|this bas relief on an eleventh century Tuscan|
parish church is actually a fertility symbol
The King of France dies, his oldest son becomes king. The Duke of Aquitaine dies, his oldest son comes to the King of France and says: “Dad just died, the duchy is empty. Make me Duke.” The King has no choice, unless he can prove treason or some other good reason, not to invest the Duke’s heir with the duchy. The Earl of Hereford dies, his oldest son comes to the King of England and says: “Dad just died, the earldom is empty. Make me Earl.” The King, unless he can prove disloyalty on the part of the claimant, has no choice but to make him Earl. The knight who is the warden of Rochester Castle dies; his son comes to the Duke of Kent in whose duchy the castle stands, and says: “Dad died, make me Warden of the Castle.” The Duke—unless he can prove that the young man is not reliable—has little or no choice of making the young knight Warden. Michel is the steward of the Duke of Berry; he dies and his son is appointed in his place unless the Duke can make for a very good case on why someone else should have the job. Robert is the steward of the Abbot of Cluny—as his father was before him and his son expects to be afterwards.
Dad is the toll collector on the Canterbury road bridge over the river Medway and he dies. The eldest son comes to the Abbot of Malmesbury who own the bridge and says: “Dad died, make me toll collector.” It is his right to take his father’s place and the Abbot has no choice unless he can prove that the boy is incompetent. The Reeve of Hampton dies; the Rector of the Church has to appoint his son to the job unless he can find good reason to the contrary.
Dad is a goldsmith and has a shop in Bourges. He dies and his son who did his apprenticeship under his father’s best friend goes to the owner and gets the lease of the shop for his lifetime. Dad is a silk merchant in Lucca and his son takes the business when he dies. Dad is a butcher in Regensburg and his son is a butcher and takes the family business when Dad passes on.
This is simply how things worked in the Middle Ages.
So now we come to the Church. We are talking mid-tenth century and Dad is the Rector of Fleury. He dies. Son number one goes to the Abbot of Duell who holds the Advowson and says—“Dad died last week, the church is empty, make me Rector.” Of course—what is the problem. This is how the world works. The son had become a priest because Dad was a priest and Grandpa had been a priest and the Rector of Fleury in his day. In a world of hereditary posts, everyone expects the church to pass—as does the duchy, the toll-bridge, the castle, the stewardship, the butcher-shop—from Father to Son. My name is Smith because we are the smiths in the village. My name is Taylor because we are the tailors. My name is Chandler because we have made the candles and soap since God-alone-knows-when. My name is Stuart because we have always been the stewards of the local Lord. My name is Sexton because our family are the church sextons. Got it?
So what is the problem with junior taking over as village priest or city rector when his father dies? Well don’t forget the parish church has land—sometimes lots of land. Mrs. Jones left us this field. Mr Brown left us that vineyard. Mrs Green gave us that mill by the river. All these rents come in to support the church and its rector. And don’t forget the Glebe land that the priest farms—or rents to tenants to farm for him. The Rector administers a lot of land. And his daughter is getting married to the son of the sheriff and we need a dowry. Well let’s give her that field. And his younger son is becoming a monk at Rochester Cathedral priory—let’s give him that mill by the river as his monastic dowry. And that vineyard—is that ours or the church’s, I can’t remember, but let’s give it to the nuns of Wapage Abbey to pray for Grandma’s soul. Rectors are treating church property as their own personal and familial possessions. Land belonging to the church (and thus the Church) is passing from the church (Church) into families. The Church is losing its wealth. How can we stop this? How can we make sure that church property doesn’t go to the heirs of the priest? Well, for one thing, we can make sure he doesn’t have any heirs. But he has four children! We can’t change that. No, but we can take away their right to inherit by making them illegitimate. And that solves a second problem as well. Not only have bastards no rights of inheritance, but number one son (or number two, three, four or one-hundred-and-seventeen son) cannot claim the rectorship because bastards are ineligible for ordination. He can neither be hereditary priest nor can he inherit the land. All we need to do is declare that the marriage of the clergy is null and void and we have two problems solved at once. Ain’t celibacy great?
Now this doesn’t mean that the priest can’t have a wife and children—it only means that the Church does not recognize the marriage and the legitimacy of the children and it is Church courts that settle inheritance issues. Many priests, in the early and central Middle Ages most priests, were in a stable monogamous relationship. They thought of their partner as their wives; the women saw themselves as wives; and even the parishioners thought of the woman as the priest’s wife. Celibacy may have been the law, but it was honored more in the breach than the observance. The bishops didn’t mind; the pope’s didn’t mind. Bishops and sometimes even popes often were—or had been—in such relationships and had children whom they raised as their own without apology. As long as the property was safe from alienation, the Church was happy. That would eventually change but celibacy would only be enforced with some degree of strictness throughout the Western Church after the Council of Trent.
Well, why do we have celibacy today? Isn’t that a good question. Perhaps we can look at it in our next posting and from there on to our look at the next Reform—the Gregorian Reform.