To Have and to Hold: Marriage in Pre-Modern Europe 1200 – 1700

To Have and to Hold: Marriage in Pre-Modern Europe 1200 – 1700

The last session I had the pleasure of attending was entitled, “Irregular Unions”. It delved into the interesting topic of clerical concubines and the notion of clerical “marriages”. The first paper was given by Roisin Cossar (U of Manitoba), “Clerical Concubines in 14th Century Italy”. The paper looked into the lives of clerical concubines and explored the complex relationships they shared with priests.

Long term, stable relationships were common even after the Lateran Council decreed against clerical marriage. Professor Cossar was interested in the question: ‘What about the women in these clerical relationships and what was the difference between lay and religious concubines?’

Concubines were not a unified group. The way a concubine was treated seemed largely dependent on whether she was a lay or religious concubine. Lay women left their houses to live with priests in their dwellings and had no rights to their partner’s property. Lay women could be expelled from their homes and communities and acceptance of them depended on where they lived. Religious concubines, i.e. nuns who had sexual relationships with priests were better protected. Some even lived with canons and bore their children. They did not tend to lose everything as lay women did, nor did they lose their status by being punished or dismissed from their orders.

Clerics in Northern Italy sought ways to provide for their concubines. The illegitimate children of these unions were considered the absolute worst form of illegitimacy and could not be legitimized. Some concubines were able to have guardianship of these children; lay concubines relied on their partners to provide for them in terms of property. Cleric’s references to their concubines in their wills was heavily veiled, depending on their location. In more accepting areas, the references were more open. While concubines could not be the sole heirs of an estate, the gifts bestowed upon them were often very generous.  Many clerics were concerned about their concubines souls and honour; they wanted to be sure the women could re-marry when they died.These women were not passive – and some came to collect their dues and a few even challenged the courts.

The last paper of interest was by Michelle Armstrong Partida (UCLA) entitled “Married Priests? The Practice of Clerical Unions in 14th Century Cataluna”. These unions between priests and concubines were found in may records. A great number of clergy entered into stable unions with a household and children. It appears that concubinage was a collective practice in Spain and was openly practiced until the 1200′s.

The punishments meted out for priests were meager fines – 100 – 200 sous. These fines did not stop the clergy, they just learned to hide their relationships better. The Church had to rescind and all-out excommunication against the Spanish clergy because too many of Spain’s churches would be empty! Instead, episcopal visitors were sent to determine the extent of these relationships. Early scribes did not have standardized methods of collecting data so better information was available much later.

Priests were engaged in long-term, “marriage-like” unions. the practice was so common that the laity did not disapprove. Parishioners spent their lives around these famillies and knew the famillies well, therefore, they were less likely to malign them. Some famillies lived apart to avoid fines. This interaction suggest that clerical couples were part of parish communities. A lot of the relationships were open because they were long term, and “marriage-like” so parishioners viewwed them in a better light. They were deemed better than the local priest preying on the village girls. Therefore, long term concubinage was perceived as less of a problem.

These concubines were clearly more than disposable sex partners – they helped around the house and with church work. In some cases, marriage type vows were made but very few were ever recorded. many priest refused to give up their wives and famillies even after being repeatedly fined,

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