Liturgica Obscura: The Praegustatio in Pontifical and Papal Masses (Pre-Tasting of the Bread and Wine)

In the modern world, it can be difficult to imagine what life was like in previous centuries in times when science was less advanced. As a result people got away with murder -- quite literally.  In instances of the wealthier and higher functionaries of society -- who were much less physically reachable and frequently surrounded by personal guards and the like -- poisoning was a go-to method for the would be assassin.  We have all seen it in movies many times; a small flask of poison, secretly poured into a goblet of wine  -- tasteless, invisible, but deadly.

In previous times, prelates of the Church were not immune from this sort of attack, their roles being integral, influential and powerful not only within the Church itself but also within society more generally. 

While a guard can defend off a physical attack of an assailant, poisoning is another matter. Sure, you can try to have armed guards around but they cannot be everywhere and see everything at all times. As such, princes (both sacred and secular) turned to the defence of having a trusted member of their court publicly taste their food and to ascertain whether it had been poisoned before it was consumed by them.

In the case of prelates, by later medieval times this practice would find its way right into the liturgy itself; the matter for the sacred species were consumed, prior to their consecration of course, in a rite that is generally known as the "praegustatio" or pre-tasting of the elements. 

In the Roman rite this took place during the offertory and was generally done by the sacristan at or near the altar. You can see some modern examples of this usage above. It must be said, however, that in many places this rite long ago fell into complete disuse.

It remained, however, a feature of the traditional papal liturgy right up until the time of Paul VI. That rite is described here by Archdale King in his description of the Solemn Papal Mass:
The sacristan, assisted by the cup-bearer or pantler, then purifies the sacred vessels, spoon and cruets with wine, and the water cruet with water. A small quantity of wine and water are poured into a vessel, and consumed by the cup-bearer: the remainder put into the cruets and given to the acolyte. The sacristan in a humeral veil places the vessels on the altar. Then the cardinal deacon takes three hosts and lays them on the paten: with one of them he rubs the paten, and with another touches the inside and outside of the chalice. These two hosts are consumed by the sacristan with his face turned towards the Pope; while the third serves for the Mass. The testing of the oblations is concluded by the cardinal deacon pouring a little of the wine and water into a vessel, which the cup-bearer immediately drinks. The deacon pours enough wine into the chalice for three people, and the subdeacon adds the water with a gold spoon.
One can see in this description that not only was the bread and wine tested, so too were the paten and chalice to ensure poison had not been applied directly to them instead of the bread and wine itself.

In the Pontifical Rite of Lyon this same pre-tasting rite was called the "Administration" and it included an impressive procession made after the Epistle; it included acolytes, subdeacons, deacons, priests and the sacristan. Here in this video excepts (provided to LAJ courtesy of the Archives of the Archdiocese of Lyon) you can see this same rite it in its very heavily ritualized, Gallican form:

I would be remiss to not note a humorous, historical account given by Archdale King about the nature and circumstances of this Gallican form of the pre-tasting and some of the corresponding gossip that ensued: 
The wine was formerly provided by the collegiate churches of the city [of Lyon], which seem to have been generous in their gift, and in the 17th century we find not only the manilier, but also the clerks and clergeons tasting the wine. With such an arrangement, abuses were inevitable, and writers of the time accused the authorities of organizing a 'miniature drinking party'

Ah! The human side of the Church. 

Certainly the much more open and succinct form of praegustatio found in the Roman rite would have worked against any such abuses. 

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