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Sexuality and Medieval Christianity


Denise McKenzie

Argument: I will attempt to argue that the issues of sexuality within Medieval affected clerical and church staff more than laity. The extreme measures taken to define and control one’s sexual desires had very little do with the practices of Christianity. The purpose of celibacy and defining the lines of sexual desires was used to impose higher standards for church officials who acted out their moral desires. In my attempt, I will look at the role of clerics, laity, and church hierarchy and the roles in which each played in socially changing the standards of morality in Christian identity. My argument will satisfy that celibacy was an integral part of building a social standard for the advancement of Christianity.

Sexuality and the roles of the clerics in Rome and parts of Europe were topics of a controversy for many centuries. As

Christianity became the dominant and most recognized religion in the medieval periods, more questions and controversies arose

on the subject of sexuality. Each century was marked with new and interesting conversations about sex and what it meant to those

in church and in the secular community. Priest, parish pastors and monks in particular had the hard task of maintaining a pure life,

according to the principals of Christianity, which was to be marked by the absence of sexual desires. Monasteries were well suited

to survival of these existing social and political structures (Seward, 28). It was common for monks to be recalled to the world to

become bishops and archbishops, position which led to political involvement (Seward, 29). Monks showed particular virtue in

their celibate life. This could not be the same for other church positions. Up until the eleventh century, canon law obliged married

bishops or priests to renounce sexual relation with their spouses. Pope Gregory the Great (590 to 604) suggested a priest should

“love his wife like a sister, but distrust her like an enemy,” (Vauchez, 181). In previous papacy, Pope Siricius called for “married

priests to abstain from conjugal relations”(Vauchez, 181). Herein, laid some of the controversy. Priests, bishops and lower clergy

were required to maintain and promote pastoral care of their communities. Their lives mirrored those of the laity, because they

were married or had taken concubines. Monks were of a higher religious sect since their lives mirrored poverty and a stout

celibacy. The monks and monasteries also serviced their communities actively and assumed pastoral care for lay people living near

their communities (Monasteries and Religious Order, 28). According to Vauchez’s article, Clerical Celibacy and The Laity, the

choice for celibacy from priests was in relation to the advance in duties of priests. The celebration of mass and the sacrifices were

being held on a daily basis. Priests were required to keep themselves pure in order to handle the bread and wine for consecration.

(Vauchez, 182). Again Pope Siricus had the same concerns and remarked, “those who are in flesh cannot please God-Rom.8: 8”

(Vauchez, 182). Those who wished to serve God and partake in leading Mass had to abstain sex. Mass and consecration were not

the only issues related to priest and bishops who were sexually active or married. Hereditary transmission was another arising

issue. The sons of priests and bishops could very well inherit assume the roles of their fathers once they became of age. This

would lead to dissolutions of the church’s right to appoint positions, thus jeopardizing political aspects as well. The church

foreshadowed this issue and put harsh stipulations on priests and bishops. Evidence of this is seen in the beginning of the eleventh

century where marriages of clergy were declared annulled and children were barred from inheriting their father’s goods received

through the priesthood (Vauchez, 187). In David L. Halpern’s article, Forgetting Foucault:Acts, Identities and the History of

Sexuality, Halpern argues that “sex takes on new social and individual function and it assumes a new importance in defining and

normalizing the modern self” (Halpern, 96). The Christian church during the eleventh century was attempting to normalize the

practice of non-sexual beings serving as clergy. This attempt was not easily met and historians reveal that not all Christian based

countries adhered to the rules of celibacy and clergy. For example, in the thirteenth century, according to a Dominican chronicler,

“the peasants say that a priest cannot live alone…therefore preferable that he have his own wife, since otherwise he would chase

after other men’s wives and sleep with them” (Vuachez,192). Public opinion, specifically laity, found the practice of priests

having wives as necessary in order to keep the social order of the community. In essence, the lay people were more concerned

with having a religious sect in place for worship, rather than the outside and private functions of a priest. The criticism of priests

and their sexual behaviors was also found in literary works in plays and poems. Jean Bodel of Arrars works show evidence of the

controversy of clergy, sexual desires and relations. A well respected French poet and dramatist whose works contributed to the

fabliaux. He made light of sex and sexuality, including the mandates of the church. Other literary works include Andreas

Cappelanus, a chaplain of the king of France. He viewed the origin of sex and desire to be the cause of all good things. He wrote

that the lack thereof would only lead men to a hasty death, senility and illness (Baldwin 808). It should be noted that the literary

works are out of France and not Rome. The French were more open in regards to religion and sexuality. The rule for celibacy

revealed that many priests, friars and other clergy flocked bathhouses and brothels, ignoring the need for celibacy and continuing

with fulfilling their sexual desires (Vauchez, 193). The celibacy ruling unearthed a plethora of sexual misconduct by church

officials. However, the focus was not to maintain purity amongst church officials, but rather introduce a separation of the social

and political standing between laity and the church through celibacy.

The lay participation in the church was significant. From building, maintaining, and working for churches, the lays

involvement in Christianity has always been an important aspect. The laity did not suffer through stringent laws about sexual

behavior, but nonetheless, they too were affected. In some regions, Lay lords were popular. They were apart of the church, but

not necessarily church appointed like a bishop or priests. The churches in which they served were usually within their parishes.

History reveals that clergy and laity lived in apt co-existence and little regard was given to clergy and their sexual practices.

Vauchez makes this claim; “The medieval priest was certainly a cleric…but most the time, especially in rural settings he was

isolated from other clergy and tended to respect the norms of his daily life” (Vauchez,199). The social model for most European

regions was marriage. Marriage played an essential role for the laity. It was considered one of the seven sacraments and held in

high esteem. Marriage for laity meant that men and women were fulfilling their Christian duties and resisting fornication by

entering the folds and practice of marriage. Vauchez’s article implies that the spread of economic growth of a village or small

town had “certain ease as they mixed in with society and became local notables” (Vauchez, 199). However, he also remarks that

by the fourteenth century, laity and clergy grew more moralistic. This could be attributed to the increase in urban sprawl and

villages became towns and towns became cities, thus clergy being isolated lessened and public scrutiny was more apt to occur in

larger places. Clergy would be forced to maintain and respect a celibate lifestyle in order to gain the confidence of town and city

dwellers. In addition, for clerics who still disregarded the ban on clerical marriage, heavy fines and public embarrassment

followed. In following centuries, particularly the fourteenth and fifteenth century benchmarked charivari. Charivari’s were

organized by the people of the village. They would congregate at a priest’s home and hurl insults when the priest was found guilty

of being involved with a local woman. The demonstrations accompanied violence and an exchange of ransom to escape physical

punishment was usually the outcome to remedy the situation. Over time, the laity found cause for concern, but only after the

church started imposing public punishments and scrutiny.

The parameters changed drastically for church and church hierarchy. Politically, the church, as a body of government, took

some time in accomplishing strict roles for clergy. The need for this action or improvement worked as a catalyst to promoting

church and church officials as dominant. The perceptions of clergy changed, along with laity. The relaxed atmosphere around the

subject of sexuality became one of prudence and high sin. Associated with sexual actions begot shame. Once the church clergy

became unified in setting the standards for clergy (marked by the thirteenth century), monasteries were not the only church

establishment in practicing high standards of morality. Rather, monasteries, although still arguably popular, became less of an

attraction for living the Christian model of life. The change in priestly standards gave the church the moral structure and political

structure it needed to advance into the centuries to prevail. Setting themselves apart from secular life would only further heighten

the popularity and validity of the church. Sexuality in the absence of such in church clergy restricted illegitimate children

inheriting their father’s fortunes or church position. Omitting marriages for priests meant that familial duties were absent, therefore,

work of the church was priority. The benefits of not having a wife were deemed far greater than having one. Public pressures and

scrutiny aided in reshaping morality and sexuality for clergy (Vauchez, 202). The end result was laity and clergy accepting the

new social climate of church and celibacy.

The result of social change within Christianity in terms of sexual practices became one of the earmarks for the Reformation, which

would take place after the fourteenth century. Sexuality as a social issue ushered in the Modern Ages where religious people were

beginning to think for themselves in respect to political, social and economical ties to their religious lives.

Baldwin, John W. “Five Discourses on Desire: Sexuality and Gender in Northern France around 1200.” Speculum Vol. 66 (1991).
Bloch, Howard R. Medieval Misogyny. University of California Press. (2008).
Davidson, Arnold. Sex and the Emergence of Sexuality. University of Chicago Press. 2009.
Halpern, David M. The Sleep of Reason: Erotic Experience And Sexual Ethics in Ancient Greece and Rome.: Forgetting Foucault: Acts, Identities And The History of Sexuality. University of Chicago Press.
Karras, Ruth Mazo. Sexuality in Medieval Europe: Doing Unto Others. New York 2005.
Seward, Desmond. Monks of War. The Military Religious Order. England. 1995
Vauchez, Andre. Medieval Christianity: A People’s History of Christianity: “Clerical Celibacy and the Laity”. 2009.

Sexuality in Medieval Christianity
By Denise McKenzie
I would like to research how sexuality was viewed in Medieval Christianity. Relics, Ascetic living and Saints play a major part in the development of Christianity and I am curious to know how sexuality was viewed in this period.

Working Notes: I am currently researching articles in Jstor and reviewing articles in Borsteins' Medieval Christianity. I think a lot of my research will be from articles in Jstor. I am also going to try Galileo to narrow down my focus on the topic.

Bloch, Howard R. Medieval Misogyny. University of California Press. (2008).

Davidson, Arnold I. “Sex and the Emergence of Sexuality”. Critical Inquiry. Vol. 14, No.1 (1987). The University of Chicago Press.

Karras, Ruth Mazo. Sexualtiy in Medieval Europe: Doing Unto Others. New York Press 2005.

Samuel, Flora. “A Profane Annunciation: The Representation of Sexuality at Ronchamp”. Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture. Blackwell Publishing.(2007).

Willard, Dallas. The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God. (1998).

PRECIS -Submitted April 30, 2011

Critique by Medieval Mysticism (Soeder): Sexuality has and always will be a large part of how churches view people. During the early centuries however, sexuality was confusing and therefore your argument of how celibacy helped shape and lay the dimensions out for church people to understand was a large step. I think that sexuality during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries was something that people didn't know how to relate to if they were going to be a apart of the church. Because like you mentioned, the Pope could be married but the monks were not allowed to be married at all and I think that might have caused a sense of confusion among ranks in the "political" church. That is another issue I was interested in reading in your paper is how the church and it's political powers needed a sensible change to set strict guidelines on sexuality in the church. I thought your argument was explained in great detail and I only saw one or two grammatical errors. I do however think that you might have had one to many citations, because I found myself getting lost within all of them. All in all I thought you had an awesome argument and did well researching the argument.

Critique by Religion and Courtly Love: For the Church to be so against sexual acts, the topic of sexuality seems to be reocurrent. All of their efforts were put into remaining pure, yet there were times where sexual acts were decribed in great detail. During the Medieval times, sexuality was still in its infantile stage, just like Christianity. As people became more educated and or bold, their beliefs/standards of what was and was not acceptable, sexually, began to change. I found it very easy to follow your paper. Your argument and supporting details were clear. I believe that your paper was well thought out, and you did a great job in presenting (proving) how sexuality had a greater affect on the Church than on the Laity.