Just as the priests have their wives: priests and concubines in England, 1375-1549 Public Deposited

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  • March 20, 2019
  • Werner, Janelle
    • Affiliation: College of Arts and Sciences, Department of History
  • This project – the first in-depth analysis of clerical concubinage in medieval England – examines cultural perceptions of clerical sexual misbehavior as well as the lived experiences of priests, concubines, and their children. Although much has been written on the imposition of priestly celibacy during the Gregorian Reform and on its rejection during the Reformation, the history of clerical concubinage between these two watersheds has remained largely unstudied. My analysis is based primarily on archival records from Hereford, a diocese in the West Midlands that incorporated both English- and Welsh-speaking parishes and combines the quantitative analysis of documentary evidence with a close reading of pastoral and popular literature. Drawing on an episcopal visitation from 1397, the act books of the consistory court, and bishops' registers, I argue that clerical concubinage occurred as frequently in England as elsewhere in late medieval Europe and that priests and their concubines were, to some extent, socially and culturally accepted in late medieval England. Clerical relationships took on a variety of configurations, but many resembled secular marriages, and these similarities may have contributed to the social acceptability of clerical families. Despite the resemblance of these relationships to marriage, though, clerical concubines faced real disadvantages. Evidence about the social and economic status of priests and concubines points to the low status of women who partnered with priests – particularly those in stable, long-term unions. Clerical concubines bore the brunt of punishment for these relationships: they were more likely to be punished than their clerical partners, and they were punished more harshly. These women were presented with less tangible difficulties, too. Despite the social tolerance of clerical families on the ground, the figure of the clerical concubine was not an honorable one. Moral censure of priests’ partners drew on centuries of hatred and denigration of priests' wives; clerical concubines were characterized as lecherous, venal women, often equated – both tacitly and explicitly – with prostitutes.
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  • In Copyright
  • "... in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in the Department of History."
  • Bennett, Judith M.
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  • Chapel Hill, NC
  • Open access

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