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Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 33.2 (2003) 241-259

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New Historicism and the Eucharist

David Aers
Duke University
Durham, North Carolina

The source of the reflections in this essay is Practicing New Historicismby Catherine Gallagher and Stephen Greenblatt. 1 This book includes an analysis of the Roman Catholic Eucharist in the Middle Ages and its rejection in the Reformation (chaps. 3 and 5). It is still rare for scholars to work with any seriousness across the institutional divide between "medieval" and "early modern" or "Renaissance," a fact which, as I have argued elsewhere, has unfortunate consequences for the study of the past. 2 And for all its diversity, New Historicism itself has not been engaged by the specificities of Christian theology and liturgy, preferring to trace flows of secular power, hidden or overt, in putatively religious genres. 3 So it is of especial interest that such distinguished practitioners of New Historicism, founder members indeed, now choose to go down paths their fellow travelers have left untrodden. This choice enables us to follow how one of the dominant critical forms in the contemporary academy deals with doctrine, ritual, and symbol central to Christianity in both the Middle Ages and the early modern period.

The book's introduction stimulates one's curiosity about this unusual encounter. For the authors depict New Historicist practice as distinctively "skeptical, wary, demystifying, critical and adversarial" (9). They aim, so they say, to "foster" a "skeptical mood" (12). Congruent with the emphasis on their "skeptical" criticism, they figure forth their practice through the icon of "the wicked son," an icon woven into the book. This wicked son questions his community's religious cult in an act of critical "self-exclusion," "a refusal of communal participation" (136-37). 4 In their invocations of this figure, the wicked son remains singular. Here too he fits the writers' account of their work as "doggedly private, individual, obsessive, lonely" (18). This formulation seems to display some of the more cherished assumptions about individual identity informing the liberal literary academy even in its postmodern [End Page 241] phase, but the introduction insists that New Historicism cannot be formulated in terms of a theoretical position or methodological directives let alone as an instantiation of a determinate ideology or theology. Apparently the wicked son transcends all such determinate paradigms. One of the tasks of the present reflections will be to see how such self-representations relate to the book's engagement with a Christianity in which dominant symbolic practices involved incorrigibly communitarian forms of understanding led by the theological virtue of faith and practices whose teleology was incorporation in the mystical body of Christ, the Church.

The first discussion of "the Catholic Eucharist" in Practicing New Historicismcomes in the introduction. It is invoked as the "closest analogy" to myths about the complete autonomy of the literary text or "art object." In such myths, as the authors observe, the "art object" is "self-enclosed," "freed not only from the necessities of the surrounding world (necessities that it transforms miraculously into play) but also from the intention of the maker" (11-12). Why do the authors think the Eucharist is the "closest analogy" to this New Critical or Mallarmean idea of a transcendent, autonomous aesthetic object, one clearly crying out for New Historicist demystification? Because, they reply, "the miracle of transubstantiation does not depend, after all, on the intention of the priest." And because transubstantiation "is not even the consequence of the institution that celebrates the Mass." Furthermore, so they maintain, "the institution is itself understood to be the consequence of the miracle of the Sacrament" (12). The "institution" mentioned here must be the Church. But by whom was the Church "understood to be the consequence of the miracle of the Sacrament [the Eucharist]"? Certainly not by Catholic tradition. Let us briefly rehearse the tradition's basic teaching about the Church and its relations to the sacraments, an issue of major importance within the history Gallagher and Greenblatt address.

The Church, according to Catholic tradition, was created by the triune God...


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pp. 241-259
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