25 July 2010

Lay Communion in the Middle Ages

A learned correspondent asks how/where the laity received communion in the Middle Ages.

I have often wondered. I have never come across any examples of pre-Reformation Communion rails: the earliest all seem to be Laudian.

Did the pp simply come out of the Rood Screen and administer Communion to his kneeling laity?

The 1549 rebels complained that Dr Cranmer's first Communion Service was like a Christmas Game. This suggests that medieval worshippers did not come in a great crowd within the Chancel ... doesn't it?


Joshua said...

Jungmann (Missarum Solemnia, II, 374-6) points out that kneeling to receive communion only came in everywhere by the very end of the Middle Ages (over time from the 11th to the 16th CC.) – that's why ancient communion 'rails' (cancelli) were shoulder-high. (W. Strabo notes they were sufficiently high that the communicants could rest their elbows on them.) People stood at them and were houselled.

So late as 1602, in Paderborn, the custom of kneeling was to introduced ubi commode fieri poterit.

Modern communion rails came in and replaced the old rails or screens "since the 17th C." - these were designed for kneeling.

The Synod of Tours (597) ratified the practice of the people coming up to the altar to communicate, as was the Gallican custom, not curtailed till Carolingian times.

Later, layfolk received at a special side altar; with the building of chancel screens, Communion came to be given at a transept-altar erected outside of the screen.

Sir Watkin said...

The arrangement (still in use??) at Wimborne Minster, where houselling cloths are laid on benches positioned where one would expect an altar rail is often said to be a continuation of the pre-reformation norm.

Sir Watkin said...

I should have added that the communicants kneel at the benches.

The introduction of Communion rails in England, as you no doubt know, was encouraged by Laud to protect the altar from irreverence, in particular the attentions of dogs which the people in those days were wont to bring to church with them (hence the dog tongs sometimes seen in old churches).

Sir Watkin said...

Isn't the complaint about "a Christmass game" supposed to be a reference to the versicles and responses? Now they were said in the vernacular in an audible voice they became much more obvious than they had been before, and reminded people irresistibly of the question and answer format still seen in jokes and riddles to this very day? ("Knock knock - Who's there?" - etc.)

stjudeschurch said...

According to their website http://www.crewkerne-ilminster-deanery.org/st_peters_ilton.htm
St Peter's Ilton, Wimborne Minster and Hexham Priory are the only parish churches where a houseling cloth is used (in addition to Westminster Abbey).

Pastor in Valle said...

My understanding was that the laity were communicated usually only at Easter, and it was a serious affair. Priests clubbed together to hear the confessions of everyone (rather like modern penitential services) and examine them on the Pater, Ave and Apostles' Creed. Occasionally people would be denied Communion for some reason, and this would cause embarrassment and distress at the loss of their 'rights' as it was termed. I picked all this up from Duffy.
The only other account I can remember congratulates a king on saying the confiteor for himself before receiving Communion at his coronation.
In any event, I think communion was occasional, and probably not usually within Mass. This was not as unthinkable as it might appear; I read in a 1909 Westminster Cathedral magazine that Communion was distributed on Sundays at the Blessed Sacrament Altar, between Masses. There seemed to be no provision for reception at Mass itself.

Sir Watkin said...

Indeed, Pastor.

It was for this reason that houselling cloths were sometimes called "Easter cloths".

[Incidentally they were in use at S. Mary's Prestbury, Glos. fairly recently. I wonder whether they still are.]

The habit of infrequent communion was so strong that though Cranmer and Co. clearly intended the Holy Eucharist to be celebrated weekly they were unable to persuade the laity to change their ways.

Since they held that a Eucharist without (lay) communicants was an abomination this had the unintended effect of making celebrations infrequent.

Chris said...

More than weekly, since "the Collect, Epistle, and Gospell, appoynted for the Sundaie, shall serue all the weeke after, except there fall some feast that hath his propre." (1549 BCP, The ordre howe the reste of Holy Scripture is appoynted to bee redde)

And again: "Upon wedensdaies and fridaies the English Letany shalbe said or song in all places ... and though there be none to c├Ámunicate with the Prieste, yet these dayes ... the Priest shall ... say al thinges at the Altar (appoynted to be sayed at the celebracyon of the lordes supper), untill after the offertory." (ibid, The Communion) Which surely implies, although it doesn't say explicitly, that if there are communicants then he should carry on with the rest of the service.

I also note, slightly more on topic, that 1549 orders communion on the tongue "forasmuche as [the people] many tymes conueghed the [Sacrament] secretelye away".