16.08.21, Peters and Anderson, eds., A Companion to Priesthood and Holy Orders in the Middle Ages

Main Article Content

Gary Macy

The Medieval Review 16.08.21

Peters, Greg and C. Colt Anderson, eds. A Companion to Priesthood and Holy Orders in the Middle Ages. Brill's Companions to the Christian Tradition, 62. Leiden: Brill, 2016. pp. xii, 387. ISBN: 9789004236738 (hardback) 9789004305861 (ebook).

Reviewed by:
Gary Macy
Santa Clara University

This compilation is an important contribution to the study of ecclesiastical structures in the Middle Ages and the best summary to date of the role of the priesthood and ordination during that period. That said, the volume is deliberately eclectic as the preface admits, "a range of methodologies have been adopted so as to place the Christian priesthood not just under one microscope, but under a host of different microscopes..." (1). The result is an intriguing and a refreshing addition both to medieval history and to modern debates about the role of the priesthood.

After a short introduction, Robert Swanson offers a masterful overview of the ordination of priests in the Middle Ages. He immediately points out the difficulties involved in such a study. Not only is there a paucity of sources for the early periods, but the topic itself is a political minefield. Different Christian groups have strong feelings about what the sources should say, and so scholars have too often ignored what the sources actually do say. Further complicating the picture, the words (priest, bishop, ordination, etc.) changed their meanings over time and therefore "create traps and distortions that may not always be evident" (8). Most significant was the change in the meaning in ordination that took place as a result of the Gregorian Reform. This "tectonic shift" has deeply affect scholarship on the issue. "Once created, the 12th century's construct of theologized sacramental ordination was projected back on the past" (11). Swanson's insistence on this important insight is shared by most, but not all, the contributors. Swanson goes to offer a necessarily brief overview of the changing role, education and ecclesiastical standing of a priest over the vast time and space covered by this volume. The article is a wonderful summary of the state of scholarship on the priesthood and ordination. Swanson ends by again insisting on the importance of the change wrought in twelfth century to the understanding of both priest and ordination. It is worth repeating in full:

The tectonic shift of the long 12th century brought fundamental changes in the way that episcopacy and priesthood were defined and described within the Western church, to clarify the status and role of bishops and priest both for themselves and for the laity to whom they offered the hope of salvation. Collective amnesia soon obscured the extent of the transformation as the new (but soon engrained and traditional) understanding of priestly ordination and episcopal authority congealed into a system and theology of "order," which had supposedly existed since apostolic times and became a spinal feature of late medieval catholicism. In particular, the sacramental priesthood, imbued with the character infused by ordination, became foundational for the whole sacramental system and for the whole hierarchical order (41).

One of two contributions by Roger Reynolds follows with a presentation of ordination as it was depicted in the different ritual books used by bishops for ordination. Reynolds stressed the centrality of the ritual of "handing over of the instruments (traditio instrumentorum)" in the ordination rites. Here each office in the church received the objects used in that particular office. The discussion of the colorful visuals brings the subject to life in a way that text alone could not.

Augustine Casiday's discussion of the priesthood in the Byzantine Empire widens the scope of the volume and offers the reader a comparison not often presented. Unlike the West, the Eastern Church envisioned a "symphony" of church and state in which the Church was a public institution within the Empire. Casiday traces the role of the Church both within the state and also within Byzantine society. Not only the Roman government but also lay patrons played an important role in establishing and providing clergy for their private churches. Clergy were expected to be well educated and responsible for the teaching of the laity. Priests were also to offer examples of an exemplary married Christian life, while bishops were to remain chaste even if previously married.

David Hunter's presentation of married clergy in the Western Church offers a welcome companion to the description of married clergy in the East. Hunter points out that Christian leaders in the earliest years were married, but beginning in the third century and continuing into the fourth century, there were efforts to legislate sexual continence for the married clergy in the higher orders. By the sixth century, as least in the East, continence was required for bishops. Meanwhile, sources seem to indicate that "enforcement of sexual continence [for the clergy] in Western Christianity fluctuated wildly" (135). Only beginning in the twelfth century, under the influence of the reformed popes, would celibacy be enforced on all the higher clergy.

In a second contribution, Roger Reynolds discusses how each of the orders in the Church was held to be an image of Christ, although each in its own way. The descriptions are contained in "ordinals" that list each of the clerical orders and how it images Christ in its particular function. As one might expect, the change in the understanding of ordination with its insistence on the centrality of the priesthood is echoed in changes in the ordinals. "With the late 11th century, the theological presupposition underlying the chronological ordering changed to the Eucharistic sacrifice of the true sacerdos. Just as the Last Supper was the determinative event in the institution of the grades, so their hierarchical relationship was determined by their relation to the Eucharist" (186).

It is fitting given the change noted by Reynolds, that the next essay by John Romano focuses precisely on the priesthood and the Eucharist. Romano starts by pointing out that the central office of the priest as portrayed in ordination rites is that of offering the Eucharist. How that offering took place, however, differed widely from place to place and time to time. "It was not until the advent of the printing press that it was possible to ensure that the locales had the same texts" (196). Romano then traces the development of the votive mass in the West, as well as the related (and sometimes controversial) relationship of monks to the priesthood. As had previous contributors, Romano points out the importance of the Reform Papacy in shaping a new understanding of the centrality of the priesthood based on the power to consecrate the bread and wine in the Eucharist. As Romano points out: "As the chastity of priests became a major topic of concern, women would become entirely excluded from the altar. This would be a departure from the early Middle Ages, when women could still be 'ordained'" (206). Again to quote Romano, "Priests became seen in the 12th century as the sole actors in the Mass acting on behalf of the Jesus, and any role the laity had in the ceremony became devalued" (209). Priests became a clearly separated caste within the Church, marked out by celibacy as well as higher standards of morality. As such they became the targets of different reformed groups contributing in the sixteen century in the split of Western Christianity.

An anomaly in the collection is the chapter on priesthood and the sacrament of marriage by Charles Reid. The essay lacks any extended discussion of married priests, an obvious topic for this article. Instead Reid reviews discussion of virginity and marriage by Ambrose and Augustine as if these discussions were comparisons of the lay and ordained state. He describes the harsh approach of the Irish monks to any sexual activity outside marriage which, he asserts, established "a tripartite relationship of priesthood, confession, and marriage shaping and molding each other" (232). Important distinctions between the role of monks and priests are simply ignored as well as any development in the practice of penance. According to Reid, Gratian was singularly responsible for the dramatic change in the understanding of marriage that took place in the twelfth century. The Council of Trent reacted against the "anarchy" of marriage by consent established by the twelfth century by insisting that marriages take place before a priest and two witnesses thus bringing marriage and the priesthood back into some relationship. The essay assumes a priesthood that has always been celibate and always the celebrant of the sacrament of penance. In this, it contrasts strikingly with both Hunter's and Reeves' carefully researched contributions.

Andrew Reeves investigates the role of priests in a third sacrament, that of penance. He begins his discussion in the twelfth century with its renewed emphasis on a parish clergy trained to provide spiritual guidance to his flock. "This training would come from schools, from the study of pastoral literature, and from his superiors in the hierarchy of the diocese" (256). Reeves then discussed each of these sources. Few clergy were fortunate enough to receive a university education; more were influenced by the growing number of manuals written to guide pastors in their care of souls. "A 13th century priest with the initiative and desire to fulfill his role as a good confessor would thus have had ready access to even the most advanced pastoral literature" (266). Most of the manuals stressed leniency and a careful assessment of the situation of the sin confessed. In Reeves' analysis, preaching carried the teaching of vices and virtues successfully to the laity.

C. Colt Anderson offers a more narrowly focused essay that contrasts with the wider sweep of most of the other contributions. His conclusion, however, is more generally applicable: "There was not a monolithic understanding of of the nature of priesthood or ordination" (303). Anderson demonstrates this by outlining the struggle between the competing claims of the diocesan clergy and the regular clergy between 1123 and 1418. The opening salvo came from Rome. "The First Lateran Council's prohibition of monks involving themselves in pastoral care led to a period of incredible innovation and experimentation within the Church" (283). Opposition to this prohibition came from Augustinian canons in the twelfth century and then more fiercely from the friars in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Not only did the friars take on pastoral care, radical Franciscans preached a new age of friars that would replace that of the diocesan clergy. In response to the Papal Schism, the conciliarists urged that the Church as a whole took precedence over the clerical hierarchy. "The reformers at Constance envisioned a relationship between the clergy and the laity and between the papacy and the rest of the Church [that] rejected the Gregorian reform agenda..." (303). In short, the idea of a clergy endowed with a metaphysical superiority over the laity was questioned throughout the later Middle Ages.

Michael Cusato takes on a similar topic in his discussion of the relationship between the secular clergy and the mendicants from the mid-twelfth through the mid-thirteenth centuries. Repeating Reeves' claims, Cusato notes the importance of Lateran Councils III and particularly IV in stressing the importance of pastoral care. Lateran IV established the two central functions of a pastor--administration of the sacraments and instruction of the faithful. Gregory IX complicated this structure by assigning friars pastoral duties as teachers attached to no particular parish or diocese. The friars were often better educated than the secular clergy and attracted large audiences for their preaching. "The mendicants showed themselves...particularly adept at reaching men and women whose spiritual lives had become disconnected from their daily lives and activities..." (329). Cusato agrees with Reeves that a new, more personal approach was taken to the sacrament of penance in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, but disagrees that the secular clergy successfully practiced that art. For Cusato, the friars were need to supply what the seculars lacked.

The final essay in the collection addressed not the priesthood and ordination, but the diaconate and ordination. Although falling outside the stated purpose of the volume, William Ditewig's essay forms a convenient bookend to Swanson's introductory piece. Ditewig, too, stresses the important change that took place in the understanding of ordination during the eleventh century reform movement. Before the change, each order was complete in itself, not merely a step towards the priesthood. So too the diaconate was its own career and an extremely important one. Deacons were responsible for the temporalities of the Church. As effective managers, many moved directly to the episcopate bypassing the priesthood altogether. Indeed, at least ten deacons were chosen as bishops of Rome between 715 and 974. Starting in the fifth century, however, the diaconate became more and more a liturgical function while the role of archdeacon developed importance as the effective vicar of the bishop. The emphasis on the priesthood developed in the eleventh century reform, however, reduced the role of the deacon to a stepping stone, although a major one, on the way to the priesthood. The diaconate, like all other orders, became not a career but a temporary stage on the way to true ordination to the priesthood.

Altogether this set of essays presents a foray into the relatively unexplored area of the priesthood and ordination in the Middle Ages. This is not a linear history of the subject. Indeed, such a history may not be possible, and probably not desirable, given the contested nature of priesthood in the present. As Greg Peters notes in the introduction, "Priesthood and Holy Orders in the Middle Ages is, in many ways, a volume that looks at contemporary issues by way of the medieval sources that serve as the origin of these questions" (1). As such, with the possible exception of the article by Reid, the volume succeeds admirably. It should certainly be required reading by anyone who wishes to study Christianity in the Middle Ages as well as by those who want to know how those forms of Christianity shape Christianity today.

Article Details