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Medieval Clerics Resisted Celibacy, Historians Say

Medieval clerics did not relish the prospect of giving up sex when the Papacy tried to introduce the principle of celibacy. Resistance was widespread, it was revealed at an academic conference at the University of Huddersfield where two historians are playing a key role in developing the burgeoning study area of medieval masculinity.

Dr Pat Cullum an Dr Katherine Lewis organised the conference, entitled ‘Religious Men in the Middle Ages’. Held last  month, it was attended by 50 delegates from 14 countries, including the USA, Finland, China, Italy and Cyprus. There were 40 papers at a sequence of sessions which dealt with topics such as medieval bishops, pilgrimage, monastic orders and the religious outlook of lay people. Some of the papers given included, ‘Dude prays like a lady? Varities of male devotion to Saint George in Late Medieval England,’ by James MacGregor of Georgetown University and ‘Men, marriage and masculinity in late medieval hagiography,’ by Marita von Weissenberg of Yale University.

“One of the things we wanted to do this time was to get people talking about more than just Catholic Christendom, so we had papers on Orthodoxy, Jewish masculinity and a comparison between  St Francis of Assisi and the Buddha,” said Dr Cullum.

Celibacy for the clergy was the topic of the plenary lecture by Jennifer Thibodeaux, Associate Professor of Historyat the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. She gave a paper entitled ‘The Discourse of Clerical Marriage: Masculinity and Sexuality in the writings of Norman clerics.’

It was in the 10th century that Papacy and church began to argue that priests should be celibate, although it was some 200 years before the idea was widely accepted. “There were a number of justifications, for example that a priest should imitate Christ, who was celibate, and there was an argument that priests who were handling the sacraments had to be unpolluted by sexual activity,” explained Dr Cullum.

“There was also a practical argument that the church wanted to retain control of its property and if priests wanted to marry and have children they were always going to be tempted to give church property to their families.”

One of the themes that emerged at the University of Huddersfield conference was that there considerably more resistance to clerical celibacy than previously thought, said Dr Cullum.

Now Dr Cullum and Dr Lewis — in tandem with Dr Philippa Hoskin and Dr Joanna Huntington of the University of Lincoln — have announced the formation of a network named ‘The Bishop’s Eye‘.

Dr Lewis explained: “This network will foster new research into the lives, experiences and representation of medieval religious men, both those following a professional vocation — bishops, monks and priests for example — and laymen.
“We’ve taken its name from a famous stained glass window in Lincoln Cathedral. We hope to bring together scholars working across the medieval period in a variety of fields, and employing a range of conceptual approaches.”

It is intended that biennial conferences on the lives of medieval men will be organised under the aegis of The Bishop’s Eye, and there will be publication of the proceedings. Also, it is hoped to attract new scholars into the field. The University of Huddersfield has announced that it will offer two full fee-waiver PhD scholarships to suitable candidates.

It was 12 years ago that Dr Cullum and Dr Lewis helped to foster the subject of medieval masculinity as a field of research, when they organised a conference on holiness and masculinity in the Middle Ages. “Katherine and I thought that after more than ten years it was a good time to revisit the field and see how things are developing,” said Dr Cullum.

Source: University of Huddersfield

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