|Pope Saint Gregory I|
great-great grandson of Pope Felix III
Frankly, neither the legislation nor the actual practice regarding celibacy was standardized during the transitional period from late antiquity (4th century) through the early Middle Ages (7th century). As we saw yesterday any number of regional synods had mandated celibacy for bishops and priests and sometimes for deacons, but the authority of these councils was limited and it seems that even where this authority held, the canons were not always enforced. Certainly in this transitional period celibacy becomes the normal—but not universal—practice for bishops. John Chrysostom was judge for the trial of one bishop, Antoninus of Ephesus, who was accused of having first separated from his wife but who, after being consecrated bishop, returned to cohabit with her. The “Council in Trullo” (recognized in the East as an Ecumenical Council, but not in the West) legislated that the wife of man made a bishop should be veiled as a nun and sent to a convent. That same Council, however, not only permitted priests, deacons and subdeacons to keep their wives but to maintain conjugal relations with them. This pretty much became and remained the ecclesiastical discipline of the Eastern Churches.
The Western Church, on the other hand, continued to move towards mandatory celibacy for bishops, priests, and deacons. In the ninth century various German synods mandated not only that priests had to abstain from conjugal relations with their wives, but they could no longer cohabit.
As if the restriction on sexual relations with their wives did not impose sufficient burden on clergy, the restriction on cohabitation made life even more difficult for priests, especially in rural areas. Wives had far more practical roles than sex partners. Wives ran the household, prepared the meals, made the clothes, kept the fowl and animals that provided milk, eggs, and food. (Even in town, people kept animals.) Wives made the cheese, the beer, and the bread. They smoked the meats and fish. It was difficult for a man, even a priest, to live without a wife, so many of them did not. The law was often ignored not for reasons of human concupiscence but for domestic economy.
Marriage in the early and central Middle Ages was often a somewhat informal arrangement. While some, particularly the nobility, might have a marriage “blessed” with a religious ceremony, marriage was most usually celebrated according to varying local customs. The husband might call on his intended at the home where she lived with her parents, present her with certain gifts, and then lead her back to his house. Or the father of the woman might bring his daughter, veiled and dressed in her finest, to the house of her husband-to-be and place her hand in his. A dinner following or a breakfast the next morning for family and friends would be more common a celebration than a ceremony in church. Sometimes, often, people just began to cohabit with the understanding that they were husband and wife. With these less than formal arrangements, no one much noticed should a clergyman take a wife.
There is a widely accepted view that in the Middle Ages priests were, if not highly promiscuous, then given to concubinage. This is understandable given the references in the canons to clergy keeping concubines. But I think it is a misperception. What the canons call concubines we should probably think of as wives. Yes, the clergy were not permitted to be married. This meant both that a priest could not marry nor could a married man be ordained and continue to live conjugally with his wife. That was the law. But we should see that the majority of priests in the early and central Middle Ages (and later) were in fact married despite the laws. The Church referred to their wives as “concubines” and to the marriages as “concubinage,” but they and the society in which they lived—the people around them, their parishioners and fellow priests if not their bishops—understood the relationship to be marriage. We are not speaking, for the most part, of men who are serial monogamists, moving from one “mistress” to another, much less of men who are adulterers or otherwise promiscuous. There were some who were adulterers or who were sexually active with a variety of partners, of course, but the majority seem to have been in stable relationships in which they begot and raised children as good and loving parents. The lack of a formal Church Service to inaugurate the relationship would not have troubled people as most marriages in this period lacked formal liturgical blessing. What was needed for marriage in this period was mutual consent and offspring and that requirement was met. What will be crucial is to see why the Church refused to recognize these marriages and the legitimacy of the offspring. It won’t be about sexual purity; it will be about property.