The Corporal (from the Latin corpus, "body") is a square white linen cloth, now usually somewhat smaller than the breadth of an altar, upon which the chalice and paten, and also the ciborium containing the smaller hosts for the Communion of the laity, are placed during the celebration of the Eucharist (Mass).
It may fairly be assumed that something in the nature of a corporal has been in use since the earliest days of Christianity. Naturally it is difficult, based on the extant records from the early church, to distinguish the corporal from the altar-cloth. For instance, a passage of St. Optatus (c. 375), where he asks, "What Christian is unaware that in celebrating the Sacred Mysteries the wood [of the altar] is covered with a linen cloth?" (ipsa ligna linteamine cooperiri) leaves us in doubt which he is referring to. This is probably the earliest direct testimony; for the statement of the Liber Pontificalis, "He (Pope Sylvester I) decreed that the Sacrifice should not be celebrated upon a silken or dyed cloth, but only on linen, sprung from the earth, as the Body of our Lord Jesus Christ was buried in a clean linen shroud" cannot be relied upon. Still, the ideas expressed in this passage are found in an authentic letter of St Isidore of Pelusium and again in the "Expositio" of St. Germanus of
in the sixth century. Indeed they lasted through the Middle Ages. Paris
Afterwards it might be sent to the laundry and treated like other linen. The suggestion as to keeping the corporal between the leaves of the Missal is interesting because it shows that it cannot, even in the tenth century, have always been of that extravagant size which might be inferred from the description in the "Second Roman Ordo" (cap. ix), where the deacon and an assistant deacon are represented as folding it up between them. Still it was big enough at this period to allow its being bent back to cover the chalice, and thus serve the purpose of our present pall. This is traditionally done by the Carthusians, who use no pall and have no elevation of the chalice.
As regards the size of the corporal, some change may have taken place when it ceased to be usual for the people to bring loaves to the altar, for there was no longer need of a large cloth to fold back over them and cover them. At any rate, it is in the eleventh and twelfth centuries that the practice of doubling the corporal over the chalice gave way to a new plan of using a second (folded) corporal to cover the mouth of the chalice when required. The question is debated in some detail in one of the letters of St. Anselm, who quite approves of the arrangement; and a hundred years later we find Pope Innocent III stating, "there are two kinds of palls or corporals, as they are called [duplex est palla qu dicitur corporale] one which the deacon spreads out upon the altar, the other which he places folded upon the mouth of the chalice”.
According to traditional liturgical rules, the corporal must not be ornamented with embroidery, and must be made entirely of pure white linen, though there seem to have been many medieval exceptions to this rule. It is not to be left to lie open upon the altar, but when not in use is to be folded and put away in a burse, or corporas-case, as it was commonly called in pre-Reformation
. Upon these burses much ornamentation is lavished, and this has been the case since medieval times, as many existing examples survive to show. The corporal is now usually folded twice in length and twice in breadth, so that when folded it still forms a small square. At an earlier period, when it was larger and was used to cover the chalice as well, it was commonly folded four times in length and thrice in breadth. This practice continued to be followed by some of the older religious orders, even when the rest of the church changed. The corporal and pall have to pass through a triple washing at the hands of a priest, or at least a subdeacon, before they may be sent to a laundry. Also, when they are in use they may not be handled by any but the clergy, or sacristans to whom special permission is given. England