Mediamatic Magazine Vol. 8#4 Michael Sikillian 1 Jan 1996

Abbreviated Hours

Multimedia in the Middle Ages

To read electronic texts is to experience chaos. Electronic mail boxes and Internet newsgroups contain messages received randomly over time. Some have more structure, forming threads, but often the temporal distance is so great that they are a jumble of old messages, new discussion, and comments on issues long forgotten.


Abbreviated Hours -

Hypertexts are discontinuous blocks of text held together by tenuous links. The reader is lost in fragmented piles of words whose connection to each other is minimal. Tracing a path through the links is often futile: history is meaningless where there is no temporal dimension, where nothing happens in time.

This is a consequence of a dominant paradigm in software development: transaction processing. The reader clicks on a hyperlink, and the application display a text passage, either in a dialog box or on a separate screen. The entire process is a series of paired actions: a request and a retrieval. These can be isolated moments in time, or a sequence of requests and retrievals. Internet Web browsers work in a similar fashion, although the materials may be sounds, images, videos, or text. The paradigm is essentially a machine-centred one, with the requestors (users) initiating a transaction and the transaction processor (hypertext system) responding to it.

Hypertexts generally form trees, nets, or loops. The tree structure involves clicking from a central point to more distant branches, until the reader reaches the end point where they can back up or exit the tree. The net form allows return to the central point via a number of paths, so that there is no end point. The loop moves the reader through a predefined path in a circular fashion, to end up at the beginning node. This again is machine-centred, since it defines the reader's experience in terms of the hypertext nodes.

A very different electronic text system would present texts in order over time. In this model, how the reader experiences the text, and reinforcing the reader's memory and understanding are the focus. This temporal dimension would either extend and develop meanings in a primary text or weave different strands into a rich, layered text. While much has been said about the inherent discontinuity of electronic texts, the opposite is also true: meaning can be concentrated even more intensely in hypertext. This is done by using the temporal dimension to consider how the reader will remember and experience a collection of texts over a period of time.


For centuries, this temporal dimension been used in the Liturgy of the Hours, which forms part of the daily prayer of the Roman Catholic Church. Also known as the Office, the Hours consist of psalms, scriptural readings, commentaries, responsories, and hymns which are chanted at seven times throughout the day. The content varies according to an interlocking set of seasonal and yearly themes.

The seven canonical hours are traditionally chanted throughout the day as follows: Mattins (2am), Lauds (early morning), Prime (6am), Terce (9am), Sext (noon), None (three pm), Vespers (6pm), Compline (late evening). The Office arose from the practices of early Christian monasteries, and has been considerably shortened over time, giving rise to its alternate name, the breviary, from breviarium (abridgement).

The most sophisticated arrangement of readings and lessons occurs in the morning office, Mattins which distributes readings over time and intercuts them with responsories that concentrate or extend meanings implicit in each of the readings. These responsories produce a cinematic effect on the participant, the equivalent of intercutting flashbacks with the current action in the film. In addition to the textual meaning, the responsories combine music and audience participation to the recited text to create an interactive experience.

Although many of these patterns were radically altered in the breviary revision of 1970, they still persist in many books of Gregorian chant and in the office as still chanted in some monasteries. The office of Mattins is organised into an introductory part, the nocturnes, and a conclusion. The introduction consists of Psalm 94 *, Venite Exultemus with its antiphon. The antiphon is recited before and after the psalm, and after every few verses. It usually sets the theme for the day or the season. For example, the antiphon for Easter is Surrexit Dominus vere (the Lord has truly risen).


The nocturne forms the central part of Mattins, and consist of three psalms, three readings and three responsories. Most days have only one nocturne, while Sundays and feasts have three. The psalms are arranged so that the entire psalter is recited each month with special thematic arrangements for feasts. The readings follow a similar arrangement: the entirety of Scripture is covered throughout the year, with special thematic arrangements for feasts, Sundays, and holy days. These arrangements can be seasonal (Easter or Christmas) or follow feasts (Ascension, Corpus Christi). The reading is divided into equal thirds in each nocturne. The responsories follow each reading and remind the reader of past readings, extend the meaning of current ones, or anticipate future lessons in the Mattins.

The interrelations of the parts of Mattins are complex, since they relate to each other, but each to larger structures over time. This complexity is heightened on days when three nocturnes are celebrated. This provides for nine psalms, readings and responsories. The typical pattern is that readings 1-3 form a connected passage from the Scripture; readings 4-6 usually are from a connected homily by an early Christian writer, and readings 5-9 consist of a short Gospel reading, and a commentary on the Gospel. The three nocturnes can reinforce each other, bringing out aspects of the same subject, or they can refer to past feasts or anticipate feasts to come. The responses usually provide the unifying element between the readings and between the nocturne, and can also relate to past or future events.


Mattins for the feast of Corpus Christi provides a good example of how a particular topic is developed and extended over time. Composed in the Twelfth Century by Thomas Aquinas, the feast celebrates a central tenet of Catholicism: the physical presence of Christ in the Eucharist, in the guise of bread and wine. Since it is a solemn feast, it is celebrated over eight days, each with three nocturnes that extend and develop topics which are introduced on the first day of the octave.

Corpus Christi Day, the first day of the octave, states the central theme of the feast. The reading for the first nocturne is 1 Corinthians 11:20ff, where Paul discusses the meaning of the Lord's Supper. Paul quotes Mt 26:26ff, the words of the Last Supper (This is my body, this is my blood), which will be echoed later on in the second nocturne. The passage from Corinthians is divided into thirds, and is followed by a responsory. Each response consisted of two verses, one from the Old Testament, and one from the New: The multitude of the children of Israel will sacrifice an animal on the evening of Passover, and they will eat its flesh and unleavened bread. (Exodus 12). Christ has been made our paschal sacrifice, so let us eat in the leaven of sincerity and truth. (Cor 1:10). This responsory links the Eucharist to both books of Scripture and implies a messianic interpretation of the Old Testament in the New. The next responsory connects another ot event to the NT: Eat flesh and be filled with bread (Ex 16:12) and Moses did not give you bread from heaven, but my Father gives you true bread from heaven (Jn 6). The quote from Exodus refers to the manna in the desert which miraculously appeared to the Israelites and links it to the nt. Aquinas makes use of this quote in a hymn which forms part of Mattins: Panis angelicus, fit panis hominum/dat panis caelicus, figuris terminum (The bread of angels becomes the bread of men/the heavenly bread puts an end to types).

The third pair of responsories recalls the story of Elijah (1 K19), where he falls asleep hungry, prays for death and awakens to find bread: Elijah looked and saw bread baked on hot stones, and got up and ate, and strengthened by the food walked to the mountain of God. The NT quote is from Jn 6: If anyone eats this bread he will live forever. The response links the miraculous avoidance of starvation and death with the nt promise of eternal life through the Eucharistic bread.

These responses have a key role in broadening the topic of the Eucharist, and placing it in a larger textual tradition. They also anticipate themes in the second nocturne.


The second nocturne uses a different strategy: it contains a sermon by Thomas Aquinas which describes the theology of the Eucharist. Also in three parts, each part being followed by a responsory, consisting again of an ot and a nt verse. The fourth responsory pairs the Institution narrative, Mt 26:26 (For this is my Body) with Job 31:31 (Who gave from his flesh that we might be filled?). The fifth pairs the second half of the Institution (For this is my blood ... do this in memory of me) with Lam 3:20 (I shall be mindful and my soul will waste away), pairing two different types of remembering: one of the memory of Christ, and the other of the loss of Jerusalem. The sixth pairs Jn 6:34 (I am the bread of life) with Jn 6:48 (Your fathers ate manna in the desert and died) and so provides a conclusion to the theme of the manna raised in the first nocturne, while adding a coda to the Institution narratives of the fourth and fifth responsories. These three responses also get to the core teaching upon which the sermon of Aquinas is based.

The third nocturne introduces a different pattern. The seventh reading begins with a short Gospel passage, continuing the verses anticipated by the responses in the second nocturne. My flesh is real food, my blood is real drink (Jn 6:58ff). It is followed by a long commentary by Augustine, which is continued in readings eight and nine. The responses echo the reading, since they are taken from Jn 6:57-58.

The progression in readings has been from concentration on ot texts which prefigure the Eucharist, to a theological exposition, to the New Testament readings which deal directly with the doctrine. The responsories for the readings extend the meaning to other texts of the ot, focus on the core verses which form the basic doctrine of the Eucharist, and finally echo the reading itself.

Since Corpus Christi was a major feast, it was celebrated over an eight day period, with three nocturnes in each day. In general, the first nocturne contains readings from the Book of Kings, part of another text cycle in the breviary. The responses for the nocturne, however, are the same as on the feast day, providing continuity. In the second nocturne, the readings contain a different sermon on the Eucharist, each from an early Christian writer. The responsories, again, are the same as the feast. In the third nocturne, the readings contain the same Gospel passage, with a various sermons commenting on it. The responses remain the same.


The effect of the octave is to present different views of the same topic while keeping continuity with the core doctrine. The responsories provide this focus, while the various commentaries on the same passage provide a rich historical perspective on the same text. By doing this, the meaning of the primary text is extended through time, and a collective memory is created in the reader.

While the nocturnes of Mattins can be used to extend meanings, it can also be used to weave together strands into a layered text. During the penitential season of Lent, the Office for the Fourth Sunday fuses different strands which are resolved with the celebration of Easter. In the first nocturne, the lesson relates the story of Moses and the Burning Bush. The responsories of the first nocturne weave another strand by repeating the words of Moses to Pharaoh and his words after crossing the Red Sea. This connection to the Resurrection of Christ is made explicit during a canticle on the eve of Easter, the Exsultet: haec nox est ... mare Rubrum sicco vestigio transire fecisti (this is the night when you crossed the Red Sea dryshod).

The lessons of the second nocturne are from a sermon on fasting by Basil. While fasting is common throughout the forty days of Lent, he speculates that Moses had fasted before receiving the Law on Sinai. The responses after each reading refer to the crossing of the Red Sea (from the first nocturne) and the reception of the Law by Moses.

The third nocturne contains a seemingly paradoxical Gospel passage. It relates how Christ fed 5,000 from five loaves and two fish. It is followed by a sermon by Augustine which elaborates on the passage. Augustine describes the story as relating the production of food to the miraculous power of God, and of how visible things (the multiplication of the loaves) lead to invisible things. There is also an oblique reference to the second nocturne, as Basil comments on the necessity of fasting to be purged from idolatry, which he relates to Moses accepting of the Law on Sinai. The responses for the third nocturne develop the Sinai story further, referring alternately back to the earlier readings as well to subsequent passages in the text.


On successive days, the readings describe the deliverance of the Israelites from Egypt and the celebration of the Passover. The resolution of this theme is on Easter Sunday, traditionally regarded as the ‘New Pasch'. The readings integrate fasting, the Passover, and the reception of the Law at Sinai with the death and resurrection of Christ as celebrated at Eastertide. By combining separate strands, the effect is to concentrate the reader's attention on the upcoming Easter theme. The strategy is to present as many aspects of the topic as are possible. The effect of using a related passage amplifies the meanings in the current text.

The second is a quotation from the book which summarises the book, reinforcing the major point and uniting the individual passages which are read over a few days. For example, in September the reading is from Job, and the responsory from the second nocturne reading is dies mei velocius transierunt quam a texente tela succiditur et consumpti sunt absque ulla spe e (My days have passed more swiftly than a weaver's shuttle and they have vanished, leaving no hope: Job 7:6) This type is common with the Historiae, the books of the Old Testament which contain responsory. It refers back to a passage which was read previously and may either develop the story more fully or simply repeat part of the earlier reading. This is true in the readings for the Fourth Sunday of Lent. It is also used in the previous Sunday, the story of Joseph being sold into slavery, and his father being told that his son is dead is told (Gen 37). The following Tuesday's reading is from the gospel of Matthew, but the responsory refers to the discovery by his father that his son is alive. The effect is to develop the narrative further or to link a past text to the current one.

Since the early Church distinguished a mystical meaning in scripture, beyond the literal meaning, the fifth type of responsory contains oblique references to the reading. On the feast of the Ascension, the reading is taken from a sermon by Gregory the Great on the Ascension. One of the responsories is from Psalm 103 *: you make the clouds your chariot, Lord, who walks on the wings of the wind. The interpretation is a messianic one, since it is a traditional Christian belief that the Old Testament writings contain veiled references to events in the New. The oblique reference is, of course, to the Ascension of Christ into the heavens. The effect of allusion is to weave two discrete texts together.

The sixth type of responsory is used for the feasts of saints. It has no direct connection with the readings, but instead relates incidents and actions from the life of the saint. For example, for Saint Cecilia, the responsory is cantantibus organis Caecilia virgo in corde suo soli Domino cantebat (by playing the organ, Cecilia the virgin, sang in her heart to the Lord alone). Other responsories tell more episodes in the life of Cecilia. The effect of biography is to provide more information to the reader.


Taken as a whole, the responsories do more than simply break the larger text passages into discrete parts. They are means of developing multiple meanings in the text, and of relating larger cycles of text together. These cycles can be a book or series of readings which is distributed over an octave, over a month, or over an entire season of the year. The responsories provide links between the passages read in a day, providing a sense of wholeness, or they develop meanings over time.

Using similar structures, it is possible to construct a temporal hypertext which presents texts to the reader over time. It is especially suitable for presenting complex ideas and layered meanings to the reader. It is appropriate where the reader needs to grasp subtle meanings and will use a hypertext system over a period of time. Transaction based hypertext, such as is common in many online help systems, is more useful for isolated questions which can be answered quickly.

As an example, consider how to construct a hypertext to explain a concept in Aristotelian philosophy: the four causes. In a transaction-based hypertext, the first block of hypertext might look like this:

A software developer (efficient cause) writes a program (formal cause) to calculate expenses (final cause) using the c language (material cause).

Each term would be hyperlinked to an explanation; for example: material cause links to a definition: material cause is that from which something comes to be; it is given a definite shape by the formal cause.

The problem with this approach is that it does not adequately convey the interrelationships between the causes, and the reader may only experience the causes as fragments and not as a whole concept (causality).


The temporal approach would present a longer passage, intercut with shorter experiences which either extend or concentrate meaning in the passage. It would avoid linearity by allowing the reader to begin with any one of the causes, and then experience all of the other three. This would not be useful for a reader who wanted a quick definition, though it would be helpful to someone who wanted to understand causality.

Using the breviary as a model, a long explanatory passage from Aristotle would be presented. It would be intercut with interactive experiences which use one of the effects from the responsories presented earlier. The pattern would be the same: reading/response. The selection of text cycles would include commentaries on the main passage, related ideas, as well as later developments of the idea of causality. The function of the shorter interactive experiences would be to relate these passages to each other and to larger cycles of text.

This key difference in constructing a temporal hypertext is to assume that the reader will use the system regularly over time. By building on the reader's memory and experiences with the system, it is possible to convey more subtle, layered meanings, and avoid the fragmentation which so often characterises hypertext.