Betraying and Repressing the Others’ Desire: Wine in Counter-Reformation Spanish Mystical Literature

By Facundo Sebastián Macías (Universidad de Buenos Aires-Conicet)

In 2020 I had the pleasure of successfully defending my Ph.D. dissertation, supervised by Fabián Alejandro Campagne, at the Faculty of Philosophy and Letters of the University of Buenos Aires (Argentina). A task carried out thanks to funding by the National Scientific and Technical Research Council (CONICET-Argentina). In my Ph.D. research, I studied the Castilian nun Teresa de Ávila (1515–1582) and the group of early biographers who wrote about her life before her papal beatification in 1614. My work analyzed the construction of a place of authority by the nun to legitimize their words and deeds, as well as the hagiographic construction of Teresa’s sanctity and its relation to the hagiographers’ political subjectivity.

The biographers’ agencies, politically constructed and thrown into the arena of ideas and actions struggle, also revealed themselves as extremely devotees. Their devotion showed features of those people beyond cognitive and deliberative rationality. It was an agency showing a laden sentimental language and aiming to transmit a set of conceptual content and emotional words to the whole of the Catholic faithful. However, their prose did not remain stranded there. The hagiographers exposed a set of religious emotions they intensely experienced themselves. An experience that led them to shape not only, in the terms proposed by the Belgian sociologist Pierre Delooz, a sanctity for —depending on the memory and opinion a community kept of the past existence of a deceased—and by —because opinion needs the impulse of organized groups such as religious orders— other people, but also to what I called a sanctity for themselves (para sí). This experience of sanctity is bond to the hagiographers’ own emotions and is a clue of the uniqueness of each of them as believers during early modern times.[1] This directed the path I am traveling during my postdoctoral research in the field of the History of Emotions.

Ercole de’ Roberti, The Institution of the Eucharist (c. 1490), Wikimedia Commons

It is no longer not sanctity or hagiographies that attract my attention. What now piques my interest is wine. However, I am not interested in its materiality, flavours and textures, but its symbolic construction during early modern Europe: its conscious and unconscious meanings that are only possible to trace indirectly through some of the traces that people from the past have left us. I want to focus on the symbol of wine and its relation to the central Christian ritual: the Eucharist. Ritual disputed and debated, the beginning of the sixteenth century challenges us to recognize its importance during the confessional conformation of Europe.

The intra-evangelical dispute of the mid-1520s focused on the modes of Christ’s bodily presence or absence in the elements: the bread and the wine. The debate between the supporters of a literal or figurative interpretation of the New Testament impacted the liturgical, doctrinal, and identity conformation of the Protestant denominations and early modern Catholicism. My focus is not on the evangelical quarrels, but I will instead analyze the ritual practice and a religious dogma: the transubstantiation reaffirmed by the Council of Trent and its acceptance or not by the group of parishioners who remained under the Roman Church. In this sense, while all the Protestant confessions agreed to share the chalice with all the participants, the Catholic Church maintained its access only to the clergymen who officiated the ritual.[2]

The important thing about this bifurcation is the following: the openness of the Reformers found a welcome reception, parishes full of curious and devout people who accepted the new prescription, apparently, without any emotional conflict. But what happened to the faithful Catholics? Did not they long the liquid which supposedly was Christ’s blood itself? Was the concomitance doctrine penetrated deeply into believers eliminating any dissidence? Or is there something beyond the surfaces of the sources telling us otherwise? Could it be that the emotions during the ritual performance were so strong that, even when they could not enter the conscious plane of language, it pushed the faithful desire to the forbidden liquid? How is it possible that Catherine of Siena (1347–1380), who could not drink from the chalice, thought she found blood in her mouth, even though she had only received the host?[3] Or that the Franciscan tertiary Jean Mary de Maillé (1331–1414) found blood in her mouth when she prayed to drink from the chalice?[4] How do we interpret that when the Protestant reformers, despite their differences, gave the chalice to the laity, they received positive echoes in some communities?[5] How do we understand that, despite the early Catholic defence of communion in only one kind and its definitive prescription by the decrees of the Council of Trent, several embassies asked for a papal dispensation to receive communion in both species? How is it possible that the Pope agreed, at least temporarily, to allow communion in both species in territories of the Holy Roman Empire?[6] My ongoing investigation revolves around all these questions. I believe that the fervently devout laity desired to access the materiality of God in all its accidental forms during the ritual —that is, in the bread and wine. My research follows on first place the clerical agenda. So, I focus on mystical works —at first the Spanish— to investigate how that spiritual literature proposes, through the construction of a semantic field referring to wine, a virtual space to drink it spiritually as a substitute for the forbidden material wine. For this, I make a pragmatic use of a key psychoanalytic concept: the desire.[7] I understand desire as a hidden aspiration that, although manifested symptomatically in written, spoken, and practiced expressions, survives in the unconscious, unable to be realized on the conscious plane of language, and to find a relative signifier that gives it meaning.[8] I do not think emotions as an epiphenomenon of a deeper reality. Instead, I think the desire-emotions relationship is a less unidirectional one. The desire-emotion relation is dialectically: desire can express itself symptomatically in various emotions, but at the same time emotions affects desire.[9] Emotion is not a supplement to the desire but gives it shape and sustenance to maintain itself over time. They are inseparable.

Francisco de Osuna (c. 1492–c. 1540), a central author of sixteenth-century Spanish contemplative literature betrays this desire. Osuna was a Franciscan of the Strict Observance who advocated for a broader interior life, based on the notion of recollection (recogimiento) and open to all believers. The Franciscans exalted the call of all to Christian perfection, and the superiority of the experiential knowledge of God —based on faith, love, and humility—over intellectual and erudite.[10] The Franciscan technique proposed putting the soul in complete suspension through the recollection of the senses and the emptying of the heart concerning created things. This would favour the infused union with the divine essence. So, for Osuna, everyone, including lay people, should direct their lives towards the Creator.[11] During this process, love should govern the emotionality of the praying person as an efficient cause of union with God.[12] In prayer we have to love, or want to love. He makes explicit an emotional prescription the practitioner must exercise to experience an ineffable moment.

Image of the cover page from Gracioso combite (from 1543) by Francisco de Osuna
Francisco de Osuna, Gracioso combite (1543). Public domain, Google Books

What interests me is to observe what role wine has in his prose as a symptomatic expression. If, on the one hand, Francisco de Osuna makes available to the laity a spiritual theology that bridges the distance between laity and priests, does he not leave, perhaps, traces that reveal the literary construction of a space to communicate only in the spiritual order? Is not this a repressive device of the desire to taste the materiality of the consecrated wine on the chalice? First, Osuna does not remove the distance between priests and the rest of the Catholic community. As he points out in the Prologue of his Gracioso combite (1530), the Church agent is the only one who can consecrate the elements. Throughout the Prologue, he invites us to eat the host-body-bread, but not to drink the wine. Material access is restricted to the bread. The reason for this is concomitance.[13] As he clarifies later, whoever communicates receives in the host the blood of Christ. The emotional experience of those who participate in the eucharist must focus around a loving bond with the God-man who is embodied in a thin slice of bread.

But, in the world of the spirit, Does the same thing happen? The answer is not. His Tercer abecedario espiritual (1527) is the greatest synthesis of the time on the practice of recollection. In almost all of its appearances there, the wine remains submerged in the plane of virtuality. It is a joyful liquid that can only be tasted in recollected experience or a stylistic resource to denote a superior metaphysical reality. Thus, for instance, wine is the first drink of God’s grace, which sometimes evaporates so the devotees have to exercise and prove themselves, thus gaining some of what will be granted to them.[14] On another occasion, the Franciscan wants to signify the special way God would have to give his most special friends a taste of His kingdom. He points out that the difference between those who have exercised spiritually for decades and those recently baptized does not lie in degrees of truth, but rather in the fact that God gives the first to taste something of His promise. Here, wine serves as an example: while God offers wine to newcomers to the flock, He allows veteran practitioners of prayer to taste it. The drink, through this immaterial tasting, appears as an element that expresses that closeness to the transcendent.[15] The recollection, the narrow door through which only God and our souls enter to relate alone, allows this King, following the Song of Songs (2: 16 and 2: 4), introduces us into the ‘cell of the wine of interior consolation’. Something we can define as a virtual space where love would be perfectly ordered towards its Creator.[16]

In his Treatise XVII, on interior and exterior perfection, the Franciscan warns that our body must follow Jesus and our soul his divinity. The first thing we must do is outwardly go behind Christ. But the most important thing is the effect those who follow Him will find: the table ready (John 14: 2–3) in the ‘heavenly place’. Here Psalm 23: 4–6 enters the scene, from which he takes up the expression ‘inebriating chalice’.[17] Osuna further states that the Psalm calls it an inebriating chalice because by it we notice ‘the abundance of wine from the fruition of God’.[18] So, the wine is consumed at the heavenly table that Christ has prepared for us, not at the altar presided over by His earthly representatives. It is an immaterial wine associated with joy and the intense pleasure of doing something: drinking the immateriality of God. Joy and love are constitutive and constituent emotions of the affective bond between the Creator and the creature. I believe we should not question the emotional expression of his words. Osuna expresses what he feels and feels what he expresses: the joy and love embracing him and that, in a single moment, he models for his readers. His prose reveals a love he presents to others to be pursued, felt, and imitated. And he didactically prescribes the mechanisms to reach a Love that would take us to unimaginable places.

Image of the cover page of Tercer abecedario espiritual (from 1544) by Francisco de Osuna
Francisco de Osuna, Tercer abecedario espiritual (1544). Public domain, Google Books.

We can observe the distance between the spiritual and the material by the simile he uses to maintain that God adds flavour to the delicacy (manjar) of spiritual consolation: wine is a liquid that enhance the appetite for Him. Moreover, Osuna says God puts Himself under the appearances of bread and wine to show us how willing He is to inebriate us in the ‘breasts of his consolation’.[19] As a sweet divine liquid, wine increases the appetite to be with Him. However, what is interesting is that he establishes a possible parallel relationship with the hidden desire to taste the physical and consecrated wine. The eucharistic reference appears as a sign; not as a fact: it teaches us to get drunk on ‘the breasts of his consolation’, but not with the wine-turned blood. Osuna’s words, even without wanting or knowing it, betray the desire that some Catholic parishioners carried with them and the Roman Church, in contrast to the Protestants, suppressed. The Franciscan surely did not intend to function as a repressive agent. But it is evident the restrictive effect of his prose: although the laity can access God, and should do so even beyond what some conservative clerics would approve, corporal manifestation of God during eucharistic ritual is forbidden to them.[20] If they want and make an effort, they can taste it in the world of the spirit. The faithful cannot taste the wine of God on a physical plane: it is not enjoyed in the blood of the Redeemer covered by the accident of matter in the chalice but in the spiritual intimacy of recollection.

I have shown how the extensive bond Francisco de Osuna had with the secular world opens a window to see the lay desire to drink the consecrated wine during the Catholic eucharist. I recognize that he does not share the desire of those who cannot communicate with the chalice. Notwithstanding, he betrays that desire because, even without knowing it nor listening it, as director and spiritual adviser he absorbed the penitent’s concerns he assisted. Thus, even in the absence of a verbal expression putting into words the desire laden by some lay faithful, Francisco developed a response to that desire, directing it, trying to satisfy it. But in that exercise, the friar also repressed it. He left it far from the world of language and the object of desire and led the loving emotion of the communicants towards the consumption of bread or the fantasy of an intangible wine. If desire moves in search of wine as effectively embodied blood of Christ, the words of repression try to capture it in the literary virtuality which looks for God. In the dynamic between desire and emotion, the love unleashed by the former helps to shape the fictitious space of consolation, promoting control and directing the desire pressures towards it. The desire for the material blood of God does not disappear but is restrained. The physical quality of the wine as the desired object, not in itself but in transubstantiated state, was not within the laity scope. Virtual wine, ready in the interior delicacy of the soul in love with God, would be a sufficient substitute.

[1] Pierre Delooz, ‘Pour une étude sociologique de la sainteté canonisée dans l’Eglise catholique’, Archives de sociologie des religions 13 (1962): 17–43; Facundo Sebastián Macías, Palabras del más aquí y del más allá: Teresa de Ávila, sus primeros biógrafos y el diseño de la santidad católica en la Europa de la Contrarreforma (1562–1614) (Madrid: Institución Fernando el Católico, 2022).

[2] Amy Nelson Burnett, Debating the Sacraments: Print and Authority in the Early Reformation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019); Lee Palmer Wandel, The Eucharist in the Reformation: Incarnation and Liturgy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006).

[3] Caroline Walker Bynum, Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987), p. 177 and p. 380 (note 163).

[4] Bynum, p. 131 and p. 134.

[5] See for example the eucharist performed by Andreas Karlstadt in Wittenberg, December 1521, in Amy Nelson Burnett, Debating the Sacraments: Print and Authority in the Early Reformation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019), pp. 10–35; and Lyndal Roper, Martín Lutero: renegado y profeta, trad. Sandra Chaparro (Madrid, Taurus, 2017), pp. 231–53.

[6] Ronnald Po-Chia Hsia, El mundo de la renovación católica, 1540–1770, trad. Sandra Chaparro Martínez (Madrid: Akal, 2010), p. 38; Wandel, The Eucharist (see note 14), p. 228; Barry Graham, ‘The Evolution of the Utraquist Mass, 1420–1620’, The Catholic Historical Review 92 (2006): 557–58 and note 13. The Council of Trent finally gave legal support to communion in one specie in its Session XXI, on July 16, 1562. In April 16 1564, Pope Pius IV granted by decree the territories of the Holy Roman Empire—not France—a dispensation to take communion with bread and wine. This license would be gradually eliminated from each benefited jurisdiction until it was finally abolished in Bohemia in 1621.

[7] Dyan Elliott, Fallen Bodies: Pollution, Sexuality, and Demonology in the Middle Ages (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999), pp. 7–9; Lyndal Roper, Oedipus and the Devil: Witchcraft, Sexuality and Religion in Early Modern Europe (London: Routledge, 1994), pp. 1–35.

[8] For a basic introduction, see Sigmund Freud, ‘La interpretación de los sueños’, in Obras completas, trad. José Etcheverry (Buenos Aires: Amorrortu, 1991, Vols. 4–5); Jacques Lacan, Seminario 6: el deseo y su interpretación 1958–1959, trad. Gerardo Arenas (Buenos Aires: Paidós, 2015).

[9] I understand emotion as the dialectical production between agential (self and body) interiority and cultural exteriority. The inner sensations, unleashed by (or produce) an experience and fed by the mind-body response of the agent himself, find a narrated and (or) performed translation thanks to the cultural and relational environment in which the agent lives and with whom he interacts. That makes emotions. So, the relationship between consciousness and the production of emotion enters into an indissoluble bond with unconscious desires by affecting agency inwardly. The historiography of emotions is currently very extensive. But see for example, Peter Stearns and Carol Stearns, ‘Emotionology: Clarifying the History of Emotions and Emotional Standards’, American Historical Review 90 (1985): 813–36; William Reddy, The Navigation of Feelings. A Framework for the History of Emotions (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001); Barbara Rosenwein, Emotional communities in the Early Middle Ages (New York: Cornell University Press, 2006); Monique Scheer, ‘Are Emotions a Kind of Practice (and Is That What Makes Them Have a History?) A Bourdieuian Approach to Understanding Emotion’, Theory and History 51 (2012): 193–220; Javier Moscoso, ‘Poétique, réthorique et politique des émotions: le drame de l’expérience’, in Le passé des émotions. D’une Histoire à vif en Espagne et Amérique Latine, Coords. Frédérique Langue,y Luc Capdeville (Rennes: Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2014), pp. 15–25; and Rob Boddice, The History of Emotions (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2018).

[10] On recogimiento, see Estelle Garbay-Velázquez, ‘Representaciones del espacio interior e intimidad espiritual en los tratados de tres franciscanos recogidos (Francisco de Osuna, Bernabé de Palma y Bernardino de Laredo)’, e-Spania [On línea] 37 (2020), accessed 4 Aug. 2022, URL:; Moshe Sluhovsky, Believe not every spirit: Possession, Mysticism, and Discernment in Early Modern Catholicism (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2007), 102–12; William J. Short, ‘From Contemplation to Inquisition: the Franciscan Practice of Recollection in Sixteenth-Century Spain’ in Franciscans at Prayer, ed. by Timothy J. Johnson (Leiden: Brill, 2007), pp. 449–74; Bert Roest, ‘The Discipline of the Heart: Pedagogies of Prayer in Medieval Franciscan Works of Religious Instruction’, in Franciscans at Prayer, ed. by Timothy J. Johnson (Leiden: Brill, 2007), pp. 413–48; Bert Roest, Franciscan Literature of Religious Instruction before the Council of Trent (Leiden: Brill, 2004); Melquíades Andrés Martín, ‘La espiritualidad franciscana en España en tiempos de las observancias (1380–1517)’, Studia histórica. Historia Moderna 6 (1988), 465–79.

[11] Francisco de Osuna, Tercer abecedario espiritual (Madrid: Biblioteca de Autores Cristianos, 2005), VIII. 1, 240–45. I quote by Treatise, Chapter and page number. On the specific call to the merchants, with whom he would also have had direct contact, see Rafael Pérez García, ‘Francisco de Osuna y los mercaderes. Espiritualidad, moral económica y pastoral católica pretridentina ante el mundo de los negocios’, in La memoria de un hombre. El burgalés Francisco de Enzinas en el V centenario de la Reforma Protestante, ed. by Cristina Borreguero Beltrán y Asunción Retortillo Atienza (Burgos: Universidad de Burgos, 2019), pp. 219–35; with the nobility, see Rafael Pérez García, ‘Espirituales, cortes señoriales y linajes nobiliarios. Construcción y desarrollo de climas sacro-espirituales de referencia social en la Andalucía de los siglos XVI y XVII’, Historia y Genealogía, 1 (2011): 133–53.

[12] Francisco de Osuna, Tercer abecedario, XVI. 1-10, 416–56.

[13] Francisco de Osuna, Gracioso cõbite delas gracias del sancto sacramẽto del altar: hecho a todas las animas d’ los cristianos principalmẽnte a los religiosos: clérigos: mõjas: beatas: y d’votos d’ la sacra comuniõ y dela missa (Burgos: Juan de Junta,1543), f. VIIIv: “tu en la hostia recibes la sangre de tu redẽtor.”

[14] de Osuna, Tercer abecedario, I. 3, 102.

[15] de Osuna, Tercer abecedario, II. 8, 136–37.

[16] de Osuna, Tercer abecedario, IX. 2, 274–75: ‘celda del vino de la consolación interior’.

[17] de Osuna, Tercer abecedario, XVII. 4, 467–68: ‘cáliz embriagador’. In 468 Francisco says God’s table is in heaven.

[18] de Osuna, Tercer abecedario, XVII. 4, 468–69.

[19] de Osuna, Tercer abecedario, XII. 5, 350.

[20] An example of cleric suspicious both to immediate forms of religiosity, and the disposition to present it to all believers, we find the Dominican Melchor Cano (c. 1509–1560). See Marcel Bataillon, Erasmo y España. Estudios sobre la historia espiritual del siglo XVI, trad. Antonio Alatorre (México, Fondo de Cultura Económica, 2013), pp. 702–4 and pp. 710–13; Alison Weber, Teresa of Avila and the Rhetoric of Femininity (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990), pp. 29–32; Elena Carrera, Teresa of Avila’s Autobiography: Authority, Power and the Self in Mid-Sixteenth-Century Spain (Oxford: Legenda, 2005), pp. 79–83; Sluhovsky, pp. 108–10.

Facundo Sebastián Macías completed his PhD in history at the University of Buenos Aires (UBA) in 2020. He is a member of the National Scientific and Technical Research Council from Argentina. His doctoral research on early modern religious culture explored contemplative words and performances of the Spanish nun Teresa of Ávila (1515–1582) and its relation with the symbolic construction of sanctity in the early hagiographic literature on her during Counter-Reformation Spain. He has published in various journals including Church History, The Catholic Historical Review, Rivista di storia e letteratura religiosa, and Revue d’histoire ecclésiastique. He is currently working on a project centred on the relation among wine, desires and emotions in Counter-Reformation spiritual and demonological literature.

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