5 Things You Didn’t Know About Communion in the Middle Ages

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5. The term “Sacrament” in Latin is translated out of the Greek word Mysterion

In the latin, the term means a promise (of Christ), it is a legal Roman term, helping solidify the idea that the Sacraments were a form of promise, just as Augustine defined Sacraments. However, mysterion, which the East retains, creates a less legal form and an ineffable trait. As such, as Sacraments develop, the move from mystery to Latin explanation becomes more abundant in the medieval West, eventually resulting in 7 sacraments, while the East never formally defines a number.

4. Body and Blood, bread and wine

While the “Real Presence” was an understood reality in the early church, as it develops in the Middle Ages before the scholastics affirm transubstantiation, it was seen to retain the appearance of bread and wine because of the horror of blood found in most people. Rather than a formal philosophical underpinning for the accidents and substance in Aristotelian terms, Radbertus explained that people would not partake of communion if it physically appeared blood and flesh. The fact that the Body and Blood of Christ appear to us as bread and wine is then a great mercy.

3. People took communion rarely

In fact, this became such an issue, that at the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215, the Church formalized the requirement to partake and receive communion by consumption at least once per year. This refusal or abstaining stemmed from two different approaches of the laity. The first reason people abstained was the emphasis upon the sinfulness and unworthiness of the individual to partake of the Eucharist, developing out of the Augustinian view of original sin and the liturgical changes of the priest facing away, speaking in Latin, whispering, and sometimes even screens separating the laity in addition to altar rails. The second reason people abstained from consuming the Eucharist was that individuals saw ocular communion as just as valid as physical consumption.

2. Seeing with our eyes was vital to worship

The late ancient / early medieval understanding of the sense of sight allowed sight to be a higher sense than the lower sense of touch, or taste, or smell. As such, the medieval laity wanted to adore Christ at the elevation of the Mass in order to better come into communion with the Divine Presence of God. This stems largely from the Augustinian (neo-platonic) understanding of the sense of sight as ability of the eye to send out rays of light, which then form an image and then receive those back. To see, was literally to be in communion with an object and to partake in its existence.

1. The elevation of the Blessed Sacrament

When this happened during the Mass, it was so important that many people left Mass immediately following the elevation and forfeited taking communion by consumption. This elevation was seen as a privilege and the ultimate form of communion with God. This is somewhat analogous to a beatific vision for those of us who are still mortal. Ocular Communion and the Elevation were so important that monstrances were designed ornately, bells were rung to draw the attention of the laity, and the Feast of Corpus Christi was instituted to celebrate this presence and visual communion.

If you would like to know more, here’s some books I suggest:

Ann Astell’s book Eating Beauty

Margaret Miles’ book Image as Insight

Daniel Bovarin’s article “The Eye in the Torah…”

Aden Kumler’s article “The Multiplication of the Species…”

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