Saturday, June 01, 2024

“The Old Leaven” of Catholic Truth, Part 1: Eucharistic Language and Eucharistic Faith in Medieval England

Aristotle believed not only that “words mean something”—an increasingly bold assertion in the twenty-first century—but also that carefully chosen words have a special power to “create knowledge in us.” He singles out metaphor, that central pillar of rhetorical and poetic language, as a mode of communication that “most brings about learning” and “creates understanding” (On Rhetoric, III.10.2). Liturgical, doctrinal, or devotional aggiornamento allows us to see Aristotle’s views in action, as we observe how knowledge and understanding are modified—or simply lost—when language changes from Latin to vernacular, or from poetic to prosaic, or from mystical to mundane.

Detail of Allegory of the Holy Eucharist, by Miguel Cabrera (d. 1768).

Belief in the Holy Eucharist has deteriorated in alarming fashion. If the statistics can be trusted, the situation is dire. The reasons for this are many, but some are of greater import than others, and language is surely among the more urgent factors. Modernized, banalized, and in some cases simply erroneous discourse has for decades obscured the truths of the Eucharist and the eucharistic liturgy. Perhaps the primary effect of all this is simply confusion, but confusion leads to misbelief, and misbelief to irreverence, and irreverence to further degeneration of language. And thus the cycle—a vicious one indeed—continues.

Illumination on parchment, fourteenth century.

The severity of this state of affairs is unprecedented, but the problem itself is not new. It is striking to read, for example, a description of eucharistic malpractice that sounds all too familiar, despite being eight hundred years old: the author of Vices and Virtues, a homiletic prose dialogue written in the Middle English of the early thirteenth century, laments the “misbileaue” (misbelief) and “unwurscipe” (irreverence) of those who received the body of the Lord “al swa unwurðliche swa me nimð ðat bread of ðæ borde — as unworthily as one takes the bread of the table.” The metaphorical reflections in this text show us the strong, evocative, and deeply Catholic language that abounds in the literature of medieval England:

Take what you see, bread and wine in appearance; and in your thoughts believe what you see not: that is, Christ’s flesh and His blood. And know in truth, as truly as bread and wine feed the body, while in this life it dwells, so this holy corpus Domini truly feeds both soul and body unto eternal life. And as truly as the tree of Paradise was called “knowing both good and evil,” so truly bears this same tree the fruit that turns many to life, and also some to death, for [their] misbelief and [their] irreverence.

The term “eucharist,” a borrowing from Greek via Latin and French, does not appear in Vices and Virtues, and in fact, it does not appear as an English-language word in any document from the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons until sometime in the fourteenth century. English Catholics of the early and high Middle Ages had various other titles for the Blessed Sacrament, and these titles give us an opportunity to consider how their eucharistic language formed their eucharistic faith—and a formidable faith it was, despite the unedifying individuals mentioned in Vices and Virtues, who were surely the exception. On the eve of the Reformation, the sacramental body of Christ was still “the focus of all the hopes and aspirations” of the English people:

As kneeling congregations raised their eyes to see the Host held high above the priest’s head at the sacring, they were transported to Calvary itself, and gathered not only into the passion and resurrection of Christ, but into the full sweep of salvation history.[1]

Part of a very long Corpus Christi procession winding through a town in eighteenth-century Bavaria. I can imagine something similar occurring in pre-Reformation England.

Though England’s ruling class succeeded in dismantling the vast and magnificent edifice of English Catholicism, the Anglican Church did not fully repudiate the real presence of Christ in the Holy Eucharist. The Articles of Religion published in 1571, during Queen Elizabeth’s reign, state that “the Bread which we break is a partaking of the Body of Christ, and likewise the Cup of Blessing is a partaking of the Blood of Christ.” However, eucharistic belief and practice were strategically diluted, and transubstantiation was condemned as “repugnant to the plain words of Scripture.” One senses that the elites carried out as much doctrinal vandalism as the common folk would tolerate. Gilbert Burnet, Anglican bishop of Salisbury from 1689 to 1715, admits as much in his Exposition of the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England: an earlier version of the Articles spoke strongly against belief in the “Real and Bodily Presence ... of Christ’s Flesh and Blood in the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper,” but this version was suppressed, because

the design of the Government was at that time much turned to the drawing over the Body of the Nation to the Reformation, in whom the old Leaven had gone deep; and no part of it deeper than the belief of the Corporeal Presence of Christ in the Sacrament; therefore it was thought not expedient to offend them by so particular a Definition in this matter; in which the very word Real Presence was rejected.

“The old Leaven had gone deep”: Yes indeed, Rev. Burnet! The Old Faith went deep and was still as alive and vigorous as golden, foaming, freshly poured English ale. The people of merrie olde Catholic England didn’t want your watered-down “Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper,” and that’s why your Protestant forebears had to foist it on them with their shifty language and Machiavellian tricks.[2]

At least the bishop was honest enough to acknowledge that, decades after Henry VIII exchanged Christendom for Anne Boleyn, the English people were still seriously committed to “the Corporeal Presence of Christ in the Sacrament”—so committed, in fact, that the lords of the realm deemed it “not expedient to offend them.” What a fine compliment the bishop here offers to the common folk of his once Catholic nation! Their hearty faith and respect for tradition forced the Innovators to preserve at least one crucial aspect of eucharistic Truth. As a result, the Anglican Church became an example of moderation amidst Nonconformists and continental zealots who, in their wanton assault on ancient sacramental belief, found a new way to profess that which is “repugnant to the plain words of Scripture,” wherein we read, “Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life.... For my flesh is meat indeed, and my blood is drink indeed.”

In Part Two of this article, I’ll discuss the eucharistic vocabulary of medieval England and consider how this vocabulary helped English Catholics to know, understand, and love the Blessed Sacrament.

1. Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, 1400–1580, p. 91.

2. In fairness to Machiavelli, he surpassed the Reformers in his understanding of tradition: “Princes should learn ... that they begin to lose their state the moment they begin to break the laws and to disregard the ancient traditions and customs under which men have long lived” (Discourses on Livy, III.5).

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