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Unnatural Frenchmen

The Politics of Priestly Celibacy and Marriage, 1720-1815
E. Claire Cage

BUY Cloth · 248 pp. · 5.5 × 8.5 · ISBN 9780813937120 · $39.50 · Jul 2015
BUY Ebook · 248 pp. · ISBN 9780813937137 · $39.50 · Jul 2015

Burton-Baker Book Award, Southern Historical Association - European Section (2017)

In Enlightenment and revolutionary France, new and pressing arguments emerged in the long debate over clerical celibacy. Appeals for the abolition of celibacy were couched primarily in the language of nature, social utility, and the patrie. The attack only intensified after the legalization of priestly marriage during the Revolution, as marriage and procreation were considered patriotic duties. Some radical revolutionaries who saw celibacy as a crime against nature and the nation aggressively promoted clerical marriage by threatening unmarried priests with deportation, imprisonment, and even death. After the Revolution, political and religious authorities responded to the vexing problem of reconciling the existence of several thousand married French priests with the formal reestablishment of Roman Catholicism and clerical celibacy.

Unnatural Frenchmen examines how this extremely divisive issue shaped religious politics, the lived experience of French clerics, and gendered citizenship. Drawing on a wide base of printed and archival material, including thousands of letters that married priests wrote to the pope, historian Claire Cage highlights individual as well as ideological struggles. Unnatural Frenchmen provides important insights into how conflicts over priestly celibacy and marriage have shaped the relationship between sexuality, religion, and politics from the age of Enlightenment to today, while simultaneously revealing the story of priestly marriage to be an inherently personal and deeply human one.


Cage shows how many of the most important topics treated in recent French historiography (changing attitudes about gender, the eighteenth-century separation of the public and private spheres, and emerging discourses on rights) contributed to the animated discussion about clerical celibacy in the Age of Revolution. Her scholarship is impeccable—Cage has an excellent command of the sources, from normative literature to records of the lived experiences of ordinary people.

Bryant T. Ragan Jr., Colorado College, editor of Homosexuality in Early Modern France

Unnatural Frenchmen... [is] a brief but well-researched and often moving book about the thousands of Gallican priests who married during the Revolutionary era.... The book's strength lies in the rich details provided by Cage, particularly from the Terror and from the Napoleonic era.

The Catholic Historical Review

[T]his is a very effective and well-nuanced study of the theory and practice of priestly celibacy and marriage during the pre-revolutionary, revolutionary, and Napoleonic periods.

American Historical Review

In this innovative account of priestly marriage, Claire Cage reveals a deeply human story that also has profound implications for understanding the history of religion, gender, sexuality, and power.

Jennifer Ngaire Heuer, University of Massachusetts Amherst, author of The Family and the Nation: Gender and Citizenship in Revolutionary France, 1789–1830

In [ Unnatural Frenchmen], Claire Cage covers the broad history of celibacy in an introductory chapter, and then moves on to a detailed and fascinating account of how debates over priestly marriage shaped attitudes toward the clergy, the church, and the meaning of citizenship in the Enlightenment and the French Revolution.... Cage avoids drawing any easy lessons from her research, but the conflicts she treats clearly resonate in a contemporary world in which celibacy remains a fraught issue. In substance and tone, Cage's book argues for approaching this issue in a spirit of tolerance and civility, traits not always on display in the revolutionary era, or now.

Church History

E. Claire Cage's Unnatural Frenchmen: The Politics of Priestly Celibacy and Marriage, 1720-1815 is a valuable and rich contribution to our understanding of attitudes about clerical celibacy during the long eighteenth century in France. The unique angle here is Cage's focus on the legalization of clerical marriage in 1791 and the simultaneous criminialization of celibacy by revolutionaries during the Terror. The work investigates the ways in which political, utilitarian, literary, and theological contexts informed not only how celibacy was perceived in French society, but also the legislation that freed--or forced--priests to marry. Included in the analysis are the voices of priests themselves, which are positioned alongside those of politicians, medical authorities, legislators, philosophers, journalists, and theologians....Cage's extensive use of archival materials and analysis of various genres makes for rich reading....This study is particularly contemporary discussions about celibacy in the priesthood are clouded by and conflated with the sexual abuse scandals that have undermined public trust, and call into question the authority and legitimacy of not only the Church's teachings on human sexuality, but the Church hierarchy itself....In this way, the book appeals not only to historians and scholars of Catholicism or the French Revolution, but also to a wider public. After finishing Cage's is difficult to understand how the rule of celibacy in the priesthood endures to present day.

Tonya Moutray · The Eighteenth-Century Intelligencer

About the Author(s): 

E. Claire Cage is Assistant Professor of History at the University of South Alabama.

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