Sex and the Clergy

According to Christopher Kleinhenz, author of "Texts, Naked and Thinly Veiled: Erotic Elements in Medieval Italian Literature," the sexual activities of the clergy were an extremely popular subject for many novellas written in fourteenth-century Italy (and elsewhere in Europe). More boldly, he contends that Boccaccio's treatment of these escapades in the Decameron is extremely non-judgmental in comparison to many of his contemporaries. Kleinhenz asserts that Boccaccio's tales about the sexual infractions of priests and other clerics simply serve to highlight the main premise of his work: the notion that "all human beings act naturally and follow their natural desires, inclinations, and instinct to fulfillment" (Kleinhenz, 102). He then cites the tale (IX.2) in which an abbess is caught by surprise in the company of a priest and, in her confusion, puts his breeches on her head instead of her psalter. Upon being confronted by another nun, she defends herself with the claim that sexual desire is inescapable, even for the members of the clergy. She declares that, "provided the thing was discreetly arranged," the rest of the sisters are free to consort with men whenever they please (658).

Whether or not Boccaccio's intentions extended beyond a reaffirmation of what it means to be human when he wrote this tale and others like it (due to the lengthy monologues denouncing the clergy in both IV.2 and VII.3 I would have to say they did), a non-judgmental stance on the subject would indeed have been rare during this period. Offending priests were in fact a considerable problem for the church in the later Middle Ages. With the church reform movement, which began during the eleventh century, clerical celibacy (formerly optional) became a requirement. Needless to say, this change inspired a great deal of resistance among married clerics and others who simply found the policy unacceptable (Brundage, "Sex and Canon Law," 36). Not surprisingly, even once the law was firmly established, the actual behavior of the clergy did not necessarily conform to this rule.

Concubinage and fornication persisted among the clergy throughout the fourteenth century, and not all authorities (i.e. bishops) made a concerted effort to discover and punish offenders, as they themselves were often engaging in similar behavior (Brundage, 474). According to Jacques Rossiaud, the clergy made up about twenty percent of the clientele of private brothels and bath-houses in Dijon, France during this period, and it seems the situation was similar all throughout Europe (Richards, 35). As a result of such behavior, the "lecherous cleric" was developed as a popular humorous figure by many medieval authors (Richards, 118).

However, for every priest that visited the brothels or preyed on "decent" women, there seems to have been another living (albeit in sin) with one partner in a relatively stable and long-term relationship, essentially as man and wife (Brundage, 475). In addition, although canon law decreed that all clergy members live in perpetual chastity, much of the general public was relieved to see them easing their sexual desires with the aid of prostitutes or concubines, instead of seducing their own "respectable" sisters, daughters and wives.

(A.M.S.) Boccaccio, Giovanni. The Decameron. Trans. G. H. McWilliam. New York: Penguin, 1972.

Brundage, James A. Law, Sex, and Christian Society in Medieval Europe. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1987.

Brundage, James A. "Sex and Canon Law." Handbook of Medieval Sexuality. Vern L. Bullough and James A. Brundage, eds. New York: Garland, 1996, pp. 33-50.

Kleinhenz, Christopher. "Texts, Naked and Thinly Veiled: Erotic Elements in Medieval Italian Literature." Sex in the Middle Ages: A Book of Essays Joyce E. Salisbury, ed. New York: Garland, 1991.

Richards, Jeffrey. Dissidence and Damnation: Minority Groups in the Middle Ages. New York: Routledge, 1994.