In the book Contours of the World Economy (2007), by Angus Maddison, it says:

The adoption of Christianity as a state religion in 380 AD led to basic changes in the nature of European marriage, inheritance, and kinship. The papacy imposed a pattern that differed substantially from what had prevailed earlier in Greece, Rome, and Egypt and differed dramatically from that which was to characterize the Islamic world. Marriage was to be strictly monogamous, with a ban on concubinage, adoption, divorce, and remarriage of widows or widowers. There was a prohibition on consanguineous marriage with siblings, ascendants, descendants, including first, second, and third cousins, or relatives of siblings by marriage. A papal decision in 385 AD imposed priestly celibacy.

The main purpose of these rules was to limit inheritance entitlements to close family members and to channel large amounts to the church which became a property owner on a huge scale. At the same time they broke down previous loyalties to clan, tribe, and caste, promoted individualism and accumulation, and reinforced the sense of belonging to a nation-state (see Goody 1983; Lal 2001).

Reading about adoption history we can read that among orphanages were set up by the Catholic Church in response to the many children left at the doors of churches and monasteries, a practice it later became institutionalised. On this respect, Wikipedia states:

Abandonment levels rose with the fall of the empire and many of the foundlings were left on the doorstep of the Church. Initially, the clergy reacted by drafting rules to govern the exposing, selling, and rearing of abandoned children. The Church's innovation, however, was the practice of oblation, whereby children were dedicated to lay life within monastic institutions and reared within a monastery. This created the first system in European history in which abandoned children did not have legal, social, or moral disadvantages. As a result, many of Europe's abandoned and orphaned children became alumni of the Church, which in turn took the role of adopter. Oblation marks the beginning of a shift toward institutionalization, eventually bringing about the establishment of the foundling hospital and orphanage.

I emphasised a phrase which might indicate an early discourage or prohibition of adoption (there is no reference to where such rules are contained). Maybe this is what the book above is mentioning.

This book meanwhile states:

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Similar ideas are presented in this book:

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The later mentions in particular the issue of rights of children with adoptive parents.

So, statements about the issue are contradictory. ¿Does anyone have evidence for either case, perhaps a reference to medieval Church legal code?

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    "A papal decision in 385 AD imposed priestly celibacy."? What is this author referring to? The Council of Elvira (305 A.D.) was the first to write down the law of priestly perpetual continence, and the Second Lateran Council (1139) was the first to declare that clerics invalidly marry.
    – Geremia
    Commented Jun 12, 2020 at 22:16
  • 5
    Reading the summa and the Catholic Enciclopedia on Adoption, I have a theory: your source misread adption as impediment to marriage, and understood the expression as a ban on adoption. And I think both St Thomas and the CE makes clear that adoption always was there.
    – Luiz
    Commented Jun 13, 2020 at 1:36
  • 1
    I’m voting to close this question because this question is very closely related to the Christianity StackExchange question "Can a Catholic priest adopt a child?".
    – Geremia
    Commented Jun 13, 2020 at 3:28
  • 1
    @Geremia, there's no such thing as a cross-site duplicate, and even if there was, there's only a very tenuous connection between this question and the one you link.
    – Mark
    Commented Jun 18, 2020 at 1:17
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    It is very interesting to see, for example, Maddison's framing of priestly celibacy as *to limit inheritance entitlements to close family members and to channel large amounts to the church". Because the other way to write that would be: "to abolish the clan laws on inheritance and substantially strengthening the private ownership of property", which are now universal moral and legal standard across the civilized world. To be sure, personal opinion, political activism and anti-religion are now, apparently, scientific facts... Great to see someone questioning authority. Nice question.
    – AcePL
    Commented Aug 5, 2021 at 8:04

1 Answer 1


Adoption was never banned, and in fact was only ever encouraged quite strongly.

First, though, your source is a little off the mark on some of its details:

  • For one, widows and widowers could certainly remarry and they did so all the time. It is true that second marriages weren’t always necessarily seen favorably throughout the Middle Ages; entering a convent or monastery upon losing a spouse might be regarded more positively for some. But remarriage following the loss of a spouse was not forbidden. (Divorce, on the other hand, was a different matter.)

  • Specific to priests, celibacy was widely encouraged as early as 305/306 (and perhaps earlier). Saying it was unequivocally "imposed" in 385 is just a tad overstating the situation, but it’s safe to say that by the middle of the 5th century it was already generally adhered to throughout the West.

Now, as for adoption, I’m not sure where this notion is coming from. Laypersons were always strongly encouraged to adopt. And, although members of the clergy do not themselves adopt, medieval monasteries were something akin to modern orphanages in that they took in orphaned youths (albeit mostly to enter them into religious service).

If anything, I would argue that an ever-increasing importance placed on kinship ties would serve to discourage adoption in itself, rather than the Church aiming to put pressure on social systems of inheritance; the argument as stated seems to be confusing cause and effect, in my view.

Further reading:

Brundage, James A. “Law, Sex, and Christian Society in Medieval Europe.” 1987.

Payling, Simon. “The Politics of Family: Late Medieval Marriage Contracts.” In “The McFarlane Legacy: Studies in Late Medieval Politics and Society.” 1995.

  • 2
    Yes, I've seen primary sources (can't remember where for the moment) which mentioned specific examples of widows remarrying and the children being legally adopted by the new husband in France. I got the impression it was pretty common. Commented Jun 17, 2020 at 1:24
  • 3
    @Dan "by the middle of the 5th century it was generally adhered to throughout the Christian world" - This may be true for the Western Church (but it seems to me pretty early even there), but it is certainly false for the Eastern Church.
    – K-HB
    Commented Jun 17, 2020 at 6:36
  • @K-HB Good catch, thanks. I've clarified my response to indicate the western Church. As for the time frame, it is of course difficult for us to know today just how completely the practice was observed so long ago. Based on contemporary evidence, it does seem to have taken hold by a majority of the clergy by that time. That's not to say every member of the clergy followed suit, only that by AD 500 it would have been the majority practice.
    – Dan
    Commented Jun 17, 2020 at 8:12

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