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WMU Buys Ancient Manuscript That Started Holy Communion Debate

Elizabeth Teviotdale of the Medieval Institute flips through the pages of the 800 year old manuscript
WMU Rare Book Room

With the help of a $70,000 grant, Western Michigan University recently purchased a more than 800 year old Latin manuscript. It’s now the oldest complete text in the university’s collection - and it’s no bigger than the pocket-size books you might see at Barnes & Noble.

Credit WMU Rare Book Room

What’s written in this tiny book is even more interesting. It’s a copy of one of the first texts to talk about transubstantiation. That’s the idea that when Catholics eat the sacramental bread and wine in church - they are literally eating the body and blood of Jesus Christ.

This is one of the views that divided Catholics and Protestants - many of whom see the bread and wine as more symbolic. Elizabeth Teviotdale is the assistant director of Western’s Medieval Institute. She says this text basically started that old debate:

“It is the earliest surviving text that is specifically focused on the Eucharist and how it’s to be understood. And so it’s a groundbreaking text just in the type of text it is, but it also engendered interest right away. And it was copied again and again and again throughout the Middle Ages.”

The original text, “De corpore et sanguine domini” or “On the Body and Blood of the Lord” was written by a monk named Pascasius Radbertus. He lived in what we now consider northern France.

Credit WMU Rare Book Room

“Radbertus was a monk, an abbot living in the middle of the 9th century. He was as a very young man singled out as a schoolteacher in the monastery where he was a monk. And he wrote this text on the elements of the Eucharist for the instruction of monks at another Benedictine monastery,” says Teviotdale.

Radbertus’s text was very popular in the Middle Ages. Teviotdale says it was copied over and over again. Of course it was also very contentious - not everyone agreed with Radbertus:

“After the printing press was invented in the early 16th century - at the time the Protestant reformation - the first editor of this text was a Lutheran and he deliberately changed some of it in order to make it align with Lutheran ideas.”

Teviotdale says Catholics were quick to publish a new printed edition of the book within about a decade. Western’s copy, however, was made before the printing press - and Teviotdale suspects it wasn’t handwritten for a monk, but for someone higher up.

“Perhaps an abbot or a bishop. It’s a very handsome manuscript, it’s very well written. One scribe wrote it from the front to the back in a very neat way - and it’s really a very attractive little book,” she says.

It even has those ornate first letters Medieval writing is known for at the beginning of two of its chapters. Teviotdale says she thinks this copy might have been written in France or Italy, but it’s hard to tell. She says usually the handwriting style is a dead giveaway.

“This scribe has the most unusual G I’ve ever seen in a Medieval manuscript and I’m convinced that if we can figure out something about that G, we can actually figure out where this was made,” says Teviotdale.

The lowercase G has a curlicue at the end that Teviotdale says she just can’t place. The other unique thing - the scribe was nice enough to mark important points in the text and cite sources in the margins using small symbols.

“So you see here for instance Am - that’s for Ambrose, Saint Ambrose. So he got the idea of what he’s saying here from Saint Ambrose. Here Ag for Saint Augustine,” Teviotdale explains.

Those symbols might look foreign to us today, but Teviotdale says most clergyman would have known them. Other than that, she says the book is typical of Latin manuscripts of the time:

“One of the things that makes the manuscript so attractive for teaching is there are things that are not surprises. So it’s a great teaching to show students that in a typical 12th century manuscript you can easily tell the flesh side from the hair side of the parchment that is the support for the text. That the scribe uses certain kinds of abbreviations regularly. All of these aspects that are not terribly remarkable are actually wonderful for teaching.”

Teviotdale says she plans to let students use it as a reference in her graduate seminars that study manuscripts and handwritten Latin.

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