BOOK REVIEW: The Manly Priest: Clerical Celibacy, Masculinity, and Reform in England and Normandy–Review by Natalie Whitaker

Jennifer D. Thibodeaux, The Manly Priest: Clerical Celibacy, Masculinity, and Reform in England and Normandy, 1066-1300. The Middle Ages. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015. Hardback. Pp. 230. $59.95. ISBN: 978-0-8122-4752-7

Jennifer D. Thibodeaux’s monograph on gender identity and Anglo-Norman priests is a novel consideration of how church reformers, in hopes of ending clerical marital unions, redefined masculinity in the eleventh to thirteenth centuries. Her work is valuable for scholars interested in Anglo-Norman social and church history along with those interested in gender identity and masculinity studies. Thibodeaux presents a revisionist examination of celibacy in the medieval church, claiming that previous scholarship looks primarily at the later Middle Ages, when celibacy was already firmly entrenched in the elite clergy. Thibodeaux examines gender identity and the conflicting masculinity of the laity, parish clergy, and elite clergy, illuminating the broader picture of masculinity across the medieval period and into the Reformation. Through six succinct and well-structured chapters, Thibodeaux clearly discusses the reality of clerical marriages, the legal reforms, the liminal status of clerical sons, the response to the shifting paradigm of masculinity, the defense of clerical unions, the expansion from chastity to purifying the entire priest, and the parish priests’ conflicts with the church’s attempts to reform and dictate their masculinity.

Following an introduction that asserts how the post-conquest celibacy laws created a new gender paradigm for the priesthood, Thibodeaux develops her argument that religious writers in the reform period between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries redefined the ascetic body as the epitome of masculinity, and depicted the battle against the desires of the flesh as an essential factor of gender identity. Thibodeaux often cites various synods and councils, including Lateran Councils I-IV; especially Lateran IV, which she claims provided much needed definition and unity for the Church against errant priests. Thibodeaux first examines the language of the reformist documents that glorified a celibate clerical life, showing how the third gender theory, that the celibate clergy represented a third gender situated between the feminine and masculine, is not supported by the overt use of masculine terms (viriliter, virile, fortiter). The evidence actually points to the creation through language of a new masculine gender identity: the celibate male who conquers his body through sexual chastity. Through the rhetoric of the “new man” (who rejects a secular form masculinity for a chaste, monastic one), the reformist documents depict a view of the unchaste cleric as effeminate and unfit for leadership positions.

After framing the reformers’ argument of the chaste priest as the supremely masculine, Thibodeaux explores the legal and realistic situation of clerical marriages and the repercussions of the reform laws. She argues that masculine gender identity was based on the ability to marry, support a family, and procreate, and that forcing celibacy laws went directly against these secular social ideas of masculinity. Prior to these new reforms, and even after for parish clerics, priests married, had children, trained sons to follow in their profession as priests, and bestowed on them their benefices; no conflict existed between traditional Norman masculinity values and the priesthood. In order to end this lack of conflict and promote the “new man” idea of masculine celibacy, reformers, such as Anselm (1033-1109) and Lanfranc (1005-1089), wrote prolifically against clerical marriages and promoted legislation prohibiting such marriage in the late eleventh and early twelfth centuries. In the following two chapters, Thibodeaux considers how these clerical reforms attacked the societal masculine norm and caused damaging repercussions for the sons of priests.

In examining the repercussions of reform legislation, and its execution, on clerical families, Thibodeaux focuses primarily on the clerical sons. The clerical sons’ status as both culturally legitimate in the eyes of the community but illegitimate within the church reflected poorly on their fathers and limited their own futures as priests. Thibodeaux examines several texts, including the Rescripta, Tractatus, and tracts J22/26 and J25, and their justifications for clerical marriage. These documents argue that it is wrong to judge the son for the father’s perceived sins, that there is no biblical support for the ban on clerical marriages, that marriage protects against other impurities (such as sodomy and incest), and that continence must be a gift from God, not achievable through personal will. According to Thibodeaux, these defenses of clerical marriage were short-lived, evidence that they lasted only into the 1130s.

Thibodeaux states that by the mid-twelfth century the new ideals of chaste masculinity had been completely accepted by the higher clerical orders, although the parish clergy were still resistant. Reformers expanded on this ideal, arguing that masculinity was defined by complete control over every aspect of the body. Priests were expected to model a visualized manliness not only through their chastity but also in how they dressed, cut their hair, and even moved their hands. Thibodeaux demonstrates how these reforms of masculine gender identity led to the expansion of ideals of purity and impurity that would last for centuries.

In her final chapter, Thibodeaux uses documented examples of Norman parish clergy to establish how this new definition of masculinity created conflict between the elite clergy and the secular clergy. By the thirteenth century, the expansion of the extended ideals of purity reviewed in Thibodeaux’s fifth chapter led to stricter laws and punishments for errant clerics. For example, bishops no longer needed a formal accusation to place a priest on trial. Thibodeaux argues that the records of Norman parish clerics’ trials show that the laity generally accepted even unchaste priests, and that often the parish clerics still adopted the masculine gender identity of society, one that was sexually virile and procreative, rather than the chaste masculinity of the reformist church.

Thibodeaux concludes that while the new gender paradigm was widely accepted by elite clergy, evidence illustrates how local social ideals of masculinity still dictated the secular clergy’s gender performance. She briefly follows this redefinition of masculinity into the Reformation and its ideals of masculine gender identity, which would incorporate the purity and control of the priesthood into ideals of marriage and fatherhood. Thibodeaux does an admirable job in tracking how the priesthood and church developed through this new paradigm of masculine gender identity. However, while Thibodeaux examines priests and their clerical sons closely, there is a noticeable lack of analysis of the female perspective. There are moments where Thibodeaux briefly mentions women as a part of a clerical and social conundrum; however, she does not analyze their position. One instance of this is in chapter six, where Thibodeaux states: “Lay society might have consented to the use of prostitutes by the clergy, in an effort to keep these men away from their own wives and daughters” (140), but there is no analysis of the wives, daughters, or prostitutes in this situation. Although Thibodeaux’s focus is admittedly on clerical masculinity during this period, an analysis of the women who were so intimately involved would be beneficial for understanding an important facet to why these priests continued to marry despite the Church’s regulations and punishments. Furthermore, an analysis of the daughters of such unions, just as Thibodeaux discusses the clerical sons, is surprisingly absent. What Thibodeaux’s revisionist examination now begs for is further study of the female counterpart to this new masculinity in the Church. What other documentation on the women involved, whether wives, daughters, or prostitutes, can be found? How did members of the female orders of the church respond, if at all? How does research in female orders reflect on this study or how can they now be reinterpreted?

With its new perspective on the old issue of celibacy in the Western medieval church, Thibodeaux’s text is an important contribution to medieval scholarship that all scholars, whether armchair or experts in the field, could find beneficial. Her revisionist examination of gender identity and the paradigm behind the clerical reforms of the eleventh through thirteenth centuries is a comfortable read, while remaining an academic and logical analysis of a complex topic. It is thoughtfully laid out and, despite taking on the hard task of revising long held perspectives and previous scholarship, stimulates questions for further study of clerical history and the complexity of gender and sexuality in medieval Western Europe and its influence on later social norms.

Natalie Whitaker


Natalie Whitaker is a doctoral student at Saint Louis University. Her research interests are primarily in Anglo-Saxon literature and history, especially Anglo-Saxon depictions of emotions and otherness in relation to gender and identity, and how Anglo-Saxonism influenced literature of later periods in England and America.