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Images, cultes, liturgies

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Paola Ventrone
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Laura Gaffuri

Sessione prima. Sacre Scritture e Sacramenti

The Symbolic Meaning of a Meal and a Mother

Miri Rubin

Texte intégral

  • 1 A. Bray,Homosexuality in Renaissance England, New York, Columbia University Press, 1995; Id., The (...)

1On a cold winter day in 2001 I attended the requiem mass for my colleague Alan Bray, a civil servant and historian of great distinction1. I have not attended many masses in my life, though I have studied the mass closely. On that sad occasion, as friends participated in the awesome solemnity, I recognized a quality of the mass that I had never quite realized before. As I watched the Franciscan friar at the altar I was struck by the domestic aspect of the preparation, by the familiar movement known to anyone who has ever worked in a kitchen or kept house: the celebrant was preparing food, covering and uncovering, breaking, tasting, clearing vessels of crumbs or drops with crisp, clean cloths. There was remarkable mundanity and familiarity on display, for he had followed the same movements hundreds of time before, and probably knew he would do it many times more. It was compelling to see the silent – for his prayer was silent at this stage – routine unfold. There was clearly something comforting about these workaday movements, not least since they enacted a sort of competence. At the heart of the desperately sad ritual the domestic rhythms of pouring, eating, wiping, and cleaning were enacted, and they depended on the busy priest, the proud householder, hard at work, feeding his people, caring for the living as well as for the dead.

  • 2 M. Rubin, Corpus Christi: the Eucharist in Late Medieval Culture, Cambridge, Cambridge University (...)

2It was inevitable that my mind should roam, and that the winter day experience should interact with what I knew of the medieval mass, of the medieval altar. A major difference is, of course, that the priest in London was facing his congregation, that his actions were visible and totally accessible. Yet the actions of the priest at the altar were a subject not only of imagination, but of instruction in the middle ages. This making of the priest into a breadmaker, he who prepares a meal, was a significant achievement. And it is not diminished even by the evidence of visitation records that show just how imperfect was the parochial adherence to the standards of liturgical housekeeping laid down by councils and by customaries. A great deal of symbolic power resided in the activities of the altar. In them were enfolded the unique blend of mundanity and transcendence, material and grace, which were the defining formula of the medieval sacramental world. From around 1200, in a manner that was both systematic and imaginative, the business of the altar, and particularly the eucharistic business of the altar, encompassed the whole Christian story and became, in the unforgettable words of the Fourth Lateran Council, the duty of every man and woman2.

  • 3 See the accounts of exempla, ibid, pp. 108-129.

3The use of the universal symbols of meal and food to contain and enact the central mystery of Incarnation, death on the cross, and Resurrection, enabled the development of a religious culture rich in experiences of the senses: there was taste and sound, there was touch and sight and smell too. Christians were offered the chance to consume God, a meal prepared by the priest at the altar, and served as he turned to the congregation. A rich language of sensual delight thus developed: for like all food, receiving God’s body was savoured while seen and smelt. Stories were told of people touching it too, although they were taught not to do so3; while sound emanated from the words of the priest and the expostulations of the congregation. What was true of the eucharist was also true of other sacraments, but is arch-sacrament, the one which was the sine qua non of knowing, adult life, offered the quintessence of the domestication of the means for salvation, of the elementary forms of Christian religious life.

  • 4 A. Gormans (Hrsg.), Das Bild der Erscheinung. Die Gregorsmesse im Mittelalter, Berlin, Reimer, 200 (...)

4Making the transcendent seem mundane was not only a powerful development, which reproduced in every church the semblance of the believer’s own humble, or sometimes sumptuous, home. It also created an opening for possibly transgressive acts, bred from the over-familiarity which the domestic inspired. One of the most common and intriguing exempla of the later middle ages – one whose origins are much earlier, but who reached the highest elaboration and frequency in later times – is the Mass of St Gregory4. The versions differ, of course, but at the core is the simple and insistent question of an otherwise pious woman – how could it be that the bread she had made with her own hands, in her own over, had become the body of Christ?

5The use of images of food and drink, of meal and table, was elaborated in more detail and with more force than ever before from the early-thirteenth century. It involved believers in several ways: there was not only the insistence of omnis utriusque sexus that communion was now obligatory as an annual ritual of Christian life, but there was more. For parishioners were called to help maintain and supply the altar with its needs. Indeed, some of the most compelling reasons for the development of churchwardens and the collection of parish funds were the new requirements for the Mass. Turning the altar into a table from which God’s body was received involved a large variety of items: chalice and paten, linen cloths and candles, two types of bread and two of wine.

  • 5 Les Statuts synodaux français du XIIIe siècle. I. Les statuts de Paris et le Synodal de l’Ouest (X (...)
  • 6 Les Statuts synodaux français du XIIIe siècle. II. Les statuts de 1230 à1260, O. Pontal (ed.), Par (...)

6Legislative energy and imagination were invested in the creation of the symbol whose appearance and meaning were in harmony. Statutes from western France of c. 1216 ordained that the host be round and form a full circle: «Quod hostia sit integra et integrum habeat circulum»5. The synods of Nîmes, Arles and Béziers of 1252 insisted that it be made of the finest wheat, and no other grain: «Hostias autem de alio quam de puro et mundo et electo grano frumenti fieri prohibemus»6. The verse cited by the English bishop William Russell in 1350, summarised the teaching about this most important food:

  • 7 «Candida, triticea, tenuis, non magna, rotunda, expers frumenti non mista, sit hostia Christi»: Co (...)

«Christ’s host should be
white, wheaten, thin,
not large, round,
unleavened, not mixed»7.

7Manuals for priests insisted that the meal be made of the noble white corn. Wheat, and no other grains, so common in European regions and in the diets of the poor, was to be used.

  • 8 «Oblate honestum candorem et decentem rotunditatem habentes supra mensam altaris offeratur», in F. (...)
  • 9 «Et debent invenire panem benedictum cum candelis qualibet dominica per annum, in omni ecclesia de (...)

8The hosts were cooked, and here again the tension between the accessible routine of food preparation and the honour due to the special food of the altar is apparent. The hosts of religious houses were baked under the supervision of the sacrist. In parishes the situation was less formal and more varied: recesses in church walls, blackened by fire may have been baking areas. William of Blois, bishop of Worcester, decreed in the synodal statutes of 1229 that the host be baked, not fried; that wax be used, rather than oil or fat. He expected some hosts to be deficient in their shape and colour, and thus reminded priests to choose for the altar only «those hosts of appropriate whiteness and roundness»8. Issues were sometimes confused by the custom of offering blessed bread to parishioners. But there was an opportunity here too, for the duty of provision was often divided between parish households. Giles Bridport, Bishop of Salisbury, ordered in 1256 that households provide in rotation «blessed bread, with candles, every Sunday of the year, in each Church of the Christian world»9. Gifts to the parish hence sometimes took the form of sheaves of corn for the making of flour.

  • 10 Rubin, Corpus Christi, pp. 45-47. On vestments see, for example, J. Von Fircks, Liturgische Gewände (...)

9The meal at the altar thus involved parishioners, priest and planners. A great deal of care was taken to make communion and its substitutes familiar – like bread – but also to retain the creative and compelling tension between the simplicity of bread and the body it became at the altar. All over Europe bishops ordered at their synods that priests maintain their altars well’: with suitable pyx and chalice, pax and linen, all made of suitable (idonei) materials: silver gilt vessels, fine white linen or silken cloths10.

  • 11 On debates on the Eucharist in reforming circles see L. Palmer Wandel, The Eucharist in the Reform (...)
  • 12 «Ea die conficitur sanguis Christi de novo vino, si inveniri possit, aut aliquantulum de mature uv (...)

10The provision of wine similarly tested the ingenuity of planners, priests and people. Wine was reserved for clerical communion, and in some parts of Europe – most famously Bohemia in the early-fifteenth century – this tipped the symbolic balance away from the domestic message. If lay people did not receive the wine then in what sense were they full participants in the meal? In the hands and words of charismatic Hussite preachers, this issue was turned into a focus for other types of ethnic and political discontents11. In some parishes the provision of wine posed several problems: old wine could turn to vinegar, wine was expensive, diluted wine might lose its potency, and unlike this fortunate part of Europe, there were regions where beer was the most common form of alcohol. When John Beleth wrote his treatise on the practice and meaning of the mass, his vision was far from universally practicable, for he hoped that ripe grapes might be squeezed into the chalice in readiness for the mass. The wine had to be more plentiful that water in the chalice12. Bishop William Russell summarised the issue in 1350, stressing the superiority of red wine:

  • 13 «Et summopere praecaventes ne vinum cum quo celebratur, fit incorrumptum, vel in acetum commutatum (...)

«The sacrament is well made in white wine, but non in wine-vinegar, because in it all the powers of the substance have been transformed, and the wine’s power is lost»13.

11Communion was received only annually by most Christians, but the nexus of meal, the participation in a domestic ritual made public, and in the responsibility for maintaining the symbolic edifice which was its promise took place all year long.

  • 14 M. Rubin, Mother of God. A History of the Virgin Mary, London, Allen Lane, 2009, pp. 53-118.

12The qualities of domestic order and promise were not realised in the figure of Mary in the earliest centuries of Christianity. Anyone who thinks of the Byzantine icons, or the illuminated manuscripts produced in the Ottonian court must agree that the emphasis in them was on the transcendent, pure, celestial placing of the Mother of God, she who can intercede on behalf of humanity thanks to her unique location unrivalled by any other human – at the right of her son without the experience of death. It is particularly illuminating to see the emergence out of the culture and experience of monastic life, a particularly warm, familial, interpretation of Mary. Mary was companion of the monk or un’s long life of struggle against sin; Mary consoling in the loneliness of cells, and in the struggles of celibacy. Mary as protector and as consoler was slowly moving from the distant and powerful figure of the 11-12th centuries, into something warmer and closer14.

  • 15 Ibid, pp. 197-215. See also B. Williamson, The Madonna of Humility. Development, Dissemination and (...)

13It was ultimately the developments of the thirteenth century and beyond, the apostolate to the many not the few, the rendering vernacular and local of all and every aspect of Christian life, that fully realised the potential of a domestic framing for the mysteries of salvation. The familial aspect of the Christian story – God and his son, a son born to a woman – were amplified as never before, and imagined through the power of narrative in image, word and action. When Franciscans imagined the Holy Family it was in a modest household; they worked, and ate, and passed their time. The fascination with the domestic had early been introduced into thinking about Mary – already in the second century Protogospel of James that endowed Mary with a family and a home – but the new vogue was powerfully vernacular. Once the domestic – rather than the desert, or the cell, or the study – became the locus for celebrating the sacred – all aspects of daily life might be deployed: cooking, visiting, knitting, playing – and in all media15.

14All powerful symbols inspire critique. The suggestion that the Virgin was a mother in a home, like any woman next door, could lead to error. Mary was imagined at the foot of the cross, as human as can be, and increasingly out of control, as the theme of the spasimo, which developed in late-fourteenth century Italy shows. The chants of confraternities – the laude – imagine Mary speaking like a mother to her child:

«O figlio, figlio, figlio,
figlio, amoroso giglio!

Figlio, chi dà consiglio
al cor me’angustïato?

Figlio occhi iocundi
Figlio, co’ non respundi?

  • 16 Iacopone da Todi, Laude, F. Pappalardo (ed.), Bari, Palomar, 2006, no. 70 (Donna de Paradiso), p. 2 (...)

Figlio, perché t’ascundi
Al petto o’ si lattato?»16.

15There was resistance in some quarters to this emotional, ordinary Mary, a lamenting sad woman, rather than a person full of knowledge, indeed foreknowledge, who had consented to the divine plan. The Franciscan Marquard of Lindau (d. 1392), author of highly popular devotional and pastoral works in German saw Mary as and awesome figure of dignified solemnity:

  • 17 Marquard of Lindau, Deutsche Predigten, R. Blumrich (ed.), Tübingen, Niemeyer, 1994, sermon 21, pp. (...)

«Know that the noble maiden stood under the cross, but rather stood there silently, and repressed her suffering inwardly and did not show it externally. And thus it was all the more penetrating»17.

16Symbols are embedded in linguistic processes that are dynamic and generative of new forms. And so out of the meal at the altar and the Mother of God were born some new visual and textual frames for apprehension of the holy in late medieval Europe. The English translation of The Book of Vices and Virtues involved Mary in the making of the bread:

  • 18 Rendered into modern English from The Book of Vices and Virtues: a Fourteenth Century Translation (...)

«This bread we call ours for it was made of our dough. Blessed this good woman who laid forth the flour; that was the Virgin Mary»18.

17Mary was appreciated as God’s tabernacle, an oven in which this precious bread was baked, as in a fifteenth-century Eucharistic prayer from England:

  • 19 Rendered into modern English from Cambridge University Library Ee. 1.12, fols. 49v-50r.

«This bread gives eternal life
Both unto man, to child, and wife…
In Virgin Mary this bread was baked
When Christ of her manhood did take,
For of all sin mankind to make,
Eat it so you be not dead»19.

  • 20 A. Timmermann, Real Presence: Sacrament Houses and the Body of Christ, c. 1270-1600, Turnhout, Bre (...)

18Meal and mother combined in juxtapositions within theology and devotional poetry, and on visual occasions that were local and mundane. Mary became in the fourteenth century a popular subject of altarpieces, attending with her son at every celebration of that very son’s body. Less universal, and more regional were specific renderings of the relationship between meal and mother. Spain and France produced the virgen abridera or the vierge ouvrante, of which a few tens still survive. These are containers of the consecrated host, shaped as the body of Mary, opening in her middle, the place of her womb. Think also of that quintessential late medieval item of church furnishing, of which a great number survive in German speaking lands, the Sakramenthaus, or armoire. Here the theme of the Annunciation was often or sometimes chosen as appropriate decoration for the exterior, as in Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Reichenau Mittelzell and St Lawrence Senden20.

19What are we to learn from all this about the power of symbols in late medieval Europe? The intermingling of the domestic and the sacred, of images of the greatest banality – baking, eating, washing, pouring, maternity – produced narratives and patterns of devotional behaviour which drew upon common experience in the hope of making the most unfamiliar and unlikely familiar and truthful. The danger was, of course, that such ‘banalization’ might lead to a de-mystification, a dis-enchantment with the sacramental world and its promise. This did, indeed, occur. We are all familiar with the gestures of defiance from critics and dissenters: that the sacrament was too small to feed the many, that bread baked at home could not become God’s body, that priest are no better at making God’s body than are ordinary folk, that Mary did not collapse at the foot of the cross, because she was no ordinary woman. That such critique was very compelling, indeed joyful, is evident from its vivid denunciation by Lollards in the fifteenth century, just as it was to be in those parts of Europe touched by protestant reform in the sixteenth.

  • 21 On their devotional lives see C. Walker Bynum, Holy Feast and Holy Fast. The Religious Significanc (...)

20Yet the power of the domestic rendering of religion to connect with routines of family life, with the understanding of gender roles, and with the rhythms of kin and community, made them very attractive indeed. The meal and the mother was conveyed to every Christian, in every parish in the later middle ages, in images, and preaching, in vernacular chant and monumental architecture. Their meaning relied on paradox, for paradox can be made the essence of experience: here was a meal, prepared by celibate priest, yet still a meal; here was a mother like every other, yet with a difference. Building on emotions patently known and shared – joy at motherhood, conjugal cooperation, mourning – Christian life built on the mundane even as it offered the transcendent. Furthermore, in cultural niches more personal – even exclusive – choices could be made: in the royal and ducal courts of Europe – Burgundy, the court of the Visconti here in Milan – Mary’s promise of luxury and elegance inspired a great deal of cultural production and innovation. Mary also offered the promise of lineage and so the burghers of great cities – Bruges, London – combined in exclusive confraternities with the hope that devotion will bless their enterprises and secure the sons and daughters. Townspeople all over Europe expressed appreciation of the symbolic meal in Corpus Christi fraternities, as did more modest people, like the beguines of northern Europe in their eucharistic devotions, which so often turned into expressions of maternal yearning21. It is also significant that reformers, and I mean here not only those of the fifteenth century, but the catholic reformers of the post-protestant world, sought to contain what they took to be excessive engagement both with the meal and with the mother, suggesting limits to the practices they inspired.

21In the meal and the mother – present in every church, habitually visible on every street – the realm of the domestic was offered as the focus for structuring identity to individuals and groups. Over the centuries we are studying here the process which saw them become the heart of European religious cultures, also produced a growing sense that those who could not believe in a Virgin mother of God, or those who doubted the meaning of the sacred meal, were not simply wrong. They were worse: dangerous personal enemies, a danger to self, family and community.

Notes

1 A. Bray,Homosexuality in Renaissance England, New York, Columbia University Press, 1995; Id., The Friend, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2003.

2 M. Rubin, Corpus Christi: the Eucharist in Late Medieval Culture, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1991, pp. 64-66.

3 See the accounts of exempla, ibid, pp. 108-129.

4 A. Gormans (Hrsg.), Das Bild der Erscheinung. Die Gregorsmesse im Mittelalter, Berlin, Reimer, 2007.

5 Les Statuts synodaux français du XIIIe siècle. I. Les statuts de Paris et le Synodal de l’Ouest (XIIIe siècle), O. Pontal (ed.), Paris, CTHS, 1971, [“Collection de documents inédits sur l’histoire de France, Section d’histoire médiévale et de philologie”, 9], c. 6, p. 142.

6 Les Statuts synodaux français du XIIIe siècle. II. Les statuts de 1230 à1260, O. Pontal (ed.), Paris, CTHS, 1983, [“Collection de documents inédits sur l’histoire de France, Section d’histoire médiévale et de philologie”, 15], c. 73, p. 326.

7 «Candida, triticea, tenuis, non magna, rotunda, expers frumenti non mista, sit hostia Christi»: Concilia Magnae Britanniae et Hiberniae AD 446-1718, D. Wilkins (ed.), Londini, Sumptibus R. Gosling, 1737, III, c. 2, p. 11.

8 «Oblate honestum candorem et decentem rotunditatem habentes supra mensam altaris offeratur», in F.M. Powicke-C.R. Cheney (eds.), Councils and Synods with Other Documents Relating to the English Church, II (1205-1313), Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1964, I, c. 1, p. 170.

9 «Et debent invenire panem benedictum cum candelis qualibet dominica per annum, in omni ecclesia de mundo christiano», Councils and Synods II, I, c. 8, p. 513.

10 Rubin, Corpus Christi, pp. 45-47. On vestments see, for example, J. Von Fircks, Liturgische Gewänder des Mittelalters aus St. Nikolai in Stralsund, Riggisberg, Abegg Stiftung, 2008, and on the altar: E. Thuno-S. Kaspersen (eds.), Decorating the Lord’s Table: on the Dynamics between Image and Altar in the Middle Ages, Copenhagen, Museum Tusculanum, 2006.

11 On debates on the Eucharist in reforming circles see L. Palmer Wandel, The Eucharist in the Reformation, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2006, pp. 14-45.

12 «Ea die conficitur sanguis Christi de novo vino, si inveniri possit, aut aliquantulum de mature uva in calice eliquatur saltem, et benedicuntur racemi et communicant inde homines»: John Beleth, Summa de ecclesiasticis officiis, H. Douteil (ed.), Turnholt, Brepols, 1976, [“Corpus Christianorum. Continuatio Mediaeualis”, 41A], p. 280(c).

13 «Et summopere praecaventes ne vinum cum quo celebratur, fit incorrumptum, vel in acetum commutatum, et quod potius fit rubrum quam album. In albo tamen bene conficitur sacramentum, et non de aceto, cum in aceto mutantur omnes substantiales vires et vinum vim amisit», Concilia III, c. 2, p. 11.

14 M. Rubin, Mother of God. A History of the Virgin Mary, London, Allen Lane, 2009, pp. 53-118.

15 Ibid, pp. 197-215. See also B. Williamson, The Madonna of Humility. Development, Dissemination and Reception, c. 1340-1400, Woodbridge, Boydell Press, 2009.

16 Iacopone da Todi, Laude, F. Pappalardo (ed.), Bari, Palomar, 2006, no. 70 (Donna de Paradiso), p. 223. On laudesi companies see B. Wilson, Music and Merchants. The Laudesi Companies of Republican Florence, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1999.

17 Marquard of Lindau, Deutsche Predigten, R. Blumrich (ed.), Tübingen, Niemeyer, 1994, sermon 21, pp. 137-142; pp. 141-142. S. Mossman, Marquard von Lindau and the Challenges of Religious Life in Late Medieval German. The Passion, the Eucharist, the Virgin Mary, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2010, pp. 257-260.

18 Rendered into modern English from The Book of Vices and Virtues: a Fourteenth Century Translation of the “Somme le roi” of Lorens d’Orléans, W.N. Francis (ed.), London, Oxford University Press, 1942, [“Early English Texts Society”, 217], pp. 109-110.

19 Rendered into modern English from Cambridge University Library Ee. 1.12, fols. 49v-50r.

20 A. Timmermann, Real Presence: Sacrament Houses and the Body of Christ, c. 1270-1600, Turnhout, Brepols, 2009, [“Architectura Medii Aevi”, 4], pp. 250, 351; 252; 185, 252 all with figures.

21 On their devotional lives see C. Walker Bynum, Holy Feast and Holy Fast. The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women, Berkeley (CA), University of California Press, 1988.

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