Challenging Communion: The Eucharist and Middle English Literature
Garrison examines literary representations of the central symbol of later medieval religious culture: the Eucharist. In contrast to scholarship that depicts mainstream believers as enthusiastically and simplistically embracing the Eucharist, this book identifies a pervasive Middle English literary tradition that rejects simplistic notions of eucharistic promise. Through new readings of texts including Mannyng’s Handlyng Synne, Pearl, PPl, A Revelation of Love, Love’s Mirror of the Blessed Life of Jesus Christ, The Book of Margery Kempe, and Lydgate’s religious poetry, Garrison shows how writers of Middle English often take advantage of the ways in which eucharistic theology itself contests the boundaries between the material and the spiritual, and how these writers challenge the eucharistic ideal of union between Christ and the community of believers. She argues that writers of Middle English engage in what she terms ‘eucharistic poetics’, formal literary techniques, including but not limited to figuration and allegory, that emphasize both communion with and alienation from Christ, and that they do so to encourage their readers to contemplate and question not only their own personal connection with the divine but also the necessity of the institutional church as mediator between Christ and humanity. By troubling the definitions of literal and figurative, Middle English writers respond to and reformulate eucharistic theology in politically challenging and poetically complex ways. Garrison argues that Middle English texts often reject simple eucharistic promises in order to offer what they regard as a better version of the Eucharist, one that is intellectually and spiritually demanding and that invites readers to transform themselves and their communities.
In her third chapter, “Christ’s Allegorical Bodies and the Failure of Community in Piers Plowman,” Garrison discusses the relationship between allegory and eucharistic theology in PPl. The poem takes on simplistic assertions that the Christian community is one body in Christ – seemingly effortless in its communal solidarity and unity – and replaces them with an invitation to readers to engage in the frustrating and ongoing work of reforming a fractured community. She focuses on the poem’s penultimate passus, which begins with Will falling asleep during the Mass immediately before he would have received the Eucharist and ends with the Christian community in Unity refusing Conscience’s call to eucharistic reception. Framed by these two eucharistic moments, the middle of the passus is an investigation of the way in which signs, particularly Christ’s name and the church as a sign of Christ’s presence on earth, challenge and enable the human community’s access to Christ.