In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Liturgical Processions

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works and Bibliographies
  • Processions in the Early Middle Ages
  • Palm Sunday
  • Rogationtide
  • Corpus Christi
  • English: Sarum and Other Secular Uses
  • Monastic: General
  • Monastic: English
  • Continental European: Secular
  • The Element of Procession in Liturgical Drama

Medieval Studies Liturgical Processions
Richard W. Pfaff
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 December 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 13 January 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0118


Liturgical processions are defined in this article as the ceremonial movement of persons from place to place as an integral part of a service of Christian worship in Western countries during the Middle Ages. Limitation to the Western church is necessary because the liturgical structures and terminology of (predominantly Greek-language) Eastern Christendom are often markedly different from that of the Latin West. This article does not cover two other areas because these deserve separate treatment. First, it does not deal directly with the music sung during processions, a highly specialized aspect of medieval musicology. Second, it treads as lightly as possible on the cognate but distinct subject of liturgical drama and its relationship to extra-ecclesiastical, and eventually quite secular, dramatic performances. The discussion in this article moves from general considerations to three especially important occasions and then to four broad areas into which much of the original source material falls. Most medieval processions take place before, and in the context of, the Mass, although there are some exceptions, notably monastic. Processions can have a utilitarian and/or a symbolic function. It is necessary to get the participants in a service—sometimes quite a number of them—into the focus of the liturgical activity in a seemly way. Details such as the precise route, the order of the participants, and an indication of the words or, more often, chants used along the way need to be specified. Such specification, possibly not written down in the early Middle Ages, came to be included in documents called “ordinals” or “ordinaries” (the terminology is confusing; both “ordinal” and “ordinary” mean quite different things in different contexts). The procession texts, as distinct from directions, were eventually included in books called “processionals”—usually tall, slim in width, thin in bulk, and with letters large enough that two people could use a single book. While focusing on both, it is important to keep in mind that the two—the activity and the book—are distinct: processions do not necessarily require processionals.

General Overviews

As of the early 21st century, no single-volume work is available that is devoted to the subject of liturgical processions in general and as a whole; Part 2 of Bailey 1971 does, however, come close. More concise but greatly useful is Huglo 1999–2004. Evenou 1988 is also good, especially on the earlier periods. Gy 1990 offers fundamental information on the emergence of the processional book. Flanigan 2001 introduces a theoretical approach. Hiley 1993 is a helpful manual of plainchant with concise, conveniently organized information. Messenger 1949 and Messenger 1950 offer a convenient introduction to the hymns used at processions. For information about often-obscure processional hymns, the best source is the massive collection of Dreves and Blume 1886–1922.

  • Bailey, Terence. The Processions of Sarum and the Western Church. Studies and Texts 21. Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1971.

    Part 2, “The General Practice” (pp. 79–175), provides an extensive survey, largely from a musical standpoint.

  • Dreves, Guido M., and Clemens Blume, eds. Analecta Hymnica Medii Aevi. 55 vols. Leipzig: Riesland, 1886–1922.

    Seven of these volumes (Vols 4, 11, 12, 18, 22, 23, and 43) carry the additional title Hymni inediti, with a (German) subtitle indicating that they have been taken from manuscript breviaries, antiphonals, and processionals. Difficult to use, but the index volumes are a great help. See also Index by Max Lütolf (3 vols., Bern, Switzerland, and Munich: Franke, 1978).

  • Evenou, Jean. “Processions, Pilgrimages, Popular Religion.” In The Church at Prayer. Vol. 3, The Sacraments. Edited by Robert Cabié, Jean Evenou, Pierre Marie Gy, et al., 241–250. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical, 1988.

    A good basic survey, mostly on the period before c. 1000. From the French L’Eglise en prière (Paris: Desclee, 1984).

  • Flanigan, C. Clifford. “The Moving Subject: Medieval Liturgical Processions in Semiotic and Cultural Perspective.” In Moving Subjects: Processional Performance in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Edited by Kathleen Ashley and Wim Hüsken, 35–51. Ludus 5. Amsterdam and Atlanta: Rodopi, 2001.

    A cogent introduction to theoretical approaches to the overall topic of processions, centering on the Easter procession at Monza.

  • Gy, Pierre-Marie. “Collectaire-Rituel-Processional.” In La liturgie dans l’histoire. Edited by Pierre-Marie Gy, 91–126. Paris: Cerf, 1990.

    This often-cited article offers a concise introduction to the stages by which the processional book appeared (pp. 123–126). Originally published in 1960.

  • Hiley, David. Western Plainchant: A Handbook. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.

    Useful, brief sections on Rogation, Palm Sunday, hymns, and processional books.

  • Huglo, Michel. Les manuscrits du processional. 2 vols. Répertoire international des sources musicales Serie B, 14:1–2. Munich: Henle, 1999–2004.

    The introduction (in English on pp. 36–55) is a marvel of condensed information, including nine tables listing the chants most often found in different types of processionals. The bibliography is a bit eccentric. Brief (but expert) descriptions of hundreds of manuscript processionals, alphabetically by countries, are also included.

  • Messenger, Ruth Ellis. “Medieval Processional Hymns before 1100.” Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association 80 (1949): 375–392.

    DOI: 10.2307/283528

    A somewhat old-fashioned but highly accessible introduction to the hymnody of early medieval processions. Emphasis on the authors of specific hymns and on the central role of St. Gallen.

  • Messenger, Ruth Ellis. “Processional Hymnody in the Later Middle Ages.” Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association 81 (1950): 185–199.

    DOI: 10.2307/283579

    Picks up more or less where the 1949 article leaves off, but with less emphasis on the authors and more on the processions at which their poetic hymns were used.

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