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Medieval Sourcebook:
Tales of the Host


The following tales are from sermon stories from these three writers

Jacques de Vitry was born probably before 1180, studied theology at Paris, and was ordained priest in 1210. He preached first in 1213 in favor. of the crusade against the Albigenses. The following year he led a large army of crusaders to the siege of Toulouse. He next preached a crusade against the Saracens. In 1214 he was elected bishop of Acre, was approved by the Pope in 1215, and was consecrated 1216. He took a prominent part in the crusade of 1218-1221. In the winter of 1219-1220 he wrote his well known historical work. In 1226 or 1227 he resigned his bishopric, and devoted himself again to preaching the crusade against the Albigenses. In1228 he was made a cardinal, and bishop of Tusculum. In 1239, probably, he was elected patriarch of Jerusalem. He died about 1240. The anecdotes quoted are taken from the exempla in the sermones vulgares, ad status or ad omne hominum genus, 74 in number. Thes eexempla have been edited with great learning by Thomas Frederick Crane, M. A., under the title The Exempla of Jacques de Vitry, for the Folk Lore Society, 1890. This is the best work on the subject.

Étienne de Bourbon, a Dominican, was born towards the end of the twelfth century and died about 1261. In his youth be passed some years in the schools of the church of Saint-Vincent at Macon. Later be studied at the University of Paris. In his writings there are a number of interesting anecdotes concerning student-life in his days. As an inquisitor he acquired much information about,the heretics, which he incorporated in his writings. Although he was zealous in his work he was prudent, and rejected many fables current about the heretics. He wrote sermons which were popular and widely used. The title shows his purpose, Tractatus de diversis materiis praedicabilibus. The tales used in this pamphlet are from Anecdotes Historiques, Légendes et Apolologues tirés du recueil inédit d'Etienne de Bourbon, dominicain du xiiie siècle, publés pour la Société de l'Histoire de France, par A. Lecoy de la Marche, Paris, 1877.

Caesar of Heisterbach was born about 1180, possibly in Cologne, and died before 1250. He was " master of the novices " and prior in the monastery at Heisterbach. His Dialogue was one of the commonest sources for sermon-stories. The best edition of his work is Caesarii Heisterbacensis monachi ordinis Cisterciensis Dialogus Miraculroum, edited by Strange, 2 Vols., Paris, 1851. The biographical facts given above are taken mainly from the introductions to the editions cited.

The object of these sermon-stories was to arouse interest and to convey moral truths. Jacques de Vitry said, " It is necessary to employ a great many proverbs, historical stories and anecdotes, especially when the audience is tired and begins to gett sleepy." Etienne de Bourbon said that Jacques owed his great success to this practice. The use of anecdotes spread rapidly and widely, and many collections have been preserved. For bibliographies and examples see… Hauréau: Notices et Extraits de quelques manuscrits latins de la Bibliothéque nationale, 6 vols., Paris, 1890-93.

TALES OF THE HOST

1. CHRIST SEEN IN THE HANDS OF A PRIEST

Caesar of Heisterbach, Dist. IX, Cap. XXVIII. (Vol. II p. 186,)

In Himmerode an aged priest, Henry by name, died a few years ago. He was a holy and just man, and had been for very many years sacristan in that monastery. When he was reading the mass one day at the altar of St. John the Baptist, in the choir of the lay-brethren, a certain one of the lay-brethren standing near, saw, in the hands of the priest, the Saviour in the form of a man. Nevertheless the priest himself did not see it. This was told to me by one of the elders in that convent.

2. WOMAN PUNISHED FOR SCATTERING THE HOST UPON
HER VEGETABLES

Ceasar of Heisterbach, Dist. IX, Cap. IX. (Vol II, pp. 173-74.)

On the same island a maiden, not a nun, whom I saw there, was possessed. When the devil was asked by a priest why he had so long and so cruelly tortured Hartdyfa de Cogheme, he replied through the mouth of the girl. "Why? She has most certainly deserved it. She scattered the Most High upon her vegetables."

Since he did not at all understand the saying and the devil was unwilling to explain, the priest went to the woman and told her what the devil had said about her, advising her not to deny if she under. stood. She immediately confessed her guilt, saying, " I understand the saying well, although I have never told any man of it. When I was a young girl and had a garden to cultivate, I received a wandering woman as a guest one night. When I told her of the losses in my garden, saying that all the vegetables were being devoured by caterpillars, she replied, "I will tell you a good remedy. Receive the body of the Lord, break it in pieces, scatter it over your vegetables, and the plague will cease at once." I, wretched one! who cared more for my garden than for the sacrament, when I had received the body of our Lord at Easter, took it out of my mouth and did with it as I had been taught. What I had intended as a remedy for my vegetables, became a source of torment to me, as the devil is my witness."

NOVICE: This woman was more cruel than the attendants of Pilate, who spared Jesus after His death and did not break His bones.

MONK: Therefore, up to the present day she atones for that heinous sin and suffers unheard-of tortures. Let those who employ the divine sacrement for temporal gain, or what is more execrable, for evil-doing, give heed to this punishment, even if they do not consider the sinfulness. Also if vermin neglect the reverence due to this sacrament, they sometimes suffer punishment.

3. A CHURCH BUILT FOR THE HOST BY BEES

Étienne de Bourbon, No. 317. (pp. 266-67.)

For I have heard that a certain rustic, wishing to become wealthy and having many hives of bees, asked certain evil men how he could get rich and increase the number of his bees. He was told by some that if he should retain the sacred communion on Easter and place it in one of his hives, he would entice away all of his neighbor's bees, which leaving their own hives, would come to the place where body of our Lord was and there would make honey. He did this.

Then all the bees came to the hive where the body of Christ was, and just as if they had felt compassion for the irreverence done to it, by their labor they began to construct a little church and to erect foundations and bases and columns and an altar with like labor, and with the greatest reverence they placed the body of our Lord upon the Altar. And within that little beehive they formed that little church with wonderful and the most beautiful workmanship. The bees of the vicinity leaving their hives came together at that one; and over that structure they sang in their own manner certain wonderful melodies hymns.

The rustic hearing this, wondered. But waiting until the fitting time for collecting the swarm of bees and the honey-comb, he found nothing in his hives in which the bees had been accustomed to make honey; finding himself impoverished through the means by which he had believed that he would be enriched; he went to that one where he had placed the host, where he saw the bees had come together. But when he approached, just as if they had wanted to vindicate the insult to our Saviour, the bees rushed upon the rustic and stung him so severely that he escaped with difficulty, and suffering greatly. Going to the priest , related all that he had done and what the bees had done. The priest, by the advice of his bishop, collected his parishioners and went in procession to the place. Then the bees, leaving the hive, rose into the air, making sweet melody. Raising the hive they found within the noble structure of that little church and the body of our Lord placed upon the altar. Then returning thanks they bore to their own church that little church of the bees constructed with such skill and elegance and with praises placed it on the altar.

By this deed those who do not reverence but offer insult instead to the sacred body of Christ or the sacred place where it is, ought to be put to great confusion.

University of Pennsylvania. Dept. of History: Translations and Reprints from the Original Sources of European history, published for the Dept. of History of the University of Pennsylvania., Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press [1897?-1907?]. Vol II, No 4, pp. 18-20


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© Paul Halsall July 1997
halsall@murray.fordham.edu