Corpus Christi

Corpus Christi
   The feast of Corpus Christi celebrates the real presence of the Body of Christ in the sacrament of the Eucharist or Holy Communion. According to the doctrine, through a miracle brought about as the priest says the Mass, the consecrated host (communion wafer) is transformed into the real body of Christ in a process known as transubstantiation. The festival celebrating this miracle is observed annually on the Thursday after Trinity Sunday. The festival was a medieval institution, established in 1264 by Pope Urban IV. The doctrine itself had developed in the 12th century and was defined by the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215. In the 1220s St. Juliana of Comnillion, prioress of a convent near Liege, was granted a vision that convinced her of the need to establish a festival to honor the sacrament. In 1246 a local festival was established in Liege, and when Pope Urban, former bishop of Liege, became pope, he issued a bull establishing the festival for the entire western church, with no less a man than Thomas AQUINAS himself authoring a new office for the festival. However, the feast does not seem to have been generally celebrated until Pope Clement V reissued Urban’s bull in 1311.
   From that time, the festival became increasingly popular until, in many parts of Europe, it was the most important church festival of the year. The celebration took the form of an elaborate procession, one whose splendor increased as time went on. The Eucharist was carried by priests—whose power was particularly underscored by the doctrine of transubstantiation—and by civic leaders, followed by members of the trade guilds of the town. In later 14th-century England, the procession would be followed by cycles of MYSTERY PLAYS, staged and performed by the guild members, that became a source of civic pride. Four manuscripts containing these types of plays have survived, generally referred to as the CHESTER, YORK, TOWNELEY and N-TOWN CYCLES, all of which present a series of plays depicting God’s intervention in human affairs from Creation until Doomsday.
   In England, the conversion of the country to Protestantism, and the hostility of Protestantism to the doctrine of transubstantiation, led to a suppression of the Corpus Christi plays in their various cities. The last public performance of the plays is recorded in Chester in 1575. The festival itself, however, remained popular in Catholic areas of Europe as a manifest symbol of Catholicism against the incursion of Protestantism.
   ■ King, Pamela M.“Corpus Christi,Valencia,”Medieval English Theatre 15 (1993): 103–110.
   ■ Kolve, V. A. The Play Called Corpus Christi. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1966.
   ■ Rubin,Miri. “Corpus Christi: Inventing a Feast,” History Today 40, no. 7 (1990): 15–21.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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