Guys, Gals and Non-Binary Pals: Gender and Early Medieval Monasticism

Today’s mainstream western culture desperately clings to the male-female binary as an absolute truth. Transphobia is still the norm in many places and the idea of gender as a spectrum is still a taboo in much of the world. But was this binary always so absolute? What happened when monks began thinking of themselves as transcending the worldly order and thus the whole concept of gender altogether?

Mis van de H Gregorius Rijksmuseum
Detail of The Mass of Saint Gregory, Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, Anynomous, c. 1500

I imagine it sucked to be a priest or bishop in eleventh century Europe. Times were changing and ideas were shifting and where it used to be common practice for priests to marry, have kids, and then divide all their lands and riches for those kids to inherit later, the Gregorian Reform suddenly called for an end to all that. Clericals got forced into celibacy by pope Gregory VII and, of course, didn’t exactly go quietly. Just like with everything related to the medieval Church, it was a power play to reestablish absolute papal authority and to ensure that church property was no longer tied to feudal relationships. Gregory played the game dirty. The campaign actively encouraged the flock to take action against married and resistant priests, from boycotting mass to actual violence, until they had no other choice but to comply.

When the dust settled, however, the clergy faced a crisis of masculinity they didn’t see coming: with the new ideal of celibacy and the stricter separation of the sacred and the secular, what did it mean for them to be men in this women-free space? How could they call themselves superior to secular men when they didn’t “act like men” (read: assert dominance over a woman and lead a family)? The return to the basis of spirituality and the emphasis on religion as a way to get closer to God, caused some reconsider their ideas about gender. The Gregorian reformers promoted a manliness that was very different from the traditional secular manliness, a clerical masculinity centered around celibacy but also around traditional roles such as father of the flock.

Having driven women out of church spaces (that’s a story for another day) and being more focused on a clerical masculinity left a gap. It’s in this gap that the concept of “Jesus as mother” found its roots. As historian Jo Ann McNamara put it: “Among monks safely segregated from women, perhaps the safest way to restore the gender system was to play both roles and, by implication, deny the need for women in any capacity.”1  For example, Bernard of Clairvaux, a french abbot and reformer, encouraged abbots to treat their monks with a mother’s nurturing love. Anselm of Bec, archbishop of Canterbury, saw both himself and Jesus as mothers. Medieval monastic treatises of the twelfth century used a lot of maternal imagery, seeing stereotypically female characteristics such as compassion and softness and the bond between mother and child as a representation of their relationship with Jesus and with their flock.

Priest, you are not you, because you are God.
You are not yours, because you are Christ’s servant
and minister.
You are not of yourself, because you are nothing.
What therefore are you, oh priest? You are nothing and all
things…

– attributed to the wandering preacher Norbert of Xanten, who founded an order of clerics in the early 12th century.

Some scholars have looked at the gender identity of the clergy in the eleventh and twelfth centuries as one of ’emasculinity’. But rather than viewing them in binary terms or as a ‘third gender’, more recently others have suggested the clergy’s gender was linked to many medieval masculinities, existing on what we would today interpret as a gender spectrum even though medieval people themselves obviously didn’t view it as such. The quote above is an illustration of the sentiment that the clergy transcended traditional (gendered) roles and that some of them also seemed to consider themselves agender or genderless.

It’s important to remember here that masculinity and gender identity are concepts with multiple historical definitions instead of concise well-defined words. Moreover, there’s still a lot of debate about this topic between historians and anthropologists, meaning this blog post isn’t gonna solve major academic questions, but is rather intended to hopefully broaden your view and prompt you to read more about gender themes in medieval history. In conclusion, I think it’s safe to say that gender in history was just as complex as it is today and was very much related to its historical context. Tune in next time for a closer look at the mechanisms of misogyny in the early medieval church!


Sources and further reading:

1 Jo Ann McNamara, The Herrenfrage, page 20
in: Medieval Masculinities: Regarding Men in the Middle Ages (Lees, 1994)

Jesus as Mother: Studies in the Spirituality of the High Middle Ages (Walker Bynum, 1984)
Negotiation Clerical Identities: Priests, Monks and Masculinity in the Middle Ages (Thibodeaux, 2010)
Women and Gender in Medieval Europe: An Encyclopedia (Schaus, 2006)

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