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  • Children of Disorder:Clerical Parentage, Illegitimacy, and Reform in the Middle Ages
  • Laura Wertheimer (bio)

The meaning and effects of legitimate and illegitimate birth in the works of medieval scholars, canonists, and theologians took place within a nexus of complex and not always easily reconcilable ideas. The institutional church's interest in and influence over birth status rested upon its purview over sin, and sin was a matter in which the patrimony of the legitimate and illegitimate was equal. Though Adam and Eve, progenitors of the human race, bequeathed original sin to all their descendants, no child inherited a wealth or debt of virtue from his parents; the son of one destined for damnation at the Last Judgment was as much a potential heir to the kingdom of heaven as the daughter of a saint. Quite the opposite was true in the matter of earthly status, where parentage was everything. A free birth conveyed more privileges than a servile one, children of the well-off could enjoy more of whatever material comforts their age had to offer than could the less fortunate, and only legitimate birth entitled one to the social position or property of one's parents. Indeed, hereditary transmission of status from parent to child through legitimate birth was so firmly entrenched in medieval society that clerics repeatedly tried to invalidate ecclesiastically unsanctioned relationships by declaring the children of them illegitimate and subject to the legal disabilities associated with illegitimate status.

Emerging from the central Middle Ages was the provision in the canon law of the Roman Catholic Church that the "defect of birth" (defectus natalium), or illegitimacy, rendered a man unfit for ordination except by [End Page 382] papal dispensation.1 Conceptualized in the tenth century, developed in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, and standing in canon law until 1983, this policy applied to all illegitimate men but initially targeted the sons of men in holy orders, emerging as it did from a campaign to compel clerics to adhere to the celibacy mandated by canon law.2 Scholarship on this topic has largely focused on how declaring clerics' children illegitimate and sons unfit for orders punished and deterred clerical marriage; a subject less explored is how reformers perceived clerics' children in and of themselves.3 This is the purpose of the present article: to analyze not how clerics' children became a useful means to the end of implementing sacerdotal celibacy but rather how a group of church reformers' reconceptualization of the body of the clergy changed how they constructed the children of clerics' bodies. [End Page 383]

Proponents of the ecclesiastical reform movement in the central Middle Ages did not cut their new image of clerics' children from whole cloth. By the tenth century there was a long-standing tradition within the institution of the Catholic Church of manipulating the concept of illegitimacy and imposing it upon children born from relationships that the church did not recognize.4 Reformers of the central Middle Ages drew upon that tradition but moved beyond it because the drive to enforce sacerdotal celibacy represented more than an effort to change the marital practices of the sexually active: it was part of a larger effort to redefine the clerical order into something visibly and markedly separated from the lay world, a separation that included its removal from everything that came along with marriage and the sexually active state.5 In this new model of the clergy children of ordained men became more than individuals whose status could be manipulated to reprove or ameliorate the behavior of their parents, as had largely been the case with children whom the institutional church called "illegitimate" in previous centuries. Clerics' children fell under attack because they represented a threat to reformers' efforts to distinguish between a clerical and a lay sphere; in anthropological terms they became "matter out of place."6 Born from a mingling of carnality and spirituality, they created disorder within sacred space. This tension is especially visible when dealing with sons of clerics who wished themselves to become clerics. These men could be admitted into the clergy and indeed were in large numbers in the central Middle Ages and...


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pp. 382-407
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