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The Divine Dinner Party: Domestic Imagery and Easter Preaching in Late Medieval England

From: Traditio
Volume 67, 2012
pp. 385-415 | 10.1353/trd.2012.0009

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When Margery Kempe imagines each member of the Trinity sitting within the chamber of her soul on a cushion of an appropriate color, she uses familiar household furnishings to develop a metaphor that helps explain a complex theological concept, while at the same time creating the sense that these ideas are as natural and easy to accept as the objects from which the metaphor is constructed. Similarly, in an Easter sermon preached in 1431, her contemporary Nicholas Philip, a Franciscan friar of the convent in King’s Lynn (Margery’s hometown), uses household furnishings to prepare his listeners to receive the Eucharist at Easter. The sermon is built on the metaphor of the body as the house to which Christ has been invited for a feast, and, like Kempe’s Trinity image, this house has furnishings — a carpet, a tapestry, a cushion, a seat cover — and the feast itself involves a variety of dishes along with music and entertaining guests. The sermon develops a multifaceted image that becomes a complete sensory experience, focusing not on the meaning of transubstantiation but on the communicant’s proper disposition. While Nicholas Philip’s Easter sermon may be unusual in using this imagery to shape an entire sermon, many late medieval Easter sermons preached in England employ such domestic imagery to elucidate for their audiences the significance of the Eucharist, the reception of which, for most of the laity living in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, took place only on Easter. In a process that can be called the domestication of the divine, such metaphors render this annual reception less distant and abstract, making an event with supernatural implications as natural and familiar as a dinner party. However, the rhetorical purpose of this domestication is not primarily to encourage feelings of comfort and easy familiarity with the theological underpinnings of the sacrament, but to promote virtue and responsibility in the recipient both in preparation for and following this event. Nicholas Philip’s Easter sermon thus testifies to a homiletic concern of many late medieval English preachers as well as to the artistic license a preacher might take to effect that concern.

Textual Tradition

In most Easter sermons that employ domestic imagery, the human body becomes the figurative domestic site that must be readied to receive its special guest. This metaphor is traditional and has biblical roots (e.g., the body as the temple of the Holy Spirit [1 Cor. 6:19]), but it is thoroughly updated by medieval preachers. In one Middle English Easter sermon, the body is not only presented as a house, but the communicant is also the carpenter who must actively build a house to receive Christ, beginning with a firm foundation, then the walls, and finally the roof. The foundation is faith, the walls are hope, and the roof is charity. This is a fairly simple analogy, effective in creating a picture of one’s body as a recipient of a guest and aiding memory by fixing visualizable “places” in one’s metaphorical house for the theological virtues, not only setting them in hierarchical relation to each other but rendering them into physical attributes one can feel in one’s house-body. But while this is straightforward as a mnemonic device, it also subtly establishes one’s individual responsibility as carpenter — one is not just the building passively being prepared but the builder doing the preparing. The implication is that receiving communion is not a passive activity intended to have some mystical effect on the communicant; it entails a reciprocal obligation or at least requires a virtuous disposition. The Augustinian canon John Mirk, who wrote his collection of homilies, The Festial, in Middle English as a preaching aid for parish priests, also uses this image in his Easter sermon as part of a larger exposition of the various names given to the feast of Easter. The first name he explains is Easter itself, which he connects (incorrectly) to the Middle English word “astur,” meaning “hearth,” because, he says, on Easter the hearth’s fire is quenched and the hearth is “arayed wyth grene rusches and swete floures strawde alle aboute.” This is done, Mirk continues, to give an example that...



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