What would the fifth-century writer and theologian Augustine of Hippo have said if consulted for his opinion on the results of Ireland’s recent same-sex marriage referendum? Augustine was seldom short of opinions, and given his known views on marriage, which helped shape the institution for centuries, we might suppose that he would have been shocked, vehement, and strongly condemnatory.
Little wonder then that the airwaves and newsprint have been full of commentary on how the referendum shows that Ireland is now rapidly secularising, breaking away from the grip of a Catholic Church whose official position remains in many ways still faithful to that set out so influentially by St Augustine over a millennium ago. The result has even been described as a ‘Copernican revolution’. Yet as so often with debates that revolve, implicitly or explicitly, around a concept of secularisation marking a break with tradition, things are not quite so clear-cut on closer inspection.
Marriage, for St Augustine, was defined by three things: children, loyalty between the spouses, and the sacramental bond that reflected Christ’s union with the Church. People on both sides of the Irish referendum seemed to take positions which reflected these concepts. Everyone accepted that marriage creates a family unit ideal for bringing up children, that it is designed to allow two people to commit to one another indefinitely, and that the institution says something about Irish society as a whole: that in other words, marriage represents a bigger reality.
All this suggests that the debate was conducted essentially within a Christian tradition: no one, for example, suggested that marriages should be possible between numerous people, or that it should be open to brothers and sisters, or that it should be time-limited, or that it should be abolished altogether.
As a result, the referendum’s outcome could be seen as an updating of that Christian tradition as much as a rejection of it. That a fifth-century Augustine would have been opposed to same-sex marriage seems quite clear: but which side of the referendum a twenty-first century Augustine would have stood is not quite so obvious.
In April 2014, Canon Jeremy Pemberton became the first priest in England to enter into a same-sex marriage. In September 2014 he filed a discrimination claim with an employment tribunal after he had been blocked from taking up a position as an NHS chaplain in Nottinghamshire because of his marriage.
The case is obviously personally difficult for Jeremy Pemberton and his husband, Laurence Cunnington. But for a historian it also offers some fascinating comparisons and contrasts with earlier church practice, and in particular how clergy have been disciplined over prohibited sexual behaviour. Legally, it is a relative novelty that Canon Pemberton is able to take his case to a secular employment tribunal at all. His case is complicated because of the question of whether he is employed by the NHS or by the diocese of Southwell and Nottingham (whose bishop removed his permission to officiate, which he needed for the NHS post). But employment tribunals have increasingly become willing to accept that in some circumstances ministers of religion do count as employees and thus have employment rights, although the Church of England still argues that their clergy are not employees. Secular jurisdiction over priests has historically been something that individual clerics have tried to avoid, seeking the ‘benefit of clergy’. Now, however, some of them are actively seeking it.
Canon Pemberton’s case shows more historical continuity in other respects, however. Partly this is because it raises interesting jurisdictional questions. His previous position as an NHS chaplain, which had not been threatened, was in the diocese of Lincoln, in the archdiocese of Canterbury. His new job would have been in the archdiocese of York. The implication is that different bishops and archbishops have chosen to enforce the Church disciplinary rules prohibiting same-sex marriage in very different ways. Such episcopal leeway would have seemed very familiar in the Middle Ages, where the zealous (or overzealous) enforcement of priestly good conduct by some bishops might be ignored by their successors or fellow-bishops.
And the case also displays the perennial difficulty for any Church on sexual matters: how far should it intrude into the bedroom? Sexual behaviour is by its nature private and the Church of England has stated that clergy can legitimately be in civil partnerships (and can even theoretically become bishops) provided that their relationship with their partner is celibate. There are intriguing parallels with priests in the pre-eleventh Catholic church, who could theoretically be married, though not sexually active within such a marriage.
Canon Pemberton’s offence, therefore, is not strictly speaking a sexual one, unless the bishop of Southwell and Nottingham has evidence to the contrary. Instead, it is a breach of the Church of England’s rules prohibiting clerics from entering same-sex marriages. The justification for this prohibition is taken from a canon that talks of the need for clerics and their families to be ‘wholesome examples and patterns to the flock of Christ’.
Such language concerning reputations would have been familiar to an early medieval bishop like Hincmar, Archbishop of Rheims (845-882). He wrote numerous episcopal statutes setting out how the priests and laity of his archdiocese should behave and the means for ensuring correct behaviour. His second episcopal statute from 852 gave instructions for archdeacons and rural deans as to how they should run regular investigations into priests’ behaviour. A long section is devoted to the need for priests to avoid too close contact with women, such as allowing unrelated women to live in the priest’s house.
Hincmar, however, was not concerned only with illicit sexual activity by such priests. Almost as important was the ‘evil reputation’ (mala fama) that such priests might gain within the community. As c. 21 (p. 56) of the statute points out, Hincmar’s concern is that such behaviour by priests ‘may damage the conscience of the weak by evil suspicion’ (mala suspicione infirmorum conscientias maculent). His statute details the procedure by which such priests could be removed from office if sufficient of their congregation were prepared to testify against them. Such witnesses did not have to prove immoral conduct by their priest. They had to swear only that they had seen or knew certainly that ‘women had such access or frequenting or cohabitation with that priest, from which there could be evil suspicion and an evil reputation could get out’ (c. 21, p. 58: si vidisti aut pro certo scis talem accessum vel frequentiam aut cohabitationem feminas habere cum isto presbitero , unde mala suspicio esse possit et mala fama possit exire).
In the modern Anglican church, similar principles seem to be at work, but on a much wider canvas. Public opinion and rumours about gay priests and sexuality more generally now extend not through a small rural parish, but across the globe. The archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, claims that the Church of England accepting gay marriage may lead to attacks on African Christians, while another bishop reports that he was once asked in Central Africa why you now had to be gay to be ordained in the Church of England. Yet at the same time, the most common reason for people in Great Britain to have a negative view of the Church of England is that it is too prejudiced against women and gay people (as Linda Woodhead found in a recent survey). How can ‘scandal’ be avoided when different audiences are scandalised by diametrically different actions?
The Church of England may well be legally successful in Canon Pemberton’s employment tribunal. While exemptions from the law of the land for churches and their ministers are now far narrower than in the days of benefit of clergy, such exemptions are well-established and not under serious threat from secular politicians. But in an era of rapid global communication, it is far harder to ensure that either individual clerics or the Anglican church itself does not end up having ‘an evil reputation’ among many laypeople.
Today is the anniversary of the death of Queen Waldrada, 9 April.
Now, let me be the first to admit that hers is hardly a household name. At the time of writing, she does not even have an English Wikipedia page, a sure sign of the historical B-list (she does have a short one in German, and an inaccurate one in French). But her passage into obscurity was considerably pre-internet. Though we know the day of her death, no one recorded the year (presumably around 900). And in one document concerning her, some later medieval scribe even took the trouble literally to write her out of history, erasing her name and replacing it with a made-up ‘Rotrude’.
Yet in her own time, Waldrada was a powerful woman, who led an exciting and eventful life. The concubine of a Frankish king, Lothar II, she became his wife in 862, and participated for a while in the full theatre of medieval queenship. But in 863 the pope forbade the marriage, and forced them to separate. Even so, he thought that she was still holding the reins of power, and accused her of plotting the death of her rival, the king’s ‘other’ wife Theutberga. In the face of this papal onslaught (which included excommunication), King Lothar stuck by Waldrada so doggedly that some observers concluded that she was practising witchcraft, capable of inflaming him to lust merely by showing him enchanted clothing.
Though Waldrada ended her life peacefully in a convent high up in the Vosges above the Rhine, her children too led adventurous lives. One (Hugh) led a major rebellion before he was blinded, ending his life as a reluctant monk; another (Gisela) married a Viking, and witnessed her Scandinavian husband’s assassination, before becoming an abbess; a third (Berta) started a royal dynasty in Italy and (possibly) corresponded with the caliphs of Baghdad.
What, then, does it take to get a Wikipedia page? Why is Waldrada so little remembered today? It’s not a lack of sources as such. Waldrada was at the heart of continental politics in the 860s, and was much discussed by contemporaries like Hincmar of Rheims. Though we don’t have anything that she herself wrote, and despite efforts like those of the scribe mentioned above to remove traces of her, we have plenty of information about her role and activities (including this letter written to her by a pope).
At one level, the issue is simply that Waldrada was a woman. Despite decades of research, women are still less commemorated than men on public historical fora – one of the reasons for the emergence of various internet ‘edit-a-thons’ to give people like Waldrada the recognition they deserve.
But there’s a bigger problem too, one that’s more specific to Waldrada. Largely because of Lothar II’s failed efforts to have Waldrada publicly acknowledged as his queen, their kingdom, Lotharingia, died with him in 869. That failure was in fact a crucial factor in the emergence and stabilisation of the kingdoms to the west and the east: what would eventually become the kingdom of France and the Holy Roman Empire. The territory that had lain in-between, Lotharingia, became a ‘shadow kingdom’: remembered when it was helpful for political purposes – Lorraine has a claim to be the premier European battlefield – and forgotten when it was not.
Paradoxically, then, the very thing which made Queen Waldrada notorious in her day – her perceived relevance to royal politics – condemned her to obscurity thereafter. She lost her ‘relevance’ back in 869, along with her husband and the kingdom they had ruled together. As a result, no modern country claims to be the political heir of Lotharingia: so there were no 19th-century institutions whose task it was to order and represent Lotharingian history. And modern knowledge about the Middle Ages is based on 19th-century historical research to a degree that’s surprising (including Wikipedia – in fact especially Wikipedia: just see how many entries are based on out-of-copyright encyclopedias).
Like Lotharingia itself, then, Queen Waldrada has slipped between the cracks, and is largely forgotten today. It’s hardly novel to point out that commemoration is a political act, since choices have to be made (we can’t remember everybody and everything, least until someone finds a way of automating commemoration). But it’s worth considering the extent to which modern public commemorative activity, whether in museums, on Wikipedia, or indeed as ‘On this day in history’ blogs, is silently reproducing the political agendas of the past, whether medieval or Victorian. So on this day, spare a thought for Waldrada – or even better, go and write her a Wikipedia entry.
Charles West will be giving a talk about the case of Waldrada and Lothar II to the University of the Third Age, at the Showroom Cinema in Sheffield, Friday 17th April 2015, 10.30am. With Rachel Stone, he is translating a key source for the text, Hincmar of Rheims’s De Divortio, for Manchester University Press, due for publication in July 2016.