Item 17, A Prayer at the Levation: Introduction

Item 17, A PRAYER AT THE LEVATION, INTRODUCTION: FOOTNOTES

1 For a full account of the origins and foundation of the feast of Corpus Christi, see Rubin, Corpus Christi, pp. 164–212.

2 For a version of this list, see Mirk, Instructions for Parish Priests, lines 316–29.

3 The Coventry statutes are quoted in Rubin, Corpus Christi, p. 58.

4 Robbins, “Levation Prayers,” pp. 131–33.

5 Lydgate, “The Virtues of the Mass,” lines 313–20, in Minor Poems of John Lydgate, 1:101.

6 See Robbins, “Levation Prayers,” pp. 134–40.

 
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Item 17, A Prayer at the Levation: Introduction

Origin, Genre, and Themes

The Eucharist was the central rite of medieval liturgy, founded on the words of Jesus at the Last Supper when he instructed his followers to consume bread and wine in com­munion with him. The ritual version of this moment, reenacted by the priest at the altar, brought the embodied Christ before the worshippers by means of the miracle of transub­stantiation, the transformation of ordinary matter into the body of God. Though the per­formance of the Mass remained off-limits to all but the ordained clergy, in the later Mid­dle Ages the Church developed a variety of ways for the laity to celebrate the miraculous power of the Eucharist.

Foremost among these was the feast of Corpus Christi, a holy day that grew out of local practices in Liège (in modern Belgium) in the middle decades of the thirteenth century.1 The feast steadily gained popularity through the fourteenth century until it became one of the most important days in the liturgical year. This feast was part of grow­ing attention to the mysteries of the Eucharist; substantial thought went into defining the process of transub­stantiation, defending attacks on it from heretics like the English Lollards, and into refining the ritual itself. Scholastic writers defined the exact moment when the priest’s words turned the host into Christ’s body, and ecclesiastical authorities wrote increasingly precise instructions for the priests who performed the cer­emony. After the priest spoke the words “hoc est corpus meum” (“This is my body”), an at­tendant rang a small bell known as a sacring bell, and in many cases the larger church bells were rung, so that even those outside the church knew that the Mass had reached its central moment. The priest then raised the host above his head, allowing the lay wor­shippers to see the host in its transubstantiated state as the body of Christ.

Since taking communion (that is, eating a consecrated host and drinking consec­rated wine) was not as common as it is in today’s Christian churches, the moment when the laity saw the host, known as the levation (or elevation), was their primary form of contact with the Eucharist. Ecclesiastical writers strongly emphasized the importance of the levation. A widely-circulated list of the benefits gained from seeing the host daily included promises that the worshipper would not suffer sudden death, a lack of food, or blindness on any day that he or she saw the consecrated host.2 Writers also required the laity to view the host with highly concentrated devotion. The statutes of Coventry suggest that the sacring bell is like “a gentle trumpet announcing the arrival of a judge, indeed of a savior,” and many authorities encouraged the laity to utter heartfelt prayers at the moment of the levation.3

These prayers exist in a variety of vernacular forms; as Russell Hope Robbins has argued, the heightened emotion of this moment required laity to pray in the language they knew best.4 Perhaps for the same reason, writers who offered their own suggestions for levation prayer stressed that it did not matter which version the laity used, so long as they prayed in some form. Lydgate introduces his levation prayer with a stanza suggesting the proper use of such prayers:







 
With all your myght, and in your best intent,
Awayteth aftyr the consecracion,
At lyftyng up of the holy sacrament
Seythe, “Jesu, mercy!” with hooly affeccion,
Or seyth som other parfyte oryson,
Lyke as ye have in custom devoutly,
Or ellys seyth thys compilacion
Whyche here ys wrete in ordyr by and by.5




            prayer


 
The number of Middle English levation prayers that survive share certain patterns.6 The prayers begin with a salutation that emphasizes Christ’s appearance “in forme of bred” (in the form of the host). The prayers mention an event in Christ’s life and then petition for some spiritual aid (usually protection from sudden death) and ex­press hope of salvation. The prayer presented here, which exists in several other manu­scripts besides Ashmole 61, varies slightly from this usual pattern, though its first stanza preserves most of this formula. Rather than simply presenting a petition, it venerates Christ through an extended list of Christ’s epithets, attributes, and properties. Though the list makes the prayer rather long for use at the brief moment of the levation, it functions well as a con­sideration of the mystery of the Eucharist. The contem­plation of Christ in multiple roles as “blyssed blossom on tre,” “duke and emperour,” and “bred beste” seems entirely an appropriate response to the moment when God is worshipped as both material bread and spiritual mystery, human and divine, sacrificed and alive.

Manuscript Context

Though the four prayers in Ashmole 61 are interrupted by the repeated stanzas of The Ten Commandments and The Debate of the Carpenter’s Tools (items 14 and 16), they ap­pear in the same five leaves of the manuscript. The four prayers thus form a group in several ways, sharing their genre as private prayers and their humble style, based on familiar images and epithets for Christ and the Virgin. This is the kind of simple, ritual piety suggested by the conduct material of the first eight items. In How the Wise Man Taught His Son (item 3), the wise man tells his son, “Every dey, thi fyrst werke — / Loke it be don in every stede — / Go se thi God in form of bred” (lines 19–21). Dame Courtesy (item 8) advises saying the Pater Noster and Ave Maria, similarly familiar acts of devo­tion that could be performed by nearly all classes of the laity.

Text

A Prayer at the Levation appears in six other manuscripts besides Ashmole 61, includ­ing the Vernon MS. There are relatively few variations between these texts (other than those of dialect, which affects the rhyme in the second stanza here), with the exception of the final stanza, which differs more considerably.

Printed Editions

Baugh, Nita Scudder, ed. A Worcestershire Miscellany Compiled by John Northwood, c. 1400. Philadelphia: Macon, 1956. Pp. 149–50. [Prints the text of London, British Library Additional MS 37787.]

Horstmann, Carl, ed. The Minor Poems of the Vernon Manuscript. 1:24–25. [Based on text of the Vernon MS.]

Reference Works

NIMEV 3883

See also Gray (1972), McGarry, Robbins (1942), and Rubin in the bibliography.

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