Saturday, June 08, 2024

“The Old Leaven” of Catholic Truth, Part 2: Eucharist as Sacrifice in the Language of Medieval England

In the first part of this article, I discussed the relationship between eucharistic belief and eucharistic language, taking modern Catholicism and Reformation England as examples of belief and language deteriorating together. The counterexample I provided was medieval England, where devotion to the Real Presence was robust and had been nourished for centuries not only by the strong, poetic Latin of the liturgy but also by various English expressions that helped the faithful to understand and love the Blessed Sacrament.

As I mentioned in Part One, the term “eucharist” was not a part of English-language vocabulary until the fourteenth century. In the second part of this article, we’ll consider the words and phrases that Englishmen of the early and high Middle Ages used when they were speaking, writing, and thinking about the Holy Eucharist.[1]

The Mass of Saint Gregory, a woodcut by Albrecht Dürer (d. 1528) depicting a eucharistic miracle whose legendary account was popular among English Catholics in the late Middle Ages.

“Unhousel’d, disappointed, unanel’d”

The most standard item of eucharistic vocabulary in Old and Middle English is also one of the most unfamiliar in modern English: housel (pronounced “HOW-zuhl” and also spelled husel, housul, howsell, etc.). This word was used as a noun meaning primarily “the Eucharist” and as a verb meaning “to administer the Eucharist to.”

Actually, countless speakers and students of modern English have seen this word, but they may not have noticed it or understood its meaning. It appears in Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 5, when the ghost of Prince Hamlet’s father describes his murder at the hands of “that adulterate beast” Claudius. The ghost laments that he was

Of life, of crown, of queen at once dispatch’d;
Cut off even in the blossoms of my sin,
Unhousel’d, disappointed, unanel’d;
No reckoning made, but sent to my account
With all my imperfections on my head.
O, horrible! O, horrible! most horrible!

King Hamlet relates, with admirable horror, that the murder deprived him of a good Christian death, since he died “unhousel’d, disappointed, unanel’d,” that is, without receiving the Eucharist, unprepared (without confessing his sins), and unanointed (without receiving extreme unction).

Hamlet (with companions) and the Ghost, by Henry Fuseli (d. 1825).

The deeper psychological and emotional effects of a word are greatly influenced by the word’s etymology and its range of meanings. In the case of “housel,” the term’s origin and multiple meanings convey powerful truths about the nature of the Blessed Sacrament. It is related to Germanic words meaning “sacrifice” or “offering,” and in Old English it was used, though perhaps infrequently, to mean “sacrifice” in a non-eucharistic sense. Over time, “housel” became more closely associated with the Holy Eucharist, but not in a restrictive way: in addition to denoting the sacred species, it referred to receiving Communion and celebrating the eucharistic sacrifice.

Thus, the notion of sacrifice is encoded within the very word “housel,” which binds the Eucharist as spiritual nourishment to religious sacrifice in general and, more specifically, to the sacred liturgical sacrifice through which this nourishment is produced. A term that memorably conveys this association would be beneficial in any age and in our own would perhaps have an especially salutary effect.

The Body of God

There is a striking tendency in medieval English to use “God,” without any qualifying words, as a name for Christ. Here are a few examples:

“The old fiend led them astray with lying wiles, ... so that they crucified God himself” (Cynewulf, Elene; ninth century)

“Therein was closed a nail great / That was driven through God’s feet” (Short English Metrical Chronicle; fourteenth century)

“Here must God take out Adam” (stage direction, referring to Christ, in a cycle play for the Harrowing of Hell; late fourteenth century)

This usage is now officially deemed “obsolete,” and indeed, it clashes quite strongly with the speech patterns of modern English, despite being theologically sound. I find its forceful simplicity refreshing, and one could hardly find a more concise way to affirm the hypostatic union.

Medieval eucharistic terminology displaying this same tendency includes God’s flesh, the flesh and blood of God’s body, and Godes lichama, this last meaning in modern English “God’s body” or, perhaps more accurately, “God’s living body.” These titles are surely due for a revival. I for one would benefit from more frequently contemplating the Blessed Sacrament not only as corpus Christi but as corpus Dei, that is, as the sacrificial flesh of my dear Savior but also as the eternal and glorious Body of God—uncreated Light, infinite Love, and the very Principle of all that exists.

Detail of The Last Supper, by Giorgio Vasari (d. 1574).

Journey Bread

The idea of Holy Communion as preparation for death was far more pronounced in medieval England than it is today:

The reception of communion was not the primary mode of lay encounter with the Host. Everyone received at Easter, and one’s final communion, the viaticum or “journey money” given on the deathbed, was crucially important to medieval people.... For most people, most of the time the Host was something to be seen, not to be consumed.[2]

Infrequent Communion was the norm in this society, even for some religious. The clergy who attended the eleventh-century Council of Aenham expected the laity to receive three times per year, and the Laws of Cnut, issued around the same time and drafted by Archbishop Wulfstan, likewise mentioned thrice-yearly Communion. The thirteenth-century document Ancrene Wisse (i.e., Anchoresses’ Guide) states that anchoresses, like lay brothers, should receive only fifteen times per year, since “me let leasse of þe þing þet me haueð ofte” (“one values less the thing which one has often”).[3]

A page from the law code of King Cnut. Cotton MS Nero A I, f. 16r, courtesy of the British Library. I find this script captivating.

For ordinary Catholics of medieval England, the Eucharist was not consumed as a daily (or weekly, or maybe even monthly) Bread, and it naturally acquired greater prominence as viaticum—sanctifying Bread for that final and supremely important voyage toward the setting sun of earthly life. Thus, one of the Old English titles for the Blessed Sacrament was wegneste, meaning “provision for the journey” or, more literally, “way food.”

Fear, Love, and Adoration

The collection of terms given above is not exhaustive. Indeed, no exhaustive list could be compiled, for Old English manuscripts are few, and the eucharistic devotion of the Anglo-Saxons, a fervent and poetic people, was vast. I’ll conclude with the words of Thomas Bridgett, an English scholar and priest of the nineteenth century who converted to Catholicism after refusing to take the oath of royal supremacy:

For more than a thousand years the races that successively peopled [Great Britain] regarded the celebration of this Sacrament as the central rite of their religion, the principal means of divine worship, the principal channel of divine grace. The Holy Eucharist was the great mystery of faith, the object not only of fear and of love, but also of supreme adoration.[4]

[1]. Much of the information in this article is built upon the doctoral research, completed in 1932, of Sister Mary Joseph Cravens.

[2]. Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, 1400–1580, p. 95.

[3]. The author also stipulates the days on which the anchoresses will communicate: “(i) Mid-winter Dei, (ii) Tweofte Dei [Twelfth Day, i.e., Epiphany], (iii) Condelmeasse Dei, (iiii) a Sunnedei mid-weibitweonen [midway between] thet ant Easter, other Ure Leafdi Dei [or Our Lady’s Day, i.e., the Annunciation], yef he is neh the Sunnedei, forthe hehnesse, (v) Easter Dei, (vi) the thridde Sunnedei th’refter [the third Sunday after Easter], (vii) Hali Thursdei, (viii) Witsunne Dei, (ix) Midsumer Dei, (x) Seinte Marie Dei Magdaleine, (xi) the Assumptiun, (xii) the Nativite, (xiii) Seinte Mihales Dei, (xiii) Alle Halhene Dei [All Saints’ Day], (xv), Seint Andrews Dei.” See Ancrene Wisse: Part Eight, edited by Robert Hasenfratz.

[4]. Thomas Bridgett, History of the Holy Eucharist in Great Britain, Volume 1, p. 1.

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