Stealing Communion Bread in Reformation Geneva

The development and refinement of the doctrine of transsubstantiation in the 12th and 13th centuries, culiminating in the creation of the Corpus Christi feast in 1264, resulted in a dramatically heightened focus on the eucharist. This had two obvious consequences: first it made it more desirable to steal the host and, second, it made it more important to protect the host from theft. The laity, convinced of the power inherent in the host, found many uses for it. For example, peasants would secret away some of the communion bread and put it in the animal stalls to protect their cattle and pigs from the plague (Kieckhefer, Magic in the Middle Ages, p. 79). Obviously, there is a vast literature on the subject and I don’t want to get lost in the Middle Ages. If you’re interested, check out Miri Rubin’s excellent and readable Corpus Christi: The Eucharist in Late Medieval Culture.


In Reformation Geneva, of course, things were a bit different, but we still come across various mentions of people carrying off the communion bread. The authorities were worried about stealing for somewhat different reasons. For the Reformed, of course, the bread is bread, not the actual body of Christ. When they saw people stealing the bread, they worried about “idolatry,” that is they worred that people were stealing the bread because they believed that the bread had special powers and, in particular, that they believed that it was the body of Christ. Why people were still stealing the bread is a thornier question.

In most cases, we don’t actually know. In 1547, Jeanne de Fernex was accused of carrying off some of the bread. Michel Naveta saw her take it in her hand and hide it “in her breast.” When Naveta asked her why, she said she couldn’t really say, but she always took half home and brought it to her nursemaid. Her reasons are unclear, but it’s worth noting that the witness also said that she abstained from taking the wine, which suggest that she had not been fully converted to the Reform (Consistoire III, p. 80-81, 94). We’ve found several others who carried off the bread. One woman, an innkeeper of the Bear Inn, admitted that she had not been to the communion service in years, but said that her husband always brought half home for her. Why, she didn’t say, nor did several others we came across (see Consistoire II, p. 267-68 and note 927 for several examples from the years 1541 to 1551). Let me add a few more I’ve discovered since, some of which add the odd interesting detail.

The daughter of goldsmith Hippolyte Revit was caught carrying off the bread, which she explained she did in order to prove to her father that she had, indeed, gone to communion (Consistoire 13, f. 30, 43, 44; 31 March, 28 April, 5 May 1558). An amusing incident regarding the control of the communion bread took place that same communion. Jean Dauphin (Dalphin, etc) was excommunicated, but participated in communion anyway. He said that “he saw a man lifting up the communion bread and he thought it was being presented to him, so he approached to take it and took it” (Consistoire 13, f. 36). It was not uncommon for people to be unable to name and recognize their pastors, but most likely the man who gave the bread to Dauphin was a lay officiant assigned to distribute the bread. These men were often Consistory members, though not always. Usually they were well-known men in the city, but of course in a city of perhaps 20,000 by this time, Dauphin certainly couldn’t know everyone.

A few years later, Pierre Joly said he had taken some of the bread to bring home to his father who was sick. So somewhat like the innkeeper of the Bear, the idea was to bring the bread to a family member who could not be present in person. Joly in fact presented himself to the layman who was distributing the bread, Claude Chiccand, and asked outright to be allowed to bring some home to his father. The Joly family servant pointed out that this should be allowed because in the past they had given bread to be taken to “his mother” when she was sick. It’s not clear who “his mother” was. It seems in fact that it was neither the mother of Pierre Joly or the servant. When the servant testified, he said that Espin Guillonet had told him that when Guillonet’s wife was sick, he had taken some home to her. Of course, the Consistory then wanted to talk to Guillonet who testified that one time after communion was over, he was lingering in the church and saw “children and everyone jump on it (se jettoyt dessus) and someone gave him some [bread] and he took some home for his wife who was sick to cheer her up (pour la resjouir).” He sternly denied that there was any “superstition” involved and held to the story that it was simply to cheer her up (Consistoire 17, f. 207v-208, 209v, 214v).

Guillonet’s testimony is particularly interesting. We know there are a lot of details we don’t know about how communion was celebrated in Geneva, but it’s nevertheless surprising to imagine hungry people throwing themselves on the communion table to eat the leftover bread, especially in the context of a still very Catholic France on Geneva’s border. Other reports had already reached the Consistory. A bit earlier the Consistory received a report that once the celebration of communion was done, “everyone jumps at the plate to have some of the bread.” Again, this appears to have been simple hunger and, in a huge departure from Catholic practice, the Consistory actually decided that people should be allowed to eat this bread. They did, however, want to protect the dignity of the ritual, so they stipulated that nobody touch the bread until it had been removed from the communion table and then people should be allowed to have it and carry it off. So they seem to have been untroubled by the scene as long as they felt assured that people merely wanted to eat the bread which, outside of the ritual, was just like any other bread (Consistoire 17, f. 204).

One last mention of someone eating the communion bread outside of church is particularly amusing Pierre Desvignes had been barred from communion, but he “publicly yelled allowed in the middle of the road and on the bridge” that though he had been told he couldn’t take communion, he planned to eat the communion bread anyway. More clever than your average excommunicant, though, he didn’t bother with the hassle of sneaking into church or having an accomplice smuggle some bread out. He shortcut the whole system. Knowing that the baker Jean Papillier was to supply the bread for communion that time, he apparently went to his place of business and simply had Papillier’s daughter give him some bread from the lot that was destined for the church. Needless to say, the Consistory did not admire his ingenuity and declared him to be a “bad boy, making fun of everyone and insulting everyone who passes by their house.” They decided the father should take him by the hospital, that is the poor house, to be switched (Consistoire 19, f. 28).

We could probably find other cases, perhaps many others. But one of the things that jumps out is that there is little evidence that people were taking the communion bread for the purpose of “magic” (always a troublesome word). In the cases of people carrying the bread to a family member who was sick and needed cheering, there may have been a “superstition” (as the Consistory saw it) behind the action. Taken at face value, though, it seems more innocuous than that — a simple desire to let the family member share in an important ritual.

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