Aers 2004

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Aers, David. Sanctifying Signs: Making Christian Tradition in Late Medieval England. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame, 2004.

"Sanctifying Signs emerges otu of a fascination with the ways in which certain late medieval Christians and their Church addressed the immense resources of Christian tradition." (vii)

can split differences into "heresy" and "orthodoxy"; this "encourage[s] us to take our attention away from the particulars of the processes and texts in which they themselves became constituted" (viii)

The Sacrament of the Altar in the Making of Orthodox Christianity

"the theology of the sacrament will be inseparable from ecclesiology." (3)

presence of Christ's body in the sacrament of the alter brought not only spiritual but material nourishment (3)

"the sacrament of the altar had become the mos tpowerful symbol of the formation and contestation of collective and individual identities in the later Middle Ages" (4)

Bishop Thomas Brinton (d. 389); "between the sign and what the sign discloses there isno gap, only identity, albeit an identity usually hidden from mortals" (4) -- bread really is same body of Christ, just hidden under species of bread so we don't abhor it

"We need to be deceived about what we know we are doing, but we need to acknowledge what we know even as we proclaim our deception." (6) -- paradoxical moves made by "traditional religion"

Roger Dymmok: sacrament as political, binding together the community; Wycliffite belief on consubstantiation would be disastrous for it (8); "fusing discourses of the thoroughly earthly city under the sovereignty of Richard II with theological discourses about the meaning of Christ's words on the food which is his flesh and blood, Dymmok maintains that any interrogation of the Church's current understanding of sacramental signs dissolves the union of the faithful in the mystical body of Christ, the Church, and consequently the order of the earthly city." (9)

body of Christ can become "a powerful thing extractable and manipulable by those who claim to represent the church and 'traditional religion' against 'heretics'" (12)

Nicholas Love, Mirror of the Blessed Life of Christ (1410); anti-Wycliffite; Scripture has become a problem for Christians

The Sacrament of the Altar in Piers Plowman

Langland focuses on sacrament of penance; where is the Eucharist in this poem?

  • "If we are to discern the body of Christ in Piers Plowman we will have to follow a complex dialectic of absence and presence, a dialectic which is inseparable from Langalnd's represenation of the mystical body of Christ, the Church." (31)

communion among laity in late medieval England: normally (and mandatorily) only once a year, though gazing devoutly at the body of Christ happened at Mass -- increasing emphasis on watching Christ's body rather than being incorporated in it

Wyclif, focused on consubstantiation over transubstantion; "attention was shifted from the metaphysics of consecration and from the spectatorial focus of the Mass, with the rewards of attendance, to the faithful's reception of Christ, a shift that transformed the role of the priests" (32)

Holy Church focuses on saving power of divine love, active practicing of love; "she seems to see her task as revealing the love of God whil resisting reification of the Mass and its benefits, resisting the assimilation of sacramental signs to 'the mase'" (33)

  • Holy Church then disappears after Mede, never to reappear;
  • "So Holy Church becomes, as it seems to our sight, absent. For the rest of the poem we are left with the visible Church introduced in the prologue, the Church that to orthodox Catholics is the mystical body of Christ." (33)

Will goes to church, sees vision of collective repentance; doesn't conclude with communion, though

"Langland's approach continually refuses to ignore such difficulties for the sacrament of unity and its theology in his Church. But such a refusal does not register lack of attention to the sacrament. On the contrary, it reflects a determination not to abstract the Eucharist fro mcomplex social processes in which it is embedded." (34)
"Langland's approach to the sacraments assumes that individual spiritual life will flourish only in a community that fosters it, that salvation entails incorporation into the body of Christ, the community that is the Church." (34)

in Repentance's prayer, one allusion to the Eucharist: Christ feeds our forefathers in hell with his blood

  • "not the Galilean body crucified on Calvary
  • "their reception is real and figurative and without the whole Galilean body" 935)
  • "Langland's sacramental theology resists abstraction of the sacrament from the narratives of Scripture and from the contexts of reception. So he imagines Christ feeding the faithful in hell with his blood and sets aside questions that emerged here within orthodox theology of transubstantiation" (35)

no priest officiating at this Mass; ends with people blundering about like beasts;

  • people not "adequately instructed in the theology and practice of the sacraments"; "penitant but unguided" -- "suggests a laity abandoned by their priests, an image already given us in the prologue" (36)
  • the "way" is revealed, but "Christ who is that way still remains hidden, elusive, absent -- revealed but absent even in the Church he will not abandon" (36)

pilgrim: he "images the pursuit of signs in which the signs, including signs of Christ's life and work, have become reified into objects of the quest" (36)

intimate, interior Church constructed by ploughman compared to visible, institutional Church; Piers represses visible Church/community, comes back with a vengeance in VIII (38)

"Piers's journey inwards has developed signs of the way which leads those obediently following them away from attachment to any signs" (37)

Piers caught in a process; will later be absorbed into Church (XXI)

"Authority, Langland would have is readers learn, is always in the making, always subject to processes it cannot grasp but always tempted to reify itself, always tempted to posit a false transcendence for itself." (38)
Piers "cannot elaborate the resonances of his own Eucharistic image because he is stuck, and he is stuck because, like the earlier lost penitents, he lacks the community of faith that might enable him to move on to the consummation of the sacraments, as his abandonment by the friars and apparent isolation signifies." (40)

Langland "consistently resists any separation between sacramental theology, the current ecclesiastic polity, and eschatology" (41)

Christ both present and absent, there but disguised (XII.109-19); n"this is Langland's model for the presence of Christ in his mystical body and in the sacramental sign enacted in the breaking of bread" (41-2)

"As tradition taught, the sacrament of the altar (corpus Christi) is approached through faith alone, but here faith is not directed to the habitual late medieval focus on consecration, transubstantiation, and the crucified, immolated Galilean body. We are certainly being deprived here of the form of Eucharistic presence celebrated in the miracles recounted by Bromyard, Brinton, Dymmok, Mirk, Love, and others. But our deprivation belongs to a long process in which Christ's presence and the sacrament of the altar are not yet, a not yet which is the heart of the poet's sacramental theology." (44)
"The sign is embedded in a profound vision of salvation history centered on the Incarnation: it signifies both divine presence and divine absence calling the participants to a faith that acknowledges the eschatological frontier." (45)
"Christ will give his body and blood to the Church. He gives a sacramental sign that must be eaten and drunk in a manner that always registers his absence, the absence that only his eschatological return can supersede." (47)

XXI.385-90; redde quod debes; "to receive communion in Christ's body and blood one must have rendered one's dues to others in the community" (49)

  • "since the sacrament of the altar is the sacrament of unity, that unity cannot remain a dead letter but must be an embodied, living spirit" (50)

at the end of the poem, the Eucharist "is transformed into a drug which destroys the will to repend and establishes an enchanted amnesia in the people" (50)