An Expectorating Priest Justifies Himself to Posterity

Shane Bobrycki, August 6, 2012

It’s fine for a priest to spit after taking the Eucharist. “All things are clean to the clean” (Titus 1:15), right? So begins one Amalarius’s unconvincing self-justification for hocking loogies in church. A young acquaintance, Guntard, had called out this early medieval author and churchman on his gross habit, pointing out that no other priest he knew did anything remotely similar. Fretting that Amalarius might “propel” bits of the Lord’s body, together with excess spittle, Guntard asked the wise archbishop whether it was really necessary to expectorate so “immediately” after taking the host.

Amalarius responded with a little indignation. First of all, Christ himself used his own spit to heal the blind and the deaf (John 9:6; Mark 7:33). Second, how many priests had Gundard ever really met, “being just a kid” – a remark that casts disturbing light on the sanitary standards of medieval church floors. Third, spitting is healthy, especially for phlegmatics. “A health-conscious phlegmatic will always try to get rid of excess phlegm” (flegmaticus homo si studuerit sanitati suae sepius curabit flegma eicere). And anyway Amalarius didn’t recall reading in the Bible that phlegmatics were excluded from the leadership of the church:

“For a bishop must be without crime, as the steward of God: not proud, not subject to anger, nor given to wine, no striker, not greedy of filthy lucre” (Titus 1:7). But I guess your delicate senses, all puffed up with bodily cleanliness, can detect noxious sins in the depths of their fancy that Paul, an Apostle, was unable to discern with the help of the Holy Spirit? Think again!

Salivous greetings from the mezzanine! I’m one of three interns copy-editing and spot-checking upcoming volumes in the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library series (DOML for short). One of these volumes, as you may have guessed, contains this defense of spitting, along with much else. This is the ninth-century liturgist Amalarius’s long, odd, and fascinating Liber Officialis (“The Book of Offices”).

In the Liber Officialis, Amalarius offers a complete allegorical interpretation of practically every imaginable part of the liturgy, from the significance of the elements of the mass, the church officials, and the night and day hours, to the secret meaning of individual vestments, vessels, and even hairstyles. The Introit of the mass is like Christ’s entry into Jerusalem. Deacons in the mass symbolize the prophets of the Old Testament. A tonsure signifies the shearing away of idle thoughts, and so on. Amalarius was wildly popular in the Middle Ages, but he was not without detractors. One ninth-century critic calls him a “charlatan” (presumptor), complaining that his interpretations were either vapid or heretical or both. Another ninth-century detractor quipped that if the tonsure signified the shearing away of idle thoughts, Amalarius should shave off his entire mind.

For philologists, musicologists, art historians, and historians, this extraordinary document is a goldmine, but its technical subject-matter and Amalarius’s protoromance-tinted Latin make it difficult to translate. My part in this project is to go through our translator’s work for accuracy, sense, and style. This is my second DOML project of the summer, after working on the forthcoming DOML for Alan of Lille done by Winthrop (“Pete”) Wetherbee. There remains much to do. But it will be worth it. Amalarius’s text is full of riches. And I have come to admire Amalarius’s indefatigable refusal to leave any aspect of church service un-interpreted. For him, there is always some hidden meaning lurking around the corner, no matter how mundane the subject. “Although the washing of the church floor serves the practical purpose of cleaning it…nevertheless that act does not lack a deeper meaning.” Be that as it may, I’m just glad somebody was cleaning those floors.

About me:

Shane at work at DOML

I am a Ph.D. candidate in medieval history at Harvard University. I work on crowds in the Early Middle Ages.

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