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Was there a ‘the Church’ in the Middle Ages?

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  21 March 2016

Gary Macy*
Affiliation:
University of San Diego

Extract

Scholarly works on the Middle Ages frequently enough mention ‘the Church in the Middle Ages’, or ‘the teaching of the Church in the Middle Ages’ without further specification, as if the reader could immediately identify the institution to which the author is referring. The authors of such works assume both that the reader readily recognizes what the author means by the phrase, but also, and perhaps more troubling, assume that there was an easily identifiable group in the Middle Ages that was ‘the Church’. Yet, when one tries actually to establish some agreement among medieval sources as to what constituted ‘the Church’ or even some agreement as to the criteria by which one could recognize a ‘the Church’, the ‘the Church’ which ought to be so solid seems to disappear into a thousand disparate factions. If, in fact, ‘the Church’ is really better described as a set of common traditions rather than as an institutional monolith, then the question of unity within ‘the Church’ would centre more on the commonality of this tradition than on the structural integrity and uniformity of belief within the institution. In short, how one understands and defines ‘the Church’ will determine the criteria by which one affirms or denies the unity of that Church. A discussion of what ‘the Church of the Middle Ages’ might be seems to be methodologically prior to any determination of the unity or disunity of Christianity in the Middle Ages. This contribution will limit itself to an exploration of some of the problems inherent in assuming that there was a ‘the Church in the Middle Ages’ and, further, that this ‘Church of the Middle Ages’ can be easily identified and defined.

Type
Research Article
Copyright
Copyright © Ecclesiastical History Society 1996

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References

1 For an interesting discussion of how the United States views the Middle Ages, see Sanfilippo, Matteo, II medioevo secondo Walt Disney: come l’America ha reinventato l’età di mezzo (Rome, 1993).Google Scholar

2 Redondi, Pietro, Galileo Heretic (Princeton, NJ, 1987), p. 213.Google Scholar

3 Ibid., p. 218.

4 Cf. Macy, Gary, ‘Reception of the eucharist according to the theologians: a case of diversity in the 13th and 14th centuries’, in Apczynski, John, ed., Theology and the University, Proceedings of the Annual Convention of the College Theology Society, 1987 (Lanham, Maryland, 1990), pp. 1536.Google Scholar

5 Langmuir, Gavin, History, Religion, and Antisemitism (Berkeley, Cal., 1990), pp. 2501.Google Scholar

6 Ibid., p. 259.

7 As one of several possible explanations for the real presence of Christ in the eucharist, transubstantiation argues that the substance (the unsensed essence) of the bread and wine change into the substance of the body and blood of Christ. The accidents (that which is sensed) remain unchanged. Thus transubstantiation was put forward as a way of explaining how a real change could take place without any sensed change occurring. This would make the change a metaphysical rather than a physical one. More precisely, it would be an intellectual change, since substance can only be grasped by the intellect. The belief that a true physical change took place in the eucharist was actually a heresy, that of Capharnaism. For a brief explanation of this aspect of transubstantiation, see Gary Macy, The Banquet’s Wisdom: a Short History of the Theologies of the Lord’s Supper (Mahwah, NJ, 1992), pp. 104–9.

8 Professor Langmuir, of course, describes in detail what he means by ‘religion’ and ‘religiosity’, and it is not to these precise definitions that I refer. What he fails to do is offer a convincing argument for the existence of a distinctly separate ‘papal’ or ‘Roman Catholic’ religion in the late Middle Ages. See, for instance. History, Religion, and Antisemitism, pp. 137-40, 181-2, 188-91.

9 Pars iii, q. 73, art. 3. Summa theologiae … cum textu ex recensione Leonina (Rome, 1953), pp. 482-3.

10 Evans, G. R., ‘Exegesis and authority in the thirteenth century’, in Jordan, Mark D. and Emery, Kent Jr., eds, Ad litteram: Authoritative Texts and their Medieval Readers (Notre Dame, Ind., 1992), pp. 967.Google Scholar

11 Macy, G., ‘The dogma of transubstantiation in the Middle Ages’, JEH, 45 (1994), pp. 1141.Google Scholar

12 Historia transubstantiationis papalis (London, 1675), p. 150.

13 ‘Exegesis and authority’, pp. 107-8.

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