>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 /…how 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!