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History of the Christian Church, Volume V: The Middle Ages. A.D. 1049-1294.
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§ 116. Eucharistic Practice and Superstition.


The celebration of the eucharist is the central part of the service of the Latin Church. Thomas Aquinas said it is to be celebrated with greater solemnity than the other sacraments because it contains the whole mystery of our salvation. He gives the meaning of the various ceremonies,16821682    Summa, III. 83. 5 sq., Migne, IV. 844-853. such as the signing with the cross, the priest’s turning his face to the people a certain number of times with reference to Christ’s appearances after the resurrection, the use of incense, the stretching forth of the priest’s arms, the breaking of the bread, and the rinsing of the mouth after the wine has been taken. How important the prescriptions were considered to be, may be inferred from the careful attention this great Schoolman gives to them. If a fly, he says, or a spider, be found in the wine after consecration, the insect must be taken out, carefully washed and burnt, and then the water, mingled with ashes, must be thrown into the sacrary. If poison be found in the consecrated wine, the contents of the cup are to be poured out and kept in a vessel among the relics.16831683    Th. Aq., III. 83. 5, Migne, IV. 850.

The priest’s fitness to consecrate the elements lies in the sacerdotal power conferred upon him at his ordination. He consecrates the elements not in his own name but as the minister of Christ, and he does not cease to be a minister by being bad, malus.16841684    Non ex hoc desinit aliquis minister esse Christi quod est malus, Th. Aq., 82. 5, 7, Migne, IV. 821, 824; Anselm, ep. IV. 107, Migne, 159. 257, had said the same thing, nec a bono sacerdote majus, etc. the elements, in the eucharist the benefit consists in the consecration of the elements by the priest and not in their use by the people.16851685    Th. Aq., III. 80. 12, Migne, IV. 809. Perfectio hujus sacramenti non est in usu fidelium sed in consecratione materiae.

Ecclesiastical analysis and definition could go no farther in divesting the simple memorial meal instituted by our Lord of the element of immediate communion between the believer and the Saviour, and changing it as it were into a magical talisman. It would be disingenuous to ignore that with the Schoolmen the devotional element has a most prominent place in their treatment of the eucharist. Especially when they are treating it as a sacrifice is emphasis laid upon devotion on the part of the participants.16861686    Requiritur ut cum magna devotione et reverentia ad, hoc sacramentum accedat .... Eucharistia exigit actualem devotionem in suscipiente, Th. Aq., III. 80. 10, Supplem. III, 32. 4, Migne, IV. 805, 1038.ee, the place of faith as the necessary organ of receiving the divine grace extended through this sacred ordinance. The definition which the mediaeval theologians gave to the Church and the mediatorial power they associated with the priesthood precluded them from estimating faith at its true worth.16871687    We cannot help feeling strongly with Harnack when he exclaims, "In its doctrine of the eucharist, the Church gave expression to all that she held dear,—her theology, her mystical relation to Christ, the communion of believers, the priesthood, sacrifice, not to that faith which seeks assurance and to which assurance is given,"Dogmengesch., II. 489 sq

The theory of the sacrificial efficacy of the mass encouraged superstition. It exalted the sacerdotal prerogative of the priest16881688    Populus indiget medio ad Deum qui per seipsum accedere ad deum non potest., Th. Aq., III. 22. 4, Migne, IV. 219.d for pilgrims looking forward to heaven. The people came to look to him rather than to Christ, for could he not by the utterance of his voice effect the repetition of the awful sacrifice of the cross! The frequent repetition of the mass became a matter of complaint. Albertus Magnus speaks of women attending mass every day from levity and not in a spirit of devotion who deserved rebuke.16891689    De euchar. VI. 3. Easter, and in case of burial. Masses had their price and priests there were who knew how to sell them and to frighten people into making provision for them in their wills.16901690    Councils of Würzburg, 1287, Paris, 1212, etc. See Hefele, V. 866

The elevation and adoration of the host were practised in the Latin Church as early as the twelfth century. Honorius III., 1217, made obligatory the ringing of a bell at the moment the words of institution were uttered that the worshippers might fall on their knees and adore the host. The Lambeth synod of 1281 ordered the church bells to be rung at the moment of consecration so that the laboring man on the field and the woman engaged in her domestic work might bow down and worship. Synods prescribed that the pyx, the receptacle for the host, be made of gold, silver, ivory, or, at least, of polished copper. A light was kept burning before it perpetually. In case a crumb of the bread or a drop of the wine fell upon the cloth or the priest’s garments, the part was to be cut out and burnt and the ashes thrown into the sacrary. And if the corporale, the linen cover prescribed for the altar, should be wet in the blood, it was to be washed out three times and the water drunk by a priest. If a drop happened to fall on a stone or a piece of wood or hard earth, the priest or some pious person was to lick it up.

The festival of the eucharist, Corpus Christi, celebrated the first Thursday after Trinity Sunday, had its origin in the vision of Juliana, a nun of Liege, who saw the full moon, representing the church year, with one spot on its surface. This spot indicated the Church’s neglect to properly honor the real presence. She made her vision known to the bishop of Liege and the archdeacon, James Pantaleon. A celebration was appointed for the diocese, and when James became pope, under the name of Urban IV., he prescribed, in 1264, the general observance of the festival. John XXII. inaugurated the procession wherein, on Corpus Christi day, the host was carried about the streets with great solemnities.16911691    See artt. Fronleichnamsfest in Wetzer-Welte, IV. 2061 sqq., and Herzog, VI. 297 sqq. It was one of the first observances to call forth Luther’s protest. Köstlin, Leben Luthers, I. 560. was prepared by Thomas Aquinas at the appointment of Urban IV. Two important changes occurred in this period in the distribution of the elements,—the abandonment of the communion of children and the withdrawal of the cup from the laity.

The communion of children practised in the early Church, and attested by Augustine and still practised in the Greek Church, seems to have been general as late as the reign of Pascal II. Writing in 1118, Pascal said it was sufficient to give the wine to children and the very sick, as they are not able to assimilate the bread. In their case the bread was to be dipped into the wine.16921692    Ep., 535, Migne, 163. 442, qui panem absorbere non possunt, etc., quoted in Herzog under Kinderkommunion, X. 289. them the bread, and the synod of Bordeaux, 1255, the wine as well as the bread. The greater Schoolmen do not treat the subject. The Supplement of Thomas Aquinas’ Theology says that the extreme unction and the eucharist were not administered to children because both sacraments required real devotion in the recipients.16931693    Suppl., XXXII. 4, Migne, IV. 1038. The council of Trent anathematized those who hold the communion of children to be necessary.

The denial of the cup to the laity, the present custom of the Roman Catholic Church, became common in the thirteenth century. It was at first due to the fear of profanation by spilling the consecrated blood of Christ. At the same time the restriction to the bread was regarded as a wholesome way of teaching the people that the whole Christ is present in each of the elements. Among other witnesses in the twelfth century to the distribution of both the bread and the wine to the laity are Rupert of Deutz and pope Pascal II. Pascal urged that this custom be forever preserved.16941694    Migne, 163. 142. See Smend, p. 7, for other witnesses. Smend’s book is a most thorough piece of work and is indispensable in the study of the subject. With the exception of some quotations, I depend upon him for the contents of these paragraphs., refers to it and condemned the dipping of the host into the wine as a Judas communion, with reference to John 13:26.16951695    Called intinctio. Hugo of St. Victor and Peter the Lombard were among the first to condemn the practice. Also the synod of London, 1175, Hefele, V. 688. See also V. 224 for the action of the synod of Clermont, 1095.

By the middle of the thirteenth century the feeling had grown strong enough for a great authority, Alexander of Hales, to condemn the giving of the cup to the laity and on the doctrinal ground that the whole Christ is in each of the elements. As a means of instructing the people in this doctrine he urged that the cup be denied. But Albertus Magnus, his contemporary, has no hint justifying the practice.16961696    Albertus makes no mention of the matter in his De eucharistia and Com. on the Sentences. Peter Rokyzana, at the council of Basel in the fifteenth century, appealed to him in his argument for giving the cup to the laity.f the cup, for the full benefit accrues by the participation of a single element, communio sub una specie.16971697    Th. Aq., III. 80. 12, Migne, IV. 808 sq., nihil derogat perfectioni hujus sacr., si populus sumat corpus sine sanguine dummodo sacerdos consecrans sumat utrumque. So also Bonaventura, Sent., IV. 11. 2.

The usage gradually spread. The chapter of the Cistercians in 1261 forbade monks, nuns, and lay brethren of the order to take the cup. The few Councils which expressed themselves on the subject were divided.16981698    The synod of Lambeth, 1281, seems to have forbidden the cup to the laity; the synod of Exeter, 1287, to have positively enjoined it.

The council of Constance threatened with excommunication all who distributed the wine to the laity. It spoke of many "perils and scandals" attending the distribution of the wine. Gerson, who voted for the enactment, urged the danger of spilling the wine, of defilement to the sacred vessels from their contact with laymen’s hands and lips, the long beards of laymen, the possibility of the wine’s turning to vinegar while it was being carried to the sick, or being corrupted by flies, or frozen by the cold, the difficulty of always purchasing wine, and the impossibility of providing cups for ten thousand or twenty thousand communicants on Easter. The council of Trent reaffirmed the withdrawal of the cup as an enactment the Church was justified in making. Gregory II. had commanded the use of a single chalice at communion.16991699    See Migne, 89. 525. For an interesting account of the different shapes of the chalice, see Enc. Brit., XIX. 185 sq. The earlier chalices had two handles and a small base, those of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries no handles and a broad base. Some of the later chalices were very capacious.

Some strange customs came into vogue in the distribution of the wine, such as the use of a reed or straw, which were due to veneration for the sacred element. Many names were given to this instrument, such as fistula, tuba, canna, siphon, pipa, calamus. The liturgical directions required the pope to drink through a fistula on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. He still follows this custom at the public mass. The practice maintained itself in some parts of the Lutheran Church as in Hamburg and vicinity, and Brandenburg down to the eighteenth century.17001700    See the interesting details given by Smend, pp. 18 sqq.

Another custom was the practice of cleaning the mouth with a rinsing cup of unconsecrated wine, after one or both the elements had been received, and called in German the Spülkelch. A synod of Soissons of the twelfth century enjoined all to rinse their mouths after partaking of the elements. Peckham, archbishop of Canterbury, 1281, enjoined priests to instruct the people that in partaking of the bread they were partaking of the whole Christ, and that what was given them in the cup was only wine, given that they might the more easily swallow the sacred body.17011701    Vinum purum ... ut facilius sacrum corpus glutiat. Smend, who `gives elaborate details, pp. 43-75.17021702    The object was to prevent the loss of any of the sacred element by expectoration or vomiting, per sputum vel vomitum. Chrysostom made a recommendation of this sort, Smend, 44.

This treatment of the mediaeval theory of the eucharist would be incomplete without giving some of the marvellous stories which bear witness to the excessive reverence for the sacred host and blood. One of the most famous, the story of the monk, who was cured of doubts by seeing the host exude blood, is told by Alexander of Hales, Bonaventura,17031703    Sent., IV. 11, 2, 2, Peltier’s ed., V. 496.17041704    Caesar of Heisterb., Dial., IV. 16.rbach relates several cases when a snow-white dove was seen sitting near the chalice at the celebration of the mass and a number of cases of the appearance of Christ in visible form in the very hands of the consecrating priest. Thus one of the monks, present when the mass was being said by Herman, abbot of Himmelrode, saw after the consecration of the host the Christ as a child in the abbot’s hands. The child rose to the height of the cross and then was reduced again in size to the dimensions of the host, which was eaten by the abbot.17051705    Dial., IX. 29, Strange’s ed., II. 186.urning it back again, he saw Christ on the cross. Then there was nothing left but the visible form of the bread, which the pious monk ate. The writer goes on to say that Adolf did not feel full joy over this vision, for he kept a concubine.17061706    IX. 3.oman of the town of Thorembais, who had been refused the sacrament by a priest, was visited the same night by Christ himself, who gave her the host with his own hands.17071707    IX. 35, Strange’s ed., II. 191.

At a church dedication in Anrode, the invited priests engaged in conviviality and while they were dancing around the altar, the pyx was overthrown and the five hosts it contained scattered. The music was at once stopped and search was made but without result. The people were then put out of the building and every corner was searched till at last the hosts were found on a ledge in the wall where the angel had placed them.17081708    Dial., IX. 15.

Perhaps the most remarkable case related by the chronicler of Heisterbach is that of the bloody host of St. Trond, Belgium. This he had himself seen, and he speaks of it as a miracle which should be recorded for the benefit of many after generations. In 1223 a woman in Harbais, in the diocese of Liège, kissed her lover with the host in her mouth, in the hope that it would inflame his love for her. She then found she could not swallow the host and carefully wrapped it up in a napkin. In her agony, she finally revealed her experience to a priest who called in the bishop of Livland who happened to be in the town. Together they went to the place where the host was concealed and lo! there were three drops of fresh blood on the cloth. The abbot of Trond was called in and it was then found that half of the host was flesh and half bread. The bishop thought so highly of the relic that he attempted to carry off two of the drops of blood, but sixty armed men interfered. The sacred blood was then put in a vase and deposited among the relics of the church of St. Trond.17091709    See Kaufmann, trans. of Caesar, II. 208-210.

Another case related by Etienne of Bourbon17101710    De la Marche’s ed., pp. 266 sq.acred morsel. All the bees from the neighborhood were attracted and sang beautiful melodies. The rustic went out, expecting to find the hives overflowing with honey but, to his amazement, found them all empty except the one in which the host had been deposited. The bees attacked him fiercely. He repaired to the priest, who, after consulting with the bishop, went in procession to the hive and found the miniature church with the altar and carried it back to the village church while the bees, singing songs, flew away.

These stories, which might be greatly multiplied, attest the profound veneration in which the host was held and the crude superstitions which grew up around it in the convent and among the people. The simple and edifying communion meal of the New Testament was set aside by mediaeval theology and practice for an unreasonable ecclesiastical prodigy.



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