The Corporal of Bolsena: The Reality

     In my previous post, I discussed the tradition behind the Miracle of Bolsena, and I said this post would be about the science of the situation.  I’ve decided to open that up a little more by dubbing this the “reality” – that is, I’m going to talk about both the environment of the church at that time and a possible scientific cause.  It doesn’t make sense now, but work with me.  My final post will be about the “legend” – that is, the Feast of Corpus Christi in itself (which was also a highly important Castilian festival, and will feature in one of the upcoming installments of THE TRASTÁMARA SERIES).  I wasn’t expecting this to turn into a “series”, geez.

    &nbsp I suppose that I should backtrack a bit by saying that the Corporal of Bolsena is hardly the only Eucharistic miracle ever to be recorded.  I won’t go into details, but there have been changes from human flesh into the host, the host turning to flesh and congealing into blood, levitation, and the attempted desecration of the host by someone who wished to stab it (but of course, it remains unharmed and bleeds).  Plain and simply, these miracles are needed by the Catholic church in order to keep those in their “flock” who are questioning their beliefs.  I won’t agree or disagree with the thought process, but I will say that it is useful, especially in congregations that are slowly seeing a decline in their numbers  due to the perception of Catholicism as old-fashioned or wrong.  The “modern” trend toward leaving a religion is hardly new – look at the Reformation that was so prevalent in the Germanic countries as well as England.

     Now, why was religion so important in the medieval world?  I mean, rulers killed for Christianity – they went on Crusades, sponsored Inquisitions, all in the name of their God.  To put it simply, it was due to death and other hardships.  Think about it – when do people tend to become their most religious?  When they, or someone they love, is either dying or experiencing an extremely difficult time.  Know what happened in medieval Europe?  Lots of wars, lots of sickness, lots of death.  Religion has also been a way for the few to keep the masses in line.  I’m not just talking about Christianity, either, but any type of organized religion – there are always the few leaders at the top, the priests, those who are “closer” to the gods purely based on their positions – and they keep the many, the relatively uneducated peons, in line by their fear of the gods’ wrath.  Some religions and cultures have done so by claiming, for example, that the gods need a sacrifice (sometimes human, sometimes not), but medieval Christianity does so by pointing out certain aspects of God and saying, “God is usually nice, but see what happens when you provoke Him?  He won’t just punish you, He’ll punish everyone!  Sodom and Gomorrah!  You don’t want that, do you?  So stay in your little hovel, don’t cause trouble, and be thankful for your liege lord!”

     (Oh my goodness, this is NOT going in the direction I thought it would.  I promise that I’ll bring it back around within the next two paragraphs.)

     And unfortunately, medieval Catholicism was corrupt, as evidenced by the use of indulgences, which in theory were a wonderful idea!  For a donation to the Church or some other charity, a person could receive an indulgence, which was (to put it simply) a way to help a soul from purgatory and – hopefully – into heaven.  For the ease of understanding, think of the afterlife as the ER, with purgatory being the waiting room, heaven being admittance into the hospital itself, and hell being refused entry and going back out onto the street.  There’s a set amount of time souls are supposed to remain in purgatory,  though we aren’t sure how long it is, and it’s supposed to help them prepare for their eventual graduation to where they’re supposed to go, either heaven or hell.  Indulgences were used to help shorten the time in purgatory for oneself or one’s loved ones, even those who have already died, and they actually had a pretty strict set of rules attached to them.  Unfortunately, what should have been a sweet gesture was corrupted.  Positions of power always attract greedy people, who would gladly sell indulgences for any reason for a price, even guaranteeing that the indulgence would help remove someone from hell.  Meanwhile, you have the people who would buy these indulgences for any reason, continue to sin, buy more indulgences, continue to sin, etc.

     So you have the corruptness in the Church, and you have people who start to disbelieve some things about the teachings, which really scares the people still in power.  I mean, you can have all the money in the world, but if you’re surrounded by a large group of people who are extremely ticked off at you, it probably won’t help.  Miracles, then, were used as a way for the Church to turn to the large but generally uneducated masses and say, “See, this proves that we’re right!”, it was a way for believers to reaffirm their faith, and it was a way for those who were having problems reconciling their beliefs to be brought back into the fold completely.  And what better way to reconfirm your Catholic faith than by witnessing one of the most quintessential Catholic beliefs: the action of Transubstantiation, happening right before your very eyes?  To the medieval mind, seeing something made it incontrovertible – seeing a Communion wafer leak red liquid from it would be proof that the wafer became human flesh as the Church taught.

     But what really happens?  Well, thanks to modern knowledge, there is a chance that we know what causes a bleeding wafer.  Please forgive me for any errors in the following, as I’m not a scientist by any means, I just enjoy researching.  Also, is it just me, or is this post getting REALLY long?  Haha!  I’ll try to keep the following part short, which shouldn’t be too difficult because I honestly don’t understand most of what I’ve read in regards to the bacteria I’ve researched.

     The Wikipedia page for Serratia marcescens shows a picture of a piece of what appears to be bloody bread, but is actually a piece of bread infected by the bacterium.  S. marcescens is a relatively “common” bacterium known mostly for causing severe bodily infections, such as UTIs and septicemia.  Outside of the body, it’s also attracted to moist environments and glucose-rich hosts, and can manifestwith a bright red pigment known as “prodigiosin”, so named due to the “prodigious” appearance of what would appear to the naked eye to be blood on a surface that should not bleed.  It’s been hypothesized that S. marcescens and NOT actual blood is responsible for the red splotches on the Eucharist as well as certain medieval statues which have been known to cry blood. According to the paper I found on S. marcescens, it is capable of surviving in some pretty strange environments, including double-distilled water, and it appears to be difficult to treat with antibiotics as well.  What’s most important is that it’s transmittable due to improper hygiene (and we know that medieval people did NOT follow what we would consider proper hygienic procedures in the least).

     Of course, that’s just one possible cause.  There are actually red pigments available in nature, such as Canthaxanthin, and while C. has not yet naturally been found in any bacterium culture, what’s to say that there isn’t a mold or fungus that actually does produce C., or some other type of reg pigmentation?  It would be impossible to say that we know every single species of everything on our planet, and people are still discovering new things.  Based on that realization alone, it’s also impossible at this time to say that the Miracle of Bolsena was absolutely not the working of a higher power (I’m holding out hope for time travel; there are so many mysteries to solve!).  Ultimately, it is due to such limitations that we can only guess at the cause.

     What I am certain of is the legacy of Bolsena.  Or am I?  My next  entry will discuss Corpus Christi.  What is the Feast of the Body of Christ?  Why did it come about?  Was Bolsena involved, or was it just super-imposed later, like a medieval version of Photoshop (Protoshop?)?  Am I ever going to be satisfied enough by what I’ve written and researched to finally end this series?  Should I do the full bibliography (which would probably be an entry in its own right) or would anyone mind if I simply list links categorized by the entry?  How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?

     Edit: I’ve decided to put the bibliography here, but I’ll do so under a “read more” to help keep this shorter.

  • Damen, Mark. “Man and Disease: The Black Death.” 1320: Section 6: The Black Death. Web. 27 Nov. 2015.
    < 06PLAGUE.htm >
  • Frazer, Jennifer. “Miraculous Microbes: They Make Holy Statues “Bleed”–and Can Be Deadly, Too.” Scientific American. 11 Nov. 2011. Web. 27 Nov. 2015.
    < >.
  • Gregerson, Royce. “The Eucharistic Miracle of Bolsena-Orvieto.” My Year Of Faith. Web. 27 Nov. 2015.
    < >.
  • Hejazi, A., and F.R. Falkiner. “Serratia Marcescens.” Journal of Medical Microbiology 46 (1997): 903-12. The Pathological Society of Great Britain and Ireland. Web. 27 Nov. 2015.
    < >.
  • Rychlak, Ron. “Eucharistic Miracles: Evidence of the Real Presence.” This Rock 17-7. Sept. 2006. Web. 27 Nov. 2015.
    < >.
  • Rogers, Mark. “Corporal of Bolsena.” Esoteric Codex: Magic Objects. First ed. 70-71. Print.
  • Socaciu Carmen (Ed.).”Pigments from Microalgae and Microorganisms: Sources of Food Colorants (Table 5.4.1).” Food Colorants: Chemical and Functional Properties. Taylor & Francis, 2007. 421. Print.
  • Scott, Robert A. “Chapter One: Life in the Middle Ages.” Miracle Cures Saints, Pilgrimage, and the Healing Powers of Belief. Berkeley, Calif.: U of California, 2010. Print.
  • Verrall, Rosemary. “Serratia Marcescens.” Infection Control 4.6 (1983): 469-71. Web.
    < >
  • “Feast of Corpus Christi.” CATHOLIC ENCYCLOPEDIA. Web. 27 Nov. 2015.
    < >.
  • “Indulgences.” CATHOLIC ENCYCLOPEDIA. Web. 27 Nov. 2015.
    < >.
  • “Orvieto.” CATHOLIC ENCYCLOPEDIA. Web. 27 Nov. 2015.
    < >.
    “Serratia Marcescens.” MicrobeWiki. Web. 27 Nov. 2015.
    < >.
  • “The Fascinating World of Bacteria.” Home Training Tools. Web. 27 Nov. 2015.
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