Debating Whether medieval priests could marry in the letters of the London Times

Posted by Kendall Harmon

In response to this letter, Elizabeth Longrigg of Oxford writes:

Sir, If S. M. Bowden’s letter (August 17) is accurate, how is it that the Anglo-Saxon cleric Aelfric, Abbot of Eynsham, Oxfordshire, from 1005, and writing in the late 10th and early 11th centuries, speaks in the preface to his translation of Genesis about priests complaining that they are forbidden to marry?

“They often speak of Peter, [asking] why they are not permitted to have a wife as Peter the apostle had, and they do not want to hear or to know that . . .” and, when Peter was chosen to follow Christ, “then he immediately gave up his wife, and all the twelve apostles, those who had wives, gave up both wife and possessions and followed Christ in the new law and the purity which he himself then established.”


Check out the discussion also.



Filed under: * Theology

6 Comments
Posted August 27, 2007 at 1:54 pm [Printer Friendly] [Print w/ comments]



1. Bob from Boone wrote:

Gregory VII may have put the kibosh on clerical marriage, but a lot of priests did not give up their wives, and new priests found themselves entering into the holy state of concubinage. The number of priests with concubines became so numerous that the canon lawyers had to develop a whole section of Canon Law dealing with concubinage in the priesthood (we won’t speak of all the bishops who had mistresses). James Brundage in _Law, Sex, and Christian Society in Medieval Europe_ devotes a chapter to the subject.

I remember sitting in on John Dolan’s course in the Reformation at Notre Dame back in 1962. He told the story that the Papacy used to send recalcitrant Italian priests who refused to give up their concubines to the Dioces of Ultima Thule (Greenland). When the Danes excavated the medieval cemetaries they would easily determine the demarcation between Catholic and Reformed. They found older graves with Mediterranean male skeletons buried with female Inuit skeletons. Then they found later graves of bishops who were tall, Nordic skeletons buried with Nordic female skeletons.

August 27, 5:20 pm | [comment link]
2. Harvey wrote:

I don’t think Ms Longrigg quotation is from Scripture.  If it is, I want to know chapter and verse.  Nuff Said!!

August 27, 5:34 pm | [comment link]
3. TomRightmyer wrote:

One way to read the regular renewing of the rule on clergy celibacy in medieval synods is that there was a continuing perceived need. Had clergy not been living with women and having children the need for renewing the rule would not have been as evident. Also, review of the records of dispensations given to permit men to be ordained include a number for bastardy, and one way to read that is that priest’s sons were seekng ordination.

When I visited the Russian Orthodox seminary in St. Petersburg some years ago I learned that this had been the only seminary aproved by the Soviet government for the training of secular (non-monastic) clergy. Most of the candidates were sons of priests. While the government strictly forbade any religious instruction of children, it did permit the training of church choir directors, and there was a training school at the St. Petersburg seminary. Many of the choir directors were daughters of priests, and the students had opportunity to meet. I asked the director of the choir academy if there were many marriages of seminary graduates and choir director graduates and was told that at graduation there were many such.

It appears that even Soviet regulations were not able to suppress the God given comand to be fruitful and multiply.

Tom Rightmyer in Asheville, NC - a priest and son of a priest

August 27, 6:35 pm | [comment link]
4. AnglicanFirst wrote:

Within Britain and Ireland, surnames provide a clue to the fact that some clergy were married.  Many of these surnames are very old, some recent.

One Gaelic word for a priest is ‘sagart.’  The son of a priest would be called Mac an t-sagart.  In English, this has been modified to be Mac Taggart or Taggart.  Another Gaelic word for a priest is ‘cleirich.’  The son of a cleirich would be Mac a’Chleirich.  In English, this has been modified to be Clark, Clarke, Clarkson, O’Leary, Leary, Mc Cleary, etc.  A Gaelic word for abbot is ‘aba.’  The son of an abbot would be Mac an Aba.  In English, this has been modified to be Mac Nab.  There are also other surnames in English that have been passed on to sons, such as Priest and Abbot.

Since surnames became important about two hundred or more years before the Reformation, it is safe to assume that most of the original possessors of these surnames were pre-Reformation Roman Catholic clerics.

August 27, 8:35 pm | [comment link]
5. Wilfred wrote:

#3-Tom:  Although priests cannot marry in Orthodoxy, Orthodoxy has always permitted married men to become priests.  They must marry before they are tonsured.  So to be a son or daughter of an Orthodox priest is not unusual & does not imply any scandal, as in the Roman Church.

Altogether different from those skeletons Bob from Bone is writing about.

August 27, 9:17 pm | [comment link]
6. Bob from Boone wrote:

Ah, Wilfred, I wonder how many skeletons there are in clerical closets these days? Anyone want to pick a bone on that?

August 27, 9:46 pm | [comment link]
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