Following a long trajectory from late antiquity to the high Middle Ages, Dyan Elliott offers a provocative analysis of the changing religious, emotional, and sexual meanings of the metaphor of the sponsa Christi and of the increasing anxiety surrounding the somatization of female spirituality.
2011 | 480 pages | Cloth $59.95
History | Women's Studies/Gender Studies | Religion
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1. A Match Made in Heaven: The Bride in the Early Church
Chapter 2. The Church Fathers and the Embodied Bride
Chapter 3. The Barbarian Queen
Chapter 4. An Age of Affect, 1050-1200 (1): Consensuality and Vocation
Chapter 5. An Age of Affect, 1050-1200 (2): The Conjugal Reflex
Chapter 6. The Eroticized Bride of Hagiography
Chapter 7. Descent into Hell
List of Abbreviations
Virginity is a spiritual kind of marrying.
A young woman eschews all mortal ties to unite herself irrevocably with a man who has been dead for centuries, yet has nevertheless managed to lure countless women into this suspect arrangement: a polygamist on a grand scale. Although it may sound like a plot worthy of Bram Stoker, I am, of course, alluding to the traditional understanding of the consecrated virgin as bride of Christ—a concept so intrinsic to female spirituality and so familiar to medievalists that it is difficult to imagine when it was otherwise. But there was a time when the bride was just a metaphor unattached to any particular body—before she tumbled from the symbolic order, became entangled in text, and then finally came to land with a thump upon the body of the virgin who has dedicated her life to God. It is this story of embodiment that is at the heart of the present study.
It is important to remember, however, that although the consecrated virgin is preeminent as the human face of the bride, the image was and would remain a veritable calliope of overlapping metaphors. At its root was the mystical marriage between God and the human soul that, from the perspective of ancient and medieval commentators, found its most eloquent and provocative expression in the Song of Songs. Like the enterprising bride of the Canticles, all true believers should pursue the celestial bridegroom in anticipation of an ecstatic consummation in the afterlife. The mystical marriage was also possessed of an incorporated dimension as evident in Christ's marriage with the church of all believers. In addition, it had important institutional applications. By the eleventh century the bishop, standing in loco Christi, was customarily understood to be married to his see. During the papal schism, John Gerson (d. 1429) would raise the fraught question of what to do if the pope, the church's most immediate proxy for the celestial bridegroom, was bewitched and incapable of providing children for the virginal Ecclesia.
A mystical marriage with Christ simultaneously invested mundane reality with and divested it of meaning. It enhanced carnal marriage through the association with a higher mystery. Yet the representation of the mystical marriage as the purer and more authentic union simultaneously drained its carnal host of vitality. This book is in many ways a testimony to the mystical marriage's predatory symbolism. It was supposed to be a study about medieval matrimony, in theory and practice. A portion was dedicated to the way in which marriage served as a template, structuring many nonmatrimonial relations, and it is was there that I ran into trouble. As soon as I turned my attention to the sponsa Christi, to my mind the most vivid example of the matrimonial template at work the subject developed a momentum all its own, ultimately derailing the entire project. So the tendency to bypass real marriage in favor of its imaginary counterpart is not just a medieval predilection; there are certain modern scholars inclined to follow suit.
The mystical marriage's preemptive claims vividly testify to Christianity's tendency to privilege the spiritual over the carnal. In this world upside down, the despised and derivative institution of marriage is recast as the equivalent of an embodied exemplum or carnal symbol for the higher union. Moreover, mystical marriage was a restless image that seemingly refused to be restricted to the Christian equivalent of the platonic realm of ideas, instead constantly seeking embodiment. The fact that the bride of Christ had a claim on both the abstract and the concrete meant that it could at any moment erupt into people's lives, with tangible consequences. A quodlibet by Peter John Olivi (d. 1298) demonstrates this potential. Olivi asks why someone who had been married to a widow could not be ordained a priest when a widower who had lost his virginity before his marriage could be ordained, provided he had married a virgin. The answer is that marriage is a triple sacrament: the first component, which is the marriage between God and the soul, is designated by the union of souls between flesh-and-blood husband and wife, which occurs when spouses exchange vows in the present; the second is the union of human nature, when the word became flesh in the womb of a virgin, and is signified by the sex act that would consummate the union; the third is the union of Christ and the virginal church. For this application to work, it is inconsequential if the man is a virgin; Christ, after all, had been married to Synagoga before he married Ecclesia. In fact, Christ can be joined to concubines "without any corruption of his deity, or his humanity and love." Besides, the priest represents the church militant, which contains both good and evil, so he need not be pure. But if a priest were at one time married, his wife had to be a virgin, otherwise his union could not signify Christ's union with the church triumphant, upon which there can be no spot. These different levels of meaning demonstrate just how encompassing this metaphor could be. But they also point to a basic implacability at the heart of the image. Only a man was fit to stand in loco Christi, and hence only men could be cast as groom in the different orthodox variants of the mystical marriage. While all Christian souls, women and men, were brides of Christ in a mystical sense, consecrated virgins were brides par excellence. And because the bride herself was ever-virgin, and virginity was a fragile asset, throughout the Middle Ages the consecrated virgin would most often pursue her vocation in a cloister.
It would nevertheless be misleading to imply that female religious alone were actively encouraged to identify with the image of the sponsa Christi. The ongoing proliferation of monastic commentaries on the Song of Songs attest to a profound degree of attraction to this imagery among male religious as well. In the high Middle Ages, Bernard of Clairvaux (d. 1153) attempted to invoke a still more affective response among his monastic brethren. Yet, as Sarah McNamer has recently argued, the bride was but a "provisional persona" for the monk; in contrast, "female religious—precisely because they were female—could participate in another signifying system, this one historical and cultural." Nor would virginity remain an absolute for the bride. One of the great sea changes in medieval spirituality, and one especially portentous for this study, was when women who were not virgins began to lay claim to this title. Despite these competing claims, however, the female virgin would always take pride of place as Christ's bride. She remained for the Christian community something of a living allegory, inhabiting two realms simultaneously, and was socially construed as such. The bride in Olivi's quodlibet, on the verge of carnal marriage, inhabited this symbolic zone very briefly; for the consecrated virgin, however, it was home.
In spite of this undeniably lofty place in the symbolic order, Christianity's deployment of the bride is at one with other religious systems, where the dominant images associated with women originate in their reproductive/sexual status. From this perspective, it is not surprising to learn that the identification of virgins as brides of Christ probably began as a kind of compromise formation. It was first used by Tertullian (d. ca. 220) in an effort to impose some kind of discipline on the independent virgins of Carthage, who perceived themselves as living the genderless angelic life. Tertullian's response was to insist that these virgins were not only women but matrons of a sort, who must wear veils as a sign of their submission to their celestial bridegroom, Christ. Despite constant reiterations that virginity was primarily a state of mind among church authorities, Tertullian's embodied literalism was the wave of the future. As the female religious vocation developed, Christ's bride became ever more embodied, physical integrity jockeying with mental integrity for the prize.
If we were to stop here, the tale of the sponsa Christi might seem to resemble the tragedy at the heart of the gnostic understanding of the fall. For as with the spirits who were wrestled down from heaven and stuffed into bodies, women's gradual assumption of the bridal identity could also be construed as an ungentle story of angelic creatures subjected to enforced embodiment. But this perception necessarily changes in the mystical climate of the high and later Middle Ages, when women clearly embraced the bridal persona, making it very much their own. In particular, the increasing number of nonvirgins who appropriated the title of bride frequently sustained these claims through an extremely embodied spirituality, introducing a more exacting, albeit different, kind of literalism than was ever imagined by the church fathers. Many of these women experienced visions of the celestial bridegroom; some even claimed he appeared in corporeal form. Eventually women such as Bridget of Sweden (d. 1373) and Dorothea of Montau (d. 1394), mothers many times over, were represented by their hagiographers as extremely exacting in their representation of marriage with Christ, including mystical pregnancies that were replete with fetal movement, labor pains, and dilations.
In short, although women may initially have had the bridal persona thrust upon them, it would seem that they ultimately came to relish this point of identification, adding many surprising and unprecedented embellishments, often inspired by very literal readings (whether theirs or their confessors') of the Song of Songs. Even so, the latter part of this book is about the dangers implicit in this level of literalism: how a land where dreams (or visions) literally come true is also an environment that can foster nightmares. In the later Middle Ages, there was a growing suspicion of female mysticism, especially because of flamboyantly embodied marvels. Stories began to circulate in clerical circles of instances in which a female mystic mistook Lucifer, the angel of light, for Christ—misbegotten unions that were essentially mystical marriages gone wrong. The somatic spirituality of female mystics, in conjunction with their aspirations to a kind of supernatural union, played an important role in the rise of witchcraft charges and the solidification of the witch's identity around a female persona.
Chapter 1 begins with an overview of some of the deployments of the bride of Christ in the early church, focusing mainly on Tertullian and his use of the metaphor as an instrument of control over consecrated virgins. The situation, as I see it, is extremely poignant because Tertullian, who was wont to extol virginity and disparage marriage, was reluctant to use this strategy: he was led to it by a literal reading of Genesis 6 and a fear of angelic miscegenation.
The second chapter examines the evolution of the consecrated virgin at the hands of the church fathers: her association with a very reclusive Virgin Mary (conflated with the bride of the Song of Songs), the different disciplines devised for the virgin, and the increasing focus on intact virginity. Patristic adulation of the sealed body not only justified legal restrictions on the woman's freedoms as protection of Christ's bride but, at least for some, validated suicide in the event that her virginity was imperiled.
Chapter 3 focuses on the successor states established in the wake of the Roman Empire's collapse and the conundrum of what to do with a would-be bride of Christ who is not a virgin. The English Aldhelm's initiatives to decenter female virginity include representing virginity primarily as a male virtue, in addition to extending its boundaries with instances of married chastity. By the same token, clerical authorities in the Frankish Empire struggle with polite ways of withholding the title sponsa Christi from Queen Radegund, who, although a member of a religious community and an important monastic foundress, was not a virgin. The chapter concludes with the examination of the life of the matron Rictrude and the hagiographer's projection of a rivalry between virginal and nonvirginal nuns.
Both Chapters 4 and 5 contend with the immense changes afoot in the twelfth century in both secular marriage and religion. The fourth chapter points to the new emphasis on intentionality and consensuality and the ways in which they bring carnal and mystical marriage closer together. The proximate nature of the two types of marriage is epitomized in the relationship of Abelard and Heloise—particularly Abelard's desperate attempts to loosen Heloise's determined grip on their failed carnal marriage and reattach her to the celestial groom. Chapter 5 examines the emergence of pious heterosexual couples: men and women whose spiritual and emotional bonds simulate the intimacy of an actual marriage. This phenomenon, which I refer to heteroasceticism, is construed as a form of repressed conjugality. The chapter concludes with a discussion of Bernard of Clairvaux's sermons on the Song of Songs.
"The Eroticized Bride in Hagiography" (Chapter 6) examines how the impact of Bernardine spirituality among the early Beguine mystics provides the impetus for a sensual, embodied, and ultimately eroticized bride of Christ. The tendency to express this spirituality somatically perhaps culminates in the matrimonial embellishments of later pious widows such as Bridget of Sweden and Dorothea of Montau who (as will be seen in Chapter 7) would soon attract the critical eye of prominent clerics such as John Gerson. Yet one of the contentions of this chapter is that the widespread hostility that religious authorities expressed against the Beguine movement from its inception was not only present but cultivated by one of their earliest supporters—Thomas of Cantimpré. It is but an ominous sign of things to come.
The final chapter begins by looking at the predatory incubus, and its progressive tendency to target religious women, before turning to two extremely influential figures in late medieval spirituality, John Gerson and John Nider. Their mutual suspicion of female spirituality spills over into their imagery, with each providing inverted versions of the mystical marriage with Christ. The rise of witchcraft charges accentuates this distorted picture, substituting union with the devil for the mystical union with Christ. Thus we have a grim return of Tertullian's anxiety of miscegenation between fallen angels and human women.
Although this book ends with a discussion of the phenomenon of witchcraft, it is not primarily a book about witchcraft. It does, however, aspire to make sense of witchcraft in the context of female spirituality. Since at least the time of H. C. Lea, scholars have posited some kind of a link between female mysticism and the rise of witchcraft. Most only gesture toward this potentiality fleetingly, and the few works that do engage this question tend to be more descriptive than analytical. This study attempts to discern at least one link in the chain that unites the mystic to the witch: by analyzing the trajectory of the bride of Christ, perhaps the most important vehicle of female spirituality in the entire Christian tradition, I hope to demonstrate how this image ultimately contributed to the concept of the witch.
This is not the first time I have attempted to come to grips with the emergence of witchcraft as an antiwoman phenomenon, and it probably won't be the last. Elsewhere I have identified other factors feeding into the rise of a specific brand of religious antifeminism that found its most extreme expression in works like the inquisitorial manual, The Hammer of Witches. My book Fallen Bodies in particular alerted me to the manner in which antifeminist rhetoric was destined to become reified centuries later. Proving Woman would identify subsequently the inquisitional procedure as a contributing factor in the gradual demonization of female spirituality. The present study is meant to complement and extend these earlier endeavors, approaching some of the same questions as well as key authors from a different angle.
The scope of this topic was sufficiently daunting that I was forced to impose my own version of "virgin sacrifices" throughout. For instance, one could have dedicated an entire study to the way the image of the bride was applied to the Virgin Mary—who was not just Christ's mother but also his supreme bride. And yet there is no extended discussion of Mary as bride. Instead, she is invoked largely in the capacity as role model and advisor to Christ's lesser brides. Then there is the geographical bias. Although this study necessarily begins in the Mediterranean world of the church fathers, the regional vector moves northward and by and large remains there. For the earlier period, I can only say that this is where I thought the materials seemed most prolix and most intriguing. But this orientation also made more sense in the high Middle Ages, where the earliest flourishing of bridal mysticism was a northern phenomenon, arising within the Beguine movement.
The consecrated virgins, mystical matrons, and alleged witches that animate this book come to us through the pages of a religious discourse that is often heavily mediated by authorial efforts to enlist certain images and conform with traditional models. Though this may be true of the majority of the writings remaining from the Middle Ages, it is especially important in this context. For although I am concerned with the experiences and attitudes toward historical women, the bride of Christ remains first and foremost a metaphor that is imposed upon the lives of these women. So on a number of levels, this is a book about language. It examines the process by which something as ephemeral as a metaphor evolves, but ultimately devolves, into matter. Huizinga had famously associated this trend with the later Middle Ages, when, admittedly, such a pattern may have reached a crescendo. But it is important to remember that the process of devolution was present throughout the history of Christianity and was not simply a matter of late medieval decadence. Indeed, in a religion that holds the incarnation as its central mystery, the implicit pull in favor of embodiment was not only integral but often irresistible. Nor should it be a surprise that Christianity's nascent beliefs and devotions likewise teleologically tend toward physical realization. This is as apparent in the theological doctrines of the resurrection of the body or transubstantiation as it is in the more devotional points of emphases such as Mary as Ever Virgin, the cult of relics, or the somatic nature of female mysticism. By focusing on the bride of Christ, this book attempts to engage some of the challenges that invariably faced an incarnational religion that aimed at transcendence but frequently had to settle for so much less.