An Excerpt from "The Lady's Supper: Emilia Lanyer's Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum as a Female Celebration of the Eucharist"

Ina Schabert --- 2005

essay from "Performances of the Sacred in Late Medieval and Early Modern England," edited by Susanne Rupp and Tobias Doring.

The Abbess bared her breast. She said: this is my body, which was broken and given for you, and this is my blood, which was shed for you. My body and blood gave you life and shall give you life and lead you to life and lead you back into life. I will pour out my riches upon you and give you my treasures and anoint you with my precious oils. Then you will be healed and mended and raised up, and I too shall be made whole and restored. Then each ofthe nuns came forward and kissed the Abbess's breast, and let her mouth rest there, as though she was an infant being nursed by her mother. The Abbess in her depravity and wickedness called this a sacrament and the true sacrament of Holy Communion. Michele Roberts, Flesh & Blood (London: Virago, 1995, p. 135)

Performances of the Sacred by God and Man

The context for my reading of Lanyer's poem is a theology of the performative. If we take performance to mean the acting out of a spiritual reality, translating it into the realm of the body, making it present in a specific, material action, we may then, within the sphere of Christianity, discern two kinds of performances of the sacred, namely those by God and those by human beings.

God's first performance is the Creation. In the beginning was the Word. The world came into being as the objectification of the Divine Word. The creation myth lays stress on the essentially performative, illocutionary quality of God's language. God's second performance is the Incarnation. The divine Word becomes flesh, is acted out in the human dimension.

Human beings have responded to God's performances in two contrary ways. On the one hand they attempt to reverse the divine procedure, longing for absolute purity and perfection. They try to transcend the world of things, to re-spiritualize what God has formed, has ‘spoken’ into matter. From the concrete reality, the historical and geographical diversity of the world, they aim to abstract God’s essential meaning. The material world is read as God's book. Similarly, the incarnation, God's act of assuming human flesh, is interpreted as a purely spiritual mystery. Christ's body is not to be adored as a presence in the host, much less taken in as food. These attitudes are characteristic of the Reformation, of the Reformers' approach to life and their conception of the Eucharist.

The alternative reaction consists in the imitation of God's performances. Human beings strive to repeat them on a lower plane. With this intention, the human word is used to act upon the material world, to call things into being. Speech acts tend to be illocutionary, religious ceremony is valued over theological thought. Ritual observances are not, as in the first case, considered as diversions from truly spiritual concerns; on the contrary, they constitute the supreme moments when the divine manifests itself. The incarnation is held in high esteem, both as the basic Christian truth and as a principle of religious life. It is commemorated in actions which testify to the 'Real Presence' of the Lord, namely the Eucharist meal and the Corpus Christi procession. This frame of mind corresponds, roughly speaking, to the Roman Catholic mentality.

The change from the latter attitude to the former, from imitating God's performative acts to dissolving them as far as possible into spiritual truths, in other words, the change from ritual to hermeneutics, was one of the basic changes within the culture of Early Modern England. Specialists on the history of the Eucharist -- such as Gregory Dix, Malcolm M. Ross, Edward Muir, Maggie Kilgour and Frank Lestringant -- agree on this. To quote Edward Muir: "The process of gaining access to the sacred shifted from experiencing the divine body through sight, touch and ingestion to interpreting the scriptural Word, a process that had wide-ranging implications for the status of ritual as well as for the mentality of lay believers.” The controversy over Christ's words on the bread, hic est enim corpus meus, the question whether the est is to be read as 'is' or rather as 'signifies', whether Christ is present in the Eucharist or only to be remembered, has been recognized as a contention that concerns the status of language and ritual as such. Where the Protestant party, who opted for a mere representative function of the host, carried the day, the victory was paid for by a widening gap between word and thing, speech and act. As soon as the host no longer constitutes the 'Real Presence' of Christ and becomes a mere sign, to be attributed a purely spiritual meaning on the part of the believer, the poetic symbol, too, is deprived of substance and becomes a mere figure of speech. Language loses much of its performative intensity.

Aemilia Lanyer's Salve Deus is a remarkable document of the period of transition. Harking back to the older, Roman Catholic, conception of the Eucharist, it is still closely bound up with material reality and ritual activity, yet at the same time its social and religious action begins to drift toward the realm of metaphor. It can either be taken as the historical record of a ritual or it can be read as a poem proper in which, as Austin remarked,"a perforrnative utterance will [... ] be in a peculiar way hollow or void".

The Women's Paschal Feast

The rite of the Eucharist answers two basic needs. As the iterative enactment of the Christian mysteries of the incarnation, passion and redemption, it connects human existence with the divine. As a corporate act it creates a community and confirms solidarity among human beings. Originally the Eucharist meal was celebrated in the Jewish style as meal with family and friends. In the Middle Ages it came to be transferred into the sacred space of the church and was made to depend upon the presence of a priest who officiated as the representative of Christ. Yet even then the cultural imagination continued to locate the Lord's Supper within the communal sphere of feasts and formal dinners. Italian artists painted Last Suppers situated in the sumptuousness of Florentine or Venetian palazzi or monasteries; in Southern Germany and the Low Countries woodcuts show the group of the twelve apostles sitting at table in the guise of burghers or peasants. Leonardo's seminal painting of the Cenacolo as a proleptic celebration of the Eucharist by Christ and his disciples was copied again and again throughout the Renaissance. In our time, the painting has been revived for not always serious purposes in advertisements and in pop art. In 1972 Mary Beth Edelson, a performance artist from Indiana, created a poster after Leonardo's model, where the apostles are impersonated by the figures of women painters. Georgia O’ Keeffe in the position of Christ presides over the table. The picture is framed by a multitude of other female heads. According to her own comment, Edelson's intention was to protest against women's exclusion from the centres of religious life.

Edelson would have been delighted to know that she had a predecessor in Early Modern England. In her long poem entitled Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum published in 1611, Aemilia Lanyer similarly overlays the male-focused religious ceremony with a vision of female bonding and empowerment. She, the female author, introduces herself as celebrating, together with exclusively female guests, a Paschal Feast. The meal she is going to serve is "the sweet lamb of God" (412). In line with the analogical reading of the Bible, the Jewish passover seder is projected onto the Eucharist. Twelve ladies of the English aristocracy are invited to the banquet. As in Edelson's poster, there is a fringe ofmany other women, summed up by Lanyer as "all virtuous Ladies in general". These are admitted as secondary guests to the feast. The twentieth-century female and feminist Last Supper painting serves to demonstrate the demand for full participation in the life of the church and its institutions for women. The female and feminist Last Supper poem of the early seventeenth century was an even more radical challenge to the clergy. Lanyer does not merely claim, she boldly assumes a priestly office. In the poem Christ is made present--presented, not re-presented--through her own person. When she passes the text on to her readers, she appropriates the role of distributing Holy Communion. "Receive him [i.e. the Saviour) here by my unworthy hand", she says to the female congregation she has invited (259). This enacting of the Eucharist in the poem is accompanied by a detailed argument to the point that women have a privileged access to the sacred. Against the policy of King James who sought to restrict women's role in the church, and in the face of tradition, Lanyer claims that it is they who are God's best and chosen priests.

1. Gregory Dix, The Shape Liturgy (1945) (New York: Seabury Press, 1983), Malcolm M. Ross, Poetry and Dogma: The Transformation of Eucharistic Symbols in Seventeenth-Century English Poetry (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press. 1954), Maggie Kilgour. From Communion to Cannibalism: An Anatomy of Metaphors of Incorporation (Princeton: Princeton University Press. 1990), Frank Lestringant, Une sainte horreur; ou Ie voyage en Eucharistie xvi-xviii siecles (Paris: PUF. 1996), and Edwin Muir, Ritual in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997).

2. Muir (1997), p. 150

3. Gerhard Neumann (“Geschmack-Theater: Mahlzeit und soziale Inszenierung”, in Geschmacksache (Gottingen: Kunst- und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik, 1996), pp. 35-64) regers to paintings by Antonio Bazzi, named Sodoma (1477-1549) and Paolo Caliari, named Veronese (1528-1588).

4. Leo Steinberg, Leonardo’s Incessant Last Supper (New York: Zone Books 2001).

5. Neumann gives the examples of a Jeans advertisement by Otto Kern and of Renato Casaro’s “Invitation” which shows Marilyn Monroe as Christ.

6. All references are to the text of Salve Deus in: Diana Purkiss ed.m Renaissance Women. The Plays of Elizabeth Cary. The Poems of Aemilia Lanyer (London: William Pickering, 1994), pp. 239-326 (line numbers in brackets refer, if not otherwise stated, to the main part of the poem).

7. Title of the complimentary poem, p.246.