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So You Want to Be a Medieval Priest

medieval priest

By Cait Stevenson

It might seem like one of the more glamorous professions in the Middle Ages – as a priest you could run a church and offer moral leadership to your parishioners. But here are a few drawbacks to being a medieval priest.

Your audience might hate your sermons

Writing up some advice for new preachers, thirteenth-century globetrotting bishop Jacques de Vitry lists some of the ways to know your audience’s attention is wandering (or completely gone):

  • You talked too loudly and it hurt their ears
  • You talked too softly and they could not hear you
  • You picked bad or unfunny stories (exempla) to illustrate your religious lessons
  • Your audience has been visited by demons who promise them endless wealth in exchange for not attending your sermons in the first place

You might hate your sermons

Jacques also mournfully recalls his youthful days, when each sermon he wrote or preach left him profoundly depressed. A vision from Nivelles beguine Marie d’Oignies told him his problem. He was stuffing too much theology into his sermons. They were too educated, too academic…and thus, too confusing and far too boring for his listeners.

You could not be a woman

A definite dealbreaker for many.

You might have to deal with women

Because women were not allowed to be priests, communities of nuns and beguines needed a confessor and priest to say Mass (often the same person). Especially from the twelfth century onwards, there is ample evidence of priests refusing to serve women’s monasteries and beguinages. Most infamously, in the thirteenth century, the Cistercian Order entirely barred the foundation of new women’s houses so their monks would not have to provide spiritual direction to women.

Yale University Beinecke MS.229 fol. 100v

Your children could not follow you into your profession…or could they?

Although clerical celibacy had always been an ideal in the western Church, (attempted) enforcement of the rule really began in the eleventh century. It did not, however, actually stop priests from cohabiting with their girlfriends (“housekeepers”) and raising their own children. Canon law at least forbade illegitimate sons from becoming priests.

This ban should have been a big problem for priests’ sons. The stereotype that medieval sons followed their fathers into a family business and daughters married someone in the same profession has some merit to it, at least for the urban middle classes wealthy enough to own or be partners in an artisan business. Priests’ sons should not have had that luxury, leaving them in an awkward place when it came time to support themselves independently.

But the Church did allow illegitimate sons to obtain a special dispensation from their bishop and get ordained anyway. And apparently, these requests were rarely turned down.

You might need a second job

Bishops ruling entire territories and rich priests saying Mass in elaborate churches were the exception. Most priests, especially in rural churches and parishes, had no handsome benefice to support themselves. According to Susan Wood, in the early Middle Ages, the local priest was often just whichever resident would accept the lowest salary from the lord.

As a result, we hear about priests hard-pressed to support themselves (and their families) in other ways, mainly but not always farming. For example, one 15th-century German priest applied for relief from his parish duties, citing a soldering accident that splashed lead into one of his eyes. It might have been a Pinterest fail, but could also have been a blacksmithing mishap.

medieval priests
British Library MS Royal 6 E VII f. 506v

You might become a zombie

In the fourteenth century, theologians at the University of Paris debated a pressing question. Say a priest is saying Mass and consecrates the Eucharist host, but dies before he consecrates the wine. If he comes back to life and finishes the consecration, is it still valid?

Okay, so the point was not actually that the priest was a zombie, or even that this situation would ever happen. The theologians were contemplating whether consecration of bread and wine were both necessary for the entire Eucharist to become the body and blood of Christ, or whether the two halves could occur separately.

Still. Zombie priests.

Cait Stevenson earned her PhD in medieval history from the University of Notre Dame. Click here to read more from Cait.

Top Image: British Library MS Harley 2891  fol. 147r



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