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Official Fellow: Liesbeth van Houts (1997–) – Norman manuscripts in Emmanuel

In Emmanuel we are most fortunate to have an important collection of medieval manuscripts. Amongst them is a group of late eleventh- and early twelfth-century books that were either imported from Normandy or copied in England by Norman scribes. Liesbeth van Houts (Fellow) explores the collection.

Liesbeth wrote in the Emmanuel Review for 2013:

They bear testimony to the fresh literary impulses brought to England after the Norman Conquest in 1066. The newly appointed Norman and continental bishops established in England were surprised to find that the social customs regarding marriage were much more unregulated and primitive compared with those they knew in Normandy.

The Emmanuel manuscripts allow us to catch a glimpse of the books that these men considered important for the education of the English clergy and via them ultimately the laity. Very few of the theological tracts by the Church Fathers could be found across the Channel, so a campaign to copy pastoral books was begun. Several manuscripts produced at the time for the diocese of Chichester have survived in our library, one of which is of particular importance, namely the copy of St Augustine’s tract on ‘On the good of marriage’ (De bono conjugali), MS I.24.

Written in the fourth century, it is the first important handbook on marriage to set out rules and instruction for the clergy, who in turn would pass them on to the laity. St Augustine stressed the sacramental nature of marriage by emphasising its indissolubility, the importance of companionship between spouses and the admonition that sexual activity is only permitted for the sake of Research procreation. Although the tract was well known on the European continent, the manuscript in the College Library is the oldest copy known from England.

St Augustine’s tract bears testimony to the fact that in post-conquest England the episcopacy was represented by idealist bishops in favour of clerical celibacy. They attempted to persuade the English laity to marry properly, according to the reformed ecclesiastical rites and norms rather than live together informally, and they were keen for priests to give up their married status in order to police the new marriage policies for the laity. Married priests were told to ‘do away’ with their wives and children, even though the church gave no advice as to what this meant in practice. The penalties were clear; any married priest would lose his living and would be excommunicated. If, however, he abided by the new rules he was allowed to engage a housekeeper, preferably his mother or sister.

One of the aspects of marriage that particularly intrigues me is the issue of priests’ marriages. It has been argued that one of the problems of studying medieval marriage is that so much of the contemporary literature was written by celibate priests that we can hardly identify the layperson’s view. In fact, before c.1150 most of the clergy were married and the campaign to establish clerical celibacy took place at the same time as marriage as a social and religious institution was being propagated. Once we understand that the priesthood consisted of married priests, their opinion about marriage might be more worth looking into. The matter is particularly intriguing as the camp in favour of clerical celibacy argued that married priests lived lives indistinguishable from those of the laity. They joked, laughed, frequently met up with their relatives and friends, ate together, socialised and, of course, engaged in sex with their wives.

What this literature stresses is how happy the married priests were. Yet, it was precisely this happiness that the celibates were keen to stamp out. It was seen as wrong for the priests to be married and happy as the reformed advice was for priests to live a single celibate life, soberly and pessimistically, so that they would be able to concentrate on their pastoral work without distractions and administer sacraments with hands unsullied by sexual activity. The laity in turn would receive sacraments that consequently were of greater spiritual value.

My argument is that the pro-clerical celibacy literature is an important source of information about the normality of married life that is not elsewhere described in such detail. If priests lived as married men in ways that did not differ from those of laymen, we should be able to use the literature written by such priests as an informed source of knowledge on the practicalities of married life. Paradoxically, St Augustine’s text ‘On the good of marriage’, though ultimately meant for the laity, was copied in England and read by the clergy, many of whom were still happily married at the time the Emmanuel copy was made.

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