Blessing the World: Ritual and Lay Piety in Medieval Religion

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Blessings were an integral and vital element of medieval Christian life and worship. Benedictions for homes and workplaces, the knight and the pilgrim, the city under siege, and the fetus in the womb, are but a small sample of the multitudinous and fascinating extra-sacramental blessings that fill the leaves of the liturgical books of the medieval Latin Church. While commonly acknowledged as a crucial element in the life of medieval people, the meaning and importance of these blessings for their authors and audiences have been frequently overlooked by liturgical and historical scholarship, which has focused instead on the textual transmission and long-term changes in the blessings and the rituals surrounding them. This present work corrects this omission by examining these blessings with modern eyes, and a new methodology.

In Blessing the World, Derek A. Rivard studies liturgical blessing and its role in the religious life of Christians during the central and later Middle Ages, with a particular focus on the blessings of the Franco-Roman liturgical tradition from the tenth to late thirteenth centuries. Through a careful and extensive study of more than ninety such blessings, many of them translated for the first time and accessible to a readership beyond specialists in medieval liturgy, the author argues that medieval blessings were composed as a direct response to the needs, anxieties, beliefs, and fears of the laity, and therefore these texts represent a rich and largely untapped source for the study of lay piety and of ritual in medieval Europe.

Effectively drawing upon anthropology, ritual studies, the phenomenology of religion, and traditional textual study, Rivard exploresthe rich themes of medieval piety that flow throughout the blessings in order to produce a new understanding of the blessing as an attempt to tap the power of the sacred for use in daily life. Benedictions for spaces, places, persons, items, and events are each studied in turn to produce this new understanding of these blessings, and in the process these petitions and rituals reveal much about larger issues of medieval people's cosmology, their perceived role in their cosmos, their conceptions of God, and their connections to the divine and to the spiritual powers of God's creation.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780813215457
  • Publisher: Catholic University of America Press
  • Publication date: 12/28/2008
  • Edition description: New
  • Pages: 336
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 8.80 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Derek A. Rivard is associate professor of history at Cottey College.
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Copyright © 2009 The Catholic University of America Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8132-1545-7

Chapter One


The origins of Christian blessing are to be found in the scriptural traditions of the ancient Israelites. The theology of the Old Testament does not primarily emphasize blessing and God's role in it, focusing its attention rather on God as one who saves, a God of deliverance. This is not to say, however, that blessing is absent from Hebrew scripture. Rather, blessing (understood as actions of God that produce a condition of well-being) exists side by side with God's acts of deliverance. Deliverance is experienced in intercessory events, while blessing is a continuing activity of God present at God's will, but both are necessary to scripture's presentation of the sacred history of humanity's relationship with God.

Blessing, or berkhah, in particular was understood to be both the inner vital power of the soul and the external good fortune that produces that power. Blessing manifests itself primarily as the power of fertility, both within the family and in the practice of farming, and as such represents a sharing in the life of God and the power to pass on that life by virtue of the blessing of creation. While God's primal blessing was considered the gift of generation to all living things on the fourth day, it could also be manifest as the bestowal of the power to defeat enemies, as when Rebecca's brother wishes, "May you, our sister, become thousands of myriads, may your offspring gain possession of the gates of their foes." Jacob, Joseph, and Judah were especially endowed with this power, Jacob and Joseph also possessing the power to spread blessing around them as they traveled through foreign lands, as when Moses spoke to the Israelites before his death: "And this he said to Judah: O Lord, give heed to Judah, and bring him to his people; strengthen his hands for him, and be a help against his adversaries." Blessing, an action in which the divine descends upon an individual or group, obviously had spiritual effects upon its recipients; it was apparent in the counsel a man gives, as when Isaiah prophesied concerning the messiah, "The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and fear of the Lord." Blessing, then, is at times considered a form of wisdom, and like wisdom it is considered to be the power to accomplish and succeed.

The act of blessing, barakh, was understood as the imparting of vital power to another person, thus giving another a part of the blessing of one's soul originally bestowed by God. The handing on of blessings from father to son, as related in the story of Jacob's deception of Isaac through the theft of Esau's blessing, was thus seen as means to continue the "soul" of the family. While blessings could be thus transferred by a human father, all blessings were understood to derive ultimately from Yahweh. The loyal Israelite sensed a total dependence upon the Lord as the source of all blessedness, as reflected in the traditional Hebrew greeting "The Lord be with you. [Response] The Lord bless you." Interpersonal relationships were impossible without the blessing of God, the source of all well-being within the human community. The blessings that God had imparted through fertility and generation in Genesis were reaffirmed for the chosen Israelites in God's words to Abraham: "I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and those who curse you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed." Thus blessings were seen to proceed from God through Abraham, from Father to father, as it were. This paternal blessing was transmitted into the society of ancient Israel in the form of a conception that certain individuals had special authority to call down blessings upon the human community: fathers upon their children, the paradigmatic example from the Old Testament being the deceptive blessing of Jacob by Isaac; kings upon their subjects, as when David blesses his people following the burnt offerings before the ark of the covenant, and Solomon's blessing following the dedication of the temple in Jerusalem; and priests upon the people, as recounted in the priestly blessing in the book of Numbers: "the Lord bless you and keep you, the Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace."

Incidents of blessing in the Old Testament reveal essential qualities of scriptural blessings, namely, that they are prayers in which the supplicant blesses God himself (in this case, a form of praise and grateful worship) and simultaneously appeals for God's blessing upon humanity, a gift that scriptural authors were careful always to stress came freely from the goodness of the Lord. By blessing Yahweh, the Israelite solemnly acknowledges him as lord, king, and source of all blessings. Yet there is also evidence of an earlier conception of the power of blessing in the narrative of Jacob's wrestling with the angel of the Lord at Peneil, wherein Jacob wins from his mysterious opponent (the angel) his blessing, who declares to Jacob, "you shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with divine and human beings, and have prevailed.... And then he [the angel] blessed him." Thus it would seem that a blessing could, at least in a superficial fashion, be compelled from a numinous being. Nevertheless, the dominant view of blessings in the Old Testament perceives them as freely given gifts of God to the people of the covenant, accessible to all through the mediation of figures of authority within Israelite society. This conception deeply colored the medieval perception of blessings, but before moving to a discussion of that era we must examine the conception of blessing in the new covenant that Jesus and Christianity offered to the world.

Blessing in the New Testament is spoken of without any serious reflection or explicit discussion of its meaning, most probably because it was a known and accepted reality of the Israelite cosmology. Blessings in the four Gospels seem to function in precisely the same way as they did in the Old Testament, as seen in Christ's blessings of the little children, the loaves, and the fishes. In the later books, the concept of blessing seems to have been modified to mean generally God's salvific acts through Christ, thus incorporating the concept into the "Christ-event." Perhaps the most typical incident of blessing in the New Testament is to be found within the account of Christ's ascension in Luke's Gospel. "Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshipped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God." With its blessing by God and of God, this benediction is clearly derived from the tradition of the Old Testament. These two aspects of Israelite blessing found their ultimate realization in the body of the Eucharist, in Christ's benediction at the Last Supper, which combined a prayer of thanksgiving with a calling down of the sanctifying power of God to consecrate the bread and wine shared by Jesus and his apostles. Thus the most holy act of the Christian faith is a constant reminder of the blessings God imparts to his creation and his people. But the blessing of the Eucharist was, in the developmental era of the Church's liturgy, to be paralleled by other acts of blessing within the liturgy.

Blessings are present in the earliest liturgical documents surviving from the postapostolic era of the church's history. Benedictions of honey, milk and water, light, new fruits, and oil for anointing the sick are found in the antipope Hippolytus's Apostolic Tradition, composed around the year 220, the first text that gives a clear view of the entire liturgy during the age of the martyrs. These blessings were probably performed during the Mass itself to highlight the relationship of such blessings to the greatest blessing of all, Christ and his work of redemption. Blessing was also present in the early liturgy by means of the canon, the heart of the Mass, which corresponded to the central action of the Jewish paschal meal, namely, the blessing of the meal itself.

The earliest texts of liturgical blessings from the medieval era are contained in the sacramentaries, books compiled for the use of those presiding over the Mass and containing all the prayer texts needed for the celebration of the Eucharist, the administration of the sacraments, and a variety of other liturgical events, notably episcopal and sacerdotal blessings and consecrations. These benedictions are directly related to the sacraments; for example, they sanctify the holy oils (used on Holy Thursday) and the baptismal water (used during the Easter vigil). The oldest identifiable sacramentary, the Old Gelasian, originated in the diocese of Rome, and was most probably made up of libelli used at Rome between 628 and 715. It was brought to Gaul during this period probably by pious pilgrims and admirers of the Roman liturgy. There was also a Gallican benedictional of the eighth century, now surviving only in fragments. Many of its benedictions were composed on the model of the sacerdotal blessing of the book of Numbers, discussed above, and its style hearkens back to the ancient blessings of the late seventh-century Missale gothicum. The Old Gelasian sacramentary, with its blessings for many occasions (for example, the blessing of houses, blessings against pestilence afflicting humans and animals, against drought and storm, for trees and fruits, for peace, and for kings in time of war), in turn gave birth to a hybrid text, the Frankish-Gelasian sacramentary of the eighth century, the prototype of which was most probably created at the Benedictine monastery of Flavigny, in Burgundy.

The Frankish-Gelasian sacramentary mixed Romano-Gelasian prayers with many specifically Gallican practices: rogation days, mixed Romano-Frankish rites for ordinations and the consecration of churches, numerous votive masses (for kings, queens, sterile women, in time of war, for travelers and sailors, among others), and numerous episcopal blessings to be performed in the Mass before communion (such as blessings against plagues, blessings of salt and water for houses, trees and fruit, against war, for travelers departing and returning, and for tombs and graves), as well as a selection of blessings super populum at the close of the Mass. The former blessings continued throughout the medieval era to maintain their position in the Mass, their use being inspired by the vetero-testamentary benediction from the book of Numbers. The Frankish-Gelasian sacramentary seems to have been compiled to meet the needs of Frankish bishops and abbots sometime between 751 and 768, and enjoyed widespread use in the Frankish territories. Its liturgical blessings are the first nonsacramental benedictions to incorporate a significant apotropaic element, invoking protection against the powers of Satan and his minions as well as calling for the goodwill of the divine. This apotropaic emphasis, however, was already familiar to liturgists through the blessings and exorcisms associated with baptism, which in the third century had quickly developed into an elaborate ritual in which the real life drama of the Christian's struggle with Satan became ritualized and liturgized. Its appearance in nonsacramental blessings may possibly have been inspired by continued conversion efforts and the need to substitute Christian magic for the supernatural protections of displaced native religions.

In the later eighth century, the Old Gelasian and Frankish-Gelasian texts were joined in the north by the textual tradition of the Gregorian sacramentaries. These books were composed for the use of the pope in the Lateran and throughout the stational churches in the city of Rome. The most important of these sacramentaries was the Hadrianum, a text sent by Pope Hadrian I in 784-5 to the court of Charlemagne in answer to a request for a "pure" sacramentary in accord with Roman liturgical practice. This book was placed in the royal library at Aachen and became a standard from which copies were made and distributed throughout Charles's realm. A supplement to this text was composed in Septimania sometime between 810 and 815 by the monastic reformer St. Benedict of Aniane (d. 821), who composed it as part of a new, corrected version of the Hadrianum for use in his abbeys. The lengthy appendices of this sacramentary incorporated many votive masses and blessings that became a standard element in Frankish liturgies throughout the empire.

The Hadrianum would eventually fuse with Frankish-Gelasian sacramentaries to produce the final expressions of this form of liturgical collection, the Mixed-Gregorian sacramentaries of the tenth and eleventh centuries. Under the aegis of the Ottonian dynasty, these hybrids would be imported during the later tenth and eleventh centuries to Rome (where the reformers claimed the liturgy was in a notorious state of decay) and adopted as a standard Roman Mass book, whence they would be exported throughout Latin Christendom by the Mendicants, who adopted it as their own. These Romano-Frankish blessings were thus widely disseminated and assured a continued place in the liturgical practice of the Western church.

Our comprehension of how the laity of the early Middle Ages understood these blessings is hampered by the lack of sources explicitly dealing with this form of ritual, which seems to have fallen into that rather paradoxical category of things so common as to be unworthy of mention. What does appear clearly, though, is that owing to ambiguities in thinking on penance and postbaptismal error, the great majority of early medieval Christians felt a strong and very real need for frequent blessings in order to eradicate the evil power of postbaptismal sin. For early medieval Christians, no middle ground existed between blessedness and vulnerability to the powers of the demonic; thus, driven by anxiety over that vulnerability, the laity demanded blessings from their clergy, basing their demand indirectly on scripture's commission of Aaron and his sons and on the assumption that the spiritual authority to bless arose from the voluntary assumption of a religious life. An instructive example of the importance of nonsacramental blessings can be added to the better known practice of blessing candles and bread before, during, or after the Mass. One of the earliest is provided by Gregory of Tours, who relates in his Liber in gloria confessorum (c. 587) how the nuns of Poitiers considered it unthinkable to bury their patron, Queen Radegunda, without a blessing of her sepulcher. As the local bishop was absent at the time, the crowd that had assembled pressed Gregory into service to perform the blessing himself, which he dutifully did. Another comes from the court of William Rufus, where, in 1104, St. Anselm exercised his control over the highly valued power to bless by denying his blessing to the fashionable young men of court who wore their hair long. Anselm had earlier had the hair of certain young men cut, as he considered it lewd, and he granted his blessing only to those "whose hair was cut in a manly fashion," which did not at all please those who chose fashion over faithfulness to clerical tastes. Their outrage is understandable in light of the examples given above of blessings' importance, even more so when one considers that some clearly regarded the divine protection of a blessing as a literal shield that could render one invincible and even invisible, as was done for St. Columban. While Celtic spirituality offered continental Christians its loricae, "breast-plate poems" such as St. Patrick's Breastplate, which promised its speaker the power of Christ and a protective screen against evil, such stories and prayers were exceptional; more common was the conception of blessing as metaphorical, spiritual layers of protection against temptation, as recounted in the life of St. Anthony.


Excerpted from BLESSING THE WORLD by DEREK A. RIVARD Copyright © 2009 by The Catholic University of America Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


1. The History and Theology of Christian Blessing....................25
2. Sacred Places and Sacred Space....................45
3. Sacred Persons: Blessing the Laity....................133
4. Sacred Vessels, Objects, and Events....................217
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