Celibacy ‘bitterly contested in 11th century’

It has for priests been the 900-year norm, integral to religion’s moral code. But according to the authors of a new book, celibacy was at first met with fierce criticism.

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In their new volume Religious Men and Masculine Identity in the Middle Ages, Patricia Cullum and Katherine J Lewis claim the notion of a celibate clergy was initially highly contested.

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In a book which promises to “challenge conventional historiographies of the adoption of clerical celibacy, of the decline of monasticism and the gendered nature of piety”, the University of Huddersfield history lecturers explore the anxieties that surrounded celibacy.

“Not everyone knows that although it’s still part of religion today, celibacy only became compulsory in the 11th and 12th centuries,” Lewis told historyextra.com.

“It was highly contested, and there was a lot of opposition. There were a lot of married priests, so celibacy was not inevitable.

“There was a century of debate.”

Reflecting on the concerns surrounding celibacy, Lewis said: “It’s at the heart of matters of manhood. If you weren’t married people might look at you differently.

“Celibacy was a manifestation of moral and physical strength, proof you could surmount the temptation of the body. But not all clergy agreed with that.

“There were anxieties that if clerics were celibate they would all become sodomites, because they were not allowed to be married; that it would make them more immoral.

“Anxieties that if you were celibate you were not manly – to be married you were head of a household, it was tied up with respectability.”

Lewis continued: “By the 13th-century celibacy was established but it was handled differently in different places.

“England, for example, in the later medieval ages was accepting of the idea. But in parts of Spain it was commonplace for priests to have wives.

“This was known and accepted in the community. So celibacy was not uniform. It’s a more complex picture.”

Lewis explained celibacy was introduced in “an attempt to separate the clergy from the laity”.

“Monks had always been celibate but they were fairly separate,” she said. “The church wanted there to be a clear mark between the clergy and ordinary people.”

The lecturer pointed to Henry of Huntington, “a married cleric who still argued against celibacy, even though he knew he was going against the tide”.

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“You had him making an articulate argument in defense of married clerics,” said Lewis. “Had more men thought like that, perhaps they would have won the battle, and clerics would have carried on being married.”