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April 2009

Is It Sinful to Eat an Owl after Communion?
by Rebecca Earle

Martín de León, Camino del cielo en lengua mexicana, Mexico, 1611.

Abstain from Eating
Catesby owl

Eastern screech owl from Mark Catesby, The natural history of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands..., vol. 1, London, 1771.

Image from the collections of the
John Carter Brown Library.
Not to be reproduced without permission.

IS it sinful to eat an owl after taking communion?  According to Martín de León, a Dominican priest and author of this 1611 guide to Catholic doctrine, the answer is yes.  Catholic clergy during the Reformation were very concerned that the faithful display respect for the sacrament of communion, in part because disputes over the meaning of the Eucharist lay at the heart of the divisions between Catholics and Protestants.  For this reason, confessional manuals and handbooks of the period provided detailed information about circumstances in which it was or was not appropriate to administer communion; for example, the sacrament should not be given to individuals who were so drunk that they were likely to vomit, as this would result in a desecration of the consecrated host.  More broadly, such texts urged priests to remind their parishioners about the importance of pious comportment before, during, and after communion.  Those receiving communion should fast beforehand, behave modestly while in church (manuals warned men not to stare at female parishioners), and under no circumstances pick their teeth or spit afterwards, lest they inadvertently discharge fragments of the lord’s body.  In addition, communicants should avoid sullying their mouth with filthy or disgusting substances for at least an hour after receiving the sacrament.  Smoking after communion was therefore prohibited.  So too was eating revolting foodstuffs.  León’s handbook singled out owls, mice, and the little worms that grow in the agave cactus as examples of foods to shun after taking communion.

But who would eat an owl or an agave worm in the first place?  As these examples suggest, León’s handbook was aimed not at priests practicing in Europe but instead at those based in the Spanish colony of New Spain, which comprised roughly the region we now call Mexico.  León’s bilingual Spanish-Nahuatl text thus combined features familiar from European doctrinal handbooks with the more specific concerns facing colonial authorities in the new world.  León was anxious to ensure not only that correct procedures were followed in the administration of the mass, but also that Amerindian parishioners embraced Hispanic culture more broadly.  This included the adoption of European dietary practices.  Priest, officials and settlers routinely asserted that Amerindians would become more civilised were they to eat an Iberian diet and abandon the ‘barbarous’ foods they had hitherto enjoyed.  Worms, rodents and reptiles figured prominently in most lists of foodstuffs that ought to be abandoned.  León’s admonition that worms, mice and owls were best avoided after communion thus reflects not only the concerns of Reformation-era Catholicism, but also the mentality of many of the Spaniards resident in the Indies.  Instead of worms and mice, Amerindians were advised to eat the foods that formed the cornerstone of the ideal Iberian diet, the most important of which was wheat bread.  Wheat bread was regarded as supremely nourishing—one Spanish doctor described it as a ‘gift from Mother Nature as precious as health itself’—and was for Spaniards redolent of civilisation. (1)

This was in part because of the central role that wheat bread played in the very communion service with which we began.  Since the middle ages Christian doctrine required that the host be fabricated using only wheat flour and water; no other grain was considered capable of undergoing the mystical transformation into the body of Jesus Christ.  For Spanish settlers in colonial Mexico, wheat bread thus savoured of Catholicism, of civilisation, of health—of all the things they associated with Europe.

What then should one eat after taking communion?  León made clear that barbarous Amerindian foods such as owls and worms were an offence to God, and urged his indigenous parishioners instead to eat ‘clean things and good food’. (2) No prizes for guessing what he offered as the prime example of this good, clean food: wholesome, white, wheat bread.  Part of what I like about this excerpt from León’s manual is that it illustrates very well the ways in which colonial Spanish America was profoundly connected to Europe—the concerns about correct comportment during communion were after all typical of European Catholicism—at the same time as it highlights the distinctive contours of Spanish American colonial space, which emerge clearly from León’s contrast between disgusting, sinful indigenous foods and clean, good European foods.  This vignette also reminds us of the food’s powerful ability to encapsulate many aspects of a culture’s beliefs and longings.  León’s admonition to avoid agave worms and embrace wheat bread takes us to the heart of the transformations Spaniards dreamed of imposing on their new world colonies: food, as Claude Levi Strauss reminded us decades ago, is good to think, as well as to eat.

1. Francisco Hernández, ‘Maize, The Mexican Treasury: The Writings of Dr. Francisco Hernández, ed. and trans. Simon Varey, Rafael Chabrán and Cynthia Chamberlain, Stanford University Press (Stanford, 2000), 111.

2. León, Camino del cielo, 132.

In the spring of 2009, Rebecca Earle was a Ruth and Lincoln Ekstrom Fellow and a professor at the University of Warwick, UK.


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