Date of Award


Document Type

Campus Access Thesis

Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)



First Advisor

Elizabeth McCahill

Second Advisor

Olivia Weisser

Third Advisor

Thomas McCarthy


This thesis examines the collision and the commingling of the belief systems espoused by the Gregorian-era reformers advocating for clerical celibacy on the one hand, and the emerging courtly love culture on the other. I argue that by apotheosizing carnal, human love, and even overtly permitting clerics to engage in sexual activity, many courtly love tropes contributed to an environment in which clerical sexuality was permissible and even idealized. In his treatise De amore, the twelfth-century cleric Andreas Capellanus at first acknowledges the nobility of clerical celibacy, but then concedes that if a priest should take to sexual activity, the only restriction Andreas prescribes is that he "apply himself to Love's service" with a woman of his parents' rank.

Many scholars attribute clerical sexuality to either passive spiritual indifference or, in select cases, a lack of awareness of the contemporaneous reform. Conversely, I argue that a gendered analysis of clerical behavior, especially clerical sexuality, is another useful lens for understanding the cultural dynamics of the medieval clergy. Such an analysis will further inform our understanding of conflicts between gender ideals and will also add to our understanding of the attitudes of courtly society toward clerical men. While upholding Ruth Mazo Karras' and Jacqueline Murray's assertion that there was a considerable amount of flexibility within the medieval gender system, I suggest that this is a case where court culture was engendering an environment where two gender ideals - that of the secular aristocracy and that of the clergy - were mutually exclusive. Clerical celibacy was depicted as a cosmic, manly battle against carnal desires since as far back as Odo of Cluny's Collationes in the early tenth century. But courtly love and its idealization of passionate, physical love often engendered an atmosphere in which social acceptability, and even perceived inevitability, of clerical sexuality challenged individual priests' ability to remain celibate. Clerics of the late eleventh and twelfth centuries were increasingly compelled to choose between two gendered poles: the ecclesiastical ideal of celibacy or the secular/aristocratic ideal of courtly love, and accounts of widespread clerical sexuality suggest that many chose the latter.


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