I am currently working on a book manuscript titled Flesh Becoming Word: Eucharist and Allegory in Early Modern England. The following is a précis of the project, broken down by chapter.
William Tyndale, the first translator of the Bible into printed English, explicitly linked sacraments and reading when he wrote that in sacraments we “re[a]d the worde of god, as we do in bokes.” While we have many good accounts of how the rise of print made this kind of rhetoric possible, we lack an account of how the Protestant Reformation changed the meaning of sacraments and thus changed what it meant to read. My research finds that the Protestant Eucharist introduced a new kind of reading to sixteenth-century England. While in the Catholic Mass the bread and wine become Christ’s body, the Protestant Eucharist construes these elements as only signs of Christ’s body. Not only does this shift convert the ritual into an encounter with reading, but it also makes the material substance that was formerly Christ’s literal body into an allegorical text. As the era’s most encountered, most important, and most controversial allegory, the Protestant Eucharist shapes early modern literary allegory by positing the body as the prime object of allegorical reading. While other scholars (such as Robert Whalen, Regina Schwartz, Ryan Netzley, Sophie Read, and Kimberly Johnson) have linked the Eucharist to the flowering of English lyric or to devotional poetry, I argue that the ritual’s allegorical status structures a wider range of texts, including drama, prose fiction, and meditative prose. A diverse spectrum of early modern writers find in the Eucharist the impetus for their allegories and for the reading and representation of the bodies found within their texts. Ultimately, this provides a new lens through which to understand the theological stakes and literary influence of the Eucharist in the wake of Reformation. Rather than rejecting allegory, or “demonizing” it as Theresa Kelley claims, Protestant writers embraced it—and they do so in part because of the changes wrought at the site of the Eucharist.
The first two chapters of the book unpack the sixteenth-century theology of the Eucharist, contrasting the Catholic emphasis on real substance with the Protestant turn toward representation. Chapter One analyzes the theological development of the Eucharist as Reformed thinkers like Thomas Cranmer conceptualized and practiced the ritual. While many scholars absent allegory from Protestant thinking, I argue that it plays a vital role in Protestantism precisely because its central ritual is nothing short of an allegory. To explain this allegory, Protestants transform the Eucharist into an explicit reading encounter that appeals to the doctrine of the Incarnation in different ways than the Catholic Mass does. This results in a radically different ritual, one that hinges on the strict materiality of its text and affirms that participants can trust their bodies’ interpretation of real bread and wine. As such, the ritual re-negotiates the status of the material and the bodily within its readable allegory. Chapter Two focuses on the Catholic Mass and demonstrates the influence that the doctrine of transubstantiation has on literary allegory. Because the bread and wine become, rather than only signify, the body of Christ, the Catholic Mass is not a strict allegory, nor does it invoke the material and the bodily in the same way as its Protestant counterpart. As such, the Mass not only produces different reading strategies but also theorizes a different kind of body. In the work of Thomas More, we see a strong resistance to signification when it comes to both religious rituals and physical bodies. The limitations of allegory that More identifies in his theological texts shape the way he constructs the allegorical Utopia and the bodies within it. While theorists like Derrida and Paul de Man have discussed the tenuous deferral inherent to allegory, Thomas More articulates something quite similar centuries earlier as he identifies the dangers and limitations of allegorical reading.
In the next three chapters, I look at six major literary texts that inherit the distinctions of the Protestant Eucharist at the site of the textual body in allegory. Chapter Three shows how Spenser embraces and Shakespeare mistrusts the Eucharistic status of bodily texts. While most scholars read The Faerie Queene’s False Florimell as a critique of Neoplatonic and Petrarchan poetry, I argue that Spenser also constructs her as a critique of the Catholic Mass that promises a real body but gives only an empty substance and an absent signifier. By contrast, the host of allegorical bodies that Spenser provides his readers become rich texts whose meaning, while not always explicit or singular, reflects the textual status assigned to bodies through the Eucharist. Whereas Spenser revels in the breadth of allegorical signification, Shakespeare tests its limits in Coriolanus, staging competing responses to the prospect of a textual body. On one hand, he shows Menenius and the Roman citizens over-allegorizing Coriolanus’ body in service to political stability; and on the other hand, he shows Coriolanus rejecting his own body’s allegorical status. In short, Shakespeare’s play is about the power (or danger) assigned to allegorized bodies. By depicting such a narrative in the mode of tragedy, Shakespeare suggests the high stakes involved in the Eucharistic allegorizing of the body and its readable wounds.
Focused on Lanyer’s Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum and Donne’s Devotions, Chapter Four argues that knowing the body’s relationship to divine truth, on which hinges the redemption narrative, depends on the textual and allegorical status of the body. Countering those who interpret the marks on Jesus’ body merely as literal wounds, Lanyer transforms the body of Christ into an allegorical text in which the souls of her readers “may read salvation.” The reading of this textual Jesus becomes the site of an explicit Eucharistic feast that generates a strictly female community. Donne takes this reading practice one step further by applying it to his own body. The mystery of his disease compels him to reframe embodiedness as an allegorical reading encounter in which he interprets his illness as evidence of spiritual realities. In turning his sickened body into an allegory of God’s redemption, he explicitly relies on the Eucharist as a way to explain the signification he maps onto his body. For both Donne and Lanyer, the truth at stake in the reading of the body requires one to treat the body as an allegorical text. But whereas Donne situates this discussion at the site of his own body, Lanyer does so at the site of Christ’s.
Chapter Five contends that Bunyan, in Pilgrim’s Progress, and Milton, in Paradise Regained and Areopagitica, defend allegorical reading as the means to salvation. Despite their obvious differences in style, genre, and objective, both Milton and Bunyan render reading as an allegorical encounter with bodies in which truth itself becomes the body at stake in reading. Bunyan dramatizes allegorical reading encounters within a text that is itself an allegory. Those encounters hang on the by-now-standard Eucharistic language of reading and eating, of substance and accident. He figures his allegory as a body elaborately clothed to “shew its Features, and its Limbs” and invites his readers to read the faces and bodies of the characters within this larger narrative-body. Whereas Bunyan relies on the textuality of bodies to construct and defend allegory, Milton resists dramatizing the act of reading in Paradise Regained so as, paradoxically, to demonstrate the necessity of reading. Although Milton’s Jesus rejects reading because his omniscience precludes interpretation, it is the absurdity of this option for all other humans that propels them back into reading, and specifically to reading the body, whether the embodied Satan or the fragmented body of Truth. For Milton, every act of reading becomes an allegorical encounter insofar as it requires discernment between “double senses,” between God and Satan, truth and lie.