Sunday, July 13, 2008

A request for transubstantiation clarifications

I'm confused about something. It was inspired by recent blogospheric events (as recounted here, where you can see some of my confusion in the comments), but also, more importantly, by a medieval text I'm thinking about in other contexts. And it all has to do with the ritual practices of transubstantiation in the medieval church. The concept I get -- it's the practice I'm not clear on.

Let me put it in terms of the medieval text, because that's more germane to this blog and to my interests than the brouhaha that PZ Myers has stirred up. In The Croxton Play of the Sacrament, a Christian merchant named Aristorius procures a eucharist wafer for a Jew named Jonathas. Jonathas wants the wafer to test whether it's true that, as he's heard told, that "Cristen men... /beleve on a cake... / [and] seye how the prest dothe it bind, / And by the might of his word make it flessh and blode / that it shuld be He that deyed upon the rode." (For the non-medievalists reading this, I think that Middle English is mostly clear, but in case you don't know this, "rode" means cross, so the last phrase is "died on the cross.") Once he gets it, he puts it to all sorts of tests that mimic and parody Christ's Passion as well as the mass. Then grotesque and slapstick violence ensues -- the host bleeds, Jonathas loses his hand -- Christ appears and heals Jonathas, the Jews convert, and the whole thing ends in a Corpus Christi procession into the church, headed by the Bishop.

Suffice it to say it's a weird and disturbing play. My questions, though, are about the status of the eucharist wafer at the point when Aristorius procures it for Jonathas. The merchant gets his personal chaplain drunk, takes the church key, and gets the host while the drunk priest sleeps. In doing this, Aristorius says, "Ser Isodere [= the priest] shall nott know of this case, / For he hath ofteyn sacred, as it is skill. / The chirche key is at my will; / There is nothing that me shall tary." Bevington, whose edition I'm quoting from, glosses "sacred" as "consecrated the host." One other thing that pertains to my question is that in this play, prior to the grotesque bleeding of the host, Jonathas and his friends enact a parody Last Supper/mass in which Jonathas speaks the words of the mass (and the Gospel), "Comedite, [hoc est] corpus meum" -- eat, this is my body.

OK, so here are my questions, which I know I could get answered by re-reading Rubin's Corpus Christi, but it's more fun to ask the blogosphere. Besides, I don't want the answer for research reasons right now, I just want to clarify my own muddled head.

In medieval doctrine, at what point is the eucharist host the body of Christ? Is it Christ's body when it's in reserve, ready for the mass, or is only Christ's body at the re-enactment of the words of the Last Supper during the mass -- the "hoc est corpus meum" moment? In the play, is Aristorius stealing Christ's body or something not-quite-yet Christ's body? And what does "sacred"/"consecrated" here mean in context? And, for the record, is there any difference in modern Catholic doctrine?

And if you're thinking, "You're a medievalist! You should know these things!" Well, I'm a medieval *literature* person, and even when I've studied and written about religious texts, it's often been through the lens of lay people's social and devotional practices, which don't always align with official doctrine (contrary to the popular notion that medieval people only could or did believe what the Church told them to believe). Plus, having been raised Catholic, I think I have some kind of Pavlovian response to the "this is my body" moment of the mass. That's THE moment -- the eucharist is raised, bells ring, incense is sometimes wafted (it's all very dramatic) -- and I've never thought about the status of the wafers before that moment. It's not really that important for anything I'm thinking about this play -- I just want to get it straight. I'll go back to Rubin when I have time, of course, but for now, you can help.

And the other reason I'm blogging this is that I may not have time to blog in the next few days as I get ready to leave for the UK, and I don't know if I'll have much time to blog over there. So I thought I'd put something serious and medieval-related at the top of my blog, even if it means admitting my lack of knowledge of something so central to the period I study and the religion I was raised in!


Anonymous said...

My understanding is that the elevation of the host during the Mass, along with whatever prayer it is the priest says as he elevates it, is when transubstantiation occurs. That's why in the 12th century, when eucharist devotion developed, people raced from church to church to see the elevation - the minute when the transformation took place. From what I remember from my Catholic childhood and Jesuit priest uncle, it's the same today as it was then. The wafers given out during Communion can be consecrated before the elevation, but it is only during the Mass that the transubstantiation can take place - so in the play, the wafer that gets stolen is in some not-quite-yet Christ state.

squadratomagico said...

Yes, I think the "Hoc est corpus" pronouncement is the performative utterance that transubstantiates the wafer into the body of Christ. The bigger question is why there are extra consecrated hosts lying around in the Church, in this play. I'm pretty sure that canon law required leftover hosts to be consumed by the priest, not stored for the next mass.

Karl Steel said...

A preliminary, procrastinaty sort of answer.

On the Bevington gloss, MED Sacren (v.). Looks right to me (also see in Lay Folks' Mass Book, qtd in Rubin 59, "├żen tyme is nere of sakring, / A litel belle men oyse to ring."

From the Rubin, one cite from what became mainstream medieval Christian doctrine, Paschasius Radbert's On the Body and Blood of Christ, "following the consecration Christ's real flesh and blood is truly created" (qtd 15). See also Bishop Quivil of Exeter, who in 1287 wrotes "it is by the words Hoc est corpum meum and not by others that the bread is transubstantiated into th ebody" (qtd 57)

Further glances at Rubin (around 42-44) indicate that several hosts could be consecrated at once and kept, at least from the late 12th c. on, locked up for a week, at which point, if they had not been used, they would be swapped out for new hosts. Contra the previous commentors, I presume it's one of these hosts that was obtained and desecrated. Even unconsecrated hosts would be kept under lock.

I've often wondered if the Jews could consecrate the Host in the course of their parody masss (see line 404). Thomas Aquinas, however, says no:

"As stated above (78, 1,4), such is the dignity of this sacrament that it is performed only as in the person of Christ. Now whoever performs any act in another's stead, must do so by the power bestowed by such a one. But as the power of receiving this sacrament is conceded by Christ to the baptized person, so likewise the power of consecrating this sacrament on Christ's behalf is bestowed upon the priest at his ordination: for thereby he is put upon a level with them to whom the Lord said (Luke 22:19): "Do this for a commemoration of Me." Therefore, it must be said that it belongs to priests to accomplish this sacrament."

Liza Blake said...

Dear Dr. V.,

I don't know the answer off the top of my head either, but you might find the answer in Stephen Greenblatt's essay on leftover host and the fate of crumbs that fell (and other host-y problems) in his essay on Hamlet in Practicing New Historicism. While it may be a little late, he'd at least be able to offer early modern answers, and maybe point back ...

Croxton is far and away my favorite medieval play. And that's saying a lot.

Now, back to lurking.

Karl Steel said...

indicate that several hosts could be consecrated at once and kept,

The more I think about this 'several hosts' thing, the less likely it seems to me. there's no indication of multiple hosts, for instance, in Stripping of the Altars (1st ed.), 124-25....

New Kid on the Hallway said...

But wouldn't a priest *have* to consecrate multiple hosts? I mean, because there are multiple people in the congregation? Would the priest necessarily count who showed up on a given Sunday before consecrating hosts, or just haul out a bunch of them based on guess/usual attendance? (I realize this is a very low-intellect suggestion!) I have to confess I don't know how this works logistically - not having attended mass very much (once? twice? and it was Anglican?), I have an image of the priest holding up "the host" and saying "this is my body," but I only picture one host. But even if you break it into pieces, one host isn't going to feed a lot of congregants, unless it's really big (dang, I feel like Beatrice de Planissoles...).

Thoroughly Educated said...

Presumably a number of consecrated hosts would be reserved after Mass for distribution to the sick, and, from the 13th c. at least, for Eucharistic Adoration and, leading up to Corpus Christi, for display in that procession. They'd be kept in a pyx or a monstrance, which in the later MA might well be in its own chapel, kept locked but visible for adoration purposes - which seems like the natural reading of the context for the theft in the play. Picture all those monstrances in church sacristies all over Europe. (Submitted with the usual caveats that I'm neither a Catholic nor a late medievalist, so please to correct ad lib.)

Dr. Virago said...

NK (to start with the last comment first) - I think the one he holds up stands in for the others on the altar. But I like the idea -- poetically and theologically -- that it's almost a re-enactment of the miracle of the loaves and fish.

Thanks everyone else for their contributions, especially for those of you who looked things up -- something I didn't have the wherewithal to do at the moment.

And welcome Liza. Also, since this is a late 15th century play, maybe Greenblatt can be of some help. I'll check that article out -- thanks!

Thanks also for confirming for me what I thought was the practice -- that the host is the body after the elevation. What it means that the Jewish parody of that moment is also seemingly effective is perhaps a trickier question -- whether it's a question of why consecrated hosts were lying around or how a non-priest (Jewish or not) could effect is part of the question. Although, as I suggested in my post, I think literature doesn't necessarily get things doctrinally right; still, it would be good to know what it does and doesn't get right.

But here's my remaining question: I was previously under the impression that "consecrated" meant something like "blessed and ready for transubstantiation, but not yet the body of Christ." What I'm gathering here (and at Bardiac's blog) is that "consecrated" means that transubstantiation is complete.

Is that correct?

So is there any name for the state of the host in reserve, prior to the elevation. Or are they just, well, bread?

Dr. Virago said...

TE -- Ooh! Thanks! That makes sense! (And will likely be confirmed by Rubin when I get around to re-reading it.) Btw, I was writing my last comment when you must have been posting yours.

Liza Blake said...

quickly: (like Karl, I am procrastinating)

see also David Aer's typically cranky yet lovable response to Greenblatt's essay; if there is anyone to have made a career on following Greenblatt and slapping him on the wrist for not being a medievalist, 'tis Aers ...

Dr. Virago said...

Liza -- Te-hee! Thanks for reminding me of that article. I think I *have* that article somewhere around here!

Susan said...

I *think* that theologically the words are enough -- they may be efficacious even if not spoken by the right person. So there are two possibilities -- the hosts are consecrated when stolen, or the parody mass is effective.

What Now? said...

For a 21st-century Anglican (and I'm presuming this terminology hasn't changed much over the centuries), "consecrated" means "now the body of Christ," and pre-elevation bread is called "unconsecrated host."

And I was going to make a guess similar to T.E.'s, except without the medievalist erudition. I presume that Catholic churches today usually have some consecrated host under lock and key in the sanctuary, as Anglican churches do.

Matthew Gabriele said...

NK said:

But wouldn't a priest *have* to consecrate multiple hosts? I mean, because there are multiple people in the congregation?

It was always my impression that the priest would be consecrating a loaf of bread, not eucharistic wafers, which are (I think) a modern thingy.

And indeed extra hosts would be kept for a while in the ciborium.

Henrik said...

The scene in the play where the jew consecrates the host would be complete nonsense from a theological point of view (Aquinas) unless a miracle is occurring. The fact that Christ himself shows up to set stuff straight in the end indicates to me that something is indeed occuring...

About the amount of host consecrated: In the middle ages the priest would probably be the only person to actually eat the body of Christ (formerly known as bread) during mass, however this practice changes over time, and I'm not quite sure what would be 'normal' at the time of the Croxton play (what is the time of that play, anyway?).

So any consecrated leftovers from mass would probably have been made and left over on purpose - I think Thoroughly Educated got it all right...

The host, then, is the ritual bread used for the transubstantiation during mass - the name host has very little to do with its consecrated (or not) state. It's called host before and after the elevation. The point being, that after the consecratio it is in fact also (believed to be) the Body of Christ.

For those who don't like to look things up, here's a link: (Warning: Biased views ahead!).

New Kid on the Hallway said...

I'm quite sure that in much of the Middle Ages, or at least the high/later period (so contemporary with the Croxton play, which is fifteenth century), the laity were eating the bread - for one thing, there are all those dramatic stories of what I liked to call the crazy lady saints living on nothing but the Eucharist for months (years?) at a time. (It would make sense for it to be a loaf, too - I wonder when that changed?) It was the blood of Christ, the wine, that was restricted to the priests (and my vague sense is there was some resentment of that. Still, it's interesting that the plays are all about the desecration of the host, and not the wine, isn't it?).

New Kid on the Hallway said...

Oh, and Susan's point about the words being enough - that was the impression I had, and it's kind of interesting in light of the whole Lollard movement, one of the tenets of which was that if you were a *bad* priest, any sacrament you performed would be invalid. I wonder if a kind of orthodox corollary to that might be that it doesn't matter who says the words, they're valid? (I know theologically that's probably not right, but I wonder if that idea circulated at all in response to Lollardy. And there are other precedents for non-ordained folks to perform sacraments - during the Black Death, the church allowed lay people to confess to each other if there were no clergy available at the time of death, and midwives could baptize babies in similar case.)

flacius1551 said...

-it was heretical after the 8th c. to believe that the efficacy of a sacrament was related to the state of grace of its performer (Donatism)

-in general, in order to transform the elements one had to be a priest

-situations where sacraments were performed by lay people were generally liminal ones. In the case of a midwife baptizing an infant, for example, this was done in case there was strong fear that the infant was dying (midwives also baptized parts of babies sticking out of the womb, and even the stomachs of parturients). If the baby then survived a baptism was performed by a priest afterwards. If not, there was no point--the issue being to comfort the mother, not so much to fulfill the demands of the church.

-(it is hard to see how the sacrifice of the mass would ever have to be performed in a liminal situation)

Bardiac said...

I've seen a regular loaf used in modern protestant churches. But in medieval paintings, my memory is that the host is usually a round, wafer, fairly small in relation to the hands holding it? That's my recollection (and that's what we see in the painting Greenblatt shows in his essay in *Practising New Historicism*, no?) (I'd name the painting, but I'm at home and my copy of the book is at the office.)

Virgo Sis said...

OK, the synchronicity of this is weird and forgive my very non-literary approach to this. But Sunday, while at Mass with Dad, I kept my mind occupied with an internal discussion on whether or not transubstantiation would kill the gliadin protein and render the host gluten free (real life trials show it does not, but it should, right?) And in the bulletin they had an explanation of the difference between the luna (the round, formerly crescent shaped part that actually holds the host) and the monstrance which holds the luna. Too weird.

Have a wonderful time in merry old England etc.

Anonymous said...

I'm not smart enough to keep from muddying the waters. There may be issues that the Croxton play raises as regards different aspects of the miracle of the altar. Reformation theologians went on for volumes about the real presence and transubstantiation, which in fact are not identical. It all has to do with scholastic philosophy about substance and accidence. A trip to the Catholic Encyclopedia might help completely confuse things!

Anonymous said...


I wrote a huge response to this and then it disappeared!

The short answers as I understand them (mostly from Duffy's _Stripping of the Altars_, but also from Keith Thomas and from my own Catholic knowledge and practice):

1. Frequent reception of communion was rare in the middle ages. Once a year (at Easter) was common -- to receive once a month was considered remarkable (Duffy, 93).

2. The words that turn the bread (a wafer, not a loaf) into the body of Christ: "Hoc est enim Corpus Meum" (Duffy, 95). Before that, it is just bread.

3. Only a priest can do this. New Kid is correct that this is not the case for all sacraments -- midwives could baptize a dying baby, for example. But the power to turn bread into Christ's body was given to the apostles by Jesus -- it is defintely a priestly power. Also, no unbaptized person can perform *any* sacrament.

4. Transubstantiation will not solve the gluten problem. To borrow from Thomas Aquinas: in transubstantiation, what the bread really *is* (its substance) changes, but what it *seems to be* does not -- that is, its physical appearance, its chemical makeup, all of these things stay the same.

5. I think there would have to be consecrated hosts kept in reserve somewhere (presumably under lock and key) -- because receiving communion is part of last rites.

6. On stories of Jews and the Eucharist, you might check out _Stripping of the Altars_, pp. 105-107.

On a side note, and in reference to the blogosphere controversy about the current proposed theft of a consecrated host . . . as a practicing Catholic, the thought of someone stealing a consecrated host and desecrating it horrifies me more than I can even say. (Of course, I'm also appalled by the death threats!)

New Kid on the Hallway said...

Re: flacius1551's point on Donatism - yes, that's why Lollardy was a heresy, that they held the state of grace of the priest mattered (or, well, one of the reasons!).

And I completely understand that only priests could, legitimately, perform mass, but I was thinking about Dr. V's point about what the medieval laity might have got wrong. Though the point about performing the mass being unlikely in liminal situations is a really good one - there is clearly a big difference between that and baptizing babies.

And I know standard practice was to receive communion once a year, but there are also a number of saints characterized by extreme devotion to the Eucharist who receive it much more frequently (e.g. Catherine of Siena), even though occasionally there is conflict over this. I suppose this is relevant partly when considering what the play's author's experience would have been with communion, or what (presumably) his audience would have known about communion. (I have no idea whether the author would be lay or cleric.)

Anonymous said...

Oh, right on, New Kid! (I'm the anonymous author immediately above.) I completely agree that there is a big difference between what the church taught and what people might believe -- people might well think that the words of consecration themselves had power, regardless of who spoke them. (No evidence here, I'm just hypothesizing . . .)

I seem to remember reading in John Bossy, for example, of a folk belief that if you could work a living person's name into the prayers for the dead, it would kill them. That certainly isn't orthodox!