Peasants and the Eucharist
October 18, 2014 4:30 PM   Subscribe

Did English peasants in the Late Middle Ages--say, 14th c.--take Communion? If so, how often? How about the other sacraments?
posted by jwhite1979 to Religion & Philosophy (16 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
 
Rarely if at all. But that applied to most folks
posted by JPD at 5:24 PM on October 18, 2014


Strange to say, it was in the Middle Ages, "the Ages of Faith", that Communion was less frequent than at any other period of the Church's history. The Fourth Lateran Council compelled the faithful, under pain of excommunication, to receive at least once a year (c. Omnis utriusque sexus). The Poor Clares, by rule, communicated six times a year; the Dominicanesses, fifteen times; the Third Order of St. Dominic, four times. Even saints received rarely: St. Louis six times a year, St. Elizabeth only three times. The teaching of the great theologians, however, was all on the side of frequent, and to some extent daily, Communion [Peter Lombard, IV Sent., dist. xii, n. 8; St. Thomas, Summa Theol., III, Q. lxxx, a. 10; St. Bonaventure, In IV Sent., dist. xii, punct. ii, a. 2, q. 2; see Dalgairns, "The Holy Communion" (Dublin) part III, chap. i]. Various reformers, Tauler, St. Catherine of Siena, St. Vincent Ferrer, and Savonarola, advocated, and in many instances brought about, a return to frequent reception. The Council of Trent expressed a wish "that at each Mass the faithful who are present, should communicate" (Sess. XXII, chap. vi). And the Catechism of the council says: "Let not the faithful deem it enough to receive the Body of the Lord once a year only; but let them judge that Communion ought to be more frequent; but whether it be more expedient that it should be monthly, weekly, or daily, can be decided by no fixed universal rule" (pt. II, c. iv, n. 58). As might be expected, the disciples of St. Ignatius and St. Philip carried on the work of advocating frequent Communion. With the revival of this practice came the renewal of the discussion as to the advisability of daily Communion. While all in theory admitted that daily reception was good they differed as to the conditions required.
posted by jaguar at 5:31 PM on October 18, 2014 [6 favorites]


I hope this isn't inappropriate piggy-backing, but this is interesting: Why so infrequent? I mean they held mass every week at least and more likely once a day, right? Why transubstantiate for nothing? I mean I assume they only did a little bread if it wasn't the habit for everyone to partake, but why not just make more? I guess when you're talking about the laity, then the church might worry about cost, but in the context of religious orders, the orders were paying for their food regardless, so what difference would it make if more bread were eaten at communion time and less at dinner, price-wise?
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 5:45 PM on October 18, 2014


Peasants were expected to take Communion, though only of the bread.

I believe that four times a year was considered "right" in medieval England, but you'll get lots of different answers to that question. How many they actually managed is also rather unknown, due to bad or absent priests.

I don't believe that any peasant would have seen it so often as monthly.

Remember, as late as the 1670s, the Duke of York would have been able to "prove" his Anglicanism by taking Communion just once a year.
posted by Thing at 5:49 PM on October 18, 2014


Jaguar's answer is great, but yeah, once a year, typically around Easter. (This is still more or less technically the rule: confession and communion at least once a year, ideally Easter.)

Extremely high Eucharistic theology combined with the growth of repeated, private confession (prior to that, confession had been public and once a lifetime) to make receiving the Eucharist extremely fraught. A state of "sinlessness" became important as confession became regular and repeatable but it is remarkably hard to avoid even sins of thought for longer than a very short period. At the same time, there was an increased emphasis on the Eucharist being the ACTUAL BODY of Jesus and dropping Jesus on the floor or barfing Jesus up was seen as less-than-holy. So you simultaneously had this increased need to be super-holy to receive ACTUAL JESUS, and an increased awareness of everyone's constant sinfulness. So both clergy and laity got a bit hysterically protective of the Eucharist (sometimes literally having hysterics after receiving it because it was so super-holy and rare an event).
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:29 PM on October 18, 2014 [5 favorites]


Why transubstantiate for nothing?

I think the host was seen more like a holy relic to be held in awe, rather than a participatory event.
posted by jaguar at 6:32 PM on October 18, 2014


Why so infrequent? I mean they held mass every week at least and more likely once a day, right?

It wasn't like today where the family can load up the SUV every Sunday to drive a few miles to church. A peasant might only go to church a few times each year because of the long distance to the nearest church.

So both clergy and laity got a bit hysterically protective of the Eucharist

Protecting the Eucharist is still very much a prime duty. We still think it is ACTUAL JESUS.
posted by Tanizaki at 7:05 PM on October 18, 2014 [1 favorite]


A medievalist of my acquaintance, when asked this, stressed much of the above, but also that a priest would celebrate the mass daily, alone, as part of their schedule of prayer etc. The peasants would attend to watch weekly and on special feast days, but would participate only once a year, at Easter. This was a holy ritual, and it served everyone's interests to keep their distance.
posted by GenjiandProust at 7:25 PM on October 18, 2014 [1 favorite]


For the peasants (all laity, really) to keep their distance.
posted by GenjiandProust at 7:26 PM on October 18, 2014


It's also related to communion, because depending on church traditions (not theology which is more flexible but local traditions e.g pregnant women don't need to do confession as much, women during periods can't take communion, if you've had sex the night before etc), and confession takes time so you've got to be able to get to a church and priest early enough before mass or a church with several priests so they can hear confessions during service and before communion. I know people who go to church every week and only receive communion a few times a year now because of those traditions.
posted by viggorlijah at 7:53 PM on October 18, 2014


viggorlijah: ... depending on church traditions ...

I am surprised. What denomination(s) are you referring to? In my experience of western Catholicism, none of those things you mention are valid.
posted by GeeEmm at 11:51 PM on October 18, 2014


Orthodox, which is going to be a bit closer to middle age peasant experiences than Catholic traditions today.
posted by viggorlijah at 1:48 AM on October 19, 2014


This is discussed by Eamon Duffy in The Stripping of the Altars, who makes it clear that in medieval England, most people received communion only once a year, at Easter:
Frequent communion was the prerogative of the few. Lady Margaret Beaufort received only monthly, and even so was considered something of a prodigy. For most people receiving communion was an annual event, and it was emphatically a communal rather than an individualistic action. In most parishes everyone went to confession in Holy Week and received communion before or after high Mass on Easter Day, an act usually accompanied by a statutory offering to the priest. Only after the completion of all this was one entitled to break one's Lenten fast and resume the eating of meat.
(I also discuss it myself, in an article I wrote some years ago on the eucharist in post-Reformation England. Under the 1603 Canons, parishioners were required to receive communion three times a year, but in practice the medieval custom still continued, and most people only received communion at Easter.)

Why so infrequently? Duffy's answer is that in medieval Europe, the eucharist was primarily about hearing and seeing, not about receiving. The key moment was the priest's elevation of the host, which gave the laity the opportunity to see and adore the eucharist. As Caroline Walker Bynum writes in Wonderful Blood:
Both laypeople and members of religious orders felt increased reluctance about a sacramental reception that would, because it placed God objectively in their mouths, damn them if any element of their spiritual intention or preparation was flawed. The faithful were urged to encounter with eyes where encounter with lips was dangerous and rare, to 'eat' by seeing. By the thirteenth century, we find stories of people attending mass only for the moment of elevation, racing from church to church to see as many consecrations as possible, and shouting at the priest to hold the host up higher.
This visual piety could be intensely powerful, and many devout Catholics seem to have been perfectly satisfied with seeing the eucharist, without feeling any desire to receive it more frequently. It was only in the twentieth century that pioneers of the liturgical movement began to argue that this medieval visual piety (Schaufrommigkeit, to give it its technical name) had hindered the laity from fully participating in the Mass.
posted by verstegan at 5:58 AM on October 19, 2014 [8 favorites]


verstegan says everything I would, with more knowledge.

I would only add that it is not true that "A peasant might only go to church a few times each year because of the long distance to the nearest church." If you look at the geography of parishes in medieval England, you see that the historic parishes (each with their own church) were very small. It was often only a mile (or less) between parishes. Where there were larger parishes - such as in remote areas with lower population density - they were often broken up into townships, and might have one or more chapels to serve those living farther from the main parish church.

I would also second reading Caroline Walker Bynam if you want to learn more about how medieval people related to the miracle of transubstantiation and the Eucharist. I can't recall the specific source, but I read in one piece by her about how people in towns might stop every day before work to watch the mass, even though they only partook a few times a year.
posted by jb at 9:27 AM on October 19, 2014


I am surprised. What denomination(s) are you referring to? In my experience of western Catholicism, none of those things you mention are valid.

We are talking about Medieval English orthodox Catholicism (which the peasants would have just seen as Christianity, since there was no real challenge on the table at the time in England, with the possible exception of the Lollards). While a lot of modern Catholicism has been inherited from the medieval period, much has not. The degree to which medieval people's sexual lives were constrained by church teachings is kind of shocking to modern minds (I seem to remember that, if a married couple really took all the prohibitions to heart, they could have sex maybe on a third of the days of the year, because of feasts, religious observances, menstruation, Lent, etc -- assuming, of course, that they weren't too tired or not in the mood). I'm not saying that people always played by the rules or even that every village priest knew enough to promulgate the teachings, but thinking you know the Medieval Church out of familiarity with todays Catholicism is a mistake.
posted by GenjiandProust at 10:16 AM on October 19, 2014 [2 favorites]


Orthodox, which is going to be a bit closer to middle age peasant experiences than Catholic traditions today.

Orthodox here. Can confirm, although we would probably say we are closer to first-century practice. People will debate about whether you can commune if you have a cut and that sort of thing. A lot of it is yiayia-ology or baba-theology, depending on your jurisdiction. The rules are more clear-cut on issues regarding fasting and sexual abstinence.

One thing that can also affect how often Orthodox commune (which may be of limited relevance to England in the Middle Ages) is whether the person is under penance. Instead of saying Hail Marys or doing Stations of the Cross, Orthodox penance can consist (in part) of being instructed to abstain from the Eucharist for a certain period of time, the idea being that the Eucharist is bad for you during this time. This might have been a Roman practice at the time, but I don't know. I never knew this practice as a Roman, though.

This visual piety could be intensely powerful, and many devout Catholics seem to have been perfectly satisfied with seeing the eucharist

This is also evident today in the Roman practice of adoration of the Eucharist in an ostensorium. This practice is unknown among the Orthodox where the Eucharist is for one thing: eating.
posted by Tanizaki at 3:20 PM on October 20, 2014


« Older Will my laptop cord burn down my house?   |   2006 Mac Pro - what should I do with it? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.