Department of Music

Music in the Shadows: Staging Medieval Night Worship 800 - 1300

Medieval church by night 1

Project Summary

For the better part of a millennium, Christian religious communities across Western Europe awoke from their sleep each night to offer prayer in church. During the Middle Ages this form of daily worship - known as Nocturns, Matins, or Night Office - was a significant and immovable presence in religious life. Even on weekdays it was the longest of the eight daily prayer services, and on Sundays and feast days it expanded into a dramatic, multisensory experience that was a magnet for local creativity. It is still possible to detect the service's legacy in contemporary religious culture: in the annual Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, from King's College Cambridge; in the candlelit drama of the 'Tenebrae' ceremony of Maundy Thursday; and in the scattered monastic communities of the British Isles that still rise each night to sing.

From a historical perspective, however, the Night Office remains shrouded in darkness. Unlike its nocturnal companion Compline, which has undergone a popular revival in recent years, and unlike the comparably extensive daytime rituals of the Mass or Vespers, the service is not well known. Even for those familiar with its complexities - which include vast, recurring cycles of reading and psalmody, an intricate, extensible structure, and tens of thousands of surviving chant compositions - there remain significant gaps in our understanding. Despite a wealth of surviving documents that bear witness to musical practices, personnel, spaces, props, techniques, and gestures, no one has approached the office from the perspective of its praxis. Artistic creations associated with the Night Office, including liturgical drama and polyphony, are rarely understood in their original nocturnal contexts. And despite its prominence in medieval religious life, little is known of how the Night Office was understood and interpreted by its performers, nor of the logistics of staging a complex daily ritual during the hours of darkness.

Project Aims

'Music in the Shadows' offers the first dedicated investigation of this remarkable historical phenomenon. Interdisciplinary in its design, its aims will be accomplished through three complementary strands of research, KE, and public engagement:

1. exploration of neglected archival materials to establish: i.) the norms and expectations of the medieval Night Office, logistical and liturgical, and contexts for the local creativity that characterised its cultivation; ii.) how medieval individuals documented and rationalised the experience of worshipping by night, including strategies for its sustenance and the reasons for its ultimate widespread abandonment.

2. public performance events, co-produced with Southwell Minster and two other medieval churches, in which researchers, clergy, and musicians use newly-unearthed evidence to discuss and then attempt to reconstruct different forms of Night Office, with two primary aims: i.) to explore the embodied potential of the historical record, recognising the distance between medieval documents and their performance, and the degree to which the service and its meanings transcended the verbal; ii.) to catalyse wider engagement with a forgotten category of spiritual expression.

3. fieldwork trips to contemporary monastic communities in the British Isles where the Night Office is still performed according to medieval precepts, in order to document and facilitate reflection on the lived experience of communal night worship, and to create long-term relationships for research and collaboration.

Knowledge of the night's underpinning role in medieval religion has much to teach us today, not only about the spaces, repertoires, and ritual practices that constitute its primary cultural legacy, but also about the enduring appeal of music and spirituality by night. Through public events, publications, and partnerships, the project will engage religious practitioners, musicians, researchers, congregations, and local communities.


  • Saturday 18 May 2024, 10am-5pm: ‘Narratives in and of the Medieval Office’, themed symposium as part of a study day organised by the Institute of Historical Research’s History of Liturgy Seminar. Registration opens on 1 April 2024.
  • Sunday 1 September 2024, 5am: ‘Festal Night Office for the Translation of St Cuthbert’, liturgical enactment (Worksop Priory)
  • Thursday 31 October 2024, 8pm: ‘Festal Night Office for the Feast of All Saints’, liturgical enactment (Southwell Minster)

Past Events

  • 6 June 2023, 9pm: ‘Commemorative Night Office for St Thomas Becket’, liturgical enactment (New College, Oxford)
  • 23 September 2023, 10am-4pm: ‘Going to Church by Night’, public talk at symposium Going to Southwell Minster in the Middle Ages  (Southwell Minster)
  • 25 October 2023, 7pm: ‘Dark Histories at Lenton Priory – A Twilight Tour’, public talk, University of Nottingham History Festival (Boat Inn, Priory Street, Nottingham)

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Project Team

Pricipal Investigator 
Henry Parkes
(University of Nottingham)

Research Assistant
Fraser McNair
(University of Nottingham)


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Project Collaborators

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Project Dates 

September 2023 - February 2025



Department of Music

The University of Nottingham
Lakeside Arts Centre
University Park
Nottingham, NG7 2RD

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