The Manly Priest

Clerical Celibacy, Masculinity, and Reform in England and Normandy, 1066-1300

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Jennifer D. Thibodeaux
The Middle Ages Series
  • Philadelphia, PA: 
    University of Pennsylvania Press
    , November
     240 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In the late Middle Ages, clerical celibacy had become the proscribed legal norm within the Catholic Church. The Manly Priest: Clerical Celibacy, Masculinity, and England and Normandy, 1066-1300 explores the period in which these laws were created and enforced. Focusing on Normandy and England, Jennifer D. Thibodeaux argues that the elevation of the monastic celibate life that dominated the reform era of the 11th and 12th centuries represented a new, masculine gender identity that conflicted with the traditional manliness that previously defined married secular clergy. Thibodeaux examines this conflict from the perspective of the reformers, and the married clergy and their sons, noting that by the 13th century clerical celibacy had become the accepted ideal standard, with the reformers now extending the monastic model of masculinity to exclude other traditional masculine behaviors.

The monastic model of masculinity was one of warfare against the bodily sexual urges. Traditional masculinity was defined through conflict and sexual conquest. Monastic reformers, however, employed traditional masculine language to frame the celibate life as a superior masculinity that emphasized not sexual conquest, but the conquering of sexual desire. Religious writers predominately chose to denote masculinity through derivatives of vir, and Thibodeaux argues that, in translating these words differently for secular and religious texts, historians have removed the original gender language, and inserted their own gendered assumptions into the text.

Though the practice was discouraged if they desired to ascend to Holy Orders, secular clergy in minor orders were allowed to marry. As married men, these clergy defined masculinity through the same traditional model as the laity. In the 11th and 12th centuries, for various reasons, reformers increasingly began to endorse the monastic model of masculinity, passing legislation that sought to separate the secular clergy from their wives, thus creating a “monasticized” priesthood. Thibodeaux argues that the secular clergy in both Normandy and England resisted this new standard of masculinity. They defended marriage as a legitimate form of manliness for a priest, and questioned why reformers were not enacting legislation against sodomy. Married clergy believed that “natural” sexual activity controlled the male body, and the monastics that refused to control their sexuality opened themselves to commit even greater sins. Thibodeaux notes that both sides attacked the other by emphasizing the “unnaturalness” of their opponent. Married clergy became effeminate through their close association with women, and monastic clergy through sodomy.

In their campaign against the married clergy, the reformers also attacked the children of the married priests. Procreation defined manliness within England and Normandy, and was not seen as incompatible with the priesthood. In the 11th and 12th centuries, clerical fathers regularly presented their sons for benefices and positions within the church. These sons were particularly more vulnerable to the changing legislation than their fathers, as reformers outlawed the ordination of clerical sons. Classified as bastards, clerical sons were seen as polluted by the circumstances of their birth, thus making them unfit to administer the sacraments. Only through a dispensation could a clerical son receive ordination and obtain a benefice. As such, Thibodeaux argues, the masculinity of clerical sons was defined not by their actions, but by their father’s secular masculinity. These laws undermined the ability of married secular clergy to extend their kingship networks within England and Normandy, and after a couple of centuries, ensured that the legislative efforts of the reformers became effective.

Focusing only on Normandy after the French conquest in 1204, Thibodeaux argues that Lateran IV (1215) and the creation of a legal apparatus to enforce the canon decrees on celibacy enabled to reformers to impose the monastic model on secular clergy. As the monastic model of masculinity became the standard, the reformers began to include other aspects of the body. Gambling, drunkenness, and violence were now seen as incompatible with the self-controlled priestly body. Despite the adoption of the monastic model of masculinity by those in elite positions, and the ability now to enforce this position through canon law, parish clergy within Normandy refused to be reformed. Concubinage had replaced marriage, and clergy prosecuted for sexual sin were also often charged with other forbidden acts that scandalized the priestly body. Thibodeaux argues that these prosecutions demonstrate that the parish clergy refused to adopt the monastic model of masculinity, while also noting that this rival model threatened to deprive parish clergy of their access to male culture. Many of these priests continued to embrace the cultural manliness of sexual conquest, drinking, gambling, and violence despite repeated prosecutions, and continued to perform their religious duties despite their suspension or excommunication.

Thibodeaux provides a well-researched study that furthers the discussion of masculine gender identity among medieval priests. Thibodeaux spends the majority of the book examining the competing models of masculinity in Normandy and England in the 11th and 12th centuries, but then for the last two chapters, focuses solely on Normandy. On the one hand, this is understandable as the Norman conquest of England in 1066 created a cross-Channel climate in which fathers, brothers, and uncles served the Church. This connection ended in 1204 when France conquered Normandy, but the reader is left wondering about England in the final chapters when Thibodeaux solely examines how the monastic model was expanded and resisted in Normandy. This is a minor complaint born out of curiosity that does not detract from Thibodeaux’s well-written and researched examination of the complexity of masculinity in the middle ages.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Bryan C. Maine is Adjunct Professor at the University of Mary-Hardin Baylor.

Date of Review: 
October 30, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jennifer D. Thibodeaux is Associate Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. She is the editor of Negotiating Clerical Identities: Priests, Monks and Masculinity in the Middle Ages.


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