Today I am not on strike, because it is a Sunday, and thanks to the Working Time Directive I can blog if I like and no-one can tell me not to. I promised a few posts ago that I would do a proper write-up on a paper which Dr Maroula Perisanidi gave at the University of Leeds a long time ago, 16th November 2016 in fact, at the outset of what has proved to be a quite durable association with us, and before that association lapses I should at least manage to give m’colleague some blog space; besides which, it was an interesting paper. I think, in fact, it was a presentation of a topic which Maroula was even then moving away from—the book of it came out in 2019, but I have the impression that that was a long process—and this can serve as a plug for the book, therefore.1 Her title was “Clerical Marriage in A Comparative Perspective”.
Now a title like that raises one reaction that is perhaps natural to any enquiring mind, and another that is maybe only natural to a modern Catholic audience, which such an audience may indeed not realise is not natural to others. The first reaction would be, “where are we comparing?” and the second reaction would be, “but clergymen aren’t supposed to marry!” And this was exactly the point of the paper. Since the Church trying to prohibit clerical marriage is one of those things like monastic reform or plague outbreaks that can easily seem to have come round in a fairly frequent cycle during the Middle Ages, one could be forgiven for accepting a narrative that says it was always technically prohibited but that blind eyes were turned for long periods and then occasionally there was a back-to-basics campaign that got people into trouble.2 Thing is, that would be very much a Western narrative, which becomes very obvious when, as Maroula was doing, you compare somewhere like medieval England with Byzantium. There aren’t many people who can do that, but Maroula had spent some time becoming one of them, and what we got now was the fruits of that learning.
As my students often find, it’s very hard to know when the Greek Christian Church and the Latin one finally parted ways and became Orthodox and Catholic (rather than both being both); there’s about six different definitive dates of separation depending on what you count, but relatively few people would put them before, say, the mid-9th century, not least because not long before that you have Charlemagne trying to interfere in the imperial theological wrangling over icons, which you’d think he wouldn’t have bothered to do if he’d thought they weren’t the same Church over there.3 But still, there were divisions between Latin and Greek Christianities that went a way back even then, and this was then; from the 4th century onwards, about as early as organised Christianity can be called a single body (albeit by ignoring those groups already splintered), the Latin Church has either objected to the marriage of priests or been quiet about it, whereas the Greek one is basically cool with it. That is, of course, a massive over-simplification: both sides had variant views in play, many of which Maroula has found. But that general picture might still be fair.
What was it that the Western Church couldn’t take about clerical marriage? Interestingly, it shifted over time. To start with, the places we find rulings about this are mainly concerned with Church property falling into lay hands, either because of a priest having children to whom he wanted, naturally, to leave some kind of inheritance, or for some more immediately offended people, because of him supporting his wife on the offerings of the faithful. The Byzantine perspective was much more that the revenue from offerings was disposable, as long as the offerings themselves remained with the Church, and this meant that priests could, for example, be salaried; in the West, whether because of a later-developing cash economy or for some other reason, that wasn’t a popular solution. Byzantium was not blind to these concerns, but it kept them to bishops, who were supposed to be unmarried; a priest hoping for promotion needed either to be single and celibate or to agree on celibate separation from his wife. (Indeed, as became clear in questions, while priests could be married, they were not allowed to marry once priests, or even deacons, so marriage was a decision one presumably made very early in a Byzantine Church career.) Here, the different economic bases of the two societies do seem likely to be a major part of the reason for the differences, and there was probably more similarity than at first appears, especially in practice, but a difference does remain.
However, the property concern died down over time in the West, and mainly because it was replaced by a growing concern about clerical purity and pollution.4 Now this was not a new concern either—you can find it in that translation of Bede’s Letter to Egbert I did ages back, and indeed in everyone else’s, and that’s eighth-century, but it seems to have taken a more popular root during the so-called Gregorian Reform, at the extreme points of which you had papally-supported mobs in Milan throwing priests and whoever they found them in bed with out of upstairs windows and so on.5 The concern seems to have been that anyone having sex might, you know, enjoy it, thus committing fornication, or just not be virginally pure, and thus perhaps not be in a very close relationship with God, in which case, what assurance had anyone that that person could truly be possessed with the Holy Spirit, Whom one would expect not to hang about in such dirty premises? I trivialise, but if what this meant was that maybe all your absolutions were invalid so your sins were still unforgiven, or that your marriage wasn’t valid so your children were the product of adultery and you a damned fornicator, you can see how it could start to have major implications for both this world and the next. The weird thing is that all these hang-ups seem to be basically Western; as close as Byzantine legislation gets is to ask for abstinence from sex with their wives for a certain time before and after performing the liturgy, so that the priest’s mind would be fully on God and his intercession would thus reach its intended recipient. There was in fact more Byzantine concern about this in the fifth than the twelfth century, whereas the West seems to have gone the other way.
Now, if Maroula offered any explanation of this, my notes don’t record it, but just to observe the fact is to raise not just the question “why”, but even the very fact of difference. Whose was the ‘normal’ position? (Erm, as it were.) Well, neither side’s, presumably, however natural they may have felt their own position was. (It would be interesting to get a third point of comparison in, of course: does or did the Church of the East require clerical celibacy? Wikipedia suggests not. The modern Anglican one of course does not, even of bishops. If that’s the game we’re playing, the Catholics look like the odd ones out now, but of course it was not so obviously so in the Middle Ages, before Anglicans…) This is the great value of comparative history, anyway; if done right, it makes one look at what one thinks is usual differently and question it.6 This paper was an example of it done right.
1. It is Maroula Perisanidi, Clerical Continence in Twelfth-Century England and Byzantium: Property, Family, and Purity (London 2019), and what I don’t provide cites for in what follows I am guessing you will find in there.
2. Some kind of prize for anyone who can tell me where, long ago, I read some historian glibly referring to some phenomenon which, “like the rise of the middle class, seems to have begun in every period”, which I presumably assumed I would never forget so didn’t record…
3. See now Thomas F. X. Noble, Images, Iconoclasm, and the Carolingians (Philadelphia, PA, 2009).
4. I feel as if I should mention Albrecht Diem’s Das monastische Experiment: die Rolle der Keuschheit bei der Entstehung des westlichen Klosterwesens (Münster 2005) here, but to do more than mention it would require me actually to have read it, which I confess I have not, as yet.
5. See H. E. J. Cowdrey, “The Papacy, the Patarenes and the Church of Milan” in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 5th Series Vol. 18 (London 1968), pp. 25-48, reprinted in idem, Popes, Monks and Crusaders (London 1984), chapter V.
6. Impossible to say such a thing, of course, without citing Chris Wickham, Problems in Doing Comparative History, Reuter Lecture 2004 (Southampton 2005), repr. in Patricia Skinner (ed.), Challenging the Boundaries of Medieval History: the legacy of Timothy Reuter (Turnhout 2009), pp. 5–28.