What to do if a spider falls in the communion wine, and other top tips from John Mirk, Part I

SpiderIn his manual for the clergy, Instructions for Parish Priests, John Mirk (fl. c.1382-1414) explains what to do if a spider, gnat, or fly falls in the communion wine:

3ef any flye, gnat, or coppe
Doun in-to þe chalys droppe,
3ef þow darst for castynge þere,
Vse hyt hol alle I-fere.

[If any fly, gnat, or spider, down into the chalice drop, if you dare for vomiting there, swallow it whole altogether] (Spider image from BL Royal MS 13 B VIII, here; if, like me, you’re a Tolkien fan, see my note on the word ‘coppe’ at the bottom of this post)

The poor priest is advised to swallow the insect whole or, if he cannot bear it, to take out the ‘fulþe’ [filth] with his hand, wash it over the chalice and then burn it. This is because the wine is transformed into the blood of Christ during the Eucharist and the presence of the insect would be a form of desecration.

John Mirk’s Instructions are full of fascinating insights into medieval parish life. Another of my favourite passages about the Eucharist is the penance that the priest must suffer if a mouse or rat eats the host because he hasn’t looked after it properly:

3ef hyt were eten wyth mows or rat,
Dere þow moste a-bygge þat;rat with eucharist
Fowrty dayes for þat myschawnce
Þow schalt be in penaunce.

[If it were eaten by a mouse or rat, dearly you must pay for that, forty days for that mischance, you shall be in penance]

(Image of rat stealing the host from BL Harley MS 4751, see here)

John Mirk was an Augustinian canon who wrote a popular collection of Middle English sermons called the Festial as well as two priests’ manuals, the Instructions (written in Middle English rhyming couplets) and the Manuale Sacerdotis (written in Latin prose). His work is part of what we call the literature of pastoral care: texts such as sermons, penitential handbooks, and collections of moral stories, that were produced to help parish priests to educate themselves and the lay congregation for whom they were responsible. A huge number of such texts were produced in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries as a result of the decisions made at the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 (a great gathering of the church hierarchy) which determined that the laity must go to confession once a year and be educated properly. I’ll be discussing more of these texts over the coming weeks as they form a major part of my research.

The Instructions opens by reminding its priestly audience why their own education is so important:
God seyth hypriest wi eucharistm self, as wryten we fynde,
That whenne þe blynde ledeth þe blynde,
In to þe dyche þey fallen boo,
For þey ne sen whare by to go.
So faren prestes now by dawe;
They beth blynde in goddes lawe,
That whenne þey scholde þe pepul rede
In to synne þey do hem lede.

(Image of a priest celebrating the mass from a Book of Hours, BL Harley MS 2915, here)

[God says himself, as we find written, that when the blind lead the blind, into the ditch they both fall (Matthew 15:14) for they do not see where to go. So fare priests now, they are blind in God’s law so that when they should advise the people, they lead them into sin]

Therefore the Instructions contains everything a priest needs to know to preach in the parish and teach their congregation. This includes material on the seven deadly sins, the ten commandments, the sacraments, the articles of the faith, and how to examine a parishioner on their sins. On the subject of keeping the Sabbath holy, the priest should ask:

Hast þow holden þyn halyday,
And spent hyt wel to goddes pay?
Hast þow I-gon to chyrche fayn
To serue god wyþ alle þy mayn?
Hast þou any werke þat day I-wro3te,
Or synned sore in dede or þo3t?

[Have you kept the holy days and spent them well to God’s satisfaction? Have you gone to church to serve God with all your might? Or have you done any work on that day, or sinned sorely in deed or thought?]sunday christ

In popular culture, working on the Sabbath was thought to cause injury to Christ, as this fifteenth century wall painting from Breage, Cornwall, shows. Known as the ‘Sunday Christ’ or the ‘Warning to Sabbath Breakers’, all of the tools that a workman might use on the Sabbath are shown wounding the body of Christ as a clear deterrent against working on holy days.

In Part II of this post I will return with more of John Mirk’s teaching on how to behave in the parish church and why it was so important that parishioners follow his advice.

(Image of the Sunday Christ from Anne Marshall’s Medieval Wall Paintings website)

Note on ‘Coppe’

The word for ‘spider’ in Middle English was ‘coppe’ or ‘atter-coppe’ which comes from the Old English ‘attor-coppe’ which literally means ‘poison-head’. In The Hobbit, chapter 8 (‘Flies and Spiders’) Bilbo sings the following song to try to distract the spiders from eating Thorin and the other dwarves:

Old fat spider spinning in a tree!
Old fat spider can’t see me!
Attercop! Attercop!
Won’t you stop,
Stop your spinning and look for me!

Bilbo also uses the term ‘Lazy Lob’ in his song and ‘lob’ is also a medieval word for spider (so ‘Shelob’ in The Lord of the Rings is she-lob, female-spider).

For more on insects in medieval manuscripts see the British Library’s ‘Bugs in Books’ post
John Mirk, Instructions for Parish Priests, ed. Edward Peacock, Early English Text Society o.s. 31 (1868)

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6 Responses to What to do if a spider falls in the communion wine, and other top tips from John Mirk, Part I

  1. Great article. I am looking forward to the second part.

  2. Tamsin Bacchus says:

    Lovely. I look forward to Part II.
    The wine, once consecrated has to be consumed – any left over is reverentially finished off by the priest and his assistants. The boys knew this at my father’s boarding school and (after he had become ordained himself in later life) he told the tale of how with one visiting cleric many of them indicated in advance that they wished to take communion (presumably on a list put up the previous evening – this was when taking the Eucharist was a fairly rare event, not part of the regular service) and then deliberately did not do so. The poor chap had to drain this overfull chalice of Vino Sacro and maintain an appearance of sobriety.

  3. Byron Smith says:

    A few years ago, I was at in a service of holy communion standing next to my sister. We had already received our bread and wine in individual cups, but had been instructed to refrain from consumption until a final prayer was said, then we would all consume together. Seconds before the prayer ended, a massive blowfly circled around my sister’s head and then landed (with quite a splash) directly into her cup and remained there (stunned/drowned/enjoying it?).

    My sister looked silently and desperately to me for guidance as the rest of the group began to eat and drink. How should I have guided her? Thanks to John Mirk I now have the answer: I should have told her (and the entire group) to repent of our use of individual cups so that the fly would have had a bigger cup to land in, then when the priest swallowed it whole, the contamination would have been more diluted. 😉

    Thanks for this lovely post. I love reading Middle English aloud. It gives me such joy.

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