Gary MACY, The Hidden History of Women’s Ordination: Female Clergy in the Medieval West. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008. pp. 260. np. ISBN978-0-19-518970-4..
Reviewed by Jill RAITT, Fontbonne University, St. Louis, MO

Careful scholarship based on solid historical method and backed up by 97 pages of dense Latin citations and documents drawn from a bibliography consisting of five pages of primary sources and thirteen pages of secondary material make this book definitive on the question of women’s ordination in the early middle ages. Macy repeatedly makes clear that he is working as an historian, not as a theologian. He does not ask, as most literature on this subjects asks, whether women were ordained according to the theological standards of the late medieval and post Tridentine Roman Catholic Church or even of the churches of the Reformation until the twentieth century. He asks, as an historian should, what ordination meant in the period he is studying, the sixth to the twelfth centuries.

This study is concerned first and foremost with the historical question whether women were ordained in the past, that is to say, whether they were considered ordained by their contemporaries according to the definition of ordination used at that time. Theologians may judge that definitions of ordination used in the past were inadequate or invalid or both. Those decisions are but a necessary part of each Christian denomination’s self-understanding. Such decisions are not of immediate concern to historians, however, and the two separate tasks of theology and history should not be confused. (5-6) Macy repeats this principle several times to be sure that readers keep it clearly in mind. He then sets out to prove, exhaustively, that women were ordained according to the understanding of ordination held in early middle ages. At that time, persons to be ordained were selected by a specific community for designated services within that community. Ordination was tied to function and place; the ordained were not empowered to functions outside their ordaining communities nor were those ordained imposed on communities without communal consent. In the twelfth to thirteenth centuries, ordination of men and women to various functions in a particular community narrowed to the specific power to confect the Eucharist through a permanent, inamissible “character”. Named as one of the seven sacraments. it was bestowed on males only each of whom could exercise that power wherever a their legitimate superiors assigned them.

How such a fundamental change could come about in the relatively brief time of 100 years, Macy addresses in his final chapter, “Conclusion: An Essay on Context.” A review like this can’t do justice to the argument presented in this chapter. Briefly, the church-state conflict was, of course, a clergy-lord conflict. Enabling priests to make the risen Christ present in the Eucharist was, in these ages of faith, an ultimate act of power. Monks, before content to be monks with a few priests among them to provide the sacraments, now all aspired to the power of the priesthood. Monasticism was clericalized. At the same time, priests were monasticized by the demand, now absolute, for celibacy. Monks could become priests, but women, even abbesses, could not do so nor serve at the altar in any capacity. Reasons for this came from the preference by canonists for the older Roman Law that made the paterfamilias all powerful over wife and children rather than the law of the empire that allowed women a freedom, argues Macy, unlike any until the twentieth century. Aristotle provided another powerful means to denigrate women: they are imperfect males, unable to reason as do men, frail, childlike. Scripture passages were interpreted to explain away Paul’s references to women deacons and leaders of house churches—they were the wives of male leaders. Presbyterae and episcopae were also wives or blessed non-sacramentally. In addition, women were denigrated as “appetizing flesh of the devil, . . . poison of the minds, death of souls, venom of wine and of eating, companions of the very stuff of sin, the cause of our ruin.” (113) Lay people, both men and women, were now at the bottom of the ladder of ecclesiastical power; they were not church. Clergy and religious were the church. This argument is convincing to me and further enforced by the more and more popular “Ecclesiastical Hierarchies” of Pseudo Dionysius that also placed laity at the bottom of the hierarchy. Even deacons could “shine” upon laity and instruct them; laity could “shine” on no one but only receive instruction from above. Women, of course, were lower than laymen, the absolute bottom. They were considered to be mentally incapable of receiving more than the most rudimentary instruction and so were barred not only from ecclesiastical hierarchies, but also from the universities that would develop across Europe in the thirteenth century. The celebrated twelfth and thirteenth centuries may be a glorious time in church history, but not for women. Their condition began to improve only in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Macy’s carefully researched book makes claims only for what the documents of the early medieval period warrant. It is painstakingly written and worthy of equally painstaking study.

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