By Kathryn Ann Taglia
Florilegium, Vol.14 (1995-6)
Introduction: By the late Middle Ages canon law demanded that the higher orders of clerics lead a celibate life. In reality, however, throughout the medieval period and into the early modern era a significant minority fell far from this ideal. Children, born after their fathers had taken vows to the higher orders, were visible evidence of their fathers’ failure to uphold these ecclesiastical standards. The anthropologist Mary Douglas argues that cultural systems need to be able to control or restrict anomalous or ambiguous events that might overturn their organizing principles and threaten their integrity. Through an examination of French synodal legislation from the thirteenth to the fifteenth centuries, I will display how the ecclesiastical cultural system worked to maintain the principle of celibacy and its own integrity by turning these children into moral and legal outsiders whose very existence is a source of scandal and moral contagion to be avoided or contained. In this context medieval ecclesiastical officials situated these offspring, particularly the sons of priests, as the source of all cultural contradictions inherent in ideas about clerical celibacy, marriage, and the control of ecclesiastical resources. Furthermore, by delegitimizing these sons and then granting them access back into the ecclesiastical system through the mechanism of the dispensation, the advocates of clerical celibacy were able to triumph culturally in spite of the challenges to their ideals that the existence of these children presented.
Christianity in the West has long had an uneasy relationship with the idea that those who are involved in producing the sacraments could possibly be involved in reproducing children (or indeed possibly be involved in any type of sexual relation). For the early Christians as well as their medieval descendants sexual relations put those involved in a dangerous and suspect state. To ensure that Christian rituals were completely separated from the possible dangers of sexuality, both Eusebius and Ambrose proposed that married clergy might remain so after they entered the higher orders only if they maintained chaste relations with their wives. This guaranteed the sanctity and purity of the sacraments performed by the married priest or bishop while permitting the community to benefit still from the wife’s labour (and it allowed the wife to remain within a marriage). However, this theory of chaste marriage for the major holy orders (subdeacons and up) was troubled often through the centuries that followed by vivid and unmistakable examples of its being broken—that is, of course, by the birth of children to married clerical couples.
The problematical status of chaste clerical marriage was further undermined by the ambivalent feelings that medieval theologians and canonists had about marriage and sexuality in general. As is well known, Paul had somewhat reluctantly recommended marriage over “burning” and Jerome had said that those married garnered only thirty-fold reward compared to the sixty-fold reward of those widowed or the hundred-fold reward of virgins. Augustine in his tract, “The Good of Marriage,” defends sexuality, reproduction, and marriage as “natural” for humans, but only within carefully and narrowly defined limits where marriage serves as the proper site for sexuality and reproduction. “Marriage,” Augustine states, “itself among all races is for the one purpose of procreating children, whatever will be their station and character afterwards; marriage was instituted for this purpose, so that children might be born properly and decently.”