The historiography of medieval gender rarely praises the Church. An oppressive patriarchy and virulent misogyny are easily blamed on Christianity and a male priesthood. The charges are not entirely untrue, but they may oversimplify: the real situation was perhaps more complicated, as appears when considering the clergy in the period between the Gregorian reform and the start of the Reformation. Those clerics were certainly ‘male’, but were they ‘men’? The medieval clergy challenge many assumptions about gendered identities, especially the blunt equation of body and gender. If masculinity is defined by the threefold activities of ‘impregnating women, protecting dependents, and serving as provider to one’s family’,2
then the medieval clergy as unworldy celibates were not meant to be masculine. What ‘gender’ did they then have? The question immediately challenges historians. The norm is to refer to two genders – or to none. Men and women present an obvious polarity whose opposition allows an immediate and automatic allocation to one or the other. Yet the temptation to see ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ as equivalent, and to assume that where there are only two sexes there can only be two genders, imposes a false simplicity on the issues.