Universal, Regional, Local: The Mass for St. Stephen at Saint-Étienne in Toulouse

During the Middle Ages, at ecclesiastical institutions throughout western Christendom, the choice of a patron saint was a fundamental expression of the identity of the community. Clerics often created their own, local rites that incorporated the hagiography of their patron saints to obtain the protection of these holy men and women. Moreover, they frequently modified and adapted the sacred biography of their patron to better reflect the needs of their community. Although the development of a saint’s hagiography over time has long attracted the attention of medievalists, the critical role of the liturgy as a means of creating and transmitting these changes remains to be fully explored. The cathedral of Saint-Étienne in Toulouse provides a distinctive case study. On one hand, the choice of St. Stephen as titular saint—a saint celebrated throughout western Christendom—gave the cathedral clerics a prestigious patron who would be immediately recognized by those within Toulouse and from outside the city. On the other hand, because Stephen’s sacred biography was so well known, it did not offer the same possibilities for local adaptation as that of a saint whose cult was less widespread. Nevertheless, the clerics of Saint-Étienne crafted liturgies specific to their community. They selected texts and music for his feast days from among the wealth of materials available for Stephen, emphasizing particular aspects of his hagiography and shaping the saint’s image to reflect the preferences of their community. In addition, they composed new plainchant that told the familiar story in different ways. By combining materials in widespread use with those that were regional or local, the clergy crafted liturgies that proclaimed Stephen’s status as one of western Christianity’s foundational saints while expressing their devotion to him in a manner distinctive to Saint-Étienne.


Saint-Étienne in Toulouse was one of several cathedrals in medieval Aquitaine dedicated to St. Stephen. Stephen was noteworthy not only because he was the first martyr after Christ but also because he was one of the few saints to appear in the bible. Several chapters of the Acts of the Apostles describe Stephen’s ministry in the early church and his martyrdom (Acts 6:1–8:2). According to the biblical narrative, the Christians in Jerusalem chose Stephen as one of seven deacons to assist the apostles in administering the Christian community. Stephen distinguished himself by performing “great wonders and signs” and debating with members of the Jewish community. The text reports that he so enraged the council of Jewish high priests that they threw him out of Jerusalem, and the crowd stoned him to death. The perception of Stephen as a vigorous defender of the Christian faith as well as a martyr made him an especially attractive model for the cathedral clergy.


The mass commemorating St. Stephen’s martyrdom and entry into heaven (his dies natalis) was one of the liturgies during which the clerics of Saint-Étienne presented and shaped the image of their patron saint. This feast was celebrated on December 26, the day after Christmas. The scriptural readings, as well as the chant texts, focus on Stephen’s martyrdom, either directly in passages taken from the Acts of the Apostles or more indirectly in passages taken from other parts of the bible that could be applied to Stephen. Most of these materials were not themselves specific to Saint-Étienne. Indeed, some of the chants were sung throughout western Christendom. Others were distinctive to Aquitaine. The canons of Saint-Étienne also composed a new chant honoring Stephen that reflected on aspects of his hagiography in different ways. Thus, they used both familiar and new elements to express their devotion to Stephen, creating a liturgy that reminded the assembled faithful of the broad appeal of their patron saint while placing their devotion into the context of their own community.


The importance of St. Stephen’s cult and the ways in which the clerics of Saint-Étienne expressed devotion to their patron are evident in the oldest surviving liturgical manuscript from the cathedral, an eleventh-century gradual that transmits the music for masses celebrated there (London, British Library, Harley 4951; hereafter Lo 4951). One indication of Stephen’s status at Saint-Étienne during this period is that Lo 4951 includes four Alleluias for his dies natalis. The Alleluia is an elaborate chant sung before the reading of a passage from one of the gospels during the mass; most Sundays and feast days include just one Alleluia. Only two other manuscripts, both Aquitanian, transmit the same group of Alleluias for Stephen found in Lo 4951, placing Saint-Étienne in a smaller family within the region. The first Alleluia is Alleluia Video caelos apertos, followed by Alleluia Positis autem genibus, Alleluia Positis genibus beatus, and Alleluia Cum esset Stephanus. The texts focus on two significant events from the narrative of Stephen’s martyrdom: the moment when he was able to look into heaven and see Jesus, and his prayerfulness while facing death. Whereas Alleluia Video caelos apertoswas used throughout western Christendom, Alleluia Positis autem genibushas an Aquitanian melody not found outside the region, and Alleluia Cum esset Stephanuswas composed in Aquitaine. The Alleluia complex in Lo 4951 combines widespread and regional materials within the mass for Stephen’s dies natalis.


Part of the appeal of Alleluia Video caelos apertoswas certainly its text, which describes arguably the most important moment in St. Stephen’s martyrdom. The text of the verse (Acts 7:56) comes from the excerpt of Acts of the Apostles used as a scriptural reading in the mass.

Video caelos apertos et Ihesum stantem a dextris virtutis Dei

(I see the heavens opened and Jesus standing at the right hand of the power of God)

Not only was Stephen granted the ability to see heaven but he saw Jesus standing. That Jesus would stand for him is certainly a testament to his divine favor. The Alleluia thus emphasizes Stephen’s special status as well as God’s power shown in the episode.


Alleluia Video caelos apertosconnects St. Stephen’s dies natalisto the other feasts of the Christmas season by using the melody of the Alleluia for Christmas, Alleluia Dies sanctificatus.

Dies sanctificatus illuxit nobis venite gentes et adorate Dominum quia hodie descendit lux magna super terram

(A holy day shone upon us. Come, peoples, and adore the Lord because today a great light descended over the earth)

Alleluia Dies sanctificatuswas a popular source for such contrafacta, new texts created for a preexisting melody. Five of these new texts were for feasts during the Christmas season. These Alleluias were in use in Toulouse, thereby connecting Stephen even more closely to the important feasts of which they formed a part. This family of Alleluias created an aural connection between Stephen’s dies natalisand the other feasts of Christmas week, particularly that of Christmas itself, which fell the previous day. Just as the texts of the mass for Stephen emphasized his special status with God, so this Alleluia melodically reinforced his connection to God and the other important saints whose feasts fell during the week following Christmas.


Like Alleluia Video caelos apertos, the text of Alleluia Positis autem genibuscomes from the description of St. Stephen’s martyrdom in the Acts of the Apostles. Alleluia Positis autem genibusincludes the martyr’s final impassioned cries just before his death, the climax of the narrative (Acts 7:59–60). It combines parts of the two scriptural verses (see Table 1).


Alleluia Positis autem genibus Acts of the Apostles (7:59–60)
Positis autem genibus beatus Stephanus orabat dicens Domine Ihesu Christe accipe spiritum meum


Et lapidabant Stephanuminvocantem et dicentem: Domine Jesu, suscipespiritum meum.

Positis autem genibusclamavit voce magna dicens: Domine ne statuas illis hoc peccatum.

(And falling on his knees blessed Stephen was praying, saying: Lord Jesus Christ accept my spirit) (And they stoned Stephen invoking and saying: Lord Jesus, accept my spirit. And falling on his knees he cried in a loud voice saying: Lord, do not hold this sin against them)
Table 1. Text of Alleluia Positis autem genibuscompared with Acts of the Apostles


The text reinforces one important aspect of Stephen’s hagiography, namely his prayerfulness when facing martyrdom.


Alleluia Positis autem genibusis a contrafactum: like Alleluia Video caelos apertos, it uses the melody of another Alleluia. Alleluia Positis autem genibusis based on Alleluia Beatus vir qui suffert, a chant that appears in Lo 4951 for the feasts of several martyrs. Indeed, this connection may have inspired its use as the basis for an Alleluia for St. Stephen. Yet the melody of Alleluia Positis autem genibusdiffers from that of its model. Although the tonality of Alleluia Beatus vir qui suffertis centered around the pitch D, the structure of the melody initially obscures this tonality. In the Aquitanian contrafactum, the melody has been altered to clearly define the D-mode. The opening phrase of Alleluia Positis autem genibusis related to that of Alleluia Beatus vir qui suffert, but modal definition has replaced the ambiguity of the original. In light of this difference, the text of Alleluia Beatus vir qui suffertrather than the music may have suggested its use in the chant honoring Stephen.

Beatus vir qui suffert temptationem quoniam cum probatus fuerit accipiet coronam vitae

(Blessed is the man who endures trials because when he has been tested, he will receive the crown of life (Jas 1:12))

This verse may not have been referring specifically to martyrdom in its original context in James’s letter, but it certainly applies to martyrs like Stephen who were believed to have attained a reward in heaven as a result of their suffering. Alleluia Positis autem genibushas a distinctive regional melody that was nevertheless related to its model, a chant whose original text had great relevance for Stephen’s feast days.


The final Alleluia in the series in Lo 4951, Alleluia Cum esset Stephanus, is not only an Aquitanian composition but also a melody composed specifically for its text. The verse returns to Acts 7:55, which describes how Stephen saw heaven as was also found in Alleluia Video caelos apertos.

Cum esset Stephanus plenus spiritu sancto intendens in celum vidit gloria in Dei

(When Stephen was full of the Holy Spirit, looking steadfastly to heaven, he saw the glory of God)

This text reiterates Stephen’s sanctity using attributes not enumerated in Alleluia Video caelos apertos. Alleluia Cum esset Stephanustakes a scriptural excerpt stating not only that the saint was “full of the Holy Spirit” but also that his heavenly vision included the “glory of God,” demonstrating the particularly blessed status of his martyrdom.


The melody of Cum esset Stephanusin Lo 4951 has features distinguishing it from that sung at other Aquitanian ecclesiastical institutions. One example is the jubilus, the vocalization sung at the end of the word “Alleluia.” In all Aquitanian manuscripts containing this Alleluia, the jubilus comprises four melodic units. Yet their disposition varies between sources. In Lo 4951 they occur in a form that can be represented as ABBCD, but in other manuscripts they are organized as ABCD, AABBCD, or AABBCCD. Alleluia Cum esset Stephanuswas an Aquitanian chant; the version sung in Toulouse was a local rendering of the regional melody. All four of the Alleluias in Lo 4951 would have contributed to Stephen’s hagiographical portrait in the mass for his dies natalis. They focus on his sanctity, his prayerfulness when facing his persecutors, and his special status with God. In addition, they seem to have been transmitted as a group in southern Aquitaine, further demonstrating the place of Saint-Étienne in its regional context.


The Toulousan clerics also created new plainchant honoring their patron saint. One such piece is the sequence Collaudemus invictum in suis, composed to be sung after the Alleluia on St. Stephen’s dies natalis. The earliest surviving manuscript transmitting this sequence is a missal from Saint-Étienne from 1490, and the only other extant sources are also from the cathedral. Collaudemus invictum in suis is a contrafactum of the popular Christmas sequence Letabundus exultet fidelis. Letabundus exultet fideliswas the basis for many contrafacta for a variety of saints during the Middle Ages, so its use as the basis for a sequence for Stephen is not surprising particularly given the proximity of Christmas to Stephen’s dies natalis.


Through the genre of the sequence, Collaudemus invictum in suishighlights several aspects of St. Stephen’s hagiography. The text praises Stephen as the first to follow Christ in martyrdom and exhorts the assembly to venerate him. It emphasizes the torment Stephen suffered while he was at the same time praying for those stoning him, and it notes that he saw Jesus in heaven. As a result, Stephen is the victorious one who received a heavenly reward. The sequence concludes by asking the saint to accept the joyful service of the assembly, his servants. Collaudemus invictum in suisnot only reminds the faithful of their patron’s special status with God but also calls on them to join in the liturgical celebration in his honor. In singing this sequence at mass for Stephen’s dies natalis, the cathedral clerics reiterated the main elements of his martyrdom, musically connected this narrative to Christ through the melody of Letabundus exultet fidelis, and invited the assembly to join in the liturgical devotion.


The clergy of Saint-Étienne selected texts and music for St. Stephen’s dies natalismass that celebrated their patron saint in a way that was distinctive to their community. Not only was Stephen the protomartyr but his martyrdom was recounted in the bible, and he was venerated throughout western Christendom. The cathedral canons chose from among the materials available for Stephen to create liturgies that capitalized on his status as a universal saint while expressing their devotion in a distinctive way. They focused particularly on his preeminent status in heaven, a position that resulted from being the first to follow Jesus in martyrdom and praying for his persecutors. He had been able to see into heaven as a foretaste of his future heavenly privilege. These features made him a particularly powerful patron and intercessor for the community of Saint-Étienne. The mass for Stephen’s dies natalisin Toulouse has affinities with his festal liturgies at other regional centers in Aquitaine. In addition, the clerics of Saint-Étienne composed new plainchant for their patron. Toulouse thus situates itself in a regional context while maintaining an individualized profile. Through a combination of widespread, regional, and local elements, the clergy of Saint-Étienne shaped the hagiographical portrait of their patron saint while also manifesting their identity as a community.



Andrea Recek recently completed her PhD in musicology at the University of North Texas. Her dissertation, “Shaping Hagiography Through Liturgy: Music for the Patron Saints of Three Cathedrals in Medieval Aquitaine,” was generously supported by an International Dissertation Research Fellowship from the Social Science Research Council funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, an M. Elizabeth C. Bartlet Travel Grant from the American Musicological Society, and a Dissertation Completion Fellowship from the Council for European Studies funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.



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Photo: Panorama of Saint-Etienne square with Saint Stephen’s Cathredal in Toulouse, France | Shutterstock
Published on September 10, 2019.


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