As used in the late medieval and early modern Catholic church, sacramentals encompassed a variety of sacred signs, rites, blessings, prayers, symbolic gestures, ceremonies, and objects. Those most commonly encountered in the daily life of most late medieval Christians were various forms of blessed water and salt, the Agnus Dei (a small wax wafer bearing the insignia of the Lamb of God), and objects blessed on appropriate feast days: palms on Palm Sunday; ashes on Ash Wednesday; candles and herbs, respectively, on the feasts of the Purification and Assumption of the Virgin; and bread on Saint Agatha's Day and sometimes during the Mass. In a more restricted sense the term was applied to objects consecrated for use in the liturgy, especially in connection with the administration of the sacraments, such as an altar or a chalice, or the chrism used for consecration in conferring confirmation, holy orders, or the last rites. The conferral of a clerical tonsure as a form of consecration was also considered a sacramental.
The notion of a sacramental emerged only gradually in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries as theologians, such as Hugh of St. Victor and Peter Abelard, began to give closer attention to the understanding of what constituted a sacrament. Until that time the term sacrament was applied indiscriminately to designate both sacraments and sacramentals. Gradually a distinction emerged between those religious ceremonies that were held to be necessary to human salvation (sacramenta) and those that were not (sacramentalia). A further differentiation followed between objects and actions linked to the preparation and administration of the sacraments and those merely relating to veneration and piety. It was in this last category that sacramentals began to proliferate in the late Middle Ages. The peculiar character of sacramentals derived from the power of the church to consecrate or bless, and the term was often applied both to the acts of blessing and to the persons or objects so blessed. A further dimension derived from the power of the church to exorcise demonic spirits, and most sacramentals were created through a twofold rite of exorcism and blessing.
Sacramentals provide a major example of the difficult relations between official and popular belief. Theological imprecision about their definition, as well as popular demand for an instrumental application of the church's powers to bless and exorcise, enabled them to fall into a shadowy area between approved religious practices and magic. That the clergy often gave in to such demands can be seen in the wide range of persons, actions, and objects blessed as sacramentals. Besides those mentioned above, one can find in ritual books blessings of cattle, homes, granaries, threshing floors, hearths, wine, grain, beer, seed, and even radishes. When pious images (especially the crucifix) were blessed, they became sacramentals. Much of the ambiguity of sacramentals flowed from problems in understanding their efficacy. Unlike the sacraments, which contributed to human salvation, sacramentals were an aid only to this-worldly spiritual formation; yet, like the sacraments, they could also bring temporal benefits. In theory sacraments were automatically efficacious, working ex opere operato, by virtue of the ritual itself; sacramentals worked ex opere operandis, by virtue of the pious dispositions of those using them. Thus, they were not thought to be automatically efficacious, but ordinary Christians (and often the clergy) regarded them as if they were. Theologically, part of this difficulty flowed from the notion that temporal benefits were conferred by the power of the church to expel demonic forces (which caused disorder in the natural world) and to bless objects such that they were safe and beneficial for human use. Thus, ordinary believers were able to treat such blessed objects as forms of protection against material harm and the demonic and to hope for material benefits from them. Usually the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, were carefully policed against magical misuse, but once sacramental objects had been blessed by a priest, there was really no control over the uses to which they were put. They became, in effect, a do-it-yourself form of appropriation of sacred power, used most frequently as a form of protective magic for the good of humans, animals, and valued property.
For the reformers sacramentals embodied all the crassness and false belief (superstitio) of late medieval religion. They held that Christ's unique act of redemption had blessed everything in creation and that further blessing was unnecessary, indeed a denial of faith. Martin Luther directed his attack against blessed water, most commonly used as a form of magical protection, but this was merely representative of the whole class of sacramentals. It did not take long before such blessings were stigmatized as a form of magic; in 1543 the Württemberg pastor Johann Spreter classified them as “magic on the right hand,” as opposed to magical incantations, which were “magic on the left hand.” The Counter-Reformation attempted to provide closer definition of sacramentals and to remove some of their theological ambiguity but without great success, and their undoubted popularity was such that their use was impossible to eradicate. Indeed, the range and number of sacramentals even increased, and the ambivalence about their efficacy has lasted into the modern Catholic church. They clearly fulfilled an important function—a means of coping with the anxieties of daily life by the instrumental application of sacred power. It was this aspect that even led convinced Protestants to regard them with a certain nostalgia, and some Protestants sought to gain access to Catholic sacramentals, especially holy water. The desire for some form of sacred blessing even led to the emergence in the Lutheran church of a range of consecrated objects, which could be said to represent a weak echo of Catholic sacramentals. These forms of consecration or blessing provided items or actions accorded especial veneration and therefore were susceptible to “superstitious” uses. Such practices in popular Protestantism proved an embarrassment for Protestant commentators, even into the nineteenth century, who admitted that evangelical notions of benediction were permeated with Catholic presuppositions.
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