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 Medicine: The Four Humors Part 1, The Basics

8/5/2022 EDIT: I want to make a note that this article originally had a mistake in it. Previously I said that black bile was associated with the gallbladder and yellow bile was associated with the spleen. This was an error and I apologize for not realizing it sooner. I have corrected the paragraph.

While certain aspects of medieval medicine are surprisingly scientifically accurate, one of the main medical theories of the European middle ages most certainly is not. This medical theory is called humorism or humoral theory. Humoral theory is the theory that the human body is made up of and controlled by the four bodily fluids known as the humors. The four humors were believed to control a person’s health, the way their body looked, and even their personality/temperament. The four humors are:

  • Blood
  • Phlegm
  • Black Bile
  • Yellow Bile

Humorism originated in Ancient Greece. Classical figures such as Hippocrates and Galen wrote down their own humoral theories and their texts were the foundation for medieval humorism. Galen’s theory not only consisted of the four humors making up the human body but that each of the humors had a corresponding element that made up the humor:

  • Blood/Air
  • Phlegm/Water
  • Black Bile/Earth
  • Yellow Bile/Fire

Each of the four humors was also associated with a certain degree of wetness and heat:

  • Blood was hot and wet.
  • Phlegm was cold and wet.
  • Black bile was cold and dry.
  • Yellow bile was hot and dry.

Fire is hot and dry so yellow bile is hot and dry, water is cold and wet so phlegm is cold and wet, etc. Because dryness was considered the absence of moisture and coldness was considered the absence of heat, dryness and coldness were considered to be negative qualities because they lacked the positive traits heat and moisture. Medieval people even went as far as to consider these negative qualities as harmful or even outright evil. Black bile, whose traits are cold and dry, was considered to be deadly if humans had too much of it. 

The four humors were not only important in medieval European medicine. The 9th century Middle Persian text, Wizīdagīhā ī Zādspram, documented a medieval Iranian medical theory about the four humors. In the Wizīdagīhā ī Zādspram the humors have the same wet and dry properties found in ancient Greek and medieval European texts. However, there are two main differences in this text. One difference is that yellow bile is called red bile and each humor has properties associated with taste and color:

  • Blood is red and sweet.
  • Phlegm is white and salty.
  • Black bile is black and sour. 
  • Red bile is red and bitter.

In medieval Europe, the four humors also corresponded to a body organ:

  • Blood was associated with the head or liver (depending on the source). 
  • Phlegm was associated with the brain and lungs.
  • Black bile was associated with the spleen.
  • Yellow bile was associated with the gallbladder. 

Medieval humoral theory believed that all four humors were combined to make semen. I understand where the logic for this came from. Because humors made up the human body, it’s no wonder people thought the source of new humans came from all the other humors!

Print Sources:

Green, Monica Helen. The Trotula: An English Translation of the Medieval Compendium of Women’s Medicine. PENN, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002. 

Mount, Toni. Medieval Medicine: Its Mysteries and Science. Amberley, 2016. 

Pollington, Stephen. Leechcraft: Early English Charms, Plant Lore, and Healing. Anglo-Saxon Books, 2008. 

Pouchelle, Marie-Christine. The Body and Surgery in the Middle Ages. Rutgers University Press, 1990. 

Web Sources:

https://www.bbc.co.uk/bitesize/guides/zyscng8/revision/1

https://www.britannica.com/science/humor-ancient-physiology

https://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/health-in-persia-i

https://www.medicinenet.com/humorism/definition.htm

https://public.wsu.edu/~hanly/chaucer/coursematerials/humours.html

http://strangehorizons.com/non-fiction/articles/misconceptions-about-medieval-medicine-humors-leeches-charms-and-prayers/

Google Books Sources:

Lewis-Anthony, Justin (2008). Circles of Thorns: Hieronymus Bosch and Being Human. Bloomsbury. p. 70. ISBN 9781906286217.https://books.google.com/books?id=7WD45AoYO0EC&q=adulthood#v=snippet&q=adulthood&f=false

Interesting Penances in the Canons Attributed to Saint Patrick

Previously I wrote an article explaining what penitentials were. Today I want to go deeper and share some real life penances from translated penitentials. It would be impossible to write down every single penance, so for this series of articles I will be sharing ones I find particularly interesting and why.  Today’s penances are from the canons attributed to Saint Patrick. 

It is important to note that the canons attributed to Saint Patrick are technically not penitentials. They are canons. (Hence the name!) Canons are laws the Church made to govern clergy and lay folk. However, the canons attributed to Saint Patrick contain sections written in a penitential format. (The penitential format being a sentence to a paragraph describing a sin and a person’s penance for committing that sin.) 

For my translation I am using the Medieval Handbook of Penances: A Translation of the Principal Libri Poenitentialesby John T. McNeill and Helena M. Gamer. 

A woman confessing to a priest. Yates Thompson MS 27 f.51v.
A woman confessing to a priest | Yates Thompson MS 27 f.51v | Source: The British Library

While the canons are attributed to Saint Patrick, the earliest surviving manuscripts of both texts date several centuries after the saint’s death. Because of this, it is questionable whether or not Saint Patrick had anything to do with their authorship, whether he influenced them through his personal writings or what people think he might have thought. The manuscripts date to the ninth century and are thought to contain material from what is believed to be a seventh century Irish synod. 

Canons of a Synod of Patrick, Auxilius, and Iserninus

Section 6

This section is about the cleric dress code. Whether you were a sexton, priest, or any type of cleric in between, it was vital that you were always clothed in public. The canon specifically says clerics cannot be seen without their tunics on and they must “cover the shame and nakedness of his body” (pg. 77). The canon also states that clerics must have Roman style tonsures. (There were different styles of tonsures. I will be writing an article about that in the future.) Furthermore, any wife of a cleric must be veiled at all times. (This was written before clerical celibacy became a rule rather than a suggestion.) If any clerics and their wives disobeyed this, the canon orders them to be “despised by laymen and separated from the Church” (pg. 77). 

Based on the fact this rule exists, it seems that it was a regular problem that clerics and their wives went out in public not dressed appropriately. Or it happened at least once and new rules had to be made. If it was neither of those things, it might have just been as fear for the creators of this canon and they wanted to cover all of their bases before something did happen!

Section 8

At the time this canon was written, clerics acting as a surety for pagans were a common enough practice. The text specifically says it “is not strange” (pg. 77), nor was it strange if the pagan failed to pay up. If this happened, the cleric was responsible for the debt. It did not matter if the amount was really, really big or really, really small. Either way he had to pay it out of his own pocket. Also if the cleric fought the pagan he was “justly reckoned to be outside the Church” (pg. 77). 

The fact that this was a valid and common concern gives us an interesting insight into Christian and pagan relations during the seventh century. Christians and pagans must have been on amicable enough terms to get into such legal contracts with each other. 

Section 9

This part of the canon prohibits monks and virgins from different places from socializing. They were not allowed to stay in the same inn, travel in the same carriage, or even talk to each other. 

While the canon does not specify what the monk and virgin’s penances will be if they break this rule, I do understand why it is in place. If you want to prevent any sort of unchaste behavior, the easiest way to do so is not allow two parties to be in the vicinity of each other. However, the practicality of some of it is questionable, especially in regards to not staying in the same inn. If a monk arrives at an inn and a virgin is already there, it might be extremely impractical to try to find another inn with no virgins, especially if the village was small. However, if they were only staying in separate rooms, this rule would be easier to follow. 

Section 14

If a Christian killed someone, had sex outside of marriage, or saw a diviner, they had to do penance for a year. (I will note that the one-year penance is for each individual sin, not if you do all three sins together.) Once their year of penance is up, the Christian had to be absolved by a priest in front of witnesses.  

The fact that the sins of murder, unwed sex, and getting your fortune told are all classified under the same severity gives us a good view into what the authors of this canon considered serious spiritual crimes. Personally, I would not classify future telling and fornication on the same level as murder, but clearly these authors did!

Section 16

If a Christian thought someone was a vampire or a witch, the person with these beliefs “is to be anathematized” (pg. 78). Furthermore, if the same person who believed someone was a vampire/witch went around telling people about it, they were no longer allowed in the Church until they stopped slandering their neighbor and did penance. 

While the text does not specify what their penance would be, it is certainly interesting to see how official reactions to witchcraft accusations changed from the early Middle Ages to the Early Modern Period!

Section 19

If a Christian woman “takes a man in honorable marriage” and then leaves him for “an adulterer” (pg. 78), she was to be excommunicated.

The language in the translation is particularly interesting. I want to make note of the phrase “honorable marriage.” I’m not entirely sure if this refers to their marriage being legitimate or if it means the relationship itself was healthy. It’s also interesting that the third party is referred to as the one committing adultery, not the woman leaving her husband. 

Section 22

Here we have another reference to an honorable marriage. This focused on what should happen if a parent arranged an “honorable marriage” for their daughter but because she loved someone else the parents canceled the original agreement and kept the bride price anyway. Both the parent and the daughter were to be “shut out of the Church” (pg. 79) as punishment. 

Personally, I believe this makes quite a bit of sense. If you call off a marriage and money is involved (whether it be a bride price or a dowry), returning said money is the proper thing to do. Otherwise, your actions could be considered theft. 

Section 31

If two clerics get into such a bad disagreement that one of them hired a hit man to kill the other, then “it is fitting that he be called a murderer” (pg. 80). The cleric was also “to be held an alien to all righteous men” (pg. 80). 

Based on this, it seems clerics hiring assassins on each other was another common enough occurrence! I do not know enough about early medieval Ireland to say if this is true, but if it was written in an official canon, then at the very least church officials were afraid of this kind of thing happening. 

Canons of the Alleged Second Synod of Saint Patrick

Section 9

If a cleric fell “after attaining to clerical rank” he would “arise without rank” (pg. 82). If people knew what he did, cleric was to “lose his ministry” (pg. 82). However, if no one knew (besides God of course!) the cleric kept his ministry.

It seems that this section is implying as long as no one knows you did something wrong, you don’t have to be punished for it. The language in this section is a bit strange as well. The translation uses the word “fall/fallen” to refer to the sin the cleric committed. A few footnotes in the book implies that “fallen” refers to sexual sins, however this part of the text is unclear over whether it refers to a sexual sin or sinning in general. 

Section 11

After two people have fallen, they were to think about whether or not they still loved and/or desired each other. If both people died, then this was not a concern because two corpses can’t hurt each other. If they were both alive then “they shall be separated” (pg. 82).

There’s certainly a bit of sass in this part of the text! Basically it means unless both people in a romantic/sexual partnership are dead, they must be kept apart because the temptation will be too much. Personally, I enjoy it when historical authors throw in a bit of sass in their serious works. It reminds me that humanity has not really changed over the millennium. 

Section 25

If your brother died, you (the surviving brother) were not allowed to sleep with his wife. It did not matter that he died. After he and his wife slept together, they were made “two in one flesh” (pg. 85), thus she was now considered your sister. 

Apparently a lot of synods forbade people from marrying their dead brothers’ wives. While personally I would not consider it incest, I do understand why people found sleeping with your now widowed sister-in-law kind of icky. There’s definitely a lot of emotional baggage that comes with doing it. I personally think having sex with your sibling’s ex (even if they are dead) is kind of a selfish thing to do. However, I do recognize that levirate marriages are an actual practice in many different cultures, so I will clarify that there is a difference between marrying your dead brother’s widow and only having sex with her without any sort of love and commitment. This is especially true if you live in a time/place where sleeping with a woman will ruin her reputation forever. 

Section 27

When a father planned a marriage for his daughter, he needed to ask what she wanted before he arranged anything. Even if “the head of the woman is the man” and the daughter had to do what she’s told anyway, “God left man in the hand of his own counsel” (pg. 85). 

Basically, even if a father can make his daughter obey him, it’s still good to check what his daughter wants. It’s her life and she should have a say in her husband. She might know something about her future suitor that her father does not or she might not even like him in the first place! 

Section 28

When getting married for the first time, your first betrothal and wedding vows “are to be observed in the same way” (pg. 85). These first vows were “not made void” (pg. 85) if you ended up marrying a second time. The only exception is if your first marriage broke up because of adultery. 

In an earlier section, the Canons of the Alleged Second Synod of Saint Patrick stressed that oaths and vows are to be taken extremely seriously. It is not surprising that this applies to wedding vows as well. If your spouse has committed adultery, they clearly do not take their vow seriously so it is understandable that would be the one exception to making such a vow invalid. 

Sources:

McNeill, John Thomas, and Helena M. Gamer. Medieval Handbooks of Penance: A Translation of the Principal Libri Penitentiales and Selections from Related Documents. Columbia University Press, 1990. 

Örsy, Ladislas M. , Huizing, Peter J. and Orsy, Ladislas M.. “canon law”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 19 Feb. 2021, https://www.britannica.com/topic/canon-law. Accessed 2 September 2021.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Levirate_marriage

Early Medieval Male Names From The Domesday Book

If you are a fiction writer, you probably spend a good amount of time researching names for your characters. This is especially true if you write historical fiction. It is important to find historically accurate names. I write fiction that takes place in early medieval England, so I am always searching for early medieval names. 

It can be difficult to find early medieval names that are historically accurate. I have started to compile a list of male names from primary sources. By using primary sources, I can be sure that these names were actually used by early medieval men. If you are looking for early medieval female names, I’ve already posted a list here.

There are thousands of early medieval male names out there so this list is not exhaustive. I plan to add to it over time. Hopefully, this list will help you find the perfect name for your character!

An illumination from a medieval manuscript of a blonde man in an orange and green tunic and golden yellow hose bending over with a ball in his hand.
A man bending over with something in his hand | Add MS 62925 f.30r | Source: The British Library

Note: To ensure that the names are as historically accurate as possible, I intend to document them as they were originally spelled to the best of my ability. Some names may include letters that are no longer in the English language such as “æ.”

Male Names

Azur

Ælfgar

Ælfstan

Ælfwig

Ælfwine

Æthelmær

Æthelnoth

Æthelric

Æthelsige

Æthelwig

Baldwin

Beorhtric

Beorhtsige 

Bondi 

Carl

Eadmær

Eadric

Ealdred 

Ecgfrith

Edward

Edwin

Esgar 

Giso

Godwine

Harold

Herman

Leofric

Leofnoth

Leofwine

Mærleswein

Morcar

Ordric

RalphRobert

Siward

Stigand

Toki

Tosti

Ulf

Walter

Waltheof 

William

Wihtgar

Wulfric

Wulfstan

Wulfweald

Wulfweard

Wulfwig

Wulfwine

Source:

‘Domesday’, Prosopography of Anglo-Saxon England, https://domesday.pase.ac.uk, accessed 22 June 2021 and 25 June 2021.

After An 11th Century Sick Monk Ate Meat

The Rule of Saint Benedict mostly forbade monks from eating meat. The keyword here is “mostly.” Medieval monks were only allowed to eat meat if they were extremely ill. Of course, that didn’t stop them from creating loopholes in the later Middle Ages! However, in The Monastic Constitutions of Lanfranc, the author (Lanfranc, hence the name!) was pretty clear regarding what a monk needs to do after he consumed meat:

Penance.

Two People Roasting Meat | Add MS 42130 f.206v | Source: The British Library

His penance began as soon as he started eating. There is no time to waste when it comes to a human’s soul, after all! The monk wore his hood over his head and leaned on a staff if he needed to leave his bed. Because the monk was still ill when doing this, it is possible these actions solved other problems. A hood kept the monk’s head warm and a staff helped him walk. As mentioned in my last post, a monk could only stay in the infirmary if he was bedridden, so a staff was vital for safe movement due to his weakened state. Lanfranc does say that if a monk can get out of bed, he isn’t sick enough to be in the infirmary. Perhaps the monk used the staff if he needed to get out of bed to relieve himself or something of that sort. (Lanfranc does not specify his reasoning.)

When the monk felt well enough to return to his duties he underwent a long penitential ritual before he rejoined the community: 

  • Step 1: The monk was shaved. 
  • Step 2:  He entered the choir an hour before chapter. 
  • Step 3: During mass, the monk was not allowed to make an offering.
  • Step 4: When it was time to discipline wrongdoers in chapter, the monk stood up first.
  • Step 5: He lay prostrate on the ground in front of the community and asked for forgiveness. 
  • Step 6: The abbot told him to stand.
  • Step 7: The monk stood and recited, “My Lord, I have been long in the infirmary borne down by sickness; I have offended in matters of food and drink and much else, and I have acted against our established discipline, and for this I beg of you absolution.” (The original Latin is “Domine, infirmitate mea grauatus in domo infirmorum diu fui; in cibo et potu et aliis multis offendi, et contra ordinem nostrum feci, et inde peto absolutionem uestram.”) 
  • Step 8: The abbot absolved him of his sins by saying, “May the almighty Lord absolve you from these and all other faults.” (The original Latin is:“Omnipotens Dominus absoluat uos ab his, et ab omnibus aliis uestris delictis.”) 
  • Step 9: The other monks said “Amen.” (The Latin word for “Amen” is the same.) 
  • Step 10: The monk went to the abbot’s feet before going back to the place he lay down earlier. 
  • Step 11: He thanked the abbot and the community for tending to him while he was sick. 
  • Step 12: He made three genuflections. 
  • Step 13: The abbot told the monk to eat mixtum that day and until he was completely recovered. (Mixtum was the extra meal oblates, sick monks and elderly monks ate so they wouldn’t go hungry during the day.) 

And that is the ritual! Clearly, Lanfranc took meat-eating extremely seriously. 

If a monk did not eat meat, Lanfranc instructs the abbot to decide when the sick monk could return to the community and whether or not he received special treatment in the future. 

Source:

Lanfranc. “The Care of the Sick and Their Indulgences.” The Monastic Constitutions of Lanfranc, translated by David Knowles, Thomas Nelson and Sons Ltd, London, 1951, pp. 119-120. Medieval Classics.