Catholic Encyclopedia (1913)/Host (Archaeological and Historical)

From Wikisource
Jump to: navigation, search

Archaeological and Historical Aspects

The bread destined to receive Eucharistic Consecration is commonly called the host, and though this term may likewise be applied to the bread and wine of the Sacrifice, it is more especially reserved to the bread.

According to Ovid the word comes from hostis, enemy: "Hostibus a domitis hostia nomen habet", because the ancients offered their vanquished enemies as victims to the gods. However, it is possible that hostia is derived from hostire, to strike, as found in Pacuvius. In the West the term became general chiefly because of the use made of it in the Vulgate and the Liturgy (Rom., xii, 1; Phil., iv, 18; Eph., v, 2; Heb., x, 12; Mabillon, "Liturg. Gall. vetus", pp. 235, 237, 257; "Missale Mozarab.", ed. Leslie, p. 39; "Missale Gothicum", p. 253). It was applied to Christ, the Immolated Victim, and, by way of anticipation, to the still unconsecrated bread destined to become Christ's Body. In the Middle Ages it was also known as "hoiste", "oiste", "oite".

In time the word acquired its actual special significance; by reason of its general liturgical use it no longer conveyed the original idea of victim. Many other names were given to the host, e.g. "bucellae", "circuli", "coronae", "crustulae ferraceae", "denaria", "fermentum", "formatae", "formulae", "panes altaris, eucharistici, divini, dominici, mysteriorum, nummularii, obiculares, reticularii, sancti, sanctorum, tessellati, vitae"; "nummi", "particulae", "placentae", "placentulae obiculares", "portiones", "rotulae", "sensibilia", etc.

The Greeks call the host artos (bread), dora (gifts), meridia (particles), and prosphora (oblations). After Consecration the particles take the name of margaritai (pearls). Prior to its Consecration the Copts call the host "baraco"; the Syrians "paristo" (bread), "burschan" (first-fruits), and "kourbano" (oblation); the Nestorians "xatha" (first-born) or "agnus" (lamb), and the Mingrelians "sabisquiri". After Consecration the Copts call the Host "corban" (oblation); the Jacobites "tabho" (seals); the Syrians "gamouro" (burning coals), and, by anticipation, these names are sometimes applied to the bread even before its Consecration.


The valid material of the Eucharistic host is unadulterated wheat reduced to flour, diluted with natural water, and baked with fire. Some theologians have discussed the use of various flours, but if we except Paludanus, who considers as valid bread made with starch, and Cajetan, who allows bread made with any kind of grain and diluted with milk, we may say that theologians agree upon the rejection of buckwheat, barley, oats, etc. St. Thomas authorizes the use of siligo, but this term seems obscure. In Pliny and Celsus it signifies wheaten flour, but St. Thomas does not invest siligo with the same meaning, else why should there be question of tolerating it? Moreover, had he alluded to rye, he would have used the word secale. Perhaps by siligo he intended to designate an inferior kind of wheat grown in bad soil.


The preparation of the host gave rise among certain Gnostic sects to abominable and shocking practices, of which there is a detailed account in the writings of St. Epiphanius. Sometimes the flesh of a foetus was ground and mixed with aromatics; sometimes flour was kneaded with the blood of a child, and there were other proceedings too obnoxious to mention. But these horrors were perpetrated only by a few degraded groups (Epiphanius, "Haer.", c. xxvi, 5; Augustinus, "Haer.", xxvi, xxvii). Less offensive were the Artotyrites and those who, like them, compounded a mixture of bread and cheese, or, after the fashion of the Barsanians, used a pinch of undiluted flour.

All the Oriental communions, with the exception of the Armenians and Maronites, use leavened bread. We know how seriously the Greeks have considered the question of unleavened bread (see AZYMES). But whether leavened or unleavened, bread is the element, and a large number of Greeks admit that both kinds constitute valid material for the sacrament. In the Western Church it is the uniform practice to use unleavened bread. Properly speaking, Lutherans attach but little importance to whether the bread is leavened or not, but generally they use it unleavened. The Calvinists use only common bread, although, when their sect was in its infancy, there was some indecision on this point. At Geneva leavened bread was used exclusively for several years and Theodore Beza maintained that any kind of bread, no matter what its origin, was suitable for the Eucharist. The Anglican Liturgy of 1549 prescribes the use of unleavened bread. In the East the Syrian Jacobites and the Nestorians knead their altar-bread with a paste of oil and salt, a custom censured by the Egyptians. The Sabaites or Christians of St. John make their hosts out of flour, wine, and oil; the Copts and the Abyssinians consecrate with leavened bread except on Holy Thursday and the twelfth day of June, and the Mingrelians use all kinds of bread, their hosts being usually made of flour mixed with water and wine.


There is nothing to indicate that the first Christians thought of reproducing the appearance of the "loaves of proposition" of the Jewish Liturgy; they simply used the bread that served as food. It seems that the form differed but little from what it is in our day. The loaves discovered in an oven of a bakery at Pompeii weighed about a pound each. One of these, being perfectly preserved, measured about seven inches in diameter and was creased with seven ridges which facilitated the breaking of the loaf without the aid of a knife. Other loaves represented on bas-reliefs, chiefly in the Lateran museum, bore an incision in the form of two crossed lines and, for this reason, were called quadra. Loaves of this kind must have been preferred for the Eucharistic oblation because the sign of the cross was already traced on them; indeed, the most ancient Christian monuments show us loaves marked thus. Paintings in the catacombs and some very antique bas-reliefs represent loaves marked with this sign and others simply marked with a point. The ridges were intended to facilitate the breaking of the loaf and it is probable that their number was regulated by the size of the loaf in common use. A fresco in the cemetery of Lucina represents a fish, the symbol of Christ, and on its back a basket containing the Eucharistic wine and loaf, the latter marked with a point. A Modena marble shows five loaves marked with a cross.

Out of respect for the sacrament, some of the faithful would not consent to having the bread made by bakers, and took charge of it themselves. Several ancient examples are cited, notably that of Candida, the wife of one of Valerian's generals, who "laboured all night kneading and moulding with her own hands the loaf of the oblation". In the Rule of St. Pachomius, religious are recommended to devote themselves to meditation while kneading the sacrificial loaf. Queen Radegunde is mentioned for the reverence with which she attended to the preparation of the hosts intended to be consumed in her monastery of Poitiers and in many surrounding churches. Theodulph, Bishop of Orleans, commanded his priests either to make the altar-breads themselves or to have the young clerics do so in their presence. Many facts go to show the prevalence and extent of this custom. In monasteries hosts were made principally during the weeks preceding the feasts of Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost, and the process assumed a very solemn character. At Cluny three priests or three deacons fasting and having recited the Office of Lauds, the seven penitential psalms, and the litanies, took one or two lay brothers as their assistants. Novices had picked, sorted, and ground the grains of wheat, and the flour thus obtained was placed on a rimmed table. It was then mixed with cold water, and a lay brother, whose hands were gloved, put this preparation in the iron used for making hosts and baked it at a large fire of vine branches. Two other operators took the hosts as they were baked, cut, and pared them, and, if necessary, rejected those that were either soiled or cracked.

In the Abbey of Saint-Denys those who made the altar-breads were fasting. They took some of the best wheat, selected grain by grain, washed it, and turned it into a sack to be taken to the mill, the millstones being washed for the occasion. A religious then donned an alb and ground the wheat himself while two priests and two deacons, vested in albs and amices, kneaded the dough in cold water and baked the hosts. At Saint-Etienne de Caen the religious employed in this work dined together on that day, their table being served as was that of the abbot. Some monasteries cultivated the Eucharistic wheat in a special field which they called the field of the "Corpus Domini". Du Cange mentions a charter dated 1406 by which it would seem that women, even nuns, were forbidden to make hosts; but it is doubtful whether this measure was ever generally enforced. St. Radegunde certainly had many imitators, despite the prejudice against the making of hosts by laymen or women, a prejudice so rooted that in the Middle Ages there were in the Diocese of Narbonne people who believed that hosts made by women were not qualified for transubstantiation.

An echo of this is found in official acts. The Council of Milan, 1576, prescribes the making of hosts in monasteries and forbids it to laymen. A council of Cambrai in 1631 ordains that "in each city there shall be a person charged with making the altar-breads from the best and purest wheat and after the manner indicated to him. He must previously take an oath to discharge faithfully the duties of his office. He shall not be permitted to buy from others the bread to be used in the Holy Sacrifice." As early as the fourteenth century the making of hosts had become a business. The confraternity of the oblayers (host-makers) had a special ecclesiastical authorization to carry on that work. The liturgist Claude de Vert mentions a sign used by them in the eighteenth century in the city of Puy: "Céans se font de belles hosties avec la permission de M. l'évêque du Puy." Before the French Revolution, in many dioceses, each curé made the hosts used in his own church. At present many parishes apply to religious communities which make a specialty of altar-breads. This offers a guarantee against the falsifications always to be feared when recourse is had to the trade: unscrupulous makers have been guilty of adulterating the wheaten flour with alum, sulphates of zinc and copper, carbonates of ammonia, potassium, or magnesia, or else of substituting bean flour or the flour of rice or potatoes for wheaten flour.

In the Middle Ages, as stated, the baking of hosts took place at three or four principal feasts of the year. This practice was abandoned later on account of the possible chemical change in the substance of the bread when kept for so long a time. St. Charles Borromeo ordered all the priests of his diocese to use for the Holy Sacrifice only hosts made less than twenty days previously. The Congregation of Rites condemned the abuse of consecrating hosts which, in winter, had been made three months and in summer six months ahead of time.

Some prescriptions of the Oriental Churches are worthy of notice; moreover, some of them are still in use. The Constitutions ascribed to St. Cyril of Alexandria prescribe that the Eucharistic bread be baked in the church oven (Renaudot, "Liturg. orient. coll.", I, 189); among the Copts, Syrians, Jacobites, Melchites, Nestorians, and Armenians, the altar-breads must be baked on the very day of their consecration. In the "Canonical Collection" of Bar-Salibi there are prescriptions concerning the choice of wheat which differ but slightly from those of the West. In Ethiopia each church must have a special oven for the making of hosts. In Greece and Russia the altar-breads are prepared by priests, widows, the wives or daughters of priests, or the so-called calogerae, i.e. nuns, whereas, in Abyssinia, women are excluded. The Nestorians of Malabar, after kneading the flour with leaven, are accustomed to work in some of the leaven left from the preceding baking. They believe that this practice dates from the earliest Christian times and that it preserves the leaven brought to Syria by Saints Thomas and Thaddeus, for, according to another Nestorian tradition, the Apostles, prior to their separation celebrated the Liturgy in common and each carried away a portion of the bread then consecrated.

Moulds For Hosts

The moulds used for hosts are iron instruments similar to waffle-irons, composed of two palettes which come together with the aid of two bent handles acting as a lever. Abbe Corblet says that their existence is established as early as the ninth century, although no specimen earlier than the twelfth century was known to exist in recent times. The discovery some time ago, however, of one of these moulds at Carthage carries us back probably to the sixth or seventh century, before the destruction of that city by the Arabs. On this mould around the monogram of Christ is the inscription: HIC EST FLOS CAMPI ET LILIUM (Delattre, "Un pèlerinage aux ruines de Carthage", 31, 46). Unfortunately this precious relic of Christian antiquity is incomplete.

The lower plate of a mould for hosts is engraved with two, four, or six figures of hosts which, by means of pressure, are reproduced on the paste and fixed there by baking. From the ninth to the eleventh century the irons moulded very thick hosts about as large as the palm of the hand. Towards the end of the eleventh century the dimensions were considerably reduced so that, with the same instrument, four hosts, two large and two small, could be moulded. With a thirteenth-century iron preserved at Sainte-Croix de Poitiers, two large hosts and three small ones can be made simultaneously, and an iron at Naintre (Vienne) moulds five hosts at once, all varying in size. A certain number of host-irons bear the date of making, the initial of the engraver's name, and the donor's coat-of-arms. A fourteenth-century mould at Saint-Barban (Haute-Vienne) makes hosts of different types for Lent and Easter time. The larger ones measure two and one-eighth inches in diameter and the smaller ones one and one-seventh inches; at the same period some large hosts had a diameter of two and three- fourths inches. A fifteenth-century iron at Bethine (Vienne) makes hosts bearing the figure of the triumphant Lamb, of the Holy Face surrounded with fleurs-de-lis, also of the Crucifixion and the Resurrection. In the sixteenth century at Lamenay (Nievre) hosts were made representing Jesus Christ seated on His throne and imparting His blessing, the background being studded with stars; at Montjean (Maine-et-Loire) they were stamped with the image of Christ Crucified and Christ Risen, delicately framed in lilies and roses and heraldic in aspect. At Rouez (Sarthe) is an iron that moulds two hosts; the one represents Christ carrying His cross and bears the inscription: QUI. VEULT. VENIRE. POST. ME. TOLLAT. CRUCEM. SUAM. ET. SEQUATUR. ME.; the other represents the Crucifixion and is thus inscribed: FODERUNT. MANUS. MEAS. ET. PEDES. MEOS. DINUMERAVERUNT. OMNIA. OSSA. MEA.

Seventeenth- and eighteenth-century host-irons have been preserved in large numbers, and are quite similar to those now in use, being stamped with the Lamb lying on the book, Christ upon the Cross, or the letters I H S emitting rays and encircled with grapes and thorns. Among the remarkable host-irons that have escaped destruction we may mention those of Beddes, Azy, Chassy, and Vailly (Cher), all four belonging to the thirteenth century; those of Palluau (Indre) and of Crouzilles and Savigny (Indre-et-Loire), etc. Notable among the collections of the imprints of host-irons are those of M. Dumontet at Bourges, of M. Barbier de Montault at Limoges, of the Cluny museum, and of the Eucharistic museum of Paray-le-Monial. The Eastern Churches generally use a wooden mould. To make the hosts baked in the mould quite round they are cut with scissors, a punch, or a compass, one of the legs of which terminates in a knife.

Form and Dimensions

The first mention of the form of hosts is found in St. Epiphanius in the fourth century when he says: "hoc est enim rotundae formae", but the fact had already been placed on record by catacomb paintings and by very ancient bas-reliefs. Unity of form and size was only slowly established, and different customs prevailed in different provinces. At an early date the councils attempted to introduce uniformity on this point; one held at Arles in 554 ordered all the bishops of that province to use hosts of the same form as those used in the church of Arles. According to Mabillon, as early as the sixth century hosts were as small and thin as now, and it is stated that from the eighth century it was customary to bless small hosts intended for the faithful, an advantageous measure which dispensed with breaking the host and consequently prevented the crumbling that ensued.

As late as the eleventh century we find some opposition to the custom, then growing general, of reserving a large host for the priest and a small one for each communicant. However, by the twelfth century the new custom prevailed in France, Switzerland, and Germany; Honorius of Autun states in a general way that the hosts were in the form of "denarii". The monasteries held out for a longer time, and as late as the twelfth century the ancient system was still in force at Cluny. In 1516 the Missal of Rouen prescribed that the celebrant break the host into three parts, the first to be put into the chalice, the second to be received in Holy Communion by the celebrant and ministers and the third to be kept as Viaticum for the dying. The Carthusians reserved a very large host, a particle of which they broke off for each Viaticum. Eventually all hosts were made round and their dimensions varied but little. However, some very large ones were at times consecrated for monstrances, on occasion of the Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament. To-day in Rome the large hosts are nine centimetres in diameter and the small ones four centimetres. In other countries they are usually not so large. In 1865 Pius IX authorized the priests exiled to Siberia to consecrate the Eucharist with wheaten bread that had not the form of a round host.


From ancient monuments in painting, sculpture, and epigraphy we have seen the general usage of tracing a cross on the Eucharistic loaves which were thence called decussati (Latin decussis, a coin marked X). For the early Greek-speaking Christians the cross (X), being the initial of the name of Christ (Xpistos [i.e. Christos]), was constantly in evidence; soon the idea was conceived of replacing the plain cross by the monogram, and finally there were added on either side the letters Alpha and Omega (i.e. the beginning and the end) as on the Carthaginian moulds. In certain countries the plain cross continued to exist for a long time; in the Diocese of Arles no other sign was tolerated until the Revolution. Beginning with the twelfth century, however, the crucifix was almost universally substituted for the cross, though this iconographic form was never made obligatory. Besides the Crucifixion we find the Resurrection, Christ at the pillar, the angel holding a chalice, the Lamb either lying down or standing, Our Lady at Bethlehem, at Calvary, or being assumed into heaven, the Last Supper, the Ascension, the Holy Face, St. Martin dividing his cloak, St. Clare carrying the ciborium, the symbols of the Evangelists, etc.


The bread made by Roman bakers bore the maker's name or initials, and it would seem that this practice extended even to Eucharistic bread, but on this subject our information is rather vague. We often read an inscription of a symbolical or mystical character such as that found on the host-moulds of Carthage. Here are some of the commonest examples: "I H S" (Jesus); "I H S X P S" (i.e. Jesus Christus); "Hoc est corpus meum"; "Panis quem ego dabo caro mea est"; "Ego sum panis vivus qui de coelo descendi"; "Si quis manducaverit ex hoc pane vivet in aeternum"; "Ego sum via veritas et vita"; "Ego sum resurrectio et vita"; "Plectentes coronam de spinis imposuerunt in capite ejus"; "Foderunt manus meas et pedes meos; dinumeraverunt omnia ossa mea"; "Et clamans Jesus voce magna emisit spiritum"; "Resurrectio Domini"; "In hoc signo vinces, Constantine".

Leavened Bread

The leavened hosts of the Greeks are of a large size, sometimes round, triangular, or in the form of a cross, but oftener square. On the under side they have a quadrangular imprint divided into four equal parts by a Greek cross and bearing the inscription IC XC NI KA (Iesous Christos nikai), i.e. "Jesus Christ is victor".

The corban of the Copts is a white, round, leavened loaf, flat underneath, convex on the top, and as large as the palm of the hand. It is stamped with twelve little squares each containing a cross in honour of the Twelve Apostles. In the centre a larger square isbodion is marked with a large cross divided by four small ones; it is the symbol of Christ. This central portion is used for the Communion of the celebrant, the other parts ("pearls") being distributed among the faithful. The inscription reads: "Agios, agios, agios Kurios"; or else "Kurios Sabaoth" or "agios iskuros, agios athanatos, agios o theos". The schismatic Armenians use an unleavened host about the size and thickness of a five-franc- or dollar-piece and bearing the stamp of a crucifix having on the right a chalice surmounted by a host and on the left a spear or a cross. The Mingrelians have a small, round host weighing a little over an ounce with a square stamp, the inscription signifying: "Jesus Christ is victor." The Confession of Augsburg maintained the use of small round hosts which the Calvinists rejected under pretext that they were not bread. In Germany the Evangelical Churches use round, white breads eight centimetres in diameter by nine in thickness. Christian antiquity has transmitted to us pyxes or boxes intended to hold the Eucharist, but as these should be considered in connection with sacred vessels, it is not necessary here to dwell upon them but simply upon the boxes in which the altar-breads are kept prior to consecration and which are generally very plain. In the Middle Ages and during the Renaissance these boxes were very rich, being made of silver, ivory, and enamel. Ancient host-boxes are very rare, but those now in use are of tin-plate or pasteboard, generally with some trimming.

Miraculous Hosts

The Eucharist has been the object of a great many miracles often referred to in ecclesiastical history; not all, however, have been well enough authenticated to place them beyond doubt. In some of the miracles the host appears as transformed into a new substance; sometimes it has remained intact during a considerable period; sometimes blood has flowed from it, etc.

In the third century St. Cyprian mentions that a man was preparing to Communicate in mortal sin; for this purpose he received the Eucharist in his hands when instantly the bread turned to ashes. Sozomen, a fifth-century historian, relates a miracle that took place at Constantinople where a heretic had undertaken to convert his wife. Simulating a change of life she went to Communion, but had barely attempted to eat a piece of bread, which she had substituted for the Eucharist, when she perceived that the said piece had changed to stone.

About the ninth century, when anti-Eucharistic heresies began to appear, accounts of miracles multiplied in a way to convince even the most obstinate. John the Deacon ascribed a most extraordinary act to Gregory the Great when he related that, with the point of a knife, this pope had caused blood to issue from a corporal. In the ninth century Paschasius Radbertus, writing of the Body and Blood of the Saviour, recounts that a priest named Plegilus beheld, instead of the Host, Jesus Christ under the sensible form of a child, and pressed Him to his heart. At his request the Lord again veiled Himself under the appearance of wine. At Fécamp a legend dating back to the tenth century related that the priest of a little chapel situated about three miles from the abbey found at the moment of Communion neither bread nor wine but the Flesh and Blood of Christ. Appalled, he reported the fact at the abbey, the miracle was confirmed, and the chalice and paten, together with the species, were enclosed beneath the high altar of the church.

Occasionally hosts have been preserved for a very long time. It is related that St. Norbert deposited in the church of St. Michael at Antwerp hosts that had remained intact for fifteen years, notwithstanding the fact that, through contempt, they had been left in damp places by partisans of the heretic Tanchelin. The feast called "Saint-Sacrement du Miracle" was for centuries solemnly celebrated at Douai where, from Easter Tuesday, 14 April, 1254, until the time of the Revolution, an annual procession took place in commemoration of the host in which the people declared that they distinctly beheld the Body of the Lord. In 1792 the miraculous host disappeared; it was believed to have been found again in a bequest made by one of the faithful but, for want of certainty, no honour was afterwards paid it. The collegiate church of Sainte-Gudule at Brussels preserves miraculous hosts which, after the perpetration of many outrages by the Jews in 1370, were collected and, subsequently to 1529, became the occasion of an annual procession still celebrated.

It is said that, in the thirteenth century, miraculous blood issued from a Host and that for a long time afterwards it lasted without the slightest alteration. Miracles of bleeding Hosts are reported to have occurred in many places during the Middle Ages, and both the miracle and the sacrilege that occasioned it were sometimes commemorated by processions or monuments. In 1290 a Parisian Jew committed a series of outrages upon a Host and he was put to death. An expiatory chapel was erected over his house, and this sanctuary was successively named: "La maison où Dieu fut bouilli", "L'église du Sauveur bouillant", "La chapelle du miracle", and finally "L'église des billettes". In 1444 this episode was dramatized, and in 1533, on the feast of Corpus Christi, "The Mystery of the Holy Host" was played at Laval. We might also mention the miraculous Host that bled when touched by profane hands and was carried, in 1317, to the Abbey of Herckenrode in the County of Loos, where it was venerated until the time of the Revolution, and the miracle of Blanot that occurred in 1331 in the Diocese of Autun (now the Diocese of Dijon), when a Host left a bloody impress upon a cloth.

In olden times many cities possessed a miraculous Host, but the French Revolution destroyed a certain number of them, especially the one at Dijon where each year a Mass of expiation is yet celebrated in the church of St. Michael. In other places the miraculous Hosts have disappeared, but their ancient feast is still commemorated. In the seventeenth century the Benedictine abbey at Faverney (Haute-Saône) was the scene of a noted miracle. On the night of 23 May, 1608, while the Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament was in progress, a fire consumed the tabernacle, the linens, and the entire altar; but the ostensorium remained stationary, being suspended in the air without any support. This prodigy lasted for thirty-three hours, was well authenticated by thousands of persons, and was made the object of an investigation, the documents of which have been preserved. The ostensorium contained two Hosts, so that the crucifix could be seen from both sides. One of the Hosts was given to the city of Dole, where it was destroyed in 1794, and the other is preserved in the parish church of Faverney, where the anniversary is celebrated annually on the Monday after Pentecost.

These miracles have been selected from among a multitude of others, and we have not pretended to emphasize either the most authentic or the most marvellous. Moreover, the subject we have just treated is so vast that it would be easy to compile from the historical material a work of great theological interest, both conclusive and detailed.

The most complete work on this subject, in spite of a few gaps and occasionally weak criticism, is CORBLET, Histoire dogmatique et archeologique du sacrement de l'Eucharistie (Paris, 1886); Vol. II, 556-88 gives a very exhaustive bibliography, to which might be added a few recent works: DE SARACHAGA, Les collections d'histoire et d'art du musee eucharistique de Paray-le-Monial (Lyons, 1866), containing a bibliography of the Monographie sur les hosties de miracles; ROHAULT DE FLEURY, La messe, etudes archeologiques, IV (Paris, 1887), 21-40.