Free Love In The Cathedral Close

People imagine that they know that the Roman Catholic clergy have always been celibate. In fact, there was no serious attempt to impose celibacy on them before the late eleventh century, when it began with the “nudge” of Urban II’s cullagium or sin tax; an attempt that was never wholly successful. Moreover, inasmuch as the role of priest or monk was based on the philosopher of antiquity, what was problematic was not sex itself but marriage; Paul may have said that it was “better to marry than to burn”, but for the clergy this soon turned into “better to fornicate than to marry”. What the church wanted to avoid was not clerical orgasms but clerical inheritance.

In later centuries we could speak of unlawful concubinage, and in the present day of “housekeepers,” but as late as the early twelfth century any distinction between “wife” and “cohabitant” is in any case quite meaningless. The ritual of weddings preceded by banns and solemnised by a priest in the church porch was something the Church introduced and fought hard for throughout that century and beyond.

According to John Boswell, the opponents of the Gregorian Reform claimed that it was being driven by a gay mafia within the Church, who had nothing personally to lose. When the Archbishop of Rouen called on his clergy to put away their wives, the ladies upped and stoned him. Can we blame them? It has been suggested that, precisely because clergy wives were increasingly illegitimate and under threat, and precisely because they had themselves chosen to cohabit with their bishops, canons and priests rather than be married off to a secular landowner in their parents’ interest, they represented a social group with a lively appreciation of what would later be called “free love”. Their daughters would be expected to continue the maternal tradition and shack up with a churchman. In this view, Héloïse is expressing the ideology of a whole social group when she offers to give Peter Abelard space for his career and to be merely his meretrix. That Courtly Love arose only after the clerical concubines were suppressed may have been no coincidence, therefore, but rather the passing of the relay baton to a different set of runners.

Against this could be called in evidence the poem Phyllis and Flora, where two girls debate the merits of their beaux, Phyllis loving the knight and Flora holding with the cleric. Neither woman disputes for a moment that the knight is penurious and the cleric is prosperous, it is just that Phyllis finds martial vigour and romantic deeds more attractive than the lap of luxury, while her friend is the “material girl”. Indeed, “Flora” was one of the medieval sobriquets for ladies of negotiable affection, and it is not without significance that in the poem she wears a coloured dress – cf. the Italian bonaroba – while Phyllis wears white. This may lend resonance to Héloïse’s offer to be Abelard’s whore. In this mock-debate, the cleric is portrayed as a hedonist, and Flora even claims that clerics were vouchsafed the gifts of Venus first and taught them to everyone else: “knights can only know of love through clerical instruction”. Off they go to seek judgment from Cupid’s court of love, and the god pronounces in favour of the cleric. In the words of a later version of Flora, “Well, he would, wouldn’t he?” For this poem is in Latin and so written by a cleric for his brethren, rather than being in Provençal and written by a troubadour for the knights. The big question is how ironic the author is being.

There is also, however, a medieval reference to knights hating priests for persuading their wives to holy frigidity – a taste of a later Catholic Ireland to set against the picture of Flora’s epicene clerical lover.

Posted on April 21, 2010 at 10:55 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink
In: GETTING MEDIEVAL, Getting On And Getting Off

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