Norwich Cathedral and the Latin origins of modern English liturgies

I passed the weekend in the English city of Norwich.  On the Sunday I attended the sung eucharist at Norwich Cathedral with a friend.  I confess that I have never attended a Sunday morning service at a cathedral in my life, so it was a new experience.

Norwich Cathedral

The interior was very bare.  The stonework had been stripped of any plaster that it might have had in medieval times.  In some arches there was obvious whitewash.  I couldn’t help feeling that this was rather a pity.  The building would look better with a bit more colour.

It was also cold inside.  The temperature outside was sweltering, and had been so for two days.  But the great mass of medieval stone had not warmed up as yet.  These buildings can never have been anything else.

The huge building was mostly empty. The service took place in the nave, west of the huge stone rood screen which completely hid the altar from the nave.  The congregation was mostly elderly and no greater than an ordinary parish church.  Looking at them, it was obvious that they could not possibly afford to maintain this vast building.  They did make quite an effort to be welcoming to visitors.  Indeed my friend and I were collared and asked to help carry up the elements to the clergy during the eucharist, which was a surprise.

The choir was a visiting choir named Amici Coro, who were superb.  They were supported by equally or even more excellent organ playing.  I confess that I do like excellence in music, so long as it is not empty and cynical.

The service book was a local creation, with the cathedral on the cover.  Initially I couldn’t follow it at all!  This was because the service only used the material printed on the right-hand pages.  The material on the left hand pages, in a font and design identical to that opposite, was merely for information.  It’s quite hard to understand why anybody would do such a thing, but then the regulars all know.  Churches are often bad at this sort of thing.

But some of the material printed opposite did catch my eye.  It consisted of Latin versions of the material that we were saying.

Now I’m still working on the fifth-century Life of St George, and in one chapter there are quotations which are in fact from ancient liturgical material.  Some of these actually appeared in the Norwich cathedral service book.  For instance one section read:

Qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.
Qui tollis peccata mundi, suscipe deprecationem nostram.
Qui sedes ad dexteram Patris, miserere nobis.


Who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.
Who takes away the sins of the world, receive our prayer.
Who sits at the right hand of the Father, have mercy on us

The “qui tollis” caught my eye, having seen similar constructions in the Life.  The nominative “qui”, “who”, followed by the 2nd person singular “tollis”, “you take away”, made me rub my eyes.  Rendering as “you who take away”, “you take away” or “who takes away” – none of them a very exact translation on the face of it.

It made me realise that there is a tradition here, of words pronounced in western churches for nearly two millennia, about which most people, including myself, are utterly ignorant.  It isn’t even obvious to me where to start to find out.

I came to Christ in an Anglican church using a modern English liturgy.  I remember once attending a Roman Catholic service in my college days and being surprised to find much the same words being used.  But I have never heard anyone discuss what they were.

Is there a simple, brief introduction to such matters available?  Designed for the layman?

Suggestions would be most welcome in the comments.

My thanks to the people and clergy of Norwich cathedral for the welcome that we received, as complete and obscure strangers.  We were invited to the coffee afterwards, and everyone was most friendly.

25 thoughts on “Norwich Cathedral and the Latin origins of modern English liturgies

  1. The complete sentence is :
    Agnus dei qui tollis pecatta mundi
    Miserere nobis…

  2. Oh, please not “who takes”! You have correctly identified ‘tollis’ as 2nd pers. sing. so the phrase has to be addressed to ‘you’- in this case to ‘agnus Dei’. In full it would be ‘you who take’, but because the ‘yoo-hoo’ sound is clumsy (and indeed mocked as such) it tends to be modified to ‘you that take’ or just ‘who take’. ‘Who takes’ is horribly ungramamtical.
    Was it in fact being sung in Latin?

    The ‘Agnus Dei’ is regularly sung during the communion at an Anglican Sung Eucharist. It derives from John 1: 29. Its liturgical use is very ancient. In Orthodox Matins it occurs in the Lesser Doxology.
    You will find a wealth of information online.

    [To Albocicade:pecata, not pecatta.]

  3. LOL – but “who takes” is something I have certainly seen in the wild. pecatta is my typo.

    It wasn’t in fact sung in Latin – these were notes in the service book.

  4. Oh yes, indeed: it is widely found.
    Like the lazy alteration of so-called Elizabethan “thou who hast” to “you who has”.

  5. A kind correspondent emails me:

    The verse in Greek has the same “phenomenon”. We know this prayer is addressed to Christ, which is why the “You” is understood and not written…

    «(Εσύ) Κύριε, ο Θεός, ο Αμνός του Θεού, ο Υιός του Πατρός, ο αίρων (in modern Greek = Αυτός που αίρει – the One Who takes away) την αμαρτίαν του κόσμου, ελέησον ημάς, ο αίρων τας αμαρτίας του κόσμου».

    “…(You) o Lord God, the Lamb of God, the Son of the Father, (the One Who) takes away the sin of the world, have mercy on us, (You, the One Who) takes away the sins of the world…”


    This is done frequently, as for example in a psalm:

    Ελέησόν με, (Εσύ) ο Θεός (God in the Nominative) – the phrase is understood as “(You) o God, Have mercy on me, ”

    It is probably futile, tryimg to analyze greek phrasing based on English rules of Grammar….

  6. Yep, that is the Gloria, from the beginning of Mass, right after the penitential rite/s. The Agnus Dei is right before Communion, practically.

    The Gloria supposedly comes from the Greek side of things, but it was translated into Latin really early.

    You get two different kinds of books on liturgies: books on what it means devotionally or theologically, and books on the development and history. And you get them at all different reader levels. I am assuming you want the developmental kind?

  7. Sadness, only sadness.. You are describing my spiritual world as you were a stranger from Mars. I don’t realize how a cultured man from Europe could find new such words that I say every day all my life. I feel myself as a forgotten worshipper of an old disappeared religion. You are really a discovery by me. I didn’t know that here in Europe we could be so detached one from another. Yes, the mahomeddans can come and win without forcing such a disappeared world. What a sadness did you make me feel..

  8. I would not see it so. Latin was shoved aside in the 60s and 70s. Cathedral worship has been outdated for longer. But both are probably making a comeback.

  9. Relative + 2nd person when the antecedent is a vocative is the rule rather than the exception in Latin: “Pater noster qui *es* in caelis” etc.

    See a related discussion of “O God, who see how your people” or “Who live and reign” suggesting that in English “see”, “live”, “reign” could be understood as plural referring to the Trinity (!):

    BTW there is another anomaly in this prayer: “Agnus Dei” for proper vocative “Agne Dei”. Here’s a discussion, with a choice of solutions:

  10. It’s not classical ciceronian latin, but ecclesiastical church popular folk latin, so don’t read it like a grammar manual. Do you remember the Lion of st. Mark with the open book :”Pax tibi. Marce , evangelista meus.” Following the high classical latin it would be “evangelista meae” . It is not a mistake but almost another language the new middle age latin in formation, the beginning of the neo-latin languages. By The way, the trsnslation of qui tollis peccata mundi is exactly “who take on yourself, charges yourself with the sins..” Remember also: culpa not cupla.

  11. You mean “mi (or mei) evangelista,” not “meae,” of course. But the use of “meus” as vocative is already classical, not necessarily late or ecclesiastical. E. Dickey collected several examples here (p. 41):

    including Aeneid VI.834-5: “tuque prior, tu parce, genus qui ducis Olympo, / proice tela manu, sanguis meus!”

    For other nominatives used as vocatives in classical Latin, cf. Allen & Greenough 430a, who quote Livy I.24 “audi tu, populus Albanus.”

    That’s an interesting point about “tollis.” In fact Gk. αἴρων is usually “lift,” but it can also be “take up and bear, endure” even in the active voice. I wonder.

  12. The ecclesiastical Latin thing and the liturgy development thing are the same question, really. There is a German lady from the Fifties, Sixties, Seventies, etc., who did all these linguistic studies, showing that bit is not so much Vulgar Latin as an adaptation of literary Latin, legal Latin, and pagan religious Latin to the purposes of translating formal Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, etc., and composing new Latin Christian prayers and hymns. It was making a new Christian culture and language out of the old.

    The problem is that her books out of print for a long time, so most people just have photocopies. Also a lot of them are in German.

  13. Is “German lady” a reference to Christine Mohrmann? She was Dutch – wrote mostly in French,
    Dutch, English. She was “back-bone” of Vigiliae Christianae.

  14. I’m not sure about the ‘current scholarship’, but Pius Parsch has a nice little discussion of the Gloria in his book on the Mass, in English translation, here (see pages 98-106):

    It may indeed be one good example of the sort of “simple, brief introduction to such matters […] Designed for the layman”.

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