Eating Christ: Ingesting Christian Monstrosity and Spitting Others Out

By Scarlett Croft

‘Without bread the hert he eet’. ~ from Richard Coer de Lyon, Middle English Romance c.1230-1250.

When the titular character from Richard Coer de Lyon eats the heart of a lion, he and his fellow crusaders are no longer able to return to England. The analogue between eating eucharist bread, which makes them recognisably Christian, and Richard’s consumption of a lion, which makes them exiles, blurs the boundaries between recognizing the Christian body, and reading marked bodies in or of alterity.


Richard goes on to become a cannibal; he eats the human Saracen faster than the carver is able to cut the flesh. After this boundary has been crossed, Richard uses cannibalism as a military device – serving Saracens’ heads at dinner negotiations (to other Saracens) and threatening not to leave until all the Saracens have been eaten. The knightly mentality, or perhaps supernatural ability, to accomplish the impossible was coexistent with crusading ideology. However, outside the context of the Eucharistic miracle, eating human flesh was viewed with greater suspicion; depending partially on who the consumer was.

The converging attempts to delineate the Christian body from Christ’s body and foreign bodies from Christians were strained in this period because each of these categories of bodies became intimately and symbolically connected because of their potential closeness to cannibalism, monstrosity, and alterity. Whilst the racialised or foreign other was frequently literalised as ‘monster’ in unequivocal and fixed language, Christ, and Christian monstrosity, was from the outset, constructed in a far more flexible symbolic language. This article will consider that paradox in both cartography and religious texts from the period. It will suggest that although borderland spaces and cannibalistic monsters were a problem for Christian hegemonic discourse, ultimately, they were able to resolve this by asserting God’s omnipresence, discernible in these spaces, and the possibility of conversion to Christianity and whiteness.


Gog and Magog

In the Ebstorf Mappa Mundi Gog and Magog are situated between a bleeding, mutilated body. The depiction of Gog and Magogs’ cannibalism marks their bodies as other; and also deforms Christ’s body. Christ is in two places on the map; he is depicted in a crucifix – and his body is literally encompassing the earth. His head, feet, and hands, are situated around the top, bottom, and side of the map. The only intrusion to the circumference is the imperfection of cannibalism. Gog and Magog’s placement in an antipodean zone may interrupt; but it also parallels, the feet and hands of the body are akin to the separation of Christ’s body parts, and if they are geographically outside, so are Christ’s body parts. Geographical alterity, and the racial difference became ‘spaces’ to work through Christ’s paradoxes. Christ’s potential for the monstrous – evident in his doubleness in the map – demonstrate the extent to which the monstrous was used to explore the knotty, ineffability of the holy trinity, as Christ was simultaneously inside, and outside the world and the realm of the recognisably human.

The Ebstorf Map, Largest known Mappa Munda from 1234. It measures 12 foot and is illustrated on 30 goatskin. Wikimedia Commons

Gog and Magog are simultaneously imagined as Jewish people (and enemies to Jewish people), the first inhabitants of England (Albion) as well as giants and cannibals. This complex intersection of converging forms of monstrosity can be further contextualised when addressing Jewish people’s particular relationship to cannibalism and blood in the Middle Ages. In the year 1235 there was the first recorded complaint of a Jew trying to obtain blood (presumably to drink) in the German town of Fulda; while the Secreta Mulierium, which dates to the late thirteenth or early fourteenth century, consolidated rumours about Jewish men menstruating. Such suspicions linked them both to femininity, and monstrosity (scribes often replaced the word menstruum to monstrum.)

Gog and Magog depicted in the Ebstorf Map

God and Jesus are everywhere

Gerald of Wales’ account Itinerarium Cambriae (1188) was written whilst he recruited Welsh soldiers for the Third Crusade. It is both an imperialist cartography and a travel narrative which evidenced, actualised, and justified securing English borderlands. The campaign of Europeanizing and colonizing the Welsh, evident in the building of castles (there were 300 by 1215,) selling them into slavery, and slaying their livestock, embraced the already established focus on securing borderlands by destabilizing their inhabitants’ life.

This was accompanied by routine gestures to God’s presence and work within borderlands. The account reveals an intersecting interest in developing the reference points around the recognisability of a Christian, alongside ontologizing the need to confirm Christianity’s presence, and God’s work in outlying spaces on a map. Both the image of a mutating lake (occasionally containing red blood, and at other points having buildings and pastures on the surface), and the story of a women in Bury St Edmunds whose tongue became permanently stuck to a shrine she was licking, attempt to demonstrate the location of God’s miracles in surprising places. Making a case for Welsh alterity, and their extreme difference, also consolidated the case for God’s powerful omnipresence.

A three-headed trinity – St John’s Psalter, (England c1270-80) Cambridge, St Johns College, MS K.26, fol.9.

Christ was recognised both as homely and familiar, and as a potentially disturbing spectacle, located both nearby, and in the terrain of the outlying borderlands. These juxtaposing categories became perversely combined. In an image labelled The Bird-Christ hybrid, found in some Books of Hours and Psalters, Christ is discernible and readable as both man and bird. He walks along a branch and his feet are placed on a flower – he is literally balancing between two literal and symbolic states. Christ is both human and non-human.

This double construction also applies to time. Indeed, this complexity is stressed and reckoned with in The Book of Margery Kempe. When the truth of her devotion comes under scrutiny by a condescending (male) observer who reminds her ‘Damsel, Jhesu is ded long sithe,’ Margery insists that ‘his flesch to me was as if he had deyd this same day.’ The immediacy of Christ’s death is made more pressing to her because of her revelation that God’s time is non-sequential. Her movement from Christ ‘precyows wownyds,’ to her own tears as she ‘cryed and toryrd wondirfully so that sche myth be herde a gret wey’ is indicative of the extent to which she experiences Jesus’ pain in the present moment, as he occupies a space in the eternal present. Although Jesus is outside of linear time, and flexibly supernatural, critically he also has a timeline on the earth, and a home within Christian self-expression.

The Eucharist

René Girard argues that ‘all sacred creatures partake of monstrosity; whether overtly or covertly.’ His productive focus on the sacred as close to the monstrous can help us understand the construction of both, and the simultaneity of Jesus’ time and being. In The Croxton Play of Sacrament, Jonathas, who is a Jew, attempts to deconstruct the Christian belief in the Eucharist. To his surprise and horror, the host does in fact bleed, and he speaks thus:


[Here the Ost must blede]
Ah, owt, owt, harrow! What devyll ys thys?
Of thys wyrk I am in were!
Yt bledyth as yt were woode, iwys!
But yf ye helpe, I shall dyspayre!

Rather than believing in the bread as Christ, and swallowing and absorbing it – Jonathas attacks it. His stabbing of the bread and refusal to eat is a metonym for his violent dismissal of Christianity. Christ’s revelation is thus doubly terrible for him: his violence was unnecessary, and it has produced a seemingly monstrous entity. Jonathas calls for help, and acknowledges the similarity of the hosts as a symbol of crucifixion as it ‘bledyth at yt were woode’.

Jesus then appears to the Jews and asks them:

‘Why fare ye thus fule with yowre frende?
Why peyne yow me and straytly me pynde,
And I yowr love so derely have bowght?’

For the Jews in this play, and the audience members, Jesus and his pain are now painfully real and irrefutable. Whilst the Jews convert and come to absorb first Christianity, and then the Eucharistic Host, their foundational need for ocular proof of the Eucharist hierarchizes the quality and esteem of their converted beliefs. Indeed, just as in the Vernon Manuscript, the Jews doubt towards the Eucharist is mocked – in his comment that “Hedde I so muchel y-ete, / thes threo dayes nolde I no mete” we see that Jewishness becomes synonymous, or at least associated with literalising and mistaking the complexity of the Eucharist. In Vernon, the Christian is too sophisticated to look for real blood and body on the altar. Indeed, as Stephen Justice puts it ‘the doctrine insists on parading its difficulties’ and those who were outside seeing the Eucharist as a miracle were othered and racialised by the dominating ideological narrative. The converted (Jews) may pass for Christians – but the fact of their conversion cannot be forgotten.


Whitewashing the skin

Considering the significant commitment to depicting Christ as human in the Middle Ages, we need to further consider how accessible and reproduceable likeness to Christ’s ‘example’ really was. Christ’s very homeliness and relatability were dependent on his construction as a culturally and ethnically white man. In The King of Tars the necessity of this double construction in order to access – not even Jesus’ feelings – but Jesus’ forgiveness, is set in motion when we the King’s skin is described as “blac & loþely.” After conversion, his skin turns white and his acceptance into Christianity depends on the erasure of his previous identity and the whitewashing of his skin:

His hide, þat blac & loþely was, Al white bicom, þurth Godes gras, & clere wiþouten blame. & when the soudan seye þat siʓt, þan leued he wele on God almiʓt;

The normativity of physical whiteness as a prerequisite to consuming Christ’s body and teaching also naturalized the process of the whitewashing of Christ. Bernard of Clairvaux’s reflection that “He [Christ] even brought this blackness on himself by assuming the condition of slave, and becoming made like men are, he was seen as a man,” suggests that race was something Christ himself could move between, that he could assume the ‘form’ of blackness when appropriate. Caroline Walker-Bynum’s reference to Christ’s bodies as signified by ‘excessive potentialities,’ further consolidates this view. Whilst representations of Jesus avoided the strictures of a stable form, race, or type, they tended to begin or return to the legibility of his cultural and ethnical whiteness, as a model of and for “the Christian.” Making the object of conversion legible in the Christian world meant also converting them to whiteness.

Scarlett Croft is a first-year MA student, and Andrew Mellon scholar, from the University of Columbia. She is currently studying African America and Diaspora Studies.