Medieval scholar garners international award

June 02, 2016

Jennifer Thibodeaux

The evidence is embroidered on a world-famous tapestry created almost a millennium ago. Amid scenes depicting the events leading up to the Norman Conquest of England and the Battle of Hastings in 1066, the Bayeux Tapestry demonstrates that, in the medieval period, priests in both England and Normandy were not only permitted to marry, they had traditional families and participated in other conventionally masculine behaviors.

A scene from the tapestry depicting a virile priest is featured on the cover of a book that tells the story of how the Anglo-Norman Church came to impose clerical celibacy on members of the priesthood, shepherding in a new definition of masculinity for religious men that endures to this day.

"The Manly Priest: Clerical Celibacy, Masculinity and Reform in England and Normandy 1066-1300," written by University of Wisconsin-Whitewater associate professor of history Jennifer Thibodeaux, was published in 2015 by the University of Pennsylvania Press. The book was the winner of the Society of Medieval Feminist Scholarship's 2016 Best Book Prize, which was awarded to Thibodeaux on May 14.

The author has taught courses on the history of sexuality, women and gender issues on campus since 2004 and participates in the International Medieval Congress, a conference of more than 3,000 medieval scholars, every year. To be awarded the SMFS's top prize was an especially significant honor.

Jennifer Thibodeaux

"It's a great moment of pride," said Thibodeaux. "It's an honor to have scholars in my field recognize my work. And it means so much to me that I was the unanimous choice."

University of Pennsylvania Press accepted Thibodeaux's monograph — a detailed study of a single topic by one author — in a competitive process that includes a rigorous peer review. The Ivy League press is a top-tier medieval studies press known for its gender and sexuality publications, according to Thibodeaux.

When the press prepared to print her book and the topic of the cover was broached, Thibodeaux recalled a scene in the Bayeux Tapestry, an embroidered cloth nearly 230 feet long and 20 inches tall that is a unique visual document of medieval arms, apparel and other objects — including Haley's Comet — unlike any other artifact surviving from the period. Completed in the 1070s, shortly after the conquest, it consists largely of battle scenes with a few exceptions — including an unexpectedly unclothed male figure that was later depicted with clothing in copies made of the famous work. The figure's proximity to another clerical figure garbed in noble dress interacting with a noble woman suggests that at the time priests were accepted to have sexual lives.

Thibodeaux contacted the Musée de la Tapisserie de Bayeux in Bayeux, France, where the tapestry resides, for permission to use the image. With the museum's approval, book designer John Hubbard incorporated the scene into the cover and designed a faux embroidered font to spell out the title.

Jennifer Thibodeaux

Even before the SMFS's award, the publication garnered interest among medieval scholars and those who study the history of sexuality. Notches, a peer-reviewed international blog that explores the history of sexuality, published an almost 4,000-word posting about the monograph in February 2016.

In the book, Thibodeaux explored the new model of religious masculinity for the priesthood and depicts clerical celibacy as a deeply contested movement in medieval England and Normandy, one that led to a new model of manliness for the medieval clergy.

"Medieval people were really not so different from us in terms of how they thought about gender and sexuality," said Thibodeaux. "Modern people would be really surprised."

The author considers herself fortunate that her research interest in how medieval society defined women and men aligns so closely with what she teaches. One especially popular course of hers, which was the first history class on campus to fill up when it was last offered, is "From Goddesses to Witches: Women in Pre-modern European History."


Jeff Angileri

Sara Kuhl

Written by Kristine Zaballos

Photos by Craig Schreiner