“He deflowered me in the barn …”

Grazide Rives, a peasant girl from Montaillou lost her virginity to the local priest, Pierre Clergue in the year 1313. We have a detailed account of this from the Inquisition register of Jacques Fournier, bishop of Pamiers in Comte de Foix, southern France. Grazida was interrogated by him, which resulted in a verbatim record of what happened to her. He, later to become Pope Benedict XII, and referred to as a clodhopper by Petrarch, was, fortunately, a meticulous note-taker. Because of this we have one of the very rare insights into the life of the medieval peasant.

Man accosting a woman at the loom: Smithfield Decretals, Southern France, late 13th -- early 14th Century.  British Library, Royal MS 10E

Man accosting a woman at the loom: Smithfield Decretals, Southern France, late 13th — early 14th Century. British Library, Royal MS 10E

Montaillou, in the Pyranees, at that time, had a population of little more than 200. It was a community of mainly peasant farmers, labourers and shepherds. The Comte de Foix was the feudal overlord of the pyranean principality that included Montaillou. In Montaillou the interests of the house of Foix was looked after by a chatelain and a bayle(bailiff). There was little distinction between these minor officials and the peasants and to a large extent Montaillou was left to its own devices as long as it paid its taxes and tithes.

Pierre Clergue, the priest, was the power behind the most dominant family in the village. He was a seducer and incorrigible womaniser with at least a dozen mistresses. It appears not to have been such a great scandal. The villagers, men and women, were well aware of his activities and endured them or, in some cases, welcomed them. Pierre was ruthless in his unquenchable desire for women. If a woman resisted him he would intimidate her by threatening to report her to the inquisition. The inquisition, at that time was trying to stamp out Catharism which was endemic in the region.

The young girl Grazide Rives gave a very frank account of her liason with Pierre Clergue:

“The priest came to my mother’s house while she was out harvesting, and was very pressing: ‘Allow me,’ he said, ‘ to know you carnally. And I said, ‘All right.’

At that time, I was a virgin. I think I was fourteen or fifteen years old. He deflowered me in the barn in which we kept the straw. But it wasn’t rape at all.”

Grazide went on to say that the priest continued to know her carnally, even after he had given her as a wife to an old peasant called Pierre Lizier. Both Grazide’s husband and her mother knew that the priest was having sex with her and both consented to it. The sexual encounters happened mostly during the day in the mother’s house. Grazide’s husband, Pierre, would say, ‘has the priest done it with you?’ and Grazide would answer ‘Yes.’ To which Pierre would say ‘as far as the priest is concerned, all right! But don’t you go having other men.’

Grazide on being questioned about her attitude to her sexual relationship with the priest said : ‘with Pierre Clergue, I liked it. And so it could not displease God. It was not a sin.’ This is an interesting view from a poorly educated girl but it is not an uncommon view. Master Ermengaud’s Breviaire d’Amour and Flamenca express the very same idea: ‘A lady who sleeps with a true lover is purified of all sins … and the joy of love makes the act innocent.’

Couple in bed: Aldobrandino of Siena's le Regime de Corps, Lille, ca. 1285.British Library, MS Sloane 2435 fol. 9v

Couple in bed: Aldobrandino of Siena’s le Regime de Corps, Lille, ca. 1285.
British Library, MS Sloane 2435 fol. 9v

It would certainly appear that there was a considerable degree of sexual tolerance amongst some of our medieval ancestors. As we can see from this story from Montaillou, the Catholic religion and its priest was no deterrent to liberal sexual attitudes. Licentious behaviour of Catholic clergy was widespread in the 14th century. This is one reason why Catharism was widely accepted and it’s parfaits (monks who professed to be Cathars) admired for living true Christian lives of prayer and poverty.

8 thoughts on ““He deflowered me in the barn …”

  1. Fascinating ! How things changed in the Catholic church, especially in poor old Ireland. I’ve read that the first few generations of the “Celtic-era” Irish church had similarly tolerant and enlightened views. Although come to think of it, that would be less exceptional in the context of European Christianity aas a whole, as despite various edicts and noises, it seemed to take centuries for the church to definitively settle on celibacy. Of course, even then, branches of the Irish church remained highly independent and unorthodox, right up to the Norman conquest and the Synod of Cashel, which followed hard upon, (1172.) Some would argue that the church in Ireland only started to become truly “repressive” after the foundation of Maynooth in 1795, and the more provincial mindset that followed. (previous seminarians were exposed to a far more cosmopolitan and arguably more intellectually sophisticated milieu, training in Salamanca and/or Rome.) Anyway, great post. Love the illustrations too.

    • Hi Arran. I wonder if I am right in thinking that the Irish clergy were not reviled by the laity in the same way as continental Europe and England. And if that is so, why? I know that up to the eight century, as far as the monastic life was concerned, there was relative tranquility and dedication to learning as opposed to Europe. The arrival of the Vikings put an end to the tranquility but how the church fared after that is something I would like to understand.

      • It’s a very good question Dermot, not easy to answer. I wonder in turn if it’s not the case that the clergy enjoyed respect across Europe generally up to the end of the middle ages. But you also have early schism, (eg the Cathars as you mention above) and early inquisition, so you see the first forms of discent, and over- reaction. At the end of the middle ages, we see more rapid developments in economy, early industry, finance and so on, so there is simply more at stake, more opportunity for corruption if you like. Later, with renaissance thought, you have humanism, which means at least some erosion of that abject, unquestioning humility toward the church. With the advent of growing towns, and the new middle classes/burgher class , with the beginnings of popular (or at least non-clerical) literacy, the printing press and so on, it becomes possible to voice and disseminate that discent, to a larger and more receptive audience than was ever possible before, and a lot of the ingredients for protest(tanism) are already in place. But you’re absolutely right, still none of it happens without veniality and corruption within the church, and the popular disgust that engenders. Since Ireland was late or slow to many of the developments above, it may simply be that the church in Ireland was less corrupt, and therefore continued to command the respect, affection and strong allegiance of the people. So, perhaps, there was no indigenous Reformation in Ireland, because there was not much that needed reform. I think there are other factors too, undoubtedly in fact, including the unusual structures and fabric of the church here, (lots of small and medium sized monasteries, very localized) compared to Britain and continental Europe, (large Diocese, wealthy bishops) which may have kept Irish clergy more humble and in touch with local people. Who knows, just some random, meandering thoughts, but it is an interesting question Dermot, I’ve often wondered about myself. Imagine Irish clergy & people had embraced, or even initiated Reformation protest and theology, instead of having it violently and unsuccessfully foisted on them later. How very, very different the history of these islands would have been. One of the great what-if of history. Sorry, didn’t mean to write such a long response, but it’s a subject I find fascinating. Arran.

  2. Great post Dermot. It would be interesting if the church had such liberal views today. Like Arran, I love the illustrations also.

  3. Thanks Susan. With regard to illustrations, I think they are so important when we are trying to reveal what life was like in medieval times. Illustrations, drawings and paintings had far more significance as a communications medium than they have today. They conveyed stories and ideas to the many illiterate peasants. The unveiling of a great painting in medieval society was like the Gala night of Star Wars.

    • Thank you Bazelais. Glad you liked it. Not sure what to make of your second intriguing comment. Regards

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