Project Canterbury

The Burse and the Corporals.

By Percy Dearmer.

London: The Warham Guild, 1932.

THE terrible buildings of the so-called Gothic Revival of the Victorian era, about us in every city, remind us that this was an era of revival without knowledge. As Lethaby wrote, the men who built like that could never even have seen a Gothic church. In smaller things similar curious mistakes happened; and because of the natural weight of habit they have survived to the present day. But the younger generation will drop them, because after all we English folk are not so illogical as we pretend, but do follow principle, and in the end we are consistent.

The example we are now to consider is the Pair of Corporals, that is to say, the Corporal and Pall. Much legerdemain is required as one celebrates in different churches and is confronted with every size and variety of thin cotton and fluffy lawn, unmanageable bits of lace, slips of cardboard, squares of blotting paper, and tags of elastic. Yet all these incumbrances are due to the fact that the church-shop (muddled by Roman rubrics), and [3/4] the good ladies of half a century ago (who did not have to celebrate themselves), were not aware of the entirely seemly and convenient customs which the Prayer Book rubrics carry on and embody.

Originally, there was one large corporal, which covered the whole top of the altar; then this was reduced in length, so that it could be easily turned over the vessels from the back. For convenience (and as early as the time of S. Anselm) this corporal was divided into two, and became the pair of corporals. To avoid confusion, we will call the first corporal simply The Corporal; and the second we will call by the familiar though not very expressive term, The Pall.


Here is the Corporal folded. Both Corporals may be exactly the same, and may be interchanged; but for convenience we will mark this one in the familiar way, with a device (a cross or any other device) on the inside, so that the device does not show when the Corporal is folded. Thus:

[5] Before the vessels are placed on the Lord’s Table this Corporal is unfolded, so that, as in Plate 2 below, the device is in the familiar way on the front middle square. Both the Corporals are made of exceptionally good and stout linen, so that this one unfolds with no trouble, and is placed quite easily exactly on the place where it should go; that is, in the middle of the altar, near the front, but not hanging over the edge. As the picture shows, the folds divide the Corporal into nine squares; these are unfolded first at the sides (beginning at the right), then the back part is folded back, and lastly the front part; and this also is a matter of pure convenience; it is not sinful, or even incorrect, to do otherwise, but it complicates the folds if different people treat them in varying ways. So then, in folding up again, one should begin with the front part, then fold the back part over, and then the sides. Here is the Corporal when it is spread out:



As this, like the other, is made of stout good linen, it forms when it is folded a perfectly firm cover for the chalice; and no cardboard, blotting paper, or other foreign matter is required. It is kept on the chalice until immediately before the Eucharistic Prayer, when it is removed, and placed on the altar at the side. Plate 3 shows it lying on the chalice, the device or symbol being for distinction on the outside:


Here we see the entire relevance of the Prayer Book rubric; for the Pall or Second Corporal is the fair linen cloth there mentioned:

‘When all have communicated, the Minister shall return to the Lord’s Table, and reverently place upon it what remaineth of the consecrated Elements, covering the same with a fair linen cloth.’

This is the Second Corporal or Pall, and has nothing to do with the linen altar-cloth, which is best called ‘the Fair Linen,’ to avoid confusion.

[7] The Pall then, after the communion of the people, is unfolded by the deacon (or by the celebrant himself, if he is alone) and spread out over the paten, which rests on the chalice, as is shown in Plate 4:


This significant veiling is the only veiling for which there is authority. There should be no covering of the vessels by any sort of veil at any time before the communion of the people. Since it is our duty to tell the truth, we are bound to state, although the statement still often causes surprise, that we have no authority, either pre-Reformation or post-Reformation, for a silken ‘chalice-veil.’ We know how common this unauthorized ornament became during the Victorian era; but this does not exonerate us from the necessity of pointing out that it is a mistake. The Prayer Book follows a very ancient and widespread tradition in ordering the covering after the communion; and it is right in not ordering the vessels to [7/8] be covered at any earlier stage. Those who have once used a chalice-veil, and-have given it up, will bear testimony to the relief they find in not having to contend with this heavy veil, which frequently drags the paten off the chalice, and always has to be warily adjusted, held on, drawn off, and folded away.


The two Corporals (the Corporal and Pall) are kept in the Burse. If they are made of flimsy lawn or lace, they are with difficulty inserted, the more so if the Burse is made with the sides joined, as has been often done. This ornament is a flat case, hinged on one side and open at the three other sides, about eight to ten inches square,  large enough for the Corporals to be slipped into it with ease:


A pair of Corporals is normally kept in each Burse, unless the latter is out of use for some time. The Burse is lined with white linen; but otherwise the materials [8/9] of which it is made, and the stiffening, may be of any kind that is convenient. Often these receptacles are made of the colour of the season or occasion; but this is not necessary, unless it be desired by the authorities of the church for which it is made. Sometimes, as when a precious material or elaborate decoration is used, the Burse may be of a colour quite different from that of the frontal, etc. Sometimes a contrast of colour looks very well. The lower side may be of different material and colour from the upper, and in general it is more usefully made plain. Braid of some sort is usually needed; and embroidery and small tassels are sometimes added as decoration.

In all Church work, embroidery may be of any good design, and hackneyed devices should be avoided as much as possible; crosses, for instance, may be varied by other symbols or by initials; nor should the embroidery be too elaborate or heavy. The thread-work on linen ornaments may be of any colour: its use is to show that the linen is reserved for a special purpose.

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