Saturday, July 12, 2008

Pharyngula's Cracker

P.Z. Myers, over at Pharyngula, recently asked folks to send him some consecrated wafers, in a response to a story that a student walked out of mass with a consecrated host instead of eating it, an act that enraged Catholics and earned him some death threats. Myers says (in other related posts) that he's also received death threats, and now there's a letter writing campaign trying to get him fired.

Makes me want to go all medieval on them all!

There are a number of medieval texts which relate stories about how non-believers (alwyas Jews, in my recollection) take a consecrated host and abuse it in some way, only to find that it turns into a baby and bleeds all the heck over when they tear it up, or bleeds and gets them caught when the local authorities basically find the river of blood. Then there's either a conversion scene or an execution scene (or a combo). Stephen Greenblatt writes about one such piece of art in Practicing New Historicism, and argues there that there's no evidence that Jews actually ever did steal host(s), and why would they, since they don't believe in the thing anyway.

Instead, Greenblatt argues, the texts (in several senses) reveal a Christian obsession with and anxieties the host and the problems of understanding, comprehending, and believing in transubstatiation, the transformation of the bread and wine into the body and blood through the words of the mass. They're also a handy way to incite or justify violence against Jews.

But the student's act of taking the host out of the church and Myers' request for some consecrated host sort of bring those Christian (and especially Catholic, now that there's been that whole protestant thing since the middle ages) anxieties into reality. Now, instead of creating narratives about Jewish desecrations, the thing itself is brought into play.

As Chaucer says, again and again, there is nothing new that nys not old.

I hope Myers lets us know if someone sends him some consecrated hosts and they turn into a baby and bleed all over or something.

Okay, so there's bad taste all around. Would the folks involved--the student, Myers, the Christians who are responding violently--have done the same if they studied medieval history and thought about the history of narratives about desecrating the host?

Myers is tweaking Christians just for, as it were, the pleasure of tweaking, and to point out the inconsistencies of some Christians' behaviors. But was was the student thinking? Was he hoping for/against some magical blood? Going to run some scientific tests? Chase off vampires? I think there's probably something really interesting going on in his mind, and that a good conversation would be in order. Wouldn't it be cool to show him some art?

The answers are clear: More medieval lit for all! More history! More art!


  1. In the Croxton Play of the Sacrament (ca. late 15th century, English), it's a Christian merchant who procures the host wafer for the Jews who then test it in a quasi empirical way. They prick it to see what happens and rather slapstick-y violent comedy ensues. These particular Jews ultimately convert and the whole thing ends with a Corpus Christi procession.

    In that play, some of the anxiety is about betrayal from within -- the Christian merchant (although in this English play he is made safely Spanish -- there's a whole other layer of self-and-otherness going on since England officially had no Jews, having bloodily expelled them a few centuries earlier).

    So, in PZ's little miracle play of his own, he's kind of enacting the Croxton play: the empirical scientist who wants to "test" the wafer asking for those on the inside to procure it for him.

  2. Another note, both the article PZ quotes and his own request get things kind of wrong. The article calls the wafer "symbolic," but the student walked out with it after the transformation, which means, in Catholic belief, it's not a symbol of the body of Christ but *is* the body of Christ. I can see why the Catholic diocese would find the act offensive on some level, an act of desecration. Though I think a lot of the reactions PZ quotes and refers to, especially the death threats, are wildly, ridiculously, and hideously out of proportion to the act. And yes, strangely like the Croxton Play and other narratives like it.

    But what PZ is asking for -- consecrated wafers -- is one level down on the scale of desecration, unless they are procured after the point in the mass when they become the body of Christ. Still, I have to say I think he's rude and obnoxious. I have no idea what the student was up to, but PZ is just being an intolerant ass -- no different than, say, grabbing someone's yamekuh (OK, I know I just misspelled that) and using it as a frisbee. I have little tolerance (ironic, I know) for evangelical atheists (hehe) and less tolerance for rude people.

    It's funny, PZ lobs the "Dark Ages" charge at all concerned, but his reaction fits the tone of the host desecration stories of the Middle Ages, too, if putting him on the other side, a character in the play or tale, rather than a promulgator of it.

  3. Anonymous11:27 AM

    I agree with Dr. V - I get Myers' atheism, and I understand his whole point is that believing in the Eucharist is idiotic, but why actively go after something that other people consider holy? Why be rude about it? A lot of the responses were out of proportion to the act, but I actually thought a lot of the e-mails PZ got were fairly reasonable. (Not the death threats, obviously!)

    I thought about the medieval desecration narratives, too. It is funny the way that this whole brouhaha casts PZ into the narrative in a way he'd probably resist if he realized, because it brings him inside the religion, in a way. (I doubt somehow he'll convert in the denouement, though!)

  4. Consecrated wafers are the "real thing", or so Catholics believe - not the raw material for transubstantiation (one level down), but that which has already been changed. The formula recited at Mass to accomplish that is called "the consecration".

  5. Anonymous4:33 PM

    the only way you're going to come by a consecrated host is by breaking into a church and stealing it from the reserved sacrament (in which case, we're past that point where ritually it becomes body of christ) or by receiving it at the rail and pretending to consume it erstwhile shoving it in your pocket.

    One way or another, the whole exercise is repugnant to me. I shall have to post on this because well-published professors in my field receive death threats with surprising regularity precisely because they're messing with people's religion.

    anyway. my response stops short of a death threat but some part of me feels like I'd enjoy punching him in the nose for that.

    And the first thing that came to my mind, before I even got past your first sentence, was "oh my, how medieval!"

  6. Anonymous4:35 PM

    oh, and in my memory, it's invariably a jew. those nasty jews! yeah, right. like they don't have better things to do than abuse a wafer...

  7. Anonymous1:48 AM

    I don't know about stories of desecrated communion wafers where the desecrators are not pictured as jews. However, there is a famous blasphemy trial in the french 18th century, leading to the execution of Jean-François Lefebvre, Chevalier de la Barre, aged 19. He had been accused of not lifting his hat before a catholic procession, and other blasphematory behavior. He was indicted, found guilty, tortured and executed. Voltaire fought for his rehabilitation, but did not obtain it. The french revolution did. The wikipedia article on Chevalier de la Barre (in english) is weak. Nevertheless, this is a character that is easy to google.

  8. Michelle and Anastasia, my mistake. I think I was conflating what Aristorius the merchant in the Croxton play does with what PZ is asking. Aristorius gets wafers from the church, but prior to the mass. I thought that's what "consecrated" meant, but is there another term for what they are prior to the "this is my body" moment in the mass? Anastasia, you say the reserved host are "past the point where ritually they become the body of Christ," but isn't it the priest's words during the mass that mark that moment? Am I confused?

    Despite being a medievalist (and raised Catholic!) I'm terrible at the official liturgy and its implications!

    For the record, I still think PZ is being an ass. I thought that when I thought he was asking for pre-consecrated wafers.

  9. If my library were not in a truck, I'd find the reference in Keith Thomas, but in 16th C England there were all sorts of beliefs about what you could do if you took the host out of church. Definitely not just Jews -- but it does have magical powers.

    Oh, and Dr. V -- if it's before the consecration, wafers are just tasteless wafers. It's the consecration that matters.

    History lives!