16.08.25, Thibodeaux, The Manly Priest

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Bertil Nilsson

The Medieval Review 16.08.25

Thibodeaux, Jennifer D. The Manly Priest: Clerical Celibacy, Masculinity, and Reform in England and Normandy, 1066-1300. The Middle Ages. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015. pp. 230. ISBN: 978-0-8122-4752-7 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Bertil Nilsson
University of Gothenburg, Emeritus

This book, consisting of six chapters, is chronologically outlined. It starts in the 11th century with the so called reform movement, when the popes from Leo IX (1049-1054) and onwards emphatically demanded that clerical celibacy should be put into practice on all levels in Western Christendom. The study comprises England and Normandy until the beginning of the 13th century, and after that Normandy only, since this province was conquered by France in 1204 and, accordingly, the direct contacts with the English Church ceased. Thibodeaux maintains that there was a considerable change concerning the theme studied by her in the beginning of the 13th century, particularly as a consequence of the decisions made by the IV Lateran Council in 1215. From the latter part of the 13th century Thibodeaux uses source material hitherto not observed consisting partly of Archbishop Odo Rigaldus's (archbishop of Rouen 1248-1275) synodal sermons, partly notes taken at his visitations in the church province containing among other things judicial cases with parish priests involved.

When presenting the theoretical framework for the research task, Thibodeaux's point of departure is that "the discourse of celibacy that the reformers [of the 11th century and onwards] promoted throughout England and Normandy was inspired by a new gender paradigm for the priesthood." Her aim is to scrutinize "how this norm affected the religious male body..." (2). The long period of time studied, almost 250 years, gives perspectives to changes concerning the view of clerical masculinity among monks as well as married secular priests. The priests defended their right to be married despite the fact that the upholders of the reform required that all clerics in major orders (ordines maiores) were obliged to live sexually continent in order to protect the purity of the Eucharistic sacrament and to prevent that churchly property and benefices were inherited by sons of the married priests, who themselves often were priests.

Even if there is a certain degree of discrepancy among scholars as to what was the primary reason for the demand for celibacy--cultic purity or moral-- Thibodeaux points out that in England and Normandy after 1066 it was about the purity of the secular clerics' bodies and the masculinization of them, meaning the priest's bodily image and outward behavior. A higher degree of manliness was expressed, according to Thibodeaux and her sources, through a body which refrained from sex. Thus, religiously the monk's body was a better expression of manliness than was the married secular priest's, because the monk had to fight (manly) to overcome bodily lust. In what way could it be possible to motivate this opinion also for the secular priests?

All chapters are well structured. They start with a short presentation of the question at issue; every subsection is concluded with a short summary, and, at the end, the chapter as a whole is analytically summarized in a way that leads up to the next chapter. This means that the book is easily read and easy to understand; the entirety keeps very well together. However, modern technique should have made it possible to print the book with footnotes not endnotes. Perhaps, a reviewer could wish more of distinctly outspoken source criticism, kept together in one section: What can you actually count on when using precisely the sources applied by Thibodeaux in relation to her questions at issue? Regarding method, Thibodeaux writes that you have to "look at the ways that masculinity was understood and expressed implicitly" (10). The reviewer would like to know in more detail how you do when reading implicitly and how reliable that kind of reading is.

In the first chapter Thibodeaux studies what she calls religious manliness characterized by the masculinization of the body through discipline, integrity, and "impenetrability" (16). Of course, an important question is how to define masculinity; as a matter of course, the language is of decisive importance. By way of introduction Thibodeaux presents the language of her sources, and maintains that the use of a masculine language--often with the help of the word viriliter--implies that the authors looked upon an ascetical body as a manly body, fighting against the lusts of the flesh. Through such a life the man became "a new man." Thus, the secular priests were expected to adopt monastic manliness, based on self-control and chastity in order to become real men. This was one side of the matter. The other was that the sources contained manifest warnings against getting feminized through different ways of behavior. Particularly it was about men who had sex with women--in the light of the monastic ideal as being regarded as the manliest one--and men who had sex with men. But, as Thibodeaux can demonstrate, it was also about the colors of the clothes or the hair-style as well. Thibodeaux gives a number of amusing examples regarding how the authors expressed themselves and/or what they considered necessary measures to take in order to prevent feminization. Thibodeaux means that it had to do with the fact the ordinary people during the Middle Ages to a high degree felt uncomfortable with inverted gender performances and considered such things as being conducive to disasters, for instance shipwrecks. According to the authors there was also another aspect, namely that the secular clergy was feminized because the priests were sexually dominated by women. Here you would like Thibodeaux to have written shortly about the way of looking at women expressed by this standpoint. The only way for a cleric to avoid feminization was, according to Thibodeaux, what she calls "sexualized chastity." It seems to be a very precise and appropriate term for what it was all about, i.e. a fight against the sexual lusts, which meant that the clerics actually experienced the bodily sexuality. Is was about, as Thibodeaux correctly lays stress upon, a sort of inverted sexuality, which she clearly illustrates with the authors' rhetoric as well as their own imaginations and thoughts.

Chapter 2 deals with decrees issued against marriage among the secular priests. By way of introduction Thibodeaux gives an example which very well serves as illustration to the studied period as a whole: When the archbishop of Rouen at a provincial council in 1072 tried to impose the celibacy for the secular clergy, the priests started throwing stones at him, which made him flee. Well-known from the whole of the Western Church--not only from England and Normandy--and from the whole of the Middle Ages is the fact that the legal discourse on celibacy over and over again was met with resistance among the secular clergy. Here Thibodeaux contributes with some additional and very concrete examples enriching our knowledge of regional conditions. It is worth underlining, as Thibodeaux does, that it was during this period (the latter part of the 11th century) that the monastic ideal started to be proposed as an ideal also for the secular clergy. However, Thibodeaux writes: "How effective these early reform effort were across Europe is not known" (41). Yes, we do know! They were not effective. The decrees meaning that priests became excommunicate and irregular when celebrating mass if they at the same time lived in matrimony--or had sex at all--resulted in a great deal of complications with regard to the parishes' needs for the administration of the sacraments. Thibodeaux analyses this complex of problems convincingly illustrating it with enlightening examples that show that the married priests and their families were supported by the parishioners for their way of life, also when children were born. Especially problematic became the question of how to deal with the sons of priests who themselves wished to become ordained. Thibodeaux treats this problem in Chapter 3.

T. shows that the adherents of the reform immediately criticized a candidate for an episcopal see, if it turned out that he was a son of a priest, irrespective of the fact that his life had been totally impeccable. However, as usual the reality was more complex than the ideal tends to show. Society in England and Normandy saw no contradiction between being a priest and a father. Thibodeaux demonstrates, among other things, that the cathedral chapters in Normandy on several occasions had a father and his son as canons, and the same was the case in England. Thibodeaux makes the interesting observation that (probably) there was a change, meaning that offices among the elite of the Church gradually were not allotted to sons of priests. Even so they continued to receive appointments as secular parish priests. Thibodeaux's linguistic usage, however, indicates that deeper studies should be made concerning the theme, although the lack of source material is evident. But, of course, there was also resistance against the fact that sons of priests in fact could become ordained. Apart from the opinion that the sons bore witness to their fathers' sexual crimes, another fundamental factor was to prevent the emergence of priestly dynasties when the sons of the priests inherited their fathers' benefices. Despite these efforts the number of sons of priests in office in England was in the majority, leading among others Pope Pascal II (1099-1118) to considerations that took the actual reality into account. Dispensations for ordination became the model for England, and, it can be added, for the rest of the Western Church as well.

In chapter 4 Thibodeaux analyses issues pointed out by clerical writers who defended the priests' right to marry: the decrees ended in that married priests were being dishonored and ridiculed; the decrees were new and harsh and did not consider the consequences for the priestly families; sex for the purpose of begetting children was but natural; those who issued decrees of this kind were sodomite reformers. Thus, there was among the clerics an opinion which corresponded with that of the laymen, not with the monastic ideal. We are here in the time before 1123 and the first Lateran council, when it was decided that all marriages contracted by people in major orders were to be dissolved.

Chapter 5 deals with what Thibodeaux calls "the expansion of religious manliness" (112), by means of a study of Archbishop Odo Rigaldus's synodal sermons. In this way Thibodeaux gives a good balance to the legal decrees and demonstrates how the highest representative of the Norman Church tried to implement them through his preaching for precisely the clergy only. The legal prescriptions, concerning not only sexual continence but also speech, clothing and outward appearance and behavior on the whole can be traced back to the second Lateran council 1139, but started to be spread in Normandy only in the 13th century, and at the time also with the help of papal legates. Thibodeaux sees in both the legal prescriptions and the sermons an obvious change from focus almost entirely on the celibate life to stress upon the manly priest in all respects as a model to corporeity. The control of the clergy increased considerably compared to the conditions during the 11th and 12th centuries due to the development of the papal and the local institute of visitation respectively after the IV Lateran Council in 1215. Regularly recurring provincial councils and diocesan synods were required. However, Thibodeaux shows that the Church in Normandy went its own way in managing to keep characteristic features from the previous centuries, despite Archbishop Odo's intense efforts to implement the ideal into practice through leading no less than 70 councils and synods. The anti-norm concept which came up during the first half of the 13th century, thus becomes an important key to the understanding of the priestly ideal in the Western Church during the whole of the rest of the Middle Ages. This is what Thibodeaux calls a religious manliness/masculinity evidently distinguishable from the laymen's manliness/masculinity. Since English is not my native language, I might not have been able to fully understand if Thibodeaux makes any difference between the two terms, viz. manliness/masculinity, which she seems to use alternately. Perhaps she should have made clear her use of them in order to facilitate the understanding of her text, since, if I understand her correctly, this terminological use originates in texts utilizing especially the word viriliter concerning the fights against the lusts of the flesh which the celibate clerics had to go through. But is this enough in order to designate the medieval priest as especially manly or masculine? Sometimes the terms of manliness and masculinity may appear a little bit pasted on a source material and a development which is scholarly understandable without the theoretical framework of a gender analysis, however, sometimes it seems legitimate to use them.

In the last chapter (chapter 6) Thibodeaux gives examples as to how the parish priests in Normandy remained in the old paradigm of life; they continued to live together with women, beget children, spend time in the taverns etc. Thus, Thibodeaux's primary sources from the local level show that it was the higher clergy, bishops, archdeacons and canons, who at least partly adjusted themselves to the new decrees and the new ideal. In the local parishes really nothing happened; the priests continued living in marriage-like relations. Thibodeaux's conclusions in this respect, and the sources which she brings forward to support them, correspond very well with the conditions in, for instance, the Scandinavian realms. Additionally they strengthen the overall impression emphasized in earlier research that the demand for celibacy and the connected way of life did not gain acceptance among the parish priests in the Western Church as a whole.

Without doubt, Thibodeaux has written a very valuable book being an important contribution to a field of research which has been studied in other parts of the Western Church and especially during the latter part of the Middle Ages. Her book brings new analyses to new source material of different kinds and a new perspective to the very much studied question regarding the efforts at implementing the clerical celibacy in the medieval Roman Church and the consequences that the efforts got--or did not get--also in an early phase of papal advance.

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