Passion material was the central focus of Dr. Camp’s manuscripts class last fall, and we learned all about some pretty interesting medieval devotional practices, like the ones discussed by Savannah Caldwell here. We studied the ways in which Passion material could be changed to suit the needs of the individual, and how relics worked in the realm of medieval piety, but nothing quite prepared me for what I found lurking in one of René d’Anjou’s books of hours. To learn more about him and his many books of hours, click here.
In several of his books of hours, René added miniatures after the initial completion of the books. Many of these additions correlate to events in René’s life and political events happening around him, which you can learn more about here. But one of the additions found in two of his books, Egerton MS 1070 and Bibliothèque Nationale de France MS latin 1156a, was different. It seemed to have no real connection to events in René’s life, and at first, I had no idea what it was. It was a round disk with a figure on it, and it appeared to be bleeding. It was centered over the cross, and angels supported it from each side. But what was it?
I knew that the symbol had to be important, because it was in two books, and when I checked the manuscript description, it was described as the Miraculous Bleeding Wafer of Dijon. It seems to have been added to BnF MS lat. 1156a first, around 1436, with the Egerton addition being added around 1442. This was a great lead!
It turns out that the miniatures are of a communion wafer, a small piece of bread, that was thought to be bleeding. Communion wafers, or Hosts, are used during the eucharist ceremony as a vessel for Christ, and when they are blessed, transform into his body. Like the bread, which is broken, Jesus’ body broke on the cross. This ceremonial eating of the bread is taken from the Bible, from Luke 22:19 “And he [Jesus] took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.”
Many bleeding hosts were recorded throughout the Middle Ages after 1150. These hosts were thought to bleed for many different reasons, from being worshipped in the wrong way or being used for selfish purposes, and were often kept as relics in the later medieval period (Snoek 311). Some eucharist wafers would bleed when they were being misused or mistreated. This reasoning is used in many stories, such as when the wafer bleeds in the mouth of a non-believer, or begins to bleed when it is being used by a woman to make a man fall in love with her (317). There are also a lot of anti semitic stories behind the bleeding of wafers, and Jews were often accused of destroying or misusing them and given harsh punishments (317).
Other reasons the wafers were thought to bleed were that they were actually becoming the body of Christ, and this seems to be the reason for the bleeding of the Dijon wafer. This would prove to non-believers that Christ was in the room, and this was further highlighted by the way the wafers would not decay, but remained intact like Jesus’ body (321).
With further research, it seems that the figure in both of the miniatures is Christ, seated on a rainbow, surrounded by implements of his torture (Weick 393). These images are all printed straight onto the Dijon wafer, and many wafers of this design would have been created. It seems the Dijon wafer became so popular because it bled in such an interesting way. Blood flows in a circle all along the edges of this wafer, making it look like it was wearing a tiny crown of thorns (393). It also bled from the figure’s body and blood dripped from the tools of the crucifixion. The miniatures of this wafer are pretty similar in both books, but BnF MS lat. 1156a does have two extra angels supporting the wafer. Both depict the wafer along with the crown of thorns, and the backgrounds are both rather plain, allowing the focus to be on the wafer itself.
So how did René find out about the wafer? The only time René spent in Dijon was during a time of imprisonment for six years between 1431 and 1437. He was imprisoned by Philip the Good of Burgundy, who was an enemy of René’s family. These dates fit perfectly with the time of the bleeding water addition to BnF MS 1156a in 1436!
So now that I knew what it was, I needed to know why René became so interested in the relic of his enemy, as the host was actually presented to Philip the Good by Pope Eugenius IV in 1433, and then placed into the Sainte-Chapelle of Dijon, Philip’s holy chapel (393). It turns out, René became interested in the relic while he was imprisoned, and he actually started the daily Mass to it because he was so immediately interested in the strange relic (393). René is credited with the first instance of devotion to the Dijon wafer in a book of hours, and he is also the first to include a prayer to it, found only in BnF MS lat. 1156a (393). It seems René may have made the BnF addition in a hurry, so that he could have the prayer to the Host at his newly established Mass (393). The host continued to grow in popularity throughout the century, and can even be found in some printed books in later centuries (399).
Unlike most of the additions to his books, these miniatures are purely devotional. René was overwhelmed with awe at this wafer, and he needed to include it in his books of hours as fast as possible. Relics of Christ were extremely important to medieval worshippers, and René knew that despite the wafer being placed in his enemy’s territory, it was the flesh of God. He felt it was Christ’s body, and for this reason, politics did not matter. Despite constant battles and claims, all of which find their way into René’s books, he still found time to include a relic that he just personally believed in and wanted to honor. At the end of the day, books of hours were prayer books, and René did not lose sight of that.
- Bibliothèque Nationale de France MS latin 1156a Gallica.
- British Library Egerton MS 1070. Digitized Manuscripts.
- Snoek, G. J. C. Medieval Piety from Relics to the Eucharist : a Process of Mutual Interaction. E.J. Brill, 1995. pg . 311-322.
- Wieck, R.S. “The Sacred Bleeding Host of Dijon in Books of Hours,” Quand la peinture était dans les livres. Mélanges en l’honneur de François, April. S. d. M. Hofmann, C. Zöhl, Turnhout, Brepols, 2007, p. 392-404.