Monday, June 27, 2011

Corpus Christi in Pre-Reformation England

Stephanie Mann posts on how the feast of Corpus Christi was kept in England in the days before the break with Rome. From the high Middle Ages until 1955, Corpus Christi was celebrated with an octave, so for the inhabitants of Catholic Europe it was for many centuries part of the midsummer cycle of festivities, all of which had some basis in the liturgy. Sometimes I feel that I have lived through a modern Reformation; when I was a small child Corpus Christi was a Holy Day of Obligation (and still is) but now in the United State it has been transferred from Thursday to Sunday so is barely a blip on the radar screen. It was not so in Merry Old England. According to Mrs. Mann:
Before the Reformation in England, it was a day of great ritual, with processions comparable to Holy Thursday and the performance of the Mystery Plays, which enacted salvation history from Creation to the Second Coming. This Feast was introduced in England during the early 14th century (1318) with the Office by St. Thomas Aquinas, but it gained almost immediate popularity among the English, according to Eamon Duffy and Miri Rubin. The English expressed their devotion to the Real Presence in the Holy Eucharist with the formation of Corpus Christi Guilds to prepare for the annual celebrations. The cycle of Mystery plays also required months of preparation and fundraising for the decorations, so in York and other cities, the Catholic community worked together. Anthony Esolen interprets the Wakefield cycle of plays here.

Adoration and devotion to the Blessed Sacrament was essential to pre-Reformation Catholic spirituality in England. The Corpus Christi was the center of the entire Paschal Mystery of Incarnation, Redemption and Resurrection. For the individual Christian, Christ's Real Presence in Mass and in adoration outside of Mass, symbolized their participation in that Mystery--even though they in the normal course of the liturgical year received Holy Communion rarely.

That devotion is also expressed in the allegorical Corpus Christi Carol:

Lulley, lully, lulley, lully,
The faucon hath born my mak away.
He bare hym up, he bare hym down,
He bare hym into an orchard brown.
In that orchard ther was an hall,
That was hanged with purpill and pall.
And in that hall ther was a bede,
Hit was hangid with gold so rede.
And yn that bede ther lythe a knyght,
His wowndes bledyng day and nyght.
By that bedes side ther kneleth a may,
And she wepeth both nyght and day.
And by that bedes side ther stondith a ston,
"Corpus Christi" wretyn theron.

The Feast and the festivities associated with it were suppressed, of course, by order of the government, although revived briefly during Mary I's reign. Celebration of the Feast of Corpus Christi was forbidden early in the reign of Edward VI in 1548. The last record of any performance of the plays dates to 1569, although they had been adapted to suit the new religious order. (Read entire article.)

1 comment:

Stephanie A. Mann said...

Thank you for the link! I agree with you that we have witnessed a real decline in devotion to the Blessed Sacrament and this Feast! The English people before the government's Reformation certainly demonstrated adoration of the Real Presence.