Ratramnus of Corbie and His Book on the Lord’s Supper

Little is known about Ratramnus. He was a Benedictine monk at Corbie Abbey, in Picardy, France, who had gained an excellent reputation as scholar and writer. Besides his work on the Lord’s Supper (On the Body and Blood of the Lord), he wrote several books, including a popular treatise in four books in defense of the “Filioque Clause” (as added to the Nicene Creed). He also defended the monk Gottschalk and his controversial views on double predestination.

The Reason for the Book

            It was Charles the Bald, King of West Francia, who asked Ratramnus to write on the Lord’s Supper. Ratramnus’s teacher, Paschasius Radbertus, had recently written a similar book by the same title, but Charles wanted to reach a better understanding and was interested in hearing Ratramnus’s opinion, which he greatly valued.

            Specifically, Charles wanted to know “whether that which in the church is received into the mouth of the faithful becomes the body and the blood of Christ in a mystery or in truth.”[1] According to Ratramnus, the church was already “divided by great schism”[2] in this matter.

            Ratramnus’s work stood in opposition to Radbertus’s. For Radbertus, at the moment of consecration, the eucharistic bread and wine become identical with the body and blood of Christ. According to 16th-century Cardinal Robert Bellarmine, Radbertus’s book represented the first written declaration of the reality of the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist, which became official Roman Catholic doctrine in 1215.

            Ratramnus, instead, described the elements as a figurative representation to be partaken by faith in remembrance of Christ. There is no record of any controversy between the two monks, not even when, later that year, Radbertus became Corbie’s abbot.

            Ratramnus is the clearest of the two, and demonstrates a greater familiarity with the church fathers, particularly Augustine. Radbertus’s work is shorter and simpler, employing stories of eucharistic miracles in the lives of saints.

            Ratramnus’s clarity stems at least in part from his stronger distinction between truth and figure. For Radbertus, truth is, in this context, “anything rightly understood or believed inwardly concerning this mystery”[3] – a fairly generic definition – while Ratramnus defines it as a concrete reality, a “representation of clear facts, not obscured by any shadowy images … for example, when Christ is said to have been born of the Virgin, suffered, been crucified, died, and being buried.”[4]

            To this definition of truth, Ratramnus contraposes “figure” as “a kind of overshadowing that reveals its intent under some sort of veil. For example, … when Christ speaking in the gospel says, ‘I am the living bread who came down from heaven,’ or when he calls himself the vine and his disciples the branches. For all these passages say one thing and hint another.”[5]

            Along these lines, Ratramnus points out that, when Jesus first said, “This is my body … This is my blood,” he was standing there with the disciples. There was obviously a vast difference between the true body and blood of Christ and the elements which he held in his hands, just as there is a large difference now between the true and living resurrected body of Christ and the elements that are passed out in the Supper. What’s more, in the eucharistic bread, “there is a figure not only of Christ’s own body, but also of the people who believe in Christ, for it bears the figure of both bodies.”[6]

The Book’s History

            If very few documents are left about Ratramnus’s life, his book on the Lord’s Supper has a history of its own. It was rarely mentioned until 1050, when French archdeacon Berengarius of Tours made it a subject of great controversy, defending its views against Radbertus’s. He was however confused about its author, and attributed to the Irish theologian John Scotus Erigena. The same year, a synod at Vercelli, Italy, condemned Berengarius and burned the book.

            About thirty years later, the book was quoted again by the Benedictine monk Sigebert of Gembloux. Two of his copyists, however, spelled Ratramnus’s name as Bertramus, a name that stuck (especially in its shorter form “Bertram”), since it was obviously easier to remember.

            The book finally caught the interest of 16th-century reformers, who saw it as a proof of the historicity of a clerical opposition to transubstantiation. Roman Catholics, on the other hand, were quick to denounce it as a fake. It sounded too much like a Protestant work. The Franciscan Sixtus of Siena believed that Bertram was a pseudonym for Oecolampadius, a Swiss reformer. The accusations didn’t hold water, because Oecolampadius never mentioned the book in any of his works.

            Most famously, Bishop Nicholas Ridley said of this Bertram: “This man was the first that pulled me by the ear, and forced me from the common error of the Roman church to a more diligent search of Scripture and ecclesiastical writers on this matter.” Bertram, Ridley said, was unequivocal in his conviction that “the substance of bread remaineth still in the sacrament.”

Given the book’s popularity in Protestant circles, the Council of Trent placed it on its list of forbidden books in 1559.

            The question of authenticity was resolved in 1672, when the Benedictine Jean Mabillon found a definite proof of the book’s author. In spite of this, the French crown repeated its condemnation in 1685, and the Roman Catholic Church kept it on its list of forbidden books until 1900. Today, Roman Catholic authorities believe it has simply been misread.

            Nearly forgotten for the first 200 years, misattributed for the next 600 and condemned until the 20th century, Ratramnus’s book is today still obscure. In some ways, Ratramnus is like Augustine: both Roman Catholics and Protestants claim him as their own. In reality, his book stands in church history more as a question mark than a period. It has contributed to raise important inquiries, and has proven that the history of Christian thought is not as black and white as we often depict it.

[1] George E. McCracken and Allen Cabaniss, eds., Early Medieval Theology, The Westminster Press, Philadelphia, 1957, p. 119

[2] Ibid, p. 118

[3] Ibid, p. 102

[4] Ibid, p. 120

[5] Ibid, p. 119

[6] Ibid, p. 147.


Simonetta Carr