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  • Hic et Haec:The Feast of Corpus Christi, the Myth of Jewish Male Menstruation, and Allegoresis
  • Justin Hastings

It has been more than three decades since Sander Gilman posited that so central was Jewish alterity to the collective identity of medieval Christendom that the Jewish male body was believed quite literally to have menstruated.1 Since that time—and thanks to the internet—this topic has slipped the bonds of scholarly discourse to become a part of popular culture.2 In the intervening years, highly competent scholars have taken up this topic with rigor. This essay seeks to argue that the myth of Jewish male menstruation that coalesced in the late Middle Ages must be understood as the natural and even necessary counterpoise of the feast of Corpus Christi and that both Christ's body and the Jewish male body as constructed discursively must be understood within the contours of scholasticism and its dominant hermeneutic mode of allegoresis.

Necessary to the feast of Corpus Christi is the doctrine of transubstantiation; this is the belief that while the wine and bread of the eucharist may retain the outward appearance of their terrestrial material, through the sacerdotal intervention of the sacrament, their essential substance becomes actually the body and blood of Christ. The doctrine establishes that regardless of the accidentals by which the wafer might retain its bread-like physicality or the wine its viniferous qualities, they were in fact—not symbolically or metaphorically but in fact—the total body and blood of Christ. Transubstantiation became doctrinally infallible and authoritative at the Fourth Lateran Council convened in November 1215. The decisions made at this ecumenical council were promulgated as seventy canons; the doctrine of transubstantiation was established within the first of these canons.3 The exclusionary and sacerdotal emphasis is worth noting: the Catholic church through its ministers was the only vehicle for salvation, which happened through the body of Christ as both high priest and sacrifice simultaneously present at the eucharist.4 [End Page 39]

The last four of these seventy canons promulgating the decisions made at the Fourth Lateran Council, however, are concerned with interactions between the Jews and Christendom. Canon 67 exposes the church's concerns about the potential for the usury of which the Jews were regularly accused to decrease tithing and thereby to diminish church coffers.5 Canon 69 expressly forbids Jews from holding municipal offices of any kind by arguing that the Jews, as blasphemers of Christ, should have no political authority over Christians; it further specifies that any pecuniary emoluments a Jew might have obtained previously from any such office were to be immediately forfeited.6 Canon 70 expressly states that any Jew who had received the sacrament of baptism must not be permitted to profane the sacraments by reverting to any Judaic rites.7 The sixty-eighth canon, the most important of these four for my argument, expressly decreed that Jews—and also Muslims—publicly announce the alterity of their bodies by dressing in distinctive garb.8 It also commanded that the Jews remove themselves corporeally from the public sphere between sunset on Holy Thursday and Easter.9 In other words, at the very time of the annual celebration of Christ's passion that the doctrine of transubstantiation holds is literally present in the liturgical reenactment of the eucharist, the physical body of the Jews that is the "other" against which the Catholic community defined itself was banished as a spectral absence. In short, the very document that authorized the doctrine of transubstantiation simultaneously othered the Jewish male body by formally excluding it from a role within the administrative faculty of the body politic while also banishing physical Jewish bodies from the public sphere at Eastertide. Consequently, the collocation of the Jewish body and the doctrine of transubstantiation are doctrinally intertwined ab initio.

Aquinas refined the doctrine of transubstantiation and promoted it as the only truly tenable and coherent explanation for the Real Presence in the eucharist.10 It was he who would also eventually formulate the liturgy for the feast of Corpus Christi, which was established as a celebration of the Real Presence of the body and blood of Christ in the eucharist...


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