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22.08.26 Feiss (ed.), On the Sacraments

22.08.26 Feiss (ed.), On the Sacraments

For all the acknowledged importance of scholars associated with the abbey of St Victor in Paris in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, disappointingly little of their work has been accessible to non-specialists, especially to those working outside the medieval period. This is a situation the admirable Victorine Texts in Translation series aims to remedy, although in only ten promised volumes. This hefty brick of a book (volume 10, but appearing out of order)--largely the work of Hugh Feiss, with some additional translation by Margaret Jennings and Andrew Salzmann and a General Introduction by Nicole Reibe--is an excellent addition to the series and should be essential reading for anyone interested in the history of sacramental theology or the development of scholasticism.

The tone is set from the beginning with a surprisingly good Foreword by Monsignor Kevin W. Irwin--surprising because, whereas most Forewords appear to be a few anodyne thoughts knocked off by the author in a spare half-hour, Irwin summarizes well what is to come and gives some thought to its place in the history of theology. One does not have to be a believer to welcome Irwin’s understanding and advocacy of these Victorine discussions as needing to be reclaimed by modern theologians as adding to a more nuanced view of the “evolution of the notion of “sacrament” (11). Although partly the result of “a lack of competent translations,” the omission of most of a thousand years of medieval thought also comes from “an eagerness to summarize the tradition of sacramental theology too quickly (e.g., from the fathers, to Peter Lombard, to Trent)” (11). What the texts and introductions in this volume show is the real complexity of and grappling with the knotty problems raised by the very idea of sacrament, along with the practicalities involved in mediating sacraments to the Church, that lay behind what is often portrayed as a seamless development of a simple concept. Irwin mentions the Catholic ressourcement movement, and this volume is both a resource and a “new spring” for anyone, within or without the Church, interested in the heritage and history of the topic.

The VTT series has attracted top Victorine scholars to its work, and this volume is no exception. Alongside the clear translations are a series of Introductions, both a good General Introduction by Reibe that nicely sets out the problems and overarching issues for the work as a whole, and shorter introductions to each of the sections by Feiss. These set out context for the next translation and lay out the important points and arguments made in it, greatly enhancing the reader’s understanding and enjoyment of what might otherwise be difficult or obscure. Put together, the introductions form a neat history of sacramental theology, and they could be usefully read on their own by any student. This is particularly true of the three separate introductions to the translations of texts on the sacrament of penance, the sacrament discussed at greatest length in the Middle Ages (and here, too) which provide an invaluable short course and bibliography for anyone new to the topic.

Most of the translations are (rightly) from Hugh of St Victor’s (d. 1141) central text De Sacramentis Christianae fidei (On the sacraments of the Christian faith). Hugh’s work is a startling reminder of how much in flux the notion of sacrament was in the twelfth century, and of his typically original approach to it. As so often, Hugh brings both telescope and microscope to these important subjects. He defines sacrament as collateral to the Incarnation, but also provides a list of individual sacraments which does not accord with the better-known group of seven provided by his near-contemporary, Peter Lombard, in his Four Books of Sentences. For compelling reasons, Hugh’s sacraments include the Dedication of a Church, which allows him a fascinating discussion of baptism and the nature of the Body of Christ. Ordination, too, is subsumed under the far broader (and crucial, in the Middle Ages) subject of the making of vows. However, Feiss does not restrict his use of Hugh to De Sacramentis, but creatively brings in his little work On the Virginity of the Blessed Virgin Mary for the section on marriage, and two of Hugh’s sententiae to the discussion of the Eucharist.

The section on penance begins with Hugh’s De Sacramentis, preceded by an excellent sketch of the state of the question up to that point, beginning with the New Testament. This is followed by an essay on penance from Gratian to Richard of St Victor (d. 1173), which allows the reader to consider the interplay between theology and canon law, before moving to the translations of two little-cited works of Richard, On the Difference in the Punishment of Mortal and Venial Sin and On the Power of Binding and Loosing. Both these works show a theological side of Richard unfamiliar to those who think of him mainly as a spiritual writer. He seems to aim to tread a path between the “intentional” emphasis of a theologian such as Peter Abelard and Hugh’s insistence on the place of practical activity in deciding these complex questions. Additionally, before this second translation of Richard, Feiss provides a thoughtful and useful list of vocabulary in Latin, enabling him to show the etymological links between many of the terms used in these works, and to point out the difficulty of turning these into similarly allusive English.

In the last of the three introductions to the translations about penance, Feiss provides a very useful overview of contemporary penitential practice at St Victor and its environs (n.b., with an unfortunate typo in the heading on p. 510 referring to Peter the Chanter as Peter the Chancellor). This precedes the very useful inclusion of the translation of the penitential, Compilatio praesens, by Peter of Poitiers (d. after 1216), canon of St Victor. Not to be confused with the Peter of Poitiers who was the author of Five Books of Sentences, nor the Peter of Poitiers who was a monk of Cluny and part of the team who translated the Qur’an into Latin, this Victorine Peter is known to us almost exclusively for this work--an interesting step on the way to the important penitentials of the thirteenth century.

Finally, we must thank Brepols for publishing a book which, though weighty, is seductively easy to use and read, with good paper, nice clear fonts, and solid production values. This will be a volume read, re-read, and referred to by many scholars for many years, and it will remain handsomely usable on their shelves.