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Wednesday Talk in Brief: Medieval Sex, Marriage & Plague

23rd March 2020

Our popular Wednesday talk series is now on hold as a result of the Covid-19 outbreak. With this in mind, we asked speaker Brian Creese to shine a light on sex, marriage and the church in the Dark Ages.

I was very disappointed last week when it was decided to postpone my Wednesday talk, Sex, Marriage and the Church in the Medieval Period. Hopefully we can find a date in the autumn to reschedule the talk, but in the meantime I’d like to share some thoughts on the topic – such as how on earth I got interested…

My academic interest is actually focussed on clerical marriage, and it was sparked by reading a letter from Heloise, future Abbess of Oratory of the Paraclete Heloise to Peter Abelard, theologian and academic:

God knows I never sought anything in you except yourself; I wanted simply you, nothing of yours. I looked for no marriage beyond, no marriage portion…the name of wife may seem more sacred or more binding, but sweeter for me will always be the word friend or, if you will permit me, concubine or whore. If Augustus, emperor of the whole world thought fit to honour me with marriage and conferred all the earth on me to possess for ever, it would be dearer and more honourable to me to be called not his Empress but your whore.

This did not sound like the celibate priesthood I usually read about. What on earth was going on here? Answering that question led me to write a 30,000 word thesis on clerical marriage during the eleventh and twelfth centuries. As a part of this I attempted to reach a judgement as to whether each and every bishop and archbishop in England during the period was celibate or not!

Through this research I learned that marriage was not a given, but a frequently redefined institution. When the change in the law to allow gay marriage came up a few years ago, many who opposed it gave the impression that marriage was an unchanging and unchangeable institution. I then did some more work on how the marriage laws have varied over the centuries. In fact it is only recently that marriage has become the responsibility of the state. In the Roman period it was purely an issue for the family and over the high medieval period it was slowly brought within the sphere of the church. The core issues of who was allowed to marry, when and how were all fiercely debated and, of course, dissolving marriage and remarrying was a very pertinent issue for Henry VIII and was a part of the background to the reformation.

One of the fascinating things is the way in which the strictly celibate Church, demanded that marriage be a sexual union. For most of the period you could not be married if there was no sex. Further, the so-called marriage debt outlined by St Paul meant that sex could not be denied to either partner in a marriage. Reforms in the thirteenth century also tried to remove the family from the marriage question by making it purely an institution for the couple themselves to agree, without reference to their elders.

My talk was, of course, postponed because of our modern plague, Covid-19. In a way, that seems quite appropriate. Anyone studying the medieval period comes across sudden blips as waves of plague sweep through Europe. Whether you lived in Rome, Constantinople or London, plague was a fact of life, arriving out of nowhere and causing chaos for a year or two before everything settled down to normal. With plague, all the administration stopped as officials either fled or stayed to do their jobs and died. This was as true of the village priest as anyone else, so during plague times there was no priest to marry you, the church would be shut and so there was no option but to live together as if married. For all its attempts to take control of marriage, the church was often just not there to legitimise love and lust.

I hope to meet you all again in the autumn for more tales of medieval marriage.

Brian Creese is currently Community Projects Manager at Walton Charity and serves on the Institute’s Board of Trustees.