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  • Pierre Du Moulin on the Eucharist: Protestant Sign Theory and the Grammar of Embodiment
  • John S. Pendergast

In 1979 Barbara Lewalski published Protestant Poetics, one of the seminal works of seventeenth-century criticism. In that book Lewalski argued for a renewed appreciation of the Protestant notion of a “radically” poetic biblical tradition. What made the tradition poetic was the renewed appreciation of how figurative language represented spiritual truths. Lewalski cited Malcolm M. Ross who twenty-five years previously wrote that in the seventeenth century poetry became more Protestant and “aesthetically the worse for it” because it flattened symbol into metaphor or simile—seemingly in response to the new way of viewing the eucharist as the metaphoric Word of God. 1 In Ross’s paradigm to “flatten” symbol into metaphor or simile would seem to suggest that an unfortunate literalness results from self-conscious figuration.

I take Lewalski’s critical suppositions as a representation of a much wider critical assumption which seems to operate unreflexively. Literary critics have tended to use terms such as “Protestant,” “Anglican” and “Catholic” in a manner which says less about sincere religious doctrine and more about opportunistic and rhetorically effective labeling. For example, there has been a longstanding critical assumption, based on generalized notions of the eucharist, that the development of a strong Anglican aesthetic brought about a distrust of figurative language and in turn a distrust of figurative or allegorical interpretation. John Donne’s “My God . . . [is a] figurative, a metaphorical God” sums up another view of Reformation biblical interpretation, interpretation which, according to Barbara Lewalski, “brought in its wake both a greater emphasis upon, and a more systematic analysis of, the tropes and schemes that made biblical language radically poetic.” 2 Where, according to seventeenth-century paradigms, does the distrust of figurative language end and the utilization of it begin?

The scriptural passages concerning the transubstantiation of Christ in the eucharist were a favored subject for Renaissance exegetes. Despite the attempt to create a new ontology, separate from Medieval Catholic doctrine, the roots of this Reformation argument can be found in late-Medieval [End Page 47] scholasticism. For example, Lafranc’s De Corpore et Sanquine Domini (c. 1063–68) was an attempt to define the “orthodox position at a high philosophical level” written “within a tradition of commentaries laid down by the fathers.” 3 The search for specific solutions to precise doctrinal and textual arguments concerning Christ’s presence were developed in the context of Aristotelian metaphysics. The works of Augustine, Gregory the Great and other Church authorities were also fodder for these debates. Fundamentally, the debate focused on realism. Lafranc’s contention was that a reality exists in things no matter what words are used to describe them. Lafranc submitted that “names” are only useful in describing realities; he does not see any a priori value in these interpretive terms. 4 Appearances and names are the same thing: that which was before consecration. Lafranc aligns himself with Augustine in the belief that spiritualiter is synonymous with invisibilter. Logical terms such as “species,” “similitude,” and “figura” are used to describe real entities. (“Species, similitudo, and figura refer to realities that have disappeared; signum, mysterium and sacramentum, to Christ’s actual suffering on the cross.” 5 ) In Lafranc’s paradigm, hermeneutics are questionable because they attempt to arrive at truth through the material, that is, through language and verba. In the end, they are only useful as indicators or signs of a deeper, invisible truth. Such an argument ultimately silences debate about manifestation and ontology—truth is universal, invisible and directed by faith. This view forms the basis of one of the central paradoxes of the eucharistic debate: material signs only indicate, but do not participate in, higher truths, but at the same time, the material manifestation of the eucharist demands an ontology which allows for material manifestation of spiritual truth. The manner in which this paradox is worked out is central to the various doctrines and belief systems which mark the later Reformation.

Berengar, one of Lafranc’s adversaries, claimed that “the realists merely pandered to popular taste and to illiteracy.” 6 Berengar believed that the truth of the matter was to be found...

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