The Clerical Wife: Medieval Perceptions of Women During the Eleventh‐ and Twelfth‐Century Church Reforms

Detail of a roundel miniature of a cleric removing his robe, with a devil on his shoulder.  - Harley 1527 f.33 (min)The Clerical Wife: Medieval Perceptions of Women During the Eleventh‐ and Twelfth‐Century Church Reforms

By Cara Kaser

Portland State University McNair Research Journal, Vol.1 (2004‐2005)

Introduction: To those who promoted the agendas of the eleventh and twelfth century church reforms the cleric’s wife embodied those things which inhibited the process of man reaching the holy: lust, defilement, worldliness, and temptation. But to those who demanded that she remain a part of conventional marital structures and sacred traditions, the clerical wife remained an important – and controversial – aspect of clerical culture throughout the Middle Ages. The figure and image of the priest’s wife has eluded historians for generations, as her presence as an important component of the controversy surrounding the heightened enforcement of clerical celibacy throughout the eleventh and twelfth centuries – and beyond – was not prominent in the writings of popes, reformers, or the medieval laity. Perhaps this is why modern historians have not carefully examined the figure of the clerical wife, as ecclesiastical canons, decrees, letters, and vitae sharply point to her regular absence. It is within these absences, silences, and scarce references that the clerical wife is constructed, and it is her absence in these texts that speak strongly to her position as significant in medieval society.

The image of the clerical wife slipped between classifications defined by ecclesiastical traditions and norms, and through the polemical writings of established clergy and church reformers, to become almost non-existent within the scope of medieval history. Her role was not that of the pious laywomen, nor was she a part of the acutely religious culture of monasticism; rather, the life of the clerical wife was intertwined with aspects of holiness and cleanliness, as well as secularity and impurity. The medieval clerical wife embodied the ideal of a “new” religious figure, not set apart from the world of temporality, nor strictly assimilated into the world of the holy, but who instead existed in both, thereby defying conceptions of religious proscriptions that bound medieval women into specific roles and lifestyles. Because of this, the image of the clerical wife remained obscured, as ecclesiastical ideology and negative rhetorical attacks towards women attached to clerical figures peaked during the eleventh and twelfth centuries. The conceptions of clerical wives as motivated seducers, thieves of the Christian faith, and contenders to the traditional, male hierarchy of the church proposed by reformists parlayed into ecclesiastical attempts to enforce clerical chastity, but also met with resistance from clergy and their wives who demanded legalized marriages and recognized legitimacy for their children, and who attempted to construct an image of the clerical wife as a beneficial contributor to both clergy and the Christian community.


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