Seminary XLII: feast of ideas

I am running some way behind with the reporting of the Earlier Middle Ages seminar at the Institute of Historical Research, and have received e-mails, plural, politely asking me to get on with it. I guess I was too busy with content of my own to fulfil my community responsibilities! Sorry! But this shall now be remedied. However, I don’t think I’m going to meet the expectations of the person who wanted me to write up my thoughts on Celia Chazelle‘s paper “Why is this Feast different from all other Feasts? Eucharistic ritual and belief in early medieval societies?”, given on 11th February. This is partly because I arrived late, and so may not have got the full crack of the argument; secondly because Professor Chazelle, who blogs herself, knows I’m out here and it seems very impolite to try and give a full-on scholarly critique of someone whom one met under friendly circumstances (for once I made it to the dinner after the paper you see) and is willing to use the word `Eschaton’ in all seriousness; and mainly because this is really not my field so when someone asks “how has she altered the picture… ?” I don’t necessarily know. I’ll just try and report, therefore, rather than critique.

Altar in the pilgrim chapel of St-Pierre de Bessejouls, photo by Adrian Fletcher

Altar in the pilgrim chapel of St-Pierre de Bessejouls, photo by Adrian Fletcher

The paper opened with a fairly heavy debate between two mid-ninth-century scholars about transubstantiation, which Professor Chazelle was using to make it clear that even after the Carolingians’ efforts to instil unity of belief in their realms this was something about which there was felt to be room for disagreement. Given that there was uncertainty at the top, then, what did people in more humble places actually think was going on at Communion and how did they experience it themselves? This was the topic of the paper. It’s not an easy one because the sources are very limited; you more or less have to use élite sources to try and elucidate what more mundane practice and belief was, be they written, visual or architectural, and the picture that results is one of considerable diversity. Bits of Eucharistic ceremony get wrapped into charms and blessings for amulets, what I’d be quite happy to call magic, and it may be magic that the attendant crowds thought was being performed. Some preachers at least indeed insisted that the bread was being made the body and blood of Christ, but Professor Chazelle quoted one source that explained the miracle as `Christ becoming bread’, which may have been a lot closer to what most people understood to be happening, I personally thought. What was pretty clear however is that whatever the theologians may have thought was the full and proper significance of the Mass in its allegorical sense, imagining the Last Supper or whatever, was probably not how it was read out in the styx because the context of the ceremony was probably quite different, and likely more than a bit mixed up with feasting at graves and food offerings from older cults whose practices had been borrowed into local cult…1

Two other things struck me about the general state of understanding here. Firstly that it’s always easy, and amusing, to find weird edge cases where the priest doesn’t seem to know how to carry out Mass, or where people misunderstand its meaning. Well: it’s not easy, that’s misleading, but in as much as it’s possible to find anything outside court that is among what you get. Such cases get remarked upon because they’re remarkable, however, and there is probably room for a more clueful priesthood than we sometimes allow, even if by reform standards they must have been pretty shocking. I suspect that many of them had a reasonable idea of what they were doing, even if they’d probably been taught only by word of mouth. One of the questions that came up was how many books we imagine the average early medieval priest having; Professor Chazelle was optimistic on this score, but we were generally less so, and felt that whatever they did have might have been quite variable. There’s a separate post I should write about this which would explain why I think so, Wendy for her part covers it in Acts of Giving and will as said be doing more shortly. All the same: the practices were taught, and though transmission couldn’t have been perfect, there were attempts to keep the office at least adequately performed, however sketchy, and we don’t need to assume they were all useless by default; that’s just period ghettoization like the phrase `Dark Ages’.

Canon tables of a Carolingian-period Gospel book, British Library MS Egerton 873, fol. 11

Canon tables of a Carolingian-period Gospel book, British Library MS Egerton 873, fol. 11

That said, these priests may not always have had so much to do. One of the things that came out of Wendy’s paper of the week before and this one too was how little we know about regular popular worship in the early Middle Ages. Did people go to church weekly? We tend to assume it, but very often we don’t know. If the priest wasn’t being paid to do commemorative masses for someone (on which see no. XLIII coming…), how often did he in fact say Mass? Many of these people had farming to do as well, after all. Do we think of priests as farmers? Did people of the time think of farmers as priests? Does it depend who’s looking? There is Carolingian legislation against magicians and sorcerors after all, even if it’s partly recycled from much older canonical councils. Professor Chazelle wondered if all of those magicians thought that’s what they were, or whether some of them were under the impression that they were perfectly canonical priests. It’s a fair question. For me it smacks a bit of the way that dispute settlements can be presented not as actual argument but merely ‘conflicting norms’; as I’ve said in actual print, that leaves us struggling to categorise the abnormal. I’m sure that, just as there were in the age of Henry of Lausanne, there were some very weird preachers out there in the early medieval world; but I also think that many of them were not-terribly-well-trained but recognisable and diligent-enough men trying to do what most people would have recognised as their job. It’s just frustrating how hard it is to see them doing it.

1. There isn’t a lot of evidence for this stuff but an excellent gathering of what there is is Nancy Caciola, “Wraiths, Revenants and Ritual in Medieval Culture” in Past and Present no. 152 (Oxford 1996), pp. 3-45.

5 responses to “Seminary XLII: feast of ideas

  1. It’s not made any easier by people like Boniface who send letters back to the pope explaining that whoever had been converting and/or ministering to his prospective flock had been Doing It Wrong.

    Not that his motives are at all suspect … argh. How can someone who’s been dead for over a thousand years be so unlikeable? After all, he might have been perfectly right. He could really have been stopping heresy or such like.

    btw, thanks for the pointer to Celia’s blog. I didn’t know she had one.

  2. In the words of 1066 and All That on the English Civil War it’s a case of Wrong but Wromantic against Right but Repulsive. But yes, if I didn’t tell you my story about Certain Important ex-Supervisor and the Boniface conference, I ought to. Possibly not here though :-) It’s amazing the strength of feeling the so-called ‘Greatest Englishman’ can still evoke, and so little of it positive.

  3. Sounds like a story for Leeds!

  4. By all means. It’s probably my round first, this time. Note to any employers reading: I am not an alcoholic, honest, and can be trusted with the education of your young people.

  5. Pingback: More on wizards in Asturias « A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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