17 August 2018

Lay Communion in the Middle Ages

How/where did the laity receive communion before the revolution in frequent communion initiated by S Pius X?

As far as Medieval England is concerned, 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?

Is there any definite prescription that the Laity receive kneeling in current (EF) legislation? In the Ordo Communionis, I see only the prescription that Clerics receive kneeling on an Altar Step.

Jungman says that kneeling Communon in Parish Churches came in comparatively late: in 1602, in Paderborn, the custom was ordered to be introduced only "where it will be convenient for it to be done".

And he appears to suggest that the use of the Communion Paten dates from 1929 (although there are earlier examples); was this also one of the consequences of the S Pius X revolution?

Houselling cloths still survive from the Middle Ages in some Anglican Churches; in others, I suspect they were Ritualist restorations from the 1860s. Were they common on the Continent?

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?


neilmac said...


If the laity did not kneel and there were no altar rails, how were houselling cloths used?

Andrew Sabisky said...

There's a late 15th-century tapestry in the Victoria & Albert Museum (originally from Germany) depicting a laywoman receiving Communion: she is shown kneeling & of course receiving on the tongue. She is also shown as kneeling very close to the steps of the altar, but since the tapestry is allegorical in nature this may not be meant to be taken too literally as representative of actual practice. Link here: https://www.vam.ac.uk/blog/museum-life/twenty-objects-twenty-years-search-truth-tapestry-germany-c1490

Unknown said...

Not an answer to your questions but at the FSSP church in Salzburg for Mass on the Transfiguration houselling cloths were used and all the communicants ‘drew near with faith’ to the altar rails to say the second confiteor and receive absolution.

RichardT said...

Isn't there something in Duffy about it?

I've not read it recently, but I seem to remember houseling cloths came into it (showing up in church inventories and being bequeathed in wills). Based on their shape I would guess they would be used rather like a temporary communion rail, held at each end.

That would fit with lay communion being much less frequent, so the churches wouldn't have been designed around it, so a permanent communion rail would have been a low priority until regular lay communion became the norm.

Titus said...

I believe this is addressed with respect to Italy in Fr. Augustine Thompson, OP's work on medieval Italian religion, Cities of God.

Thorfinn said...

Thank you, I find this subject fascinating and on target. I am frequently confronted with the following assertions from well-meaning, orthodox Catholics:

* We go to Mass for the Eucharist!
* The Eucharist is the source and summit of our faith.
* Be very careful to avoid scrupulosity...
* Think of how much Grace you get every time you receive!
* Why would someone go to Mass if they're not receiving Communion?

Nothing is really wrong until the rhetorical question at the end, which opens a Pandora's box of worthwhile issues that few people think of peering into, but even so the ship is clearly listing toward (nearly?) universal receipt of Holy Communion. I have never heard someone wonder if they are scrupulous enough, or scrutinize the reading from the Grace-o-meter.

Fr PJM said...

If clerics had to kneel for Communion, it would be strange, if the laity did not kneel. Will there be more on this subject?

Pastor in Monte said...

In pre-Reformation England, it seems clear that Communion was received annually, at Easter time. During Lent there seem to have been almost what we would call Penitential Services; priests would club together to hear the confessions of a parish, and also to examine them in the Pater, the Ave and the Credo. Sometimes the 'rights' of someone to receive Communion would be refused.
At his coronation, the King would receive Communion. There is a record of some king (I forget who) being much admired by saying his own Confiteor.
I have heard of 'houselling benches' being used for Communion, set out only for this purpose and perhaps at other times used as seating. This suggests a kneeling posture.
Other than the chancel, the only practical other place was the rood screen, and this often had altars against it, or at least a dado with saints. It is slightly ridiculous to think of the priest poking his head out of the apertures to communicate his people. I suspect that the chancel position is probably correct, though I have no other evidence than instinct.
There was also the practice of giving people a rinse of unconsecrated wine afterwards, administered by the server. Interestingly this continued into the seventeenth century in England, even after the Roman Mass had become standard. This last would be the subject of some interesting research. I wonder how much early-church 'Communion under both kinds' was actually simply the reception of wine. It also provides a sidelight on some other customs, such as the first purification in the EF, and the fact that at their ordinations, having concelebrated, the neo-ordinati priests and neo-consecrati bishops receive a Host as Communion, and then unconsecrated wine.

Dan said...

Have no evidence to support this -- it is only something that I heard -- but what I've heard is that in the old days people did not ever receive communion at Mass but the priest would bring out consecrated hosts after Mass and give communion to the people congregated outside the church.

vetusta ecclesia said...

Thorfinn is right. These are the attitudes that lead to the proliferation of lay-led services of the word with communion from the reserved sacrament. They even happen on Sundays when people in a priest-less parish, though well able to drive elsewhere for Mass, prioritise habit and community.

Pastor in Monte said...

One might also think about Cranmer's direction that Communion should be received kneeling: he would hardly have started the practice, and indeed was criticised by continental reformers for his rubric.

Pastor in Monte said...

Sorry, me again. In answer to your first question, as to how people received before Pius X and frequent Communion, the answer is, as far as the 19th Century went, different from place to place. However, I think it was rare for Communion to be received in the course of the Mass. In Westminster Cathedral, for instance, Communion was received between Masses in the Blessed Sacrament chapel. At St John's Seminary, Wonersh, there were two Sunday Masses; a Low one and a High one. Communion was received by the seminarians at neither, but before the first Mass, during which Mass they made their thanksgivings and only the celebrant communicated. The students sang vernacular hymns at the Mass, too. This was around 1905. All then went to breakfast, returning later for the High Mass at which only the celebrant communicated.
As late as the 1960s, it was common for people to communicate only quarterly, and of course only after confession.

Mother Julian said...

Neilmac asked:
If the laity did not kneel and there were no altar rails, how were houselling cloths used?

Contemporary practice in my Rusian Orthodox parish is for communicants to receive standing, flanked by two subdeacons, readers or acolytes holding the houselling cloth while the priest administers the sacrament. Of course, we receive the sacrament mixed, body and blood, from a spoon.

Albrecht von Brandenburg said...

At the rood-screen entrance. At least in England.

Unknown said...

The 1964 Weller Translation of the Rituale Romanum can be found at the website of the Society of St. John Cantius Part IV, Chapter II on the manner of distributing Holy Communion can be found here:

NB nos. 11, 12 and 13 especially for Communion of the faithful during Mass or immediately before or after.

Although this translation is a little odd, these instructions are virtually the same as those found in the 1961 Collectio Rituum.

Randolph Crane said...

If someone is interested: I know a bit about the 1602 provision in Paderborn, since I have studied this.

The Prince-Bishop of Paderborn (back then it wasn't an archdiocese yet, as it is today) Dietrich von Fürstenberg (also called Theodor in official acts) issued a liturgical book for his diocese called the "Agenda". The context was the Protestant Reformation, which turned the capital city of the diocese as well as the ecclesiastical territory of the Prince-Bishop Lutheran. Although Dietrich was not too interested in being a bishop (I think he either once or never celebrated Holy Mass), and he was a Renaissance aristocrat putting much weight on his secular rôle as a prince of the Holy Roman Empire, he was also a devout Catholic who was genuinely troubled by the Reformation. He understood that a reform was needed and that a spiritual renewal from within was also necessary. Thus, he issued the Agenda in 1602, which was a mix of a Missale and a Rituale, to be used by all the diocese's clerics. It was profoundly Catholic, and even continued admonitions and sermons in the vernacular (the Protestant preachers were wildly successful due to their use of the vernacular and their preaching skills). Regarding Communion, Dietrich recognised the novelties introduced by the Protestants (sub utraque specie etc.), and he knew there had to be done something in the Catholic rites. He prescribed that Communion should be administered sub una specie, but afterwards a minister should offer an ablution cup for the laity, which was to be distinct from the Chalice containing the Most Precious Blood in order to prevent any misunderstandings.
Just as a historical background :)


Communion distribution during Holy Mass was indeed quite unusual. More often, Communion was administered after Holy Mass for those who wanted it, and even then only infrequently (there was a great fear among the people to receive unworthily, thus looking at the Host during the elevation right after the consecration was deemed as another form of Communion).
It was the same as with sermons: The sermon, since it was not considered a part of Holy Mass, was often delivered after Mass, and even outside the Church (as S. Thomas Aquinas used to do it e. g.). Even when it got introduced into Holy Mass, priests would de-vest for that, since it doesn't belong to the sacrificial action.

Little Black Sambo said...

Wasn't the "Christmas game" something to do with the way people gave money at the offertory, popping coins into a chest? I can't remember where I read this.

E sapelion said...

The Ritus Servandus of the Missal says "Si qui sunt communicandi in Missa, ... Interim minister ante eos extendit linteum seu velum album, et pro eis facit confessionem dicens: Confíteor Deo, etc". This is the description of communion of the people in all editions from at least 1604 to 1962. So while I am sure it was very rare, at least until the early part of the 20th century, for people to receive communion at Mass, the Rite at least since Trent has provided for it. And the spreading of a white cloth before the communicants is the only thing actually specified in the Missal, no location and no posture.
There may be other things in other communications from the Congregation of Rites, I believe they approved, and subsequently required, a communion plate held under the chin of communicants, after papal reforms had increased the numbers of people communicating at Mass, but this seems not to get written in to the Missal.

Pulex said...

Ceremoniale episcoporum of 17th or 18th century (seen on www.ceremoniale.net) recommends for Solemn Pontifical Mass that if there are too many people receiving Communion it might be distributed at side altars lest the clergy in choir should remain kneeling for exceedingly long time. It then implies laity receiving within Mass, but does not say anything about frequency of doing so.

Daniel in Nola said...

Having read Duffy intensely for years, i get the impression that people only recieved during Eastertide. Another overlooked aspect of Medieval worship at Mass was the passing of the Pax Brede, apparently the faithful lined up like the modern Novus Ordo comminion procession. There are records of fights breaking out over precedence. I think it was Duffy who’s research indicated that kissing the Pax was a substitute for communion. Apparently the faithful lined up in front of the Rood Screen. Another often overlooked part of Medieval Worship was the recieving of “Holy Bread and Holy water” immediately after Mass. this was a Western version of the antidoron, that sadly disappeared after Trent.

Sten_Mk_2 said...

Chaucer reports on squabbles in church:

"In al the parisshe wyf ne was ther noon
That to the offring bifore hir sholde goon;
And if ther dide, certeyn, so wrooth was she,
That she was out of alle charitee."--Prologue to The Canterbury Tales