By Roisin Cossar
Journal of Women’s History, Volume 23, Number 1 (2011)
Abstract: This essay reconstructs the lives of a neglected group of women in the Christian church during the later Middle Ages. So-called clerical “concubines” were well-known in their communities, but their lived experience has been largely ignored by modern historians. Yet studying clerical concubines sheds light not only on the women themselves, but also on the social organization of the medieval Christian church. Drawing on information gathered from notarial acts across the northern Italian peninsula, I argue that concubines were not a unitary group. Their experiences varied instead according to their status and the regions they inhabited. For instance, while laywomen who became priests’ concubines moved into their lovers’ homes, nuns retained cells in their religious houses during these relationships. Furthermore, concubines in cities such as Treviso could openly live with their lovers and share their property, while in other places, such as Bergamo, severe legal restrictions on concubines made them a particularly vulnerable group.
Introduction: Long-term, stable sexual relationships between clerics and women remained common across Europe during the Middle Ages even after the Lateran council decrees of the twelfth century equated clerics’ sexual activities with fornication and branded their wives “concubines.” Some Christian laypeople were unconcerned about these arrangements. Certainly episcopal courts and laypeople across Italy tended to leave priests alone if they were involved in consensual sexual relationships with single women, saving their criticism for those clerics involved in more transgressive sexual relationships. In fourteenth-century Treviso, for instance, officials of the bishop’s court only prosecuted clerics who had sex with women who were very young or already married.
Those who argue that clerical concubinage was widespread and generally accepted have said little about concubines themselves, and as historian Marie Kelleher has noted, we are in danger of treating them “as a secondary element in the larger problem of clerical discipline.” We know almost nothing about clerical concubines’ social status: how they identified themselves, and what happened to them when their relationships ended. In this essay, I trace the lives of these women in fourteenth-century northern Italy, drawing on a range of notarial documents of practice from cities and dioceses in the northern half of the peninsula—in particular the rich archival holdings of two provincial centers, Bergamo and Treviso.