Oxford, Bodleian Library, Bodleian Library MS. Lat. liturg. 18, fol. 31v

Savouring the Exultet at Medingen Abbey

One of the most sensual rites of the Christian year is the Exultet at the Easter Vigil. The deacon or priest sings a melody that at first seems familiar, being based on the Preface tone heard often at Mass, but which keeps taking unexpected and exuberant turns that match the uninhibited excitement of its text. The paschal candle gives off a rich aroma as the wax begins to burn. Even the visual spectacle of the minister attempting to light the giant candle can either awe or amuse, depending of the finesse with which it is accomplished.

Inserting incense grains into the paschal candle in Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS. Lat. liturg. e. 18, fol. 36v

A night of song and fire

At the medieval Cistercian nuns’ monastery of Medingen in Northern Germany, the Exultet was savoured by the nuns, both during its liturgical performance and in their personal devotional prayers and meditations. When we compare the liturgical manuscripts used by the Medingen Provost with the Prayer Books compiled by the nuns for their own use, we get a vivid sense of both how the liturgy was performed at the east end of the church, and how it was experienced in the nuns’ choir at the west end.

Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS. Lat. liturg. e. 18 is a liturgical compilation made for the Provost of Medingen in the late fifteenth century, a priest who served the community of nuns. The Provost’s Handbook provides the chants and ritual texts used on various occasions throughout the year. The Exultet is fully notated in the late Gothic chant notation style sometimes known as Hufnagel (due to the resemblance of the virga neume to a horseshoe-nail). Although the Exultet was traditionally sung by a deacon, the Medingen manuscript specifies that it was to be sung by the Provost in a solemn and joyful manner.

The opening of the Exultet: Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS. Lat. liturg. e. 18, fol. 31v

Illustrating for visual learners

Midway through the chant, rubrics indicate that provost should insert incense into the candle at a particular point in the song, and then a moment later is to light the candle itself. In addition to the verbal instructions, two illustrations of these actions are provided, showing the location where the five pieces of incense are to be inserted in the form of a cross, and demonstrating how the rather tall Paschal Candle can be lit with the use of a long candle lighter. Although these ‘visual rubrics’ are somewhat abstract – if taken literally, the floating, disembodied hand would have been rather startling in the Medingen chapel! – they are a reminder for us of the complex multisensory experience of the Exultet. For the provost, it was a matter not only of singing a long, complicated chant, but also of various liturgical paraphernalia. For the nuns and other participants in the liturgy, the Exultet was not just heard, but also seen – and even at one moment sung along with, as the sisters responded to the invocations borrowed from the Preface Dialogue midway through the chant.

Lighting the paschal candle during the Exultet: Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS. Lat. liturg. e. 18, fol. 37r

Reactions from the gallery

Hildesheim, Dombibliothek, J 29 is a devotional book that was written and illustrated at Medingen by Sister Winheid of Winsen in 1478. The volume is a fascinating synthesis of Latin and German poetry and prose, combining formal liturgical texts and devotional prayers in a rich tapestry for meditation and devotional prayer. Here, we encounter the Exultet not from the perspective of the one who sings it, but from one who hears it and meditates upon its meaning. In the opening section of the Prayer Book, Sister Winheid began with a series of meditations for Easter, some written in Low German and others in Latin. The Exultet occupies an exalted place in the volume. It is decorated with one of the most lavish double spreads of the manuscript, including a historiated initial depicting four angels playing musical instruments. Marginal illustrations of St Fulgentius and St Augustine commenting on the chant as it unrolls evoke the ancient tradition of singing the Exultet from a scroll rather than from a codex.

The Exultet in Dombibliothek Hildesheim, J 29, fol. 10v

By including the Exultet in her Prayer Book, Sister Winheid was able to have the text of the chant at hand for meditation on the words which she would hear each year at the Easter Vigil. Although the text provided in the Prayer Book is very close to that which is provided in the Provost’s Handbook, there are several conscious deviations in Sister Winheid’s version. At one point, she adds a line about the need of peccatores et peccatrices (sinful men and women) to give thanks to God for having been freed from sin. At another, the text is expanded with a question and answer commentary, providing a prompt for the reader to consider her own response to the depths of the text.

Through their vivid illustrations and texts, Sister Winheid’s Prayer Book and the Provost’s Handbook give us a precious glimpse into the spiritual and liturgical life of a Cistercian monastery in fifteenth-century Germany. As we gaze at the cheery angelic musicians in the golden ‘E’ of Sister Winheid’s Prayer Book, we can almost hear an echo of the Provost’s joyful chant.

About the author

Innocent Smith, op is a doctoral student in Liturgical Studies at the Universität Regensburg and is an associate member of DFG Research Group Metropolität in der Vormoderne. His research interests are at the intersection of liturgy and theology, including liturgical manuscripts, scholastic theology, ecclesiology, and sacred music. His dissertation ‘Doers of the Word: Bible Missals and the Celebration of the Eucharist in the 13th Century’, focuses on medieval bibles which contain liturgical texts for the celebration of the Mass.