- The Manly Priest: Clerical Celibacy, Masculinity, and Reform in England and Normandy, 1066-1300 by Jennifer d. Thibodeaux
This important study refocuses the scholarly discussion of medieval church reform on issues of gender, convincingly arguing that in the eleventh through thirteenth centuries "the language of manliness was used to enforce an ascetic standard of the male body as the emblem of clerical life" (p. 151). Building on recent scholarship on medieval masculinity, the book's first three chapters reconstruct the origins of this reformist discourse and explore its impact on elite clerics and their families, particularly their sons. Here, Thibodeaux weaves together evidence from polemic and law with an abundance of case-studies that illustrate, often quite poignantly, the difficult choices facing married clerics in the late eleventh and early twelfth centuries. Turning in Chapter 4 to the married clergy's discursive counterattack on the reformers, she shows how such men mined the same body of scriptural and theological texts to justify their "natural right as men" (p. 86) to marry and father children, and to cast celibate ascetics as unmanly sodomites. Chapters 5 and 6 move us forward into the thirteenth century, showing how the reformers' assault [End Page 797] on clerical marriage and fatherhood affected the parish clergy. Thibodeaux's work on the Norman episcopate demonstrates the importance of local support for reforming agendas; whereas bishops unsympathetic to the war on Nicolaitism often turned a blind eye to married clergy in their dioceses, reformist prelates—notably, the archbishop of Rouen Odo Rigaldus (r. 1248–75)—used legal and pastoral means to apply pressure to unchaste priests. But even the most reform-minded bishops needed to tread with care in this area, given the persistent staffing problems of the later medieval parish system. Further, Thibodeaux makes it clear that not only were many thirteenth-century priests still living—unrepentantly so—in quasi-marital unions, but that their parishioners often cared little about such arrangements, provided the priests did their spiritual work well.
Thibodeaux marshals an impressive amount of evidence in support of her thesis, presents her evidence clearly and accessibly, and carefully supports her historiographical interventions. She has a knack for putting a human face on historical discourse, as well as an eye for memorable detail: thus, we learn that more than half of the twelfth-century canons of St. Paul's, London were the sons of priests (p. 71) and that priests' sons defended their right to ordination by pointing to what they termed the "adulterous union" (p. 107) of the Virgin Mary and Joseph. Whereas most previous studies of ecclesiastical reform have focused on the eleventh and twelfth centuries, her coverage of a longer period enables Thibodeaux to appraise the reform movement's strategies and relative success over time. While the relatively narrow geographical focus allows for a more richly contextualized study, however, the book falls short of being truly comparative in the last three chapters, due simply to the unevenness of surviving evidence for England and Normandy. Latinists may also wish for more consistent incorporation of the original sources' language into the main text's discussions, especially given the use of endnotes rather than footnotes. But this is not to detract from this study's significance as a contribution to the history not only of clerical masculinity, but of ecclesiastical reform, family, and parish life in the central Middle Ages. The Manly Priest deserves a wide readership among medievalists, and would be an excellent addition to courses focused on the history of gender and sexuality, marriage, or medieval Christianity.