Gay Reformers? Why the Medieval Church Banned Priests from Marrying

Religious Men and Masculine Identity in the Middle AgesAmong the issues that the current-day Roman Catholic Church is debating are whether or not priests should marry, and how accepting they should be of homosexuals. Interestingly, about nine hundred years ago both of these issues were intertwined in the Anglo-Norman world.

During the early Middle Ages clerical marriage was not allowed in theory, but widely accepted in practice. If a priest did marry, the marriage itself was considered valid. However, in the eleventh-century church reformers pressed hard for any form of clerical marriage to be abolished with strict penalties for those who refused to accept the new laws.


One of the main battlegrounds between pro and anti-marriage forces was in the Anglo-Norman kingdom. It is the topic of a recent paper by Jennifer Thibodeaux, entitled ‘The defence of clerical marriage: Religious identity and masculinity in the writings of Anglo-Norman clerics.” She examines four treatises written between the late 1070s and 1110 that support the pro-marriage viewpoint.

The arguments they lay out in favour of clerical marriage include noting that this is a long-held practice and that preventing priests to have wives would make them susceptible to more grievous sexual sins. They also point to various Biblical passages to reinforce their position. As one writer asks, “Why are we, who are made from the same matter and assume the sin of the flesh from Adam’s sin, not allowed to have wives?”


These writers go on to assert that being married was an essential part of the manliness of a priest. To be forced into celibacy was an assault on their honour and a kind of public humiliation. One letter between two groups of clerics adds that ban on marriage has resulted in them losing the respect of the community: “we have fallen into the contempt of our neighbours, and we have become a source of derision and mockery to those around us.”

However, much of the writings by the pro-marriage clerics is actually centred on homosexual behaviour – not only do they fear being celibate will lead to this, but they also claim that those in favour of the reform are active homosexuals.

Thibodeaux writes:

The Cambrai clergy noted that the advocates of celibacy ‘detest marriage because they practice with impiety and without respect a vice both abominable and without name’, here referring to sodomy. Both Serlo of Bayeux and the anonymous author of ‘We married clergy’ reveal this very perception that while reformers portrayed a clerical marriage as an abomination, the same reformers turned a blind eye to sodomy, the ‘unnatural’ offence, and allowed it to run rampant without prosecution. Serlo wrote the the ‘men who live the shameful, obscene lives of sodomites,’ created the laws against clerical marriage. He accused reformers of banning what was lawful (clerical marriage) and hiding what was “a kind of sickness which might cause a grievous end to the human race.’ The author of ‘We married clergy’ uses similar language to express disgust  at the acceptance of sodomy while married clerics were persecuted. Like other writers of his time, he defends his argument by recourse to a ‘natural order’, saying that ‘this response rightly takes account of the laws of nature: if no one propagated, if no man procreated, everything would come to an end … you are driven by a lust which all of nature abhors’. He goes further than Serlo by directly positing procreative sex as oppositional to sodomy, the former marking manliness while the latter rendered one ‘a half man, an effeminate’.

It is difficult to note how valid the accusations against reformers were – it would be easy for the pro-marriage forces to tarnish the reputations of those trying to end the practice by accusing them of being sinners as well. However, Thibodeaux also notes that they might have been justified in complaining that while clerical marriage was being eradicated, homosexual practices were being allowed to go unpunished. “A survey of Anglo-Norman regional ecclesiastical councils from 1072 to 1128 shows that there was no legislation created against sodomy, with the exception of Anselm [Archbishop of Canterbury from 1093 to 1109]’s 1102 Westminster decree, which may have not been published. In contrast, many of these councils contained some measure against clerical marriage. The monastic William of Malmesbury, writing in 1125, made a rather curious statement that ‘the rule about sodomites being excommunicated every Sunday Anselm himself later changed, for good reasons; but that only encouraged the evil to break the other rules more freely.'”


In the end, the arguments made by the pro-marriage supporters failed to get acceptance by the Roman Catholic church, and by the mid-twelfth century the practice of priests being allowed to marry was stamped out (however, many priests would continue to have concubines, often with the acceptance of their parishioners). The next couple of centuries would also see harsher measures enacted against homosexual practices as well.

The article, ‘The defence of clerical marriage: Religious identity and masculinity in the writings of Anglo-Norman clerics” appears in Religious Men and Masculine Identity in the Middle Ages, edited by P.H. Cullum and Katherine J. Lewis. The book includes 11 articles that explores masculinity and religion during the medieval period.

Jennifer Thibodeaux teaches at the University of Wisconsin–Whitewater. She has also edited the book Negotiating Clerical Identities: Priests, Monks and Masculinity in the Middle Ages.



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