The Episcopal Body and Sexuality in Late Medieval England

The Episcopal Body and Sexuality in Late Medieval England

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Dr Katherine Harvey of Birkbeck College, University of London, gave her paper on The Episcopal Body and Sexuality in Late Medieval England at Institute of Historical Research on October 7, 2014.

Abstract: This paper examines the significance of episcopal sexuality in medieval England, with a particular focus on the twelfth and thirteenth centuries – that is, the first two centuries after the Gregorian reform movement made celibacy an obligation for all priests, and a period which has been described as a golden age of episcopal sanctity in Western Europe. This new emphasis on clerical celibacy meant that the sexual behaviour of would-be saint bishops was intensely scrutinised; such men needed to be unquestionably celibate, and preferably virginal, if they were to stand any chance of being formally canonised. In this talk, I will approach episcopal sexuality through the prism of contemporary ideas about medicine and the body, in order to shed new light on the lived experience of clerical celibacy from the perspective of a group of men who were particularly devoted to this troublesome ideal. Questions to be addressed include: How was long-term celibacy thought to affect the health of religious men? How could medical knowledge help clerics to achieve bodily purity? How did sexuality relate to the ascetic lifestyle, and how did hagiographers use this relationship to suggest that their subjects were truly celibate? And how could such ideas be subverted, in order to suggest that a less-than-saintly bishop was falling far short of the standards expected of him?

Thomas Becket’s life not that of a typical Saint. He was haughty and vain. However, he remained chaste and his virginity was key in the push for his sanctity. This reputation extended to other priests during this and later times. Most writing on medieval virginity is typically focused on women. Men did not form a large identifiable category under virginity, and it tended to be a category associated with women. Harvey points out there has been no previous study of episcopal sexuality in medieval England. However, among the many biographies produced about bishops during this period, it is noteworthy that the men who were canonized were all virgins. These men were celebrated for their virginity, and although it wasn’t an absolute requirement in the way it was for women, it was still important.

Why is so important to these chroniclers? It was thought to bring the individual closer to God. Men aspired to the ideals of Jesus Christ and St. John the Baptist. The devout attempted to emulate such figures. Furthermore, virginity is also very much a monastic ideal. After the Gregorian Reform, it was more prized because it was the one way to distinguish a man from other priests who had fathered children or been married. The possession of this virtue was important. It wasn’t straightforward – virginity was more complex than just the physical. It was possible to lose ones virginity by having evil thoughts. Harvey used the example of a young monk who was considered polluted after being sexually aroused by a demon.

Opponents of clerical celibacy argued that denying men their wives would drive them to unmentionable evil acts. Celibacy was said to be dangerous to health because it meant the retention of excess semen that would cause headaches, heart problems and weight loss. Men were advised to masturbate to alleviate the eventual build up of excess semen. It rebalanced their humours and kept them healthy. However, men like Becket refused their doctors advice to cure their body by putting the health of their souls in peril. Virginity was much more than about “avoiding pesky women”.

Food and Drink

Harvey explains that medieval people believed in a direct connection between gluttony and lust, stemming back to the apple in the Garden of Eden. The proximity of the genitals to the stomach could cause unwanted heat. Semen was thought to be the digested product of food and it was believed that it was necessary to expel it. Fasting could be used as a practical means to protect a holy man from the sins of the body: subduing the flesh by limiting ones appetite. Overconsumption lead to the production of semen and a monk who ate too much would be blamed for inflaming his lust. An empty stomach cannot warm the genitals. The type of food consumed was important too. Cold foods repressed semen and the build up of lust. Watered-down wine was another tactic to suppress lust. Cold water immersion was believed to cool the body and have an effect on lust.

The image of the fat, drunken monk was used often in late medieval England, even in the years leading up to the Reformation. (see Were medieval monks obese?) Monks were mocked and said to be breaking their vows by being overfed and wealthy. Thomas Wolsey, Archbishop of York and Lord Chancellor under Henry VIII, came under a lot of criticism – especially from John Skelton (see John Skelton’s ‘Speke Parott’). He describes Woolsey as a glutton and viciously attacked him not just for overeating but for lechery. Wolsey was accused of subsisting almost entirely on the meats and hot foods that lead to heating the body and lust.


The shedding of tears was common in religious devotion. They are shed regularly and in great numbers by pious men. Why did the shedding of tears reinforce virginity? Harvey finds that it was widely held idea that tears and semen were produced by the same organ. The expulsion of too much semen was thought to dry out and damage the eyes, whereas the production of tears was believed to be healthy. Therefore, shedding tears was encouraged.


Anger had its limits. It was forceful, controlled and infrequent. Anger was strongly associated with producing heat in the male body. An overheated body caused arousal therefore becoming overly angry could lead to sin.


Medieval bishops rarely laughed. Monastic orders condemned excessive laughter. Hysterical laughter was the failing of women, and holy men should avoid it. The wind produced in laughter could produce inappropriate behaviour.

Katherine Harvey points out that “virginity was less a physical state than a way of life”. Sexuality was so important to episcopal reputations, that it was permeated all aspects of a bishop’s life, down to his emotions. It was the defining feature of medieval churchmen but until now had been overlooked by scholars of the medieval church.

You can email Katherine Harvey at [email protected]. You can also visit her on her Faculty page or on Academia.edu

See also her post Episcopal emotions: Weeping in the life of the medieval bishop on The History of Emotions Blog.

Finally, you can also find her on Twitter:

One last plug for my @IHR_Sexuality talk on medieval episcopal sexuality, in the Holden Room at Senate House, 6pm tonight. #histsex #histmed

— Katherine Harvey (@keharvey2013) October 7, 2014

Watch the video: 10 Things A Narcissist Would Say (May 2022).