The Bishop in the Bedroom: Witnessing Episcopal Sexuality in an Age of Reform

The Bishop in the Bedroom: Witnessing Episcopal Sexuality in an Age of Reform

The Bishop in the Bedroom: Witnessing Episcopal Sexuality in an Age of Reform

By Megan McLaughlin

Journal of the History of Sexuality, Volume 19, Number 1 (2010)

Introduction: Efforts to enforce the ancient regulations concerning clerical celibacy arose in various centers of European religious life around 1000 and received further impetus from the reformed papacy during the second half of the eleventh century. Modern scholarship has generally focused on the implications of the celibacy campaign for priests and deacons, members of the “lower” clergy. But for contemporaries, episcopal sexuality also remained in question. A significant number of bishops continued to marry during the eleventh century.

Bishop Segenfrid of Le Mans (971–97), for example, took a wife in his old age who became known as the “bishopess.” He had several children with her and even endowed one of them with church property. Such behavior continued to occur even after decades of reform efforts, as demonstrated by the case of Bishop Juhel of Dol (1039–ca. 1076), attacked by Pope Gregory VII in a letter of 1076. Even those who did not marry might still fail to resist the “fragility of the flesh,” conducting extramarital affairs with women or sometimes with men. (Of course, we know about these mostly from scurrilous attacks on individual bishops that may or may not be rooted in reality. However, human nature being what it is, it seems likely that such affairs did take place.) There remained, then, much work for reformers to do in this area.

In his collection of canon law texts from the second half of the eleventh century, the reforming Cardinal Bishop Bonizo of Sutri (1075–90) paid almost as much attention to episcopal sexuality as to that of the lower clergy. A passage from his work was cited at the beginning of this article. A somewhat earlier figure than Bonizo, Cardinal Bishop Peter Damian (1057–72), discussed the sexual misconduct of his fellow bishops in two different works.

In his notorious treatise against sodomy among the clergy (known as the Gomorrhian Book), composed for Pope Leo IX around 1049, Peter Damian reserved his strongest condemnation for bishops who had sex with clerics from their own diocese: “Who will make a mistress of a cleric, or a woman of a man? Who, by his lust, will consign a son whom he has spiritually begotten for God to slavery under the iron law of satanic tyranny?” What was already a heinous sin in Peter’s view was made even worse by the relationship between those involved. A bishop’s clerics were his “spiritual sons.” To have intercourse with them was therefore a form of incest—and an especially egregious form:

It follows, therefore, that the same sentence is rightly inflicted on him who assaults his own daughter, or who by sacrilegious intercourse abuses his spiritual daughter, and on him also who in his foul lust defiles a cleric, whom he has ordained. Perhaps we should distinguish here the quality of both crimes; in the two prior cases, even though he practices incest, he is sinning naturally, because he sinned with a woman; in the latter case, by his shameful action with a cleric, he commits a sacrilege on a son, is guilty of the crime of incest on a man, and violates the law of nature.

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