Thursday, July 21, 2011

Celibacy--The Financial Foundation For a Sexless Clergy

The portal at Chartres Cathedral
Because of the relics it holds, one
of  the more significant
pilgrimage cathedrals in Europe. 
To understand why celibacy for the lower clergy, priests in particular, became such an important issue in the medieval period we have to understand several other factors.  Sex is not one of them; the real issue was not sex but property.
      First we need to understand how churches—parish churches in particular—were financed.  Churches almost invariably were built by a wealthy patron.  Often it would be a nobleman building a church for the serfs who share-cropped his land. Usually the founder of the church, if it is a rural parish, also sets aside land for the priest to farm to help support the priest and his family.  That land is called a “Glebe.”   In towns or cities it might be a wealthy townsperson (towns were fairly small –a “large” city like Paris might have 10,000 inhabitants in the Central Middle Ages, say for example, the year 800) who builds a parish church out of an act of devotion or penitence.  A King or major nobleman such as a Duke or Count might establish an abbey of monks or nuns and provide the lands that in turn would provide the revenue to construct their abbey Church.  A Cathedral would receive generous donations from the townspeople that would be collected and along with ecclesiastical taxes placed on the canons (the Cathedral clergy who were also usually rectors of the principal churches in town) would finance the various building stages of the Cathedral Church which more often than not would take several centuries to build (and often to rebuild in more up-to-date architectural styles).  As churches were built various persons would make bequests, usually in return for prayers for their souls after they died. These bequests were not usually money or gold, but lands that the church would own but rent out to provide more income.  Grandma dies, and she leaves a vineyard to the parish Church and the rector rents it out and the rent brings in ₤ 2 s10 d 4 (two pounds sterling, ten shillings, and four pence).  That would not be much today but in the year 800 it might be equivalent to a thousand dollars or more in purchasing power.  (You need to remember that is more than two and a half pounds of silver). Or uncle George dies and in his will he leaves a shop in town to the Church and rent comes in at  ₤ 1 s5 d3.  It all adds up. Of course Grandma or Uncle George might not leave their bequest to the parish Church, but to the monastery church or even to the Cathedral. 
      Another source of income for rural parish churches besides the rents from lands left them, are tithes.  Each Christian (which at this point is just about 100% of the population, the Jews living mostly in the towns) is obligated to contribute 10% of his produce to the support of the Church.  This is not a free-will offering.  Quite to the contrary.  At harvest a man called the Reeve shows up with the Sheriff and collects the Church’s share of the harvest.  And usually they choose the ten percent, the best ten percent, to cart off for the church.  Livestock and poultry are usually factored in to this collection as well.  Coinage or produce are often substituted for eggs, milk, and other perishables.  In fact, as the Middle Ages progress and coinage takes the place of barter, people might make a financial settlement with the Rector in place of the tithe of produce. 
       Urban parishioners did not usually farm, but they were expected to tithe as well—in coin or product or labor given to the Church.  Goldsmiths, cloth merchants, and other guild members might donate vestments or church ornaments or even finance the construction of a chapel, a sacristy, or other building project.  This would be especially true in the city where citizens vied for the opportunity to give rich gifts to the Cathedral Churches.  Rural nobility, on the other hand, usually preferred to give their gifts of chalices or vestments or artwork to a monastery or abbey. 
         Monasteries only had a right to the tithes of the tenants on monastic lands.  As they were not parish churches their only “parishioners” were those who worked for the abbey or were parishioners for a parish church that might belong to the abbey.  But they usually received a dowry from the family of each new monk—a land grant more often than not—and as the monks came from the land-owning nobility this built up monastic land-holdings often to great wealth.  In England at the time when Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries (1536-1541) the monasteries  collectively owned more land than the Crown!  That was one of the reasons he closed them down—and confiscated their lands.  In fact, the Church owned over a third of the land in England when Henry came to the throne! When he needed money who knew whose piggy-bank to break.  It wasn’t only about Katherine of Aragon or Anne Boleyn that we have a Church of England today. 
          Monasteries often received bequests from pious folks—again primarily the wealthy as they had the lands to give.  Land was given in exchange for prayers for the living and/or the dead.  Grandma dies and leaves her vineyard to the monks; in exchange every year on the anniversary of her death they are obligate to offer a mass or sing a litany or hold a procession with prayers for the repose of her soul. 
         Monasteries and Cathedrals—and sometimes important parish churches, most in the cities—also acquired (either by gift or purchase) relics of the saints. If they were truly lucky they might acquire a relic of Christ or the Virgin.  Chartres still has a veil said to be that of the Virgin Mary.  The Sainte-Chapelle in Paris was built in the thirteenth century (a little later than most of our other examples) to hold the crown of thorns and other souvenirs that King Saint Louis IX of France brought back from the Crusades.  Relics were great money-makers.  Pilgrims flocked from great distances, hundreds of miles, to see relics or visit a particular shrine.  At the shrine they paid for meals and lodging at various inns, spent money on different amusements, and left their donations for the privilege of seeing a piece of bone that allegedly  belonged to an apostle, a bloody tunic that had belonged to a martyr, a piece of Christ’s cross, or whatever the local attraction was.  When the left, the officials of the Church showed up at the Inn or tavern or house of prostitution and collected the Church’s share of the income the pilgrims had brought.  And I am not trying to be funny or shock about the local brothel being part of the pilgrim economy.  This is a religion that still believed in Original Sin and knew it made money. 
         All this provided income for Churches—great and small.  How does that contribute to the enforcement of celibacy?  Well stay tuned.  We can’t fit the whole story into one entry. 

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