Singing on High: The Gloria Laus Ceremony of Palm Sunday in Medieval France

The eminent 18th century liturgist Claude de Vert’s work is a wealth of picturesque knowledge about the pre-Revolutionary Gallican Church. We have previously discussed the key role he played in the anti-allegorical turn in liturgical studies. But in this place his rationalist temper waxes less conspicuously, as with touching detail he describes Christ’s annual triumphal entry into the cities of France in the Palm Sunday procession.

In the first excerpt, he argues that the Palm Sunday procession commemorating Christ’s entry into Jerusalem is modelled on the triumphal entries of princes and monarchs into subject cities.

The Harrowing of Hell, Duccio di Buoninsegna, 14th century
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On Palm Sunday Processions in Medieval France

Claude de Vert, Explication Simple, Littérale et Historique des Cérémonies de l'église, Volume 2, pp. 377 - 384.

17. The blessing and distribution of palms once took place outside the city and still does in many places.

Since the purpose of today’s procession is to represent the triumphal entry of Our Lord into Jerusalem, so it is necessary, in order to bring before the people’s eyes the minutes details of this entry, even down to the tree branches that were strewn on the roads where Our Lord passed by—I say it is necessary not only to enter the city, and so to come from outside it, but to enter it solemnly and as if in triumph, with tree branches and twigs in hand.

We note that, if there are several churches and the procession is not to leave the city, then the blessing of branches takes place in one of these churches, and thence there is a procession to another church with the branches in hand.

Further, in several places with only one church, as most of the market towns and villages, they have sought to imitate the cathedral church, as do the rest of the churches of the diocese, by doing the blessing outside the city or village, at some wayside cross or altar prepared on the main road expressly for this purpose.[1]

And if the procession does not leave the town at all, then the blessing, at least, is done outside the Church, and usually in some public place. Finally, where even the blessing is done inside the church itself, they then leave the church in order to be able to return in procession with branches after having done a round around the building. In these latter cases, the ceremony of the Attolite portas, which we shall discuss later, takes place at the door of the Church itself, or at the door of the choir. For on the one hand, market towns and villages are not walled and so do not have city gates; and in the cities only the cathedral or principal parish has the right of blessing the branches wherever it pleases, and then process out of the city and reenter through one of the city gates.

For this purpose a church outside the walls was always chosen, usually a monastery, as we shall see hereafter. We know that almost all the monasteries that lie within city walls today formerly stood outside the gates. With the growth of cities, these monasteries found themselves within the walls. Thus they are usually found in the suburbs, where some of them still retain their ancient names, as in Paris, Saint-Germain-des-Prés (in the meadows), Saint-Martin des Champs (in the fields), Saint Victor and Saint Geneviève-lès-Paris (of Paris-side), i.e. ad latus Parisiorum. It is this last church where Paris still goes to bless and distribute the branches.

The Donkey Walk of Tsar Alexis (Vyacheslav Schwarz, 1865). The Donkey Walk is a Russian Orthodox Palm Sunday ritual re-enactment of Jesus Christ's entry into Jerusalem.

18. In the Roman Rite, the door is struck with the foot of the processional cross.

Since it bears an image of Our Lord, the processional cross is a very suitable instrument for striking the door of a place where the representation of Our Lord’s entry takes place, which is the whole purpose of this procession, instituted to express and symbolize the triumphant entry of Jesus Christ into Jerusalem. Bishops usually use their crosier instead of a processional cross, though it seems quite to the purpose that the rubrics prescribe the use of a processional cross, which is, so to speak, the main character in this procession, since it bears the figure of Jesus Christ whose entrance into the city is being represented.

Moreover this cross, veiled throughout Lent, is here uncovered in some churches, and in many uses it is saluted and adored in a very peculiar manner, accompanied by the hymn Ave rex noster.[2]

19. The gate of the city is intentionally closed when the procession returns

Just as one may observe in solemn receptions of princes and kings in our cities, for we have said already more than once, that the Palm Sunday procession is meant to represent Our Lord’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Hence in some churches during this procession the Gospel Book used to be carried in pomp and triumph, as if to represent Jesus Christ whose image ordinarily appears embossed on the cover. In Rouen, they still carry Our Lord himself, namely the Blessed Sacrament.

We observe similar practices, if the reader would countenance the comparison, in the public entries of princes and kings. In like manner the present King, now happily reigning,[3] made his entry into Paris: the Porte Saint-Antoine was closed in his presence, then opened again as soon as he had been given the keys. Similarly in Bourges, when the procession from the Cathedral of Saint-Étienne arrives at the stational church on Rogation days, the church doors are closed so that they may be opened again, and in this manner the procession is honored, as if the doors were only opened for the express purpose of welcoming it. A similar ceremony was once held in Paris on Rogation Tuesday, at Notre-Dame-des-Champs,[4] when the procession from Notre-Dame arrived in front of this church.

And so, upon its return, the Palm Sunday procession should naturally find the gates closed; either the city gates, as is still the custom in some places, or those of the prison, in a peculiar use, as at Paris,[5] or of the church itself, or finally of the choir, for the reasons noted above.

20. Wishing to enter, or rather to make the cross enter, the celebrant says to the door, Attolite portas principes vestras, et elevamini portae aeternales, et introibit rex gloriae.

And those inside the city, prison, church, or choir respond: Quis est iste rex gloriae? This exchange does little more than set in Scriptural terms and ceremonialize what happens every day as a matter of course when we knock on a door, which is to say: “Open the door,” at which those inside take the precaution of asking: “Who’s there? Who goes there?” The same ceremony is observed at the dedication of a church, when the bishop and those outside say the Attolite portas thrice and at different times, adding the word aperite, which they also say three times, like people in distress and tired of waiting: Aperite, aperite, aperite! Open up, Open already, Open, quick! But the words et introibit rex gloriae that follow Attolite portas are so much the more relevant here, as the purpose of the Palm Sunday procession (as we have said many times), is to express and symbolize the great and glorious entry of Jesus Christ into Jerusalem. So much so that Christ himself is carried in pomp and triumph under the sacred symbols of the Eucharistic Bread, or at least is represented by the Gospel Book. Thus there is no more felicitous thing in all these goings on than to encounter this one verse of scripture, accompanied here in a manner entirely proper and perfectly natural, by the ceremony of the opening of the gate, saying to those inside: “O High and Lofty gates, open! that the King of glory may enter in.”[6]

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[In the second excerpt (pp 97 - 100), our dear author shows how the hymn Gloria laus was sung during Palm Sunday processions, throughout France, staged in a dramatic way at a high point above the city gates, or from some other elevated place.]

On the Gloria laus sung from a high place

The ancient Missal of the church of Embrun and Glandève says “from the loftiest place.” At Vienne in the Dauphiné, according to the Ordinary of 1250 and 1504, it is from a casement above the city gates. At Châlons-sur-Marne, from the towers of the gate through which the procession rëentered the city on its way back from the Abbey of Saint-Menge or Saint-Memmie; it is still done today from a tower. In Paris, it is from a room above one of the gates of the Petit Châtelet, where the prisons are. According to the Ordinary of the Cathedral of Saint-Gatiens in Tours, also from above of one of the city gates. Likewise at Angers, it is done above the gate called Angevine or Porte de la Cité, in a chapel that was formerly a prison and is indeed still called La vieille Chartre (from carcer). According to city tradition, it was in this chartre or prison that Theodulf, Bishop of Orléans was held[7]. When the Palm Sunday procession passed this place, they began to sing the hymn Gloria laus, which he himself had composed expressly for this ceremony.[8]

Detail of the Gloria Laus, Fairford Parish Church, England
At Besançon, it was held atop the city walls, at the Porte de Mars, later called La Porte-noire, where the city prisons are still found. At Metz, it is done from the rood-loft, and formerly on the city walls near the Porte serpenoise, as it is commonly called. Contrary to the usual custom, the choir-boys of Metz did not sing the Gloria laus, but rather the Benedictine nuns of Saint-Pierre and of Sainte-Marie of the same city. Because of the phrase in excelsis (“in the highest”), they sing this hymn from a high place atop the city walls, as the choir-boys would elsewhere do.

In Rouen, it is sung from the place where the old city gate once stood, called La porte de Sainte Apolline, or Porte du grand-pont. Here a station is held and the choir-boys and musicians climb up to a neighboring room whence they chant Gloria laus. Formerly they sang it from the actual tower of the gate. The ancient Ordinary of this church says, “When the procession to the city gate, duly decorated, arrives, six boys go up the tower, &c.[9] In Langres, it is at the Porte au pain that the boys climb into a room called tour (“tower”), according to the ancient ceremonial. At Troyes, since the gate from which the Gloria laus used to be sung has been demolished, the boys climb to the windows of a house that stands on the same spot. At Auxerre, it is over the church portal on a platform called de la Gloria laus for this very reason. At Bourges, it is over one of the city gates called de Bourbonne; or, when due to bad weather they do not go to the church of Saint-Ursin, it takes place in an upper room of the house closest to the main gate of the cloister next to Saint-Ursin; or when the weather is so bad that it prevents them from going even that far, they do it at the organ-loft located above the main door of the church; or finally, if it is not even possible to leave the church, it takes place on the rood screen standing between the choir and the nave. Such are the pains this Church takes to sing the Gloria laus from a high place!

In Lisieux, it sung over the church portal between the two towers in a place also called for that reason, in the dialect, Gloria las.[10] In Coutances and Bayeux it is from above the main doors of the church. In Senlis from the place where one of the city gates formerly stood, called. as at Langres, La porte au pain, now destroyed. the Ordinary manuscript of this church says, Super portam civitatis, quae dicitur Porta panis.

Palm Sunday, Zdzisław Piotr Jasinski
At Mâcon, it takes place from a house facing the great door of the church. And at the Cathedral of Saint-Martin of Tours, according to the manuscript Ritual of this church, it is sung from the house of the Treasurer, where the prisons are (and perhaps once one of the city gates). At Liège, according to the Ordinary of 1521, it takes place at a chapel in Sainte-Agnes, up which the boys must climb. At Arras, it is done above a vault, apparently that of the porch or vestibule of the church. Supra testudinem, according to the manuscript Ordinary of this church. Gloria laus a pueris in alto canentibus, says the Missal of Noyon of 1541.

At Beauvais, it happens in a room located above one of the city gates, for this reason still known as the de la Gloria laus. These two words in fact are engraved there in gold letters. At Meaux, it once took place over the city gate, returning from the abbey of Saint-Faron, where the branches were blessed. Later, the Gloria laus came to be chanted in the gallery above the church’s main door, still called the Galerie Gloria laus. Today it is sung down below in the church itself, because in this church, as in many others, they have forgotten the reason that this hymn is sung in a high place, namely, the verse of the hymn that goes: “The whole heavenly host lauds thee on high.”[11] In a certain Roman ritual we find that the choir boys, in the event they cannot easily find a high place, at least sang the hymn from a window: super fenestram dicunt Gloria laus. Behold how striking these words Coetus in excelsis were felt to be, so that they had to be sung, with the whole rest of the hymn, from a high place!

In Cambrai the Gloria laus is sung from a tower. At Amiens this hymn is also sung from a tower, the remains of an old city gate called Porte de l’arquet, now demolished. Locals call it tour de Jerusalem, an allusion to the city of Jerusalem where Our Lord made his triumphal entry, of which the Palm Sunday procession is a representation and expression.

To account for the curious cases in which the Gloria laus is sung at the doors of a prison (as at Paris), De Vert seems to propose a historical explanation (Theodulf’s imprisonment). But it seems not far-fetched to suppose that the medieval mind concocted it to serve as a dramatic portrayal of Christus Victor, who triumphs over the devil, enters the prison of Hell, and despoils it of its captives.

Harrowing 6
Study of King Alfonso XIII of Spain and Queen Victoria Eugenia, Palm Sunday Procession, Royal Chapel, Royal Palace of Madrid, Spain, 1923.
Originally published on Canticum Salomonis

[1] Hence all the road-side crosses one finds especially in the environs of towns and villages, with stone pulpits attached for the chanting of the Gospel or setting down the Book. Sometimes one also finds stone tables to hold the branches during the blessing.
[2] Trans. note: This was the case in many places in England, where the veil was draw up by pulleys and everybody knelt. As the hymn was sung, the clergy venerated the Cross by kissing the ground (see Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars, p. 25).
[3] Trans. note: Louis XIV in 1660, on the occasion of his marriage.
[4] Author’s note: Now the convent of the Carmelites of the fauxbourg St-Jacques. Trans. note: This church was destroyed by the Revolutionaries. Another church, still under the old name, was rebuilt in its place in 1876.
[5] Author’s note: This is a recent custom. Formerly, as in every other use, the ceremony took place at the city gate, called at that time porte du Point or du Petit-Point and today le Petit Châtelet. Sistitur ante portam civitatis, as the manuscript book of the church’s cantor says, a quatuor pueris Gloria laus, etc.
[6] Attollite, elevamini means literally: “Raise the gates and make way.” The gates of Sion in question here were suspended like those of military cities and other fortified places, called a portcullis (herces), made in the form of a grill or trellis with large spikes of wood or iron, that are raised and lowered as needed. So the prophet demands the doors be opened to give access to the arc that he was having transported from the house of Obed-edom to Mt. Sion [See 1 Chronicles 13; 2 Samuel 6:12].
[7] Trans. Note: When accused of treason by Emperor Lewis the Pious. The legend is mentioned in book 6 of Hugo of Fleury's Historia Ecclesiastica from the 12th century.
[8] Trans. Note: The Emperor himself was participating in the procession, and duly moved, released Theodulf.
[9] Cum processio ad portam civitatis ornatam venerit, sex pueri turrim ascendunt, etc.
[10] Gloria las for Gloria laus, due to the region’s accent, which pronounces au as as. Likewise they still say Saint Valery en Cas for en Caux.
[11] Coetus in excelsis te laudat coelicus omnis.

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