Medieval Impurities

For many Christians today, the purity rules of ancient Israel seem bizarre and opaque. We’d never think of trying to observe them. This “disenchantment” of purity is a sign of the power and success of the Reformation, because medieval Christians were still very much at home in the world of purity and pollution.

C. Colt Anderson’s contribution to A Companion to Pastoral Care in the Middle Ages shows how questions of purity and impurity informed the pastoral reform movements of the thirteenth century.

Canon law devoted attention to the various levels and intensities of impurity caused by nocturnal seminal emission. These canons applied the regulations of Leviticus quite literally and directly:

“Medieval canonists made distinctions between impurity and sin. Gratian has a discussion of three levels of impurity associated with men who have had nocturnal emissions that illustrates how ritual impurity or pollution did not always imply sinfulness. All three cases required the men to do something to restore their purity, but they vary as to how they relate to sin. Further, their state of impurity was limited until the evening if they did nothing to restore purity, which suggests that purity and impurity were not seen as static realities and did not always involve forms of penance or absolution. The canons claimed that men have nocturnal emissions for one of three reasons: a superfluity of nature or illness, as a result of gluttony and drunkenness, or as a result of sexual thoughts and fantasies. In the first case, the pollution could be removed by washing before Mass for either the priest or the layman. In the second, the priest should refrain from celebrating Mass that day because there is some guilt associated with gluttony; however, the canon conceded that a priest could celebrate the Mass if it was a feast day or necessity compelled him to do so. Further, the canon stated that the impurity associated with overeating should not prevent men from receiving the Eucharist. In the case of the man who has the emission because of sexually fantasizing about someone, the Decretum concluded that it was fitting to abstain from either celebrating Mass or receiving the Eucharist” (74-5).

Following Mary Douglas, Anderson observes that “Purity or pollution rules can function to uphold the value of an institution or to reinforce social identity. For example, the Decretum called priests to fast longer and more than laypeople prior to Easter. The rationale was to uphold the value of priesthood and to promote priestly identity. Just as the lives of clerics ought to be different than those of laypeople, the canon states, so too there should be a distinction in the way they fast” (75). The Gregorian Reform aimed to elevate the liturgical status of the priests by appeals to purity.

Purity rules also reinforced moral standards. Gregory VII delivered this exhortation to the people of Milan concerning simony (the sin of selling church offices): “Those who obtain churches by the gift of money must utterly forfeit them, so that no one for the future may be allowed to sell or buy them. Nor may those who are guilty of the crime of fornication celebrate masses or minister at the altar in lesser orders. We have further appointed that if they disregard our rulings, or rather those of the holy father, the people may in no wise receive their ministration . . . . . . servants of the sacred altar persisting in fornication must not celebrate the office of mass, but are to be driven from the choir until they show themselves worthy by penance” (76-7).

Hildegard of Bingen illustrates the vivid rhetorical power of pollution: “When you touch your Lord in the stench of uncleanness, as a swine tramples pearls into the mire, the heavens receive your iniquity and shower upon the earth the sentence of my judgment. You should have gone before the people in true justice and with divine law, shining for them with good works, so that when they followed you they would avoid tripping on any stumbling block; and instead you stain my people with greater iniquity than that with which they stain themselves, giving them a bad and evil example. You should have been a shining jewel, by whose light they could have perceived and entered the path of rectitude; but your example is death to them, and they can find no measure in your iniquity. How can you be their shepherd when you seduce them so? And how will you answer for them, when you cannot give an answer for yourselves. Therefore weep and howl, before death carries you off” (77).

By framing moral failings in purity terms, both evoke a visceral reaction from their readers. This is not moral reasoning; it’s an attempt to evoke moral revulsion.

Gregory VII initiated a reform movement focusing on the liturgical role of the priests. Other reform movements of the period instead emphasized the moral character of priests and preachers. But they too appealed to purity concerns: “Priestly purity was becoming identified with the purity of apostolic life. Both the older rhetoric, which was primarily concerned with the sacramental acts of the impure clergy, and the newer rhetoric, which focused on the preaching and example of the clergy, were employed throughout the thirteenth century. Both forms of rhetoric relied on the assumption that impurity rendered priests and bishops useless, either in their sacramental and sacrificial duties or in their ability to preach and to lead” (78).

Humbert of Roman’s Treatise on the Formation of Preachers provides an illustration. Preachers had, Humbert argued, to be male, of a certain age and status, and without physical deformities that would distract an audience. Otherwise, the purity requirements are mainly subjective: “subjective defects that could spoil preaching. First, the preacher must be fully purified from his sins. Second, he claimed that the desire to preach without having received the grace for it spoils preaching.” Grace for preaching has seven dimensions: “compunction, devotion, penance, works of piety, zealous practice of prayer, contemplation, and fullness of love.” Without the first six, “the love necessary for preaching was not present. Humbert claimed that even when these manifestations of love are present, the preacher’s desire for the task can be reprehensible if he is led by ambition, a distorted purpose, or because of a spirit of rivalry” (89).

St Francis too framed his appeals to follow the apostolic life in terms of subjective purity. For Francis, the purity was physical as well as spiritual: “he urged his brothers on multiple occasions to consider how dirty the chalices, corporals and altar-linens were, and what the consequences would be for such carelessness about where the body of the Lord rests. He repeatedly warned against leaving the consecrated host in unclean or unfitting or insecure places. The same was true of where the scriptures were kept. Francis made it clear that such carelessness not only revealed a lack of discernment, for the carnal person does not perceive the things of God (1 Cor. 2:14), but also it indicated that these ministers were standing in violation of canon law” (91).

Francis insisted that purity of motivation was essential to the right celebration of the Mass. Francis wrote, “I also beg in the Lord all my brothers who are priests, or who will be, or who wish to be priests of the Most High that whenever they wish to celebrate Mass, being pure, they offer the true Sacrifice of the most holy Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ with purity and reverence, with a holy and unblemished intention, not for any worldly reason or out of fear or love of anyone, as if they were pleasing people.” (92).


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