinová’s research, a paleographic analysis, and a study into the developments of sacramantaries with added hymns in the margin, it was shown that a connection with Saint-Amand frequently emerged. This monastery near Tournai produced liturgical manuscripts for the north of France and also for other regions. If the fragment really comes from this monastery (which had connections with Reims) and (based on Bischoff’s dating) was made around 850-875, an interesting possibility arose (see Jaski 2011, p. 117-8). In 866 bishop Hunger of Utrecht died, and, according to a source from Saint-Amand, the abbot of the monastery, Alfried, was appointed as the new bishop. He is not mentioned in Utrecht sources and it is therefore uncertain whether he ever arrived. Unfortunately, sources from this period of Viking raids are not always very informative.

New discoveries

The hypothesis mentioned above depends strongly on the dating which is based on the characteristics of the Carolingian script. In this fragment the days and the names of the holidays are written in a capitalis rustica, the texts (prayers and lectures) in a Carolingian minuscule, and the hymns preceding the prayers and lectures in a smaller version, written by the same hand. This handwriting is elegant and distinctive, and further research showed that this hand also wrote Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, Ms. 272. This manuscript is known as the Achadeus Psalter, made in 883-884 for a count from Reims (Koehler and Mütherich 1999, 200-6; Tafeln 174-8; see also Van der Horst et al. 1996, 107 fig. 26).

The sacramentary of Odilbald?

This discovery unsettles the Alfried-hypothesis, because the starting point should be that the fragment was written in Reims around 880, probably for a high-placed person, for instance an archbishop or bishop or abbot. This is also true for the sacramentaries researched by Steinová. As the sacramentary ended up in the St Paul’s Abbey it is only natural to suggest that it was made for someone in Utrecht. In this way, Odilbald is the most obvious candidate, bishop of Utrecht from c. 870 until his death in 898. Of course, there could be other ways in which this fragment ended up as the flyleaf of a manuscript from the library of St Paul’s Abbey, but without indications pointing in that direction, the Odilbald-hypothesis is the most plausible one.

Odilbald in Deventer

If this is accepted, it is conceivable that the sacramentary was made after emperor Charles the Fat had driven away the Vikings from the Low Countries in 885. Since 857 the bishop of Utrecht was forced to reside in Odiliënberg (near Roermond). In 885 or shortly after, Odilbald chose Deventer as his residence (Van Vliet 2002, 151). This may well have been the moment that a new sacramentary was ordered for Odilbald in one of the most renowned centres for the making of prestigious manuscripts, Reims.

An exceptional sacramentary

Another reason why this fragment is so exceptional, is that the hymns are integrated into the prayers. The hymns were probaly taken from a gradual. From the middle of the 9th century manuscripts have been handed down to us in which the hymns were added in the margin, and these come from the centres in the north of the Frankish realm, such as Saint-Amand, or from central France, particularly Tours. There are only two examples in which the hymns form an integrated part with the prayers: the Utrecht fragment, and a manuscript which has now disintegrated and can be found in two places: Tours, Bibliothèque municipale, Ms. 184 and Paris, Bibliothèque nationale, Ms. lat. 9430. As a whole this manuscript is dated at the end of the 9th century (Tu 1 in Deshusses 1979) and was made for the Abbey of St. Martin in Tours. It goes back to the sacramentary which Alcuin (abbot of Tours, 796-804) compiled. In the Tours manuscript three scripts are used (Rand 1929, I, 164 §135, en I, fig. CXLVIII, fol. 6v). So, as to lay-out it is very similar to the Utrecht fragment. Yet as reagrds content the Utrecht fragment builds a bridge with the sacramentaries from northern France which usually added the hymns in the margin.

New research

The development in which the sacramentary, lectionary and gradual were joined into one missal is usually situated in northern and central Italy during the 8th and 9th centuries (cf. Jeffery, 1983, 321). It concerns the ‘plenary missals’, the complete missals which however were not used in the rest of Europe. In northern and central France (Tours, Saint-Amand, Reims etc.) sacramentaries were supplemented with hymns and lectures. Together with the Tours manuscript, the Utrecht fragment is the earliest example of a sacramentary in which the hymns formed an integral part with the prayers. It is a luxurious manuscript, but also a practical one, and apparently meant for the ‘export’. As such, it shines a light on the development from sacrementary to missal in the Frankish empire. This development needs further research (cf. Palazzo 1998, 56 footnote 117) but it is certain that this single leaf from a manuscript from St Paul’s Abbey will play an important role therein, whether we can speak of the sacramentary of Odilbald or not.

Further reading

  • Deshusses, Jean, La sacramentaire Grégorien. Ses principales formes d’après les plus anciens manuscrits. I: le sacramentaire, le Supplément d’Aniane (Fribourg, 1971).
  • -----, ‘Les anciens sacramentaires de Tours’. In: Revue Bénédictine 89 (1979), p. 281-302.
  • Gamber, Klaus, Codices liturgici Latini antiquiores, 2 vols (Freiburg, 1968).
  • Horst, Koert van der, et al. (ed.), The Utrecht Psalter in medieval art. Picturing the psalms of David (’t Goy, Utrecht, 1996).
  • Jaski, Bart, ‘Een codicologische queeste naar de oudste handschriften en handschriftfragmenten uit de bibliotheek van de Paulusabdij’. In: H. van Engen en K. van Vliet (ed.), De nalatenschap van de Paulusabdij in Utrecht (Hilversum, 2012), p. 103-69.
  • Jeffery, Peter, ‘The oldest sources of the graduale: a preliminary checklist of MSS copied before about 900 AD’. In: The Journal of Musicology 2 nr. 3 (1983), p. 316-321.
  • Ketner, Frans, ‘In Utrecht gebruikte en geschreven handschriften’. In: Jaarboekje van “Oud Utrecht”, jaargang 1953 (1953), p. 40-47.
  • Koehler, W., & F. Mütherich, Die karolingischen Miniaturen. Die Schüle von Reims. Zweiter teil: von der Mitte bis zum Ende des 9. Jahrhundert. 2 vols (Text; Tafeln) (Berlin, 1999).
  • Palazzo, Eric, A history of liturgical books from the beginning to the thirteenth century (Collegeville, 1998) [translation of Histoire des livres liturgiques. Le Moyen Age: des origines au XIIIème siècle (Paris, 1993)].
  • Rand, E. K., Studies in the script of Tours I. A survey of the manuscripts of Tours, 2 vols (Cambridge, Mass., 1929).
  • Steinová, Evina, ‘A fragment of a ninth-century liturgical book in the holdings of Utrecht University Library’. In: Codices manuscripti 82/83 (2012) 1-9.
  • Vliet, Kaj van, In kringen van kanunniken. Munsters en kapittels in het bisdom Utrecht 695-1227 (Zutphen, 2002).
BJ, 2012
Ms. 163, maculature, reconstruction of recto and verso

Sacramentary with chant, maculature in Ms. 163

  • Rheims, ca. 880-890.
  • Parchment, two half leaves, c. 183 x 120/130 mm; 170 x 160 mm; trimmed.
  • Carolingian minuscule; chants in smaller script; headings in capitalis rustica.
  • Latin
  • The two half leaves were cut from the same complete leaf. A line in the middle is missing, and the edges and part of the text of the flyleaf at the back are trimmed. The leaf originally measured c. 20 x 32 cm.
  • The same hand also wrote Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, Ms. 272 (Achadeus Psalter), in 883/4.
  • Perhaps the sacramentary was written for Odilbald, bishop of Utrecht, c. 870-898.
  • Bound in Ms. 163 (4 J 9), in a blocked leather cover of St Paul's Abbey (Utrecht), with texts attributed to Bonaventura, Bernardus of Clairvaux and Dominicus of Trier, ca. 1475-1500.