L. M. C. Weston

title.none: Elliott, Spiritual Marriage: Sexual Abstinence in Medieval Wedlock

identifier.other: baj9928.9410.001 94.10.01

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: L. M. C. Weston, California State University, Fresno

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1994

identifier.citation: Elliott, Dyan. Spiritual Marriage: Sexual Abstinence in Medieval Wedlock. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1993. Pp. xv + 375. $39.50. ISBN: ISBN 0-691-08649-4.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: Bryn Mawr Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 94.10.01

Elliott, Dyan. Spiritual Marriage: Sexual Abstinence in Medieval Wedlock. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1993. Pp. xv + 375. $39.50. ISBN: ISBN 0-691-08649-4.

Reviewed by:

L. M. C. Weston
California State University, Fresno

In this uniformly lucid and ambitious study, Dyan Elliott establishes spiritual marriage—legally binding marriage in which partners forswear sexual intercourse in favor of spiritual purity, either totally, from the beginning of the union, or transitionally, after a period of cohabitation—as an institution of importance to our ongoing discussions of late antique and medieval discourses of gender, sexuality and spirituality. By no means a stable institution, spiritual marriage stands revealed in this book as a construct shifting in relation to early Christian, secular roman and germanic, and then high and later medieval social realities, and changing in response to perpetually changing ideologies of marriage and clerical celibacy. Elliott understands it, moreover, as an "institution", or rather a confluence of theories and practices, discussion of which must be contextualized by subtle analysis of its written traces within texts of various and contending genres: hagiography, chronicles, canon law and theology, sermons, medical tracts and spiritual (auto)biographies. Touching upon many topics, Elliott's complex argument gives special attention, however, to spiritual marriage's role in shaping forms of female spirituality, by turns furthering women's spiritual and social autonomy and aiding their inscription into subordinate positions within the sociosexual hierarchy of marriage. Spiritual marriage thus appears paradoxically central and peripheral to medieval social and religious life, usually orthodox in its support of clerical authority but frequently heretical, rigidly conservative and yet potentially subversive, especially in so far as the practice arose spontaneously among the laity, often upon female initiative.

Chapter One, "'A Place in the Middle': Intramarital Chastity as Theoretical Embarassment and Provocation," locates initial discussion of spiritual marriage within the rivalrous discourses of the early church. Briefly but cogently, Elliott traces doctrinal tensions from Pauline authorization of marriage as prophylactic against incontinent lust, through contending discussions of the conjugal debt and the needs of society, to Augustine's definition of legitimate marital union as dependent on mutual consent—a move by which he enables the construction of spiritual marriage in theory as well as spontaneous practice. Further complicating discussion of marriage, and especially of women's autonomy within marriage, Elliott argues, is the movement of the church from periphery to center, and a concomitant change in its earlier egalitarian rhetoric. While there may be neither slave nor free, woman nor man in Christ, the church's increasing collaboration with secular authority gave rise to a renewed emphasis on the preservation of heirarchical order, including that within marriage. Consequent interaction of discourses on sin, marriage and celibacy fostered a misogynist marginalization of women from the orthodox spirituality in which they had been leaders and models. Similarly, a married, sexually active laity became a category which defined by difference a celibate clerical elite. And yet, Elliott posits, experimentation with marital celibacy among the laity and the keeping of virgines subintroductae among celibate clergy, not to mention recurrent discussion of clerical marriages, all represent a blurring of boundaries and provide eloquent witness to a crisis coincident with the growing institutionalization of the church.

Chapter Two, "Spiritual Marriage as Insoluble Problem or Universal Nostrum?" continues the exploration of spiritual marriage (especially of the complete rather than transitional type) in the post-Augustinian west, turning from patristic theory to texts which record or respond to specific practice, which, Elliott shows, more often than not arose from unilateral female initiative and therefore threatened violation of prescribed gender roles. Elliott's analysis engages most insightfully the varying inscription of spiritual marriage within early medieval hagiographical texts and chronicles. In saints' lives spiritual marriage establishes particularly the sanctity of those women who acted for the missionary church as agents of conversion, bringing around their husbands to both celibacy and faith. Indirectly such accounts imply the foundation of a valid and indissoluble marriage in consensus not coitus, and thus argue a change in the marital law of the germanic west, in its indigenous traditions af divorce and repudiation of impolitic or inconvenient wives. Elliott suggests that the presence of so many anomalous virgin widows in saints' lives and chronicles invokes a contentious historical context, the insecurity of royal marriages; she sees in their idealization and in the prominence granted spiritual marriage an implicit collaboration between royal women, who stood to lose much from repudiation, and clergy , who stood to gain much as royal estates passed into ecclesiastical control when the virgin widows became grateful foundresses of monastic institutions. At the same time, however, Elliott notes how the model of fiercely chaste royal saints like Aethelthryth of Northumbria (praised by Bede for long years od adamant resistance to marital intercourse) could also subversively deny Pauline and Augustinian theology by undermining the mutuality of the marriage debt and even idealize unilateral (female) repudiation. Moreover, narratives of female virginity in marriage need not always entail suspension of traditional sociosexual hierarchy: they could become screens for misogynist attack on clerical wives, an instrument in the move toward total sacerdotal celibacy. What Elliott sees in early chronicles and saints' lives, then, is a domestication of female heroism, in the service of an increasingly misogynist and misogamist clergy.

Elliott notes, as have others, the larger number of female saints in the earlier years of conversion and their dissappearance as the church succeeds in intervening in marriage and achieves relative stability. In Chapter Three, "Eleventh Century Boundaries: The Spirit of Reform and the Cult of the Virgin King," she traces what she perceives as a growing marginalization of the female spiritiual heroism of adamantly virgin marriage resistance and the appropriation of that model for male sanctity. This shift she places in the larger context of a growing rigidity of social boundaries and especially of the efforts of Gregorian reformers to strengthen the separation of clergy from laity by eliminating clerical marriage. Accordingly she notes connections between Gregorian reform and philosophical misogyny, exposing the pivotal but maginal position of women in the reformers' view of society: on the one hand shunned as occassions of sin and temptation, women were also envied as traditional models of chastity and virginity. As female spirituality was shunted to the side, the previous model of virginal heroism was appropriated and recreated in the form of a masculine flight from marriage and the world—the widely circulated model of St. Alexis—replacing a female conversion of spouse to chaste faith.

By the thirteenth century, however, efforts to reaffirm boundaries and to stabilize hierarchies had also come up against new forms of contest and crisis. The penetential movement, for one, especially as associated with Robert of Arbrissel's foundation of Fontrevault, became a new sponsor of female spirituality within the transitional or gradualist model of spiritual marriage. New cults of virgin confessor kings, for another, blurred distinctions between court and cloister. Elliott locates the lives of the English Edward the Confessor, of the German Emperor Henry II, and of their predecessor the Spansish Alfonso the Chaste at the intersection of a number of interests. Lives invoking a model of spiritual marriage serve at once a political function, explaining and thus ameliorating an otherwise disturbing disrupyion in lines of dynastic succession, and, moreover, underscoring the association of holiness with a monastic level of (sexual) purity. Elliott sees both new cults of virginal kings and emphasis on a celibate clergy as symptomatic of masculine efforts to monopolize chastity—previously a bastion of female virtuosity. The relocation of woman as ancillary, the appropriation of a previously female mode of heroism, she argues, enacts a crisis in the definition and delineation of masculinity.

This crisis in masculine identity, coincident with the marginalization of female heroic sanctity, is also evident, she argues, in the concatenation of competing sexual discourses which comprise the subject of Chapter Four, "The Conjugal Debt and Vows of Chastity: the Theoretical and Pastoral Discourse of the Higher and Later Middle Ages." This chapter comprises perhaps the most ambitious section of the book's complex argument, the exposition of a pivotal shift in the application of the transitional model of spiritual marriage. Elliott touches upon the invocation of a new literary-philosophical figure, the Goddess Nature, and constructions of the "natural" which (re)constructed heterosexuality, the production of offspring and the sociosexual hierarchy of marriage as part of divine plan. Female spiritual autonomy as exercised in spiritual marriage was, she argues, further assailed by new medical discourses which answered previous female supremacy in chastity with a theory of greater female sexual appetite, and by canon law's renewed definition of the cojugal debt, as well as by a weakening of emphasis on periods of ritual or penetential abstinence. All fostered an "opening up" of the female body; many discourses conspired, as it were, to rob wives of spiritual autonomy, as the husband's requiring his debt "naturally" superceded the wife's desire for chastity. Elliott analyzes this ideological climate change in representations and discussions of the marriage of Mary and Joseph; she notes how the Blessed Virgin became even more a figure of admiration rather than literal imitation. As patroness of chastity the Virgin fostered a celibate clergy; for women she modeled submission to both her "husbands". In response to such texts, Elliott argues, female spirituality became furtive; the confessional became a site of the subversion of male authority—or at least of the husband's authority in favor of that of the confessor—as women learned to treasure an inner life and intentionality, and equally to dissociate themselves from physical circumstances, particularly to render the marital debt while withholding desire and true consent. This perilous compromise preserved outward order at the cost of potential destruction of the mutual consent upon which true marriage was held to be based.

Such division of self, and the rebirth of constructions of spiritual marriage (of the transitional type) as central to female spirituality, become the subject of Chapter Five, "Spiritual Marriage and the Penetential Ethos," a chapter which will undoubtedly prove of great interest in ongoing discussions of late medieval spirituality and mysticism—especially female mysticism. Elliott touches upon many issues, including Caroline Walker Bynum's identification of characteristically female elements in lay spirituality, the appreciation of femininity as a liminal state for men, and late medieval anxiety about loosely or non-affiliated lay religious movements. Most explicitly, however, Elliott takes up the role if sexual abstinence in the penetential movement and a new female initiative in adopting transitional spiritual marriage as a compromise between desire of chastity and enforced marriage. She discusses how chastity as a reward for, not a form of, penetence reverses earlier models: whereas in the earlier church sexual abstinence was imposed upon penetents, later medieval women read sexual intercourse in marriage as the penance itself. Such a complex mix of subversion and submission, of exterior compliance and simultaneous eluding of patriarchal authority, needs and receives a non-simplistic analysis which takes into consideration the power of the male confessor over the female penitent, and the way female spiritual authority can be contained as well as fostered by the priest's sacerdotal power even more effectively than by a husband's.

Chapter Six, "Virgin Wives," picks up the history of the other, more ancient model, the never consummated, virginal marriage. Elliott suggests that its resurfacing among royal houses witnesses a deeply subversive denial of aristocratic duties toward family and lineage. She notes the marginalization inherent in its comparative rarity in canonization processes and hagiographies, despite its strong rhetorical support of virginity. She seeks a cause in virginity's potential for being a matrix for the production of insubordinate acts, a lack of submission evident in its denial of the most basic marital and dynastic duties. Its marginalization exposes the way the form of spiritual marriage most prominent in the early missionary church had been superceded by the transitional model—one step toward the disappearance of the institution in any form over the course of the next centuries.

Any brief outline necessarily belies the range and complexity of Elliott's intriguing and ambitious study. It is a thoroughly researched and carefully argued discussion of what she shows to be a socially and culturally significant phenomenon. Spiritual Marriage is an important work, one which offers a new and engagingly sophisticated treatment of subjects of interest to historians of gender and sexuality, of marriage and the family, of women and most specifically of women's spirituality. Dyan Elliott is to be commended especially for her close and insightful analysis of texts, and for her attention to both ideological and litery contexts. Her treatment of hagiographical texts—giving due appreciation of their didactic purpose and their ambiguous marginalization of the saint as both exception to and model of idealized behavior—is particularly worthy of praise. Whether or not one accepts every reading of text, every speculation, Elliott's is a convincing work, not only in the arguments it makes, but also in the number of questions it introduces into future critical conversation.