Medieval Clerical Celibacy, Part 2: The Religious and Financial Reasons for Chaste Priests

Celibacy was not always a requirement for Catholic priests. From Christianity’s beginnings to the 12th century, clerical wives and families were quite common. However, that didn’t mean the Church didn’t attempt to enforce clerical celibacy. They did. And they tried to do it a lot. You can read my first post about the Church’s attempts to enforce clerical celibacy here

This begs the question, why enforce clerical celibacy in the first place?

A priest baptizing a baby while the mother watches | Ms. 46 (92.MK.92), fol. 41v | Source: The Getty Museum

Why Did Medieval Catholic Reformers Want Priests to Take a Vow of Celibacy?

Like most questions about why people want anything, the answer isn’t a simple one. Reformers had a few reasons for enforcing clerical celibacy. Today’s post will focus on the religious and financial reasons reformers had when advocating for clerical celibacy. 

Religious Reasons For Clerical Celibacy

One argument for clerical celibacy was that priests needed to be pure to uphold sacramental purity. Priests performed holy rituals and held holy items. The only way to maintain that the sacraments had the ritual purity they deserved was to make sure the person performing them was pure as well. Sex is unclean and impure, thus, priests should not have sex. 

Now, I’m sure some readers are indigent about the idea of sex being dirty. Well, sexual uncleanliness isn’t just a ritualistic concept. Practically speaking, it’s reality. There are fluids involved. Would you really want to receive communion from someone who just had sex and possibly didn’t wash their hands that well afterward? 

As clerical marriage was a reality for the first thousand or so years of Christianity, there were practical rules in place to ensure ritual purity. When a priest had sex, he needed to wait a certain amount of time before he could perform sacraments, touch the Eucharist, etc. If he did have sex within the allotted time frame that allowed him to regain his ritual purity, he had to find another priest to say mass for him. 

Medieval priests were on call 24/7, so reformers argued they should be celibate all the time. That way a priest wasn’t scrambling to find someone else to perform Last Rites at 3am because a parishioner is dying and the priest and his partner were having a bit of fun before he received the news someone needed him.

Another religious reason for clerical celibacy was from a moral standpoint. I don’t mean moral in a “sex is bad” way. I mean moral from a “once sex is involved, there’s a greater chance of vile acts occurring.” Reformers were aware priests had a lot of power over their parishioners. Even if a relationship is between two consenting adults, power dynamics make things extremely complicated at best and disgustingly immoral at worst.

(Also we’re talking about the Catholic Church. You know, the institution that’s infamous for the copious amount of sexual abuse cases (some ongoing) that have happened over its 2000 year history. (As a side note, I know some people claim that clerical celibacy causes sexual abuse. To that I say, the average person doesn’t prey on children when they haven’t had sex in a while. I’m extremely suspicious of anyone who says otherwise.))

Financial Reasons For Clerical Celibacy

Sacramental purity wasn’t the only reason for clerical celibacy. Like with most rules people make, money is usually a factor. And clerical celibacy was no different.

Generally speaking, when a man and a woman marry (or are just not celibate with each other) there’s a good chance of babies happening. In an era with not super reliable birth control (though it did exist) babies happened a lot. 

That, combined with the fact medieval masculinity depended on how many children you had and the Christian view married couples should only have sex to conceive a child (Note: in theory, medieval Christians followed this. In practice they didn’t.), meant some priests had a lot of children. 

Babies are expensive. 

And so is educating children and finding good dowries and making sure your children can financially support themselves as adults. For medieval clerical sons, the priesthood was a family business. Priests, especially ones in positions of power such as bishops and archbishops, sought to make sure their sons inherited their prebends and benefices.

In short, priests used Church money to support their families. Reformers did not like this.

Reformers also did not particularly like priests spending lots of Church money on their wives/concubines/girlfriends. They claimed priests “create public spectacles by taking their women, decked out lavishly in fine clothing and jewels, to weddings and to church” (Thibodeaux 30). 

(Of course, the extent of how bad this supposed “lavishing” was could very well have been exaggerated by reformers in certain situations. I’m sure some priests spent too much money buying their partners nice gifts and I’m also sure other priests could have put in a bit more effort making sure their partners had something nicer than what they currently own. In situations like these, there wouldn’t be one absolute that applied to every single English/Norman Catholic priest from the beginning of Christianity to when priests actually started following the reforms.)

By lavishing their special lady friends with expensive things, reformers thought priests were paying more attention and in a sense worshiping women more than the church they were supposed to serve. I will go more into the medieval gender implications for priests “serving” women in my next blog post where I’ll discuss the gender-based reasons for and against clerical celibacy. 

Source:

Thibodeaux, Jennifer D. The Manly Priest Clerical Celibacy, Masculinity, and Reform in England and Normandy, 1066-1300. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015.

Medieval Clerical Celibacy, Part 1: The Start, Hypocrisy, and Attempts at Reform

NOTE: This post is shorter and a bit sillier in tone than what I normally write.

In my last post, I discussed monastic masculinity versus secular masculinity. To summarize, monastic masculinity was basically the Church’s way of saying “being celibate is cool and masculine you guys, we swear!!!”

For centuries, convincing secular priests celibacy was super cool, holy, desirable, and something they should start doing right this second was a losing battle. So how exactly did the Catholic Church convince their priests to embrace celibacy? To fully understand the process, we have to start at the beginning of Christianity.

A Priest Celebrating Mass | Ms. Ludwig IX 5 (83.ML.101), fol. 171 | Source: The Getty Museum

Clerical Celibacy’s Beginnings

From the beginning of Christianity, secular priests (meaning they weren’t monks so they didn’t take a vow of chastity) could and often did get married. The third century Church suggested priests should be chaste. After all, priests handled the Eucharist. It wasn’t exactly a good look to touch something so holy with unclean hands. However, in the third century clerical celibacy was more of a suggestion than a mandate.

Then in the fourth century, the Council of Elvira occurred. The Council of Elvira is notable as it was the first time the Church mandated clerical celibacy. As it was a local council, it didn’t have widespread authority. It had some influence because other councils/synods started mandating clerical celibacy too.

Between the fourth and tenth centuries, many more local councils mandated clerical celibacy. So there was some effort to stop clerical marriage. However, a lot of the rules came from local councils/synods so they didn’t have widespread authority. 

Based on the number of times the church made the rule “priests can’t marry” it’s pretty obvious that a majority of priests went “how about we do anyway?” It didn’t help that a lot of the Church’s efforts to actually enforce the no marriage rules were pretty lackluster. (Think Willy Wonka going “no. Stop. Come back.”) 

The Hypocrisy of Enforcing Clerical Celibacy

So why didn’t the Church enforce all the rules they made?

One reason was that many bishops and archbishops (AKA the people who enforced rules) were married. Clerical celibacy was already an unpopular reform. If you want people to follow an unpopular rule and you break that rule, people won’t follow it. After all, if it’s okay for the bishops and archbishops to get married, why can’t priests?

The Church Gets Serious (Sort Of)

Things changed around the eleventh and twelfth centuries. Now Church became serious about enforcing clerical celibacy. This change was partially due to more monastic priests gaining higher positions in the church. 

Punishments for non-celibate priests included:

  • Fines
  • Excommunication 
  • Losing his benefice 

That being said, some reformers didn’t actually give priests punishments. Married priests could go years with constant slaps on the wrist before they received a serious punishment.

Source:

Thibodeaux, Jennifer D. The Manly Priest Clerical Celibacy, Masculinity, and Reform in England and Normandy, 1066-1300. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015.

Medieval Monastic Masculinity vs. Medieval Secular Masculinity

NOTE: Due to personal reasons today’s blog post is shorter than normal. This is a topic I may revisit in the future.

When it came to image and public relations regarding masculinity, medieval monks knew they had a bit of a problem on their hands. See, monks were not exactly considered masculine by the secular population. The pinnacle of masculinity in early Medieval English and post-conquest secular culture was to be a good warrior and have lots of children.

Horsemen Meeting an Abbot and Two Monks at a Monastery | Ms. Ludwig XV 9 (83.MR.179), fol. 186v | Source: The Getty Museum

Monks on the other hand didn’t fight and didn’t have sex. (Well, theoretically. In reality plenty of monks got physical with others, whether it was through punching, stabbing, or other means.) 

Because monks were not supposed to do either of those things, they created a new type of masculinity for themselves. Medieval monastic masculinity valued self-control in all forms. Masculine monks were disciplined when it came to their gluttony, anger, ambition, and of course, lust. 

Celibacy meant you controlled your body, mind, and soul. However, when secular society values a man’s virility, saying chastity is definitely super manly is a hard sell. Monastic leaders developed a lot of arguments about the manliness of chastity. 

I think my favorite argument is that it’s feminine to have sex. And they weren’t just talking about same-sex copulation. Reformers tried to say that a man sleeping with a woman made him feminine too. (It definitely reminds me of the “Fellas Is It Gay?” meme!)

Source:

Thibodeaux, Jennifer D. The Manly Priest Clerical Celibacy, Masculinity, and Reform in England and Normandy, 1066-1300. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015. 

Queer Saints: An Important Preface

On this blog I have several on going series I am writing/have written. They all focus on medieval written texts. However, this series will be much different. Instead of writing about established texts, I will be writing my own hagiographies of medieval saints. Specifically, saints that can be read as part of the LGBTQ+ community. I know that there is a lot of controversy about claiming historical figures’ sexualities as well as the use of the word “queer” in general so I want to clear things up before I begin writing the hagiographies.

Why use the word queer?

I have two reasons why chose to title this series “Queer Saints” instead of “LGBTQ+ Saints.” The first reason has to do with the word “queer” itself. In the past the word was used as a slur against LGBTQ+ people. In recent years it has started to become reclaimed by the community. (Including myself.) Now days, the term has another meaning: simply anyone who is not straight and/or cisgender. (Cisgender meaning anyone who is not transgender.) Because I am writing about historical figures, it’s impossible to say what labels they would give themselves. So instead of giving them a solid label (like gay, bisexual, asexual, trans, etc.) I am arguing that these saints can be read as queer. In that they behave in similar ways that people today who use those labels do.

The second reason I have titled this series “Queer Saints” has to do with which view point I plan to write these hagiographies through. I plan to write with queer theory in mind. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines queer theory as “an approach to literary and cultural study that rejects traditional categories of gender and sexuality.” Basically, it means that we can’t just assume everyone is straight and cisgender. I will also note that I say “in mind” because a lot of things written through the lens of queer theory are extremely inaccessible to the average person. I want everyone to be able to understand what I’m saying. (Personally, I think a lot of queer theory authors write the way they do because if you can’t understand what someone is saying you can’t argue against their bad points. But that’s a topic I will not be exploring, as this is a medieval blog and not a ‘Why I Think Academic Writing Should Be Easy To Read’ blog.)

Why are you writing about saints?

I’m writing about saints is because I find a lot of their stories extremely interesting. And despite the Roman Catholic Church’s less than stellar treatment of the LGBTQIA+ community, there are many saints that don’t conform to Western society’s ideas of what “normal” is. While I’m not super religious myself, (I was raised Catholic) I think it’s important for queer religious people (especially younger folk) to see that people like them have been loved, accepted, and even favored by God. There is a lot of self-hatred that comes when you cannot conform to what society wants the norm to be. And if I can help at least one person out there, then I think I’ve done a good job.

How Sex and Religion Shaped Medieval Gender Roles

Content Warning: Discussions of Misogyny, Sex, and Menstruation, Mentions of Miscarriage

This is something I wrote while studying at Oxford. It was written in April 2018. I will note that I posted this on my old blog. It has been moved here as it fits better thematically.

 

Over the course of the Middle Ages, the roles of men and women in medieval society were greatly shaped by the scientific and philosophical understanding of bodies, sex, and reproduction. The basis of these understandings primarily came from religious texts that eventually transferred over into law and scientific studies. However, due to the length of the Middle Ages as well as the different religions, and cultures, such understandings of gender roles varied. However, this is not to say that there were not several overarching themes, especially ones concerning women and their bodies, in the different cultures and religions during the medieval period. For example, both Christianity and Judaism understood a woman’s role in society in similar ways.

 

Hunterian_Psalter_-_H229_f7v

Adam, Eve, and the Snake | Source: Wikipedia Commons

 

In Jewish communities, religious texts shaped their understandings of gender roles. The biblical story of Adam and Eve “justified…women’s secondary place in human creation” (Baskin 39). Eve was made after Adam, thus women were considered second to men in the social hierarchy. The concept that God had made men physically more powerful (Park 92) furthered the idea that a woman needed to be subordinate to her husband and to men in general. However, rabbis also used “Eve’s responsibility…in all human mortality” as well as “women’s essential otherness from men” as an explanation for why women must be kept “separate” (Baskin 38). These separations included why women were not allowed to participate in their faith in the same way men were. Women were even expected to support their husbands’ and sons’ religious studies instead of being able to gain spiritual knowledge for themselves (Baskin 39).

In Christian society, clergymen also used religion as evidence of women’s inferiority. Like in Judaism, the Christian understanding was that if “God made women physically weaker than men” (Park 84) then women must be the inferior gender. One medieval writer, Isidore of Seville, went even so far as to argue that if God had not made women subordinate, then men would have no choice but to direct their lustful actions elsewhere, including towards other men (Park 84). Same-sex attraction was unacceptable in medieval society, as the church considered any non-potentially reproductive intercourse between any genders as sodomy. For context, the Christian church considered “bestiality…only marginally less serious than homosexual sodomy” (Brundage 43). Thus if a woman was not subordinate to a man’s wants and desires his eternal reward was at stake.

This is not to say that men were considered more lustful than women, as is the thought in modern times. The opposite is true. In medieval society, women were thought to be the lustful gender, not men. The idea that “women [were considered] temptresses [was] one of the defining elements of female sexuality in the Middle Ages” (Salisbury 87) and it was a prominent one. Women may have been thought of as subordinate, but being lustful was simply another way for men to scapegoat women. The scientific understanding at the time was a man’s masculinity was dependent on his semen. If he had too much sex, he would be losing the very essence of what made him a man as well as his “masculine control” (Salisbury 86).

Christian clergymen also used the story of Adam and Eve to explain the different roles men and women had in medieval society. Their explanation focused mainly on sex and sexuality instead of the social status of women. However, it is important to note these religious understandings gradually seeped over into other aspects of medieval life. Due to the first humans’ disobedience against God, sex was regarded as “a consequence of sin” (Brundage 35). This understanding led church leaders to set up a hierarchy of eternal reward based on a person’s past sexual experiences. A virgin would be rewarded the most, “chaste widows” (Elliott 25) came second, and married people came third. For most secular people, this statement was neither threatening nor particularly motivating. In fact, secular society expected people to get married (Karras 75).

The clergy were painfully aware they were fighting a losing battle when it came to controlling their followers’ sexual desires. In an act of reluctant compromise, the clergy told the “less heroic Christians” (Brundage 35) that if they absolutely had to have sexual intercourse, they must be married, the act must be for the sole purpose of conceiving a child, and under no circumstances should sex strictly be for pleasure or for fun (Brundage 35). Eventually, in the seventh century, these conditions were fleshed out to include “specific guidelines for acceptable sexual behavior” (Brundage 36). The rules were so specific it was nearly impossible for a married couple to have sex and not sin.

 

flowchart

A Flowchart Regarding When Medieval Couples Were Allowed to Engage in Sexual Behavior | Source: thehistoryblog.com

 

It should be noted that the majority of ecclesiastical court cases were because of these sins, thus “greatly increase[ing]…the church’s income” (Brundage 39). This observation makes one wonder if the church’s main reason for creating such specific guidelines was simply an excuse to make money by exploiting the sexual desires of both men and women. However, Christian ecclesiastical courts considered “extramarital sex…as sinful for a man as for a woman” (Brundage 42). When compared to fornication, the crime of adultery was viewed “primarily as a female offense and [the courts] only occasionally punished men” (Brundage 42).

Adultery was not the only guideline that focused on women. Marital intercourse was forbidden if a woman was menstruating, pregnant, or breastfeeding (Brundage 36). Jewish communities put a tremendous amount of pressure on women and their bodies as well. Female menstruation was considered “regular” while male “discharges and states of ritual impurity” (Baskin 43) were not. Menstruation was thought of as impure. Thus, it was a Jewish woman’s responsibility to know her cycle extremely well, so she would know when to take her “ritual bath (mikveh) before sexual relations could resume” (Baskin 44) between her and her husband.

The scientific understanding of the human body was what led these faiths to believe menstrual blood was toxic, thus further shaping the roles women were expected to keep in society. Because women were considered cold and men were considered hot, menstruation was what burned off the impurities in a woman’s body (Salisbury 89). This lead to the belief menstruation was good for the health of a woman but toxic for a man who came into contact with a woman’s menstrual blood (Salisbury 89). It was considered dangerous not only to men but to anything that came into contact with it. Isidore of Seville wrote menstrual blood would kill crops, make wine turn sour, damage metal, and give dogs rabies (Park 87).

In Judaism, laws were made specifying that men were not only not allowed to touch a menstruating woman; he was also to avoid making “eye contact and [staying out of her] physical proximity” (Park 92). In the central Middle Ages, this law eventually escalated into something even stricter than before (Baskin 44). Menstruating women were “forbidden to enter a synagogue…to pray, or to recite God’s name” (Baskin 44). The following of this law was isolating for women and it further emphasized the role of women as lesser than in the social hierarchy.

 

Hildegard_von_Bingen

Hildegard of Bingen receiving a vision | Source: Wikipedia Commons

 

Not everyone agreed with this. One woman, Saint Hildegard of Bingen, argued that it was men who produced toxic discharges and not women (Salisbury 93). According to John M. Riddle, Saint Hildegard “is a good indication of popular culture during the Middle Ages”. While other writers received their information from classical texts, she received her knowledge “from her culture” (Riddle 269). Such information concerned reproductive health, including what plants a woman should consume should she wish to have an abortion. Riddle explains that understanding what plants could induce a miscarriage was commonly shared information amongst medieval women. Knowing how to make “contraception and early-term abortifacients” (Riddle 269) was vital information for medieval women, especially when it is taken into consideration how dangerous pregnancy and childbirth was. After all, “women at all social levels [died] in childbirth” (Green 357).

Regardless of the dangers of reproduction, men and women had sexual intercourse anyway. Not every Jewish man followed the guidelines set forth by his religious leaders. There must have been many cases of men touching or going near menstruating women because in the thirteenth century, the pietist Eleazar ben Judah of Worms, wrote down the typical punishment for a man who disobeyed the law (Baskin 44). These punishments “included extensive fasting, lashing, immersion in icy water” and they were “applied only to men” (Baskin 44). Unlike in Christian society, Jewish women were not considered “self-conscious entities” (Baskin 44). Christian clergymen also wrote down acceptable punishments for those who disobeyed religious rules. Confessors were given “pastoral manuals and handbooks…[that went into] such great length and in such detail with sexual sins that…the conclusion [is] these behaviors must have flourished…among medieval people” (Brundage 41).

According to James A. Brundage, the majority of the laity did not believe that having sex, particularly sex outside of marriage, was a sin. This idea is emphasized by the fact the previously mentioned handbooks actually warned priests that when they questioned their parishioners about their sexual digressions, they needed to be careful lest they give their parishioners any ideas (Brundage 42). However, priests were not so innocent themselves. Starting in the fourth century, celibacy was encouraged amongst priests, but not required. It was only when the church reformed in the second half of the eleventh-century celibacy became required for priests (Brundage 36). The priests did not take this new requirement well. Many priests already had wives and children. It did not help the reformers that the requirement was a blatant “attack on women” (Elliott 27). One argument for required celibacy was “priestly hands…must not be sullied by…the genitals of whores (i.e., the wives of priests)” (Elliott 27). Priests’ reactions to the announcement included attacking and running a bishop out of town as well as burning “a supporter of clerical celibacy” alive (Brundage 36-37).

Obviously, this hypocrisy was not unknown to the laity. Several tropes in medieval literature called out the church concerning their opinions on sexuality. Ruth Mazo Karras writes that stories would include “lusty priests [who would] seduce the women who confess to them [as well as] monks and nuns [who would] engage in secret liaisons”. There was even an entire genre of literature, the French fabliaux, dedicated to stories where “both men and women [found] joy in sexual intercourse” (Karras 2). Some of the characters in these works were members of the clergy.

Overall, the roles for men and women in medieval society were heavily dependent on religious understandings of the body, sex, and reproduction. These religious understandings in all faiths were used as a way to control people, women especially. Religion not only shaped people’s ideas about themselves, but it was also used as a tool to shape the scientific and legal understanding of gender roles. By shaping these aspects of society, the clergy could to some extent have control over people’s lives in almost every manner.

 

 

Sources:

Baskin, Judith. “Jewish Traditions About Women and Gender Roles: From Rabbinic Teachings to Medieval Practice.” The Oxford Handbook of Women and Gender in Medieval Europe, edited by Judith Bennett and Ruth Karras, Oxford University Press, 2013, pp. 36–49. SOLO.

Brundage, James A. “Sex and Canon Law.” Handbook of Medieval Sexuality, edited by Vern L. Bullough and James Brundage, Routledge, 2006, pp. 33–47.

Elliott, Dyan. “Gender and The Christian Traditions.” The Oxford Handbook of Women and Gender in Medieval Europe, edited by Judith Bennett and Ruth Karras, Oxford University Press, 2013, pp. 21–35. SOLO.

Green, Monica. “Caring for Gendered Bodies.” The Oxford Handbook of Women and Gender in Medieval Europe, edited by Judith Bennett and Ruth Karras, Oxford University Press, 2013, pp. 345–358. SOLO.

Karras, Ruth Mazo. “Sexuality in Medieval Europe: Doing unto Others:” Sexuality in Medieval Europe: Doing unto Others:2nd ed., Routledge, 2012.

Park, Katharine. “Medicine and Natural Philosophy: Naturalistic Traditions.” The Oxford Handbook of Women and Gender in Medieval Europe, edited by Judith Bennett and Ruth Karras, Oxford University Press, 2013, pp. 84–98. SOLO.

Riddle, John M. “Contraception and Early Abortion in the Middle Ages.” Handbook of Medieval Sexuality, edited by Vern L. Bullough and James Brundage, Routledge, 2006, pp. 261–275.

Salisbury, Joyce E. “Gendered Sexuality.” Handbook of Medieval Sexuality, edited by Vern L. Bullough and James Brundage, Routledge, 2006, pp. 81–99.