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  • Concubinage and the Church in Early Modern Münster
  • Simone Laqua

From the moment priestly concubinage was discussed at the Council of Trent, the Church made its position clear: 'How shameful and how unworthy it is of the name of clerics who have dedicated themselves to the service of God to live in the filth of impurity and unclean cohabitation.'1 A detailed list of measures to be applied against concubinaries was drawn up. First, the cleric was to be admonished by his superiors. If that had no effect, he was to lose a third of his salary. If he persisted, the fruits and revenues from his benefices were forfeit, and if he still failed to dismiss his concubine, he was to be stripped of all his ecclesiastical benefices, portions, offices, and salaries. As a last resort, 'chastisement with the sword of excommunication' was threatened.2 Such measures and threats of punishment not only prove the Church's determination to wage war against concubinage but also show that it fully expected to meet with difficulties or even opposition. Clearly, a single rebuke from the ecclesiastical authorities would not be enough to make clerics give up their lovers.

Considering the emphasis the post-Tridentine Church placed on raising the moral standards of its priesthood, it is surprising how little research has been done on this issue.3 An examination of concubinage must consider all [End Page 72] three parties involved: the Church, clerics, and women. This chapter is based on an analysis of archival material covering the episcopate of Ferdinand of Bavaria (1612–50), who spearheaded the introduction of the Counter-Reformation in Münster. I want to concentrate on three issues: first, the measures the Münsteran Church took to abolish concubinage—and here I am especially interested in why the Church attached so much importance to this issue. Secondly, I will explore the position of the other 'half' of these relationships, the guilty clerics. Their response to the Church's reforms will tell us how they saw their role and status in the parish community. Finally, I shall consider the women hidden behind the term 'concubine'. Fortunately, letters written by the concubines themselves or by people close to them have survived, allowing us direct access to their personalities, perceptions, and strategies of defence.

The Bishop

How great a problem was concubinage for the Church? Reporting back to the pope after his tour of German lands in May 1561, the papal nuncio Giovanni Francesco Commendone repeated the duke of Cleve's claim that there were 'not even five priests in his lands, who did not live in public concubinage'.4 The same was true of Bavaria, where, in the same year, a visitation had revealed that, 'of a hundred priests hardly three or four can be found who did not publicly live in concubinage or in a clandestine marriage, or had even got married in public'. And when Pope Pius V gave orders in 1566 to the bishop of Münster to 'sternly admonish the clergy to live an honourable life and eliminate concubinage', Bernhard of Raesfeld (1557–66) resigned rather than take up the task. This was probably a wise move on his part, for, as the first post-Tridentine visitation of the Oberstift revealed, the moral behaviour of the clergy in the territory was lamentable: everywhere, except in only two parishes, Überwasser and St Lamberti, clerics admitted to living with women.5 Bishop Ernst of Bavaria (1585–1612) was the first to tackle the problem, setting up an ecclesiastical court (Geistlicher Rat) in 1601, which, among other things, prosecuted cases of concubinage. But its success was limited, as a 1607 report to Bishop Ernst's Roman superiors revealed: [End Page 73]

Not only canonized canons, but also prelates, pastors, curate priests, members of the religious orders, and even their abbots take part at public events together with their concubines . . . The women call themselves prelatesses (Pröpstinnen) and abbesses, and make sure they are called thus on their gravestones and other public inscriptions.6

So when Ferdinand of Bavaria was elected bishop of Münster in 1612, he faced a daunting challenge. His task was to implement the prescriptions...


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pp. 72-100
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Archived 2007
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