Medieval Manuscripts Upend Assumptions: Era Far More Tolerant Than Usually Thought

By Schaeffer, Pamela | National Catholic Reporter, January 9, 1998 | Go to article overview

Medieval Manuscripts Upend Assumptions: Era Far More Tolerant Than Usually Thought


Schaeffer, Pamela, National Catholic Reporter


SAN DIEGO -- Gary Macy puts on a dentist's loupe, the magnifying goggles used for close-up work. The only teeth that Macy is concerned about, however, are metaphorical: the teeth he sinks into medieval manuscripts he has stockpiled from his travels.

He pulls a manuscript up on his computer. The chairman of the theology and religious studies department at the University of San Diego, a private Catholic institution, is about to have some fun.

A self-described "demythologizer," Macy specializes in sacramental theology of the Middle Ages. One of his favorite pastimes is scrutinizing cramped Latin script for whatever surprises it might reveal about medieval Catholic thought.

Aided by his goggles and Adobe Photoshop, a software program that magnifies and sharpens the letters, he reads the manuscript's heading: Queritur de genere motus corporum (on the movement of glorified bodies).

In Macy's pursuit of the past, he is driven by the present. In the context of the growing priest shortage and recent controversies over ordination, he brings forward little-known medieval discussions about the Eucharist. His findings so far, he said, challenge the official position of church leaders that, by unbroken tradition over centuries, the words of consecration were considered valid only if spoken by specially ordained men. According to Macy's research, some medieval liturgists and theologians believed that when the words of consecration were spoken, bread and wine became the body and blood of Christ, no matter who spoke the words -- even if the speaker was a member of the laity. Even if the speaker was a woman.

If there is an effort Macy finds as rewarding as deciphering old Latin -- better even than live theater, Baroque music and sporting events, more fun even than the teaching, gardening, cooking and partying that he enjoys -- it is sleuthing around Europe for rarely-read, often uncatalogued, treatises.

"I've been forced to go to Paris, Rome, London," he said wryly. "That's a hurdle I don't mind." Macy anticipates his will take hun next to Cologne and Munich in Germany and Vienna, Austria. His reward for daily diligence in repositories of ancient documents is gustatory pleasures at the dinner hour.

Last summer, at the annual meeting of the Catholic Theological Society of America in Minneapolis, Macy, then sporting a short ponytail, spoke to the full assembly about the Eucharist and popular religiosity in the Middle Ages. "It's never what we think," he said, reflecting on that talk during an interview in his office. "There was a myth sold in the church from the late 19th century until about 1950 that the church had always been the way it was then, and that the papacy was always in charge. It just isn't true."

No line to toe

Medieval theology and practice suggest a far more tolerant perspective than is generally thought, he said. "Many people have a picture of the Middle Ages as a time when you had to toe the line or find yourself in prison for heresy." In reality, he said, "there was no line to toe."

He noted that the stereotype has even infiltrated Hollywood. "One of the real consistent themes" in television and movies is that the medieval church was oppressive, he said. He remembers watching year after year a spooky Halloween special set in a medieval village. "There were lots of dark shadows" and a narrator's mood-setting words: "Once upon a time in the Dark Ages, when men's minds were dark. ..."

Macy keeps on his bookshelves a book by an Italian scholar, Matteo Sanfilippo, who mocks such notions. It is titled Il Medioevo Secondo Walt Disney: Come l'America ha reinventato l'Eta di Mezzo -- in English, The Middle Ages According to Walt Disney: How America has reinvented the Middle Ages (Castelvecchi, 1993).

Even theologians feed the stereotype at times, when they reduce medieval thought to the writings of "one hefty Dominican," St. …

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