In the later Middle Ages, especially the twelfth century, the notion that the host is the body of Christ, developed in the doctrine of transubstantiation and expressed particularly in the establishment of Corpus Christ as a feast day, led to many rules and rituals to ensure the host was made and treated with proper respect. Human handling of the host meant that the threat of disrespect was always present. The bread was to be made of wheat because Christ compared himself to a grain of wheat; it should be whole and form a full circle, white, thin, and be inscribed with a cross, the letters IHS, or even (from the twelfth century) a crucifixion scene or lamb of God. This eucharistic bread was baked in appropriately reverent circumstances in religious houses.
Because the host was understood to be the body of Christ, it was important that no part of it be wasted, and so, in England especially, special ‘houselling cloths’ were used to catch crumbs dropping out of the mouths of lay communicants. Similarly, the consecrated host was to be kept in a fitting manner, in a pyx, a small box made of silver or ivory which could be locked. If the sacrament was to be reserved it was put in the pyx, which was usually draped with a cloth, and hung over the altar or kept in a small cupboard in the north wall of the chancel. Taking communion to the sick, which meant taking the host out of the safety of the church, led in some places to elaborate processions every time the host was taken outdoors, and members of the laity were exhorted to join that procession by the ringing of bells, and to engage in reverential behaviour similar to their pious practices at the elevation of the host. The reception of the host by the sick person was also a cause of anxiety for the priest, for the sick person might have difficulty receiving the host. If the person had difficulty swallowing, the host was to be dissolved in the wine for them, and if the host was vomited back up by the sick person, it was to be crumbled in the wine and consumed by the priest.
It became the custom in the later Middle Ages that the laity should receive only the bread, not the wine (which was received only by the priest) and that they should receive communion infrequently: the fifth Lateran Council of 1215 established the principle that the laity should receive at least once a year, usually at Easter. The priest's role — as mediator of grace in the sacraments — was central, and his celebration and reception of the Eucharist every day was understood to be done on behalf of all Christians; his frequent communion was used as an argument for infrequent reception by the laity. His bodily gestures at the altar in presiding at the Eucharist, especially in consecrating the bread and wine, were important. The gesture of elevating the host signified the moment of consecration and thus for showing Christ's body to those watching. This central ritualistic moment appealed to all the senses: bells were rung, incense burnt, and candles lit, so that the layperson would see the elevation of the body of Christ, would bow in reverence, and be appropriately prayerful. In some places, the laity would rush towards the altar, at the moment of the elevation of the host, and in some towns, enthusiastic lay persons would go from church to church in order to witness the elevation of the host in as many places as possible in one day.
The host played an important part in the spirituality of some women religious, such as Hadewijch, Catherine of Genoa, and Catherine of Sienna, in the late Middle Ages: they fasted, surviving only on the consecrated host, thereby feeding only on the body of Christ. This use of the host indicates the strong connection between the (female) body and food, and an attempt by women to orient their spiritual practices and thereby gain access to spiritual power through that which was readily available to them as women — namely, food.
At the Reformation, the Protestant reformers gave both the bread and wine to the laity, and, in their rejection of the doctrine of transubstantiation, made the Eucharist a simple meal — the Lord's supper — rather than an elaborate ritual. Thus they abandoned the late medieval devotion to the host, and all the practices which had surrounded it.
The Roman Catholic Church has retained some of these practices, and the high Anglican ritualists of nineteenth-century England revived many of them in the Church of England (and they have consequently spread to other parts of the Anglican communion where Anglo-Catholicism has been influential). The Eastern Orthodox churches have always held the view that eating the Eucharist is a physical act which transforms and sanctifies the body. In the twentieth century, some Christians in non-Western parts of the world asked whether the host had always to be bread, especially if bread was a food not indigenous to their culture, and therefore whether they might use a local food such as rice instead. This raises interesting questions about the relationship between Christianity and culture; on the whole, Western Christians have not responded positively to such questions, and at the end of the twentieth century, Rome drew up guidelines making it clear that the host should be a certain kind of bread.
Rubin, M. (1991). Corpus Christ. The Eucharist in late medieval culture. Cambridge University Press.
See also Christianity and the body; Eucharist.
host1 / hōst/ • n. 1. a person who receives or entertains other people as guests: a dinner-party host. ∎ a person, place, or organization that holds and organizes an event to which others are invited: Innsbruck once played host to the Winter Olympics. ∎ an area in which particular living things are found: Australia is host to some of the world's most dangerous animals. ∎ often humorous the landlord or landlady of a pub: mine host raised his glass of whiskey. ∎ the moderator or emcee of a television or radio program.2. Biol. an animal or plant on or in which a parasite or commensal organism lives. ∎ (also host cell) a living cell in which a virus multiplies. ∎ a person whose immune system has been invaded by a pathogenic organism. ∎ a person or animal that has received transplanted tissue or a transplanted organ.3. (also host computer) a computer that mediates multiple access to databases mounted on it or provides other services to a computer network.• v. [tr.] act as host at (an event) or for (a television or radio program). ∎ [intr.] act as host.host2 • n. (a host of or hosts of) a large number of people or things: a host of memories rushed into her mind. ∎ archaic an army. ∎ poetic/lit. (in biblical use) the sun, moon, and stars: the starry host of heaven. ∎ another term for heavenly host. See also Lord of hosts at lord.host3 • n. (usu. the Host) the bread consecrated in the Eucharist: the elevation of the Host.
1. An organism whose body provides nourishment and shelter for a parasite (see parasitism) or a parasitoid. A definitive (or primary) host is one in which an animal parasite becomes sexually mature; an intermediate (or secondary) host is one in which the parasite passes the larval or asexual stages of its life cycle.
2. An organism that lives in close association with an inquiline (see inquilinism).
an army; a large number of men; a great multitude of people, animals, birds, insects, or things.
Examples: host of angels; of arguments; of books, 1875; of golden daffodils; of debaters, 1773; of facts; of heaven [angels], 1382; of hoteliers [modern]; of imagery, 1862; of images, 1845; of men, 1486; of monks, 1797; of odds and ends; of parasites—Madden; of questions; of sparrows, 1486; of thoughts, 1845; of tongues, 1606; of trunks [piles of luggage], 1840.
A host (in a monstrance) is the emblem of St Clare of Assisi.
Recorded from Middle English, the word comes via Old French from Latin hostia ‘victim’.