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The Clerical Wife: Medieval Perceptions of Women During the Eleventh- and Twelfth-Century Church Reforms
By Cara Kaser
PSU McNair Online Journal, Vol.1 (2004-5)
Introduction: To those who promoted the agendas of the eleventh and twelfth century church reforms the cleric’s wife embodied those things which inhibited the process of man reaching the holy: lust, defilement, worldliness, and temptation. But to those who demanded that she remain a part of conventional marital structures and sacred traditions, the clerical wife remained an important – and controversial – aspect of clerical culture throughout the Middle Ages. The figure and image of the priest’s wife has eluded historians for generations, as her presence as an important component of the controversy surrounding the heightened enforcement of clerical celibacy throughout the eleventh and twelfth centuries – and beyond – was not prominent in the writings of popes, reformers, or the medieval laity. Perhaps this is why modern historians have not carefully examined the figure of the clerical wife, as ecclesiastical canons, decrees, letters, and vitae sharply point to her regular absence. It is within these absences, silences, and scarce references that the clerical wife is constructed, and it is her absence in these texts that speak strongly to her position as significant in medieval society.