- Food Production in the Croxton Play of the Sacrament
Near the end of the Croxton Play of the Sacrament, the bishop restores order by instigating the play’s final miracle. Confronted by an image of a “chyld…with wondys blody” (804) which has emerged spectacularly from a bleeding, ruptured oven, the bishop prays to god for forgiveness, at which point “þe im[a]ge change[s] agayn into brede” (825 s.d.).1 The image’s transformation into bread reiterates what the previous testing— by stabbing, nailing, boiling, and baking—of the consecrated Host by the play’s Jews has demonstrated, namely the truth of the doctrine of transubstantiation, that at the moment of consecration in the mass, the substance of the obley becomes the body of Christ.
The bishop’s transformation of the bloody Christ-child back into bread is the main irony of the play: having baked the Host, the Jews who have insisted that it is but material bread are confronted by spiritual bread, the bleeding body of Christ. Their actions have thus revealed the bread to be not bread at all but rather the Christ-child. The bishop makes things right again, remaking the Christ-child so that he again appears in the form of bread. With the baked Christ-child’s eruption from the oven, however, the Croxton Play of the Sacrament reveals that ecclesiastical authority is required to transform the Christ-child “agayn into brede.”
As with other Host miracles, it is this power over productive food practice which is at stake.2 As Charles Zika argues of fifteenth-century German Host-miracles, the emphasis on Christ’s real presence in the Host foregrounds “the act of producing the host and the role of those responsible for its production. In other words, the host is decisively located within the context of priestly power and the locally approved church and liturgy.”3 Carolyn Walker Bynum explicitly identifies this contest as [End Page 313] one which takes place over spiritual food-production: “In one sense, the roles of priest and lay recipient reversed normal social roles. The priest became the food preparer, the generator and server of food. The woman recipient ate a holy food she did not exude or prepare.”4 Given that the consecrated host was material food changed into spiritual food, the priest’s consecration appropriated the production by making the bread more than it was.
Indeed, the play contrasts two moments of miraculous production. In the first, the Jews produce the body of Christ from a stabbed, boiled, and baked host; in the second, the bishop produces bread from the body of Christ. An intriguing chiasmus appears here, one which contrasts the sacrilegious, literal, and material Jewish baking of the host with the holy, figural, and spiritual ecclesiastical “baking” of the body of Christ. On the one hand, the oven ruptures to reveal Christ as spiritual bread. On the other, the bishop restores that spiritual bread to its appearance as material bread, the sort of bread more appropriate to emerge from an oven.
The spectacularly bleeding and ruptured oven thus becomes a contested site of production requiring the bishop to reassert ecclesiastical authority, control, and significance over the practices that should properly govern the Host. Thus, after restoring the host’s appearance, the bishop takes physical control of it, returning it from the oven to the church. In doing so, he reasserts its place in ecclesiastical ritual, leading a procession to the church as well as the singing of O sacrum convivium, a processional antiphon usually sung on the Feast of Corpus Christi.5 While it “briefly sums up the Church’s teaching on the Eucharist,”6 the antiphon also glosses the preceding action of the play: “O sacred banquet in which Christ becomes our food, the memory of his passion is renewed, the soul is filled with grace and a pledge of future glory is given us.”7 Quite literally, albeit via a special effect, the audience has witnessed Christ become food in the bishop’s transformation of the bleeding Christ-child into the form of bread. To the degree that the Host is sacred food, its abuse...