Three brides arrange themselves in a row. Eyes wide with terror, the first bows her head as meekly as a Madonna. The second, with demurely lowered gaze, bares all beneath a diaphanous veil, while the third stares out fiercely above a necklace of skulls. Waiflike nudes, their hair streaming down in rivers, sound the wedding bells.
The cover of Dyan Elliott's new book, with its alarming title and symbolist art by Jan Toorop, suggests The Rite of Spring sooner than monastic profession. But Elliott has always been concerned with the strange convergences that marked medieval women's gendered spirituality and sublimated sexuality. Having addressed chaste wedlock in her first book, Spiritual Marriage: Sexual Abstinence in Medieval Wedlock (Princeton, 1995), she here takes on eroticized virginity. From the day Tertullian first addressed consecrated virgins as "brides of Christ" until Johannes Nider began to obsess about witches coupling with Satan, the metaphor of the Virgin Bride haunted churchmen and deeply shaped the lives of religious women. Tracing her theme from the early Church to the onset of the witch trials, Elliott explores the tension between metaphor and embodiment--or more precisely, the natural tendency of a metaphor to embody itself within "an incarnational religion that aimed at transcendence" (7), yet found the body alluring and frightening in equal measure.
In her first chapter, "A Match Made in Heaven," Elliott posits the unlikeliness of the bridal metaphor. From the beginning, women had chosen virginity to escape marriage and its stigma of female inferiority. Only as dedicated virgins could they become symbolically male, living the angelic life while still in the flesh. Tertullian, with his misogyny and "irreducible contempt for marriage" (28), might seem the least plausible candidate to unite these Christian virgins with a divine Spouse. But fearing the angelic "sons of God" who, in an alternative myth of the Fall, had coupled with the "daughters of men" (Genesis 6:1-4), he resisted gnostic attempts to assimilate virgins to angels--a concern that led him in spite of himself to affirm the persistence of the body and, with it, sexual division in the afterlife. To remind uppity virgins that they were after all still women, Tertullian married them off to their heavenly Bridegroom--who, like earthly ones, preferred virginitas intacta and modest dress in his brides.
Chapter 2 looks at subsequent church fathers--Cyprian, Origen, Athanasius, Ambrose, and Augustine--as they struggled to situate Christ's brides somewhere between respectable matrons and unfallen angels. While the gnostic-minded Origen leaned toward the angelic, Ambrose more influentially "hijacked the symbols of carnal marriage" (47), introducing a public ceremony for the consecration of virgins--a rite created around the same time as the Christian liturgy of marriage itself. The fathers lost no opportunity to impose marital discipline: veiling, fasting, silence, abstinence from cosmetics, and even the threat of gynecological exams served to clip the wings of these would- be angels. Because the consummation of their marriage could only take place after death, Christ's brides remained in a permanently liminal state, never achieving the status of matrons and, with it, legal adulthood. Nevertheless, they gained increasing honor as embodied symbols of the Virgin Church. By the end of the patristic era, women themselves were enthusiastically embracing their status as holy brides.
The tenth-century Romano-German Pontifical provides our earliest full account of the virgin's sacred marriage, at which she received not only a veil from the bishop, but also a ring and a bridal wreath. While abstaining from "what is done in marriage," the rite declares, virgin brides love "what marriage signifies," that is, Christ's union with the Church. Through what Elliott calls a "bizarre liturgical swindle," carnal marriage was belittled as merely a "bad copy of the celestial mystery" (65). With the fall of the Roman Empire, wedlock had become less stable, even as virgins behind their cloistered walls became more vulnerable. Chapter 3, "The Barbarian Queen," explores reactions to these changed circumstances. Aldhelm, the seventh-century Anglo-Saxon bishop, chose to emphasize male virginity, perhaps because so many of the nuns in his diocese were repudiated wives. Queen Aethelthryth allegedly kept her virginity through two marriages before becoming the sainted abbess of Ely. In Gaul, the princess Radegund fled her forced marriage to Clothar I (who had slaughtered her family) to found the famous abbey of the Holy Cross at Poitiers--leaving her hagiographers to make what they could of her sexual history.
Chapters 4 and 5 consider the long twelfth century (1050-1200) as an "age of affect," characterized by a new emphasis on consent in marriage as well as religious life. But virginitas intacta retained its timeless allure; indeed, it was "imbued with the power to make time stand still" (106) and render virgin corpses incorruptible. Blessed with ample evidence, Elliott explores the problematics of consent in contested cases. When Mathilda of Scotland left Wilton Abbey, where she had stayed without taking final vows, to marry Henry I of England, she confronted St. Anselm with a choice between stern conscience and political expediency. Christina of Markyate, forcibly married by her parents, insisted that her childhood vow of virginity took precedence; she finally succeeded, with difficulty, in getting her marriage dissolved. But pride of place goes to Heloise. Passionately committed not only to Abelard but also to his ethics of pure intention, his mistress was nonetheless constrained into becoming first his wife, then a nun, both times against her will. In an interpretive tour de force, Elliott shows how Abelard imagined a "virtual Heloise" who had never been seduced and would have loved Christ as wholeheartedly as she loved himself--but that Heloise did not exist, so he had to invent her. Not surprisingly, in his writings for the Paraclete nuns he joined Aldhelm in decentering female virginity, specifying against all norms that the abbess should be a woman of experience.
Elliott's fifth chapter examines "heteroasceticism," a term that harks back to Jo Ann McNamara's "syneisaktism"--both denoting the charged but chaste erotic relationships formed by devout women and their confessors. Examples abound: the hagiographer Goscelin and the nun Eve of Wilton; Peter Damian and Empress Agnes; Christina of Markyate and her beloved abbot, Geoffrey of St. Albans. Ermengard of Brittany, who fled to Fontevrault between her troubled marriages, there entered into an equally troubled relationship with Robert of Arbrissel. "Transference and countertransference" (168), Elliott suggests, might help us understand why Robert insisted on sleeping (chastely) with the women in his care, and why he and other spiritual directors came to function as both surrogate husbands and stand-ins for the celestial bridegroom. "This rarefied transubstantiation" (171) gave priests extraordinary emotional power over their female charges, at the very time that Bernard of Clairvaux's reading of the Song of Songs was extending the possibility of spiritual brideship far beyond the ranks of consecrated virgins.
Elliott begins Chapter 6, "The Eroticized Bride of Hagiography," by noting that sex was as ubiquitous in medieval religious culture as it is in our own mass media. Whatever Bernard's intentions, by the thirteenth century the persona of the bride was available not only to monks and nuns, but to beguines and even lay women. Among the virtuosi of this new erotic spirituality, Elliott considers the two Mechthilds, Gertrude of Helfta, Mary of Oignies, and the hagiographic subjects of Thomas of Cantimpré. While Thomas is usually seen as a promoter of female spirituality, Elliott focuses on his late Book of Bees, a compendium of exempla for preachers, which reveals a deep vein of suspicion and fear. Although Thomas wrote about virgins, the later Middle Ages produced an array of "somatic brides" with a past, like the Italian widow Humiliana of Cerchi and the prolific maternal saints: Angela of Foligno, Bridget of Sweden, Dorothea of Montau, Margery Kempe. But sanctity after marriage was not easy: Odilia of Liège spent her widowhood mourning not her husband, but her lost virginity. Even more hapless was Ermine of Reims, whose visions display "an unprecedented degree of demon-ridden eroticism" (232). Sex-crazed demons, taking the form of beasts or even saints, tormented this widow to the point of madness, leaving no place in body or soul for mystical union.
Ermine's torments anticipate Chapter 7, "Descent into Hell," which gives the book its narrative drive. For if mystical marriage was on the rise, so was its diabolical parody: the fallen sons of God sought once again to debauch the daughters of men. From the faery mistresses of folklore to the incubi and succubi of clerical discourse, demon lovers were suddenly everywhere--in Arthurian romance, in saints' lives, in anguished treatises on discernment. Elliott highlights the writings of two influential clerics, Jean Gerson and Johannes Nider. Far from being knee-jerk misogynists, both tried to support lay women's spirituality, yet warned insistently against the devil's lust for their bodies and cunning attacks on their souls. In tale after cautionary tale, "experts looked on helplessly as the self-styled, mystical brides of Christ, locked in erotic overdrive, veered into the diabolical ditch" (264). The chapter hastens relentlessly on to the early witch trials, focusing on the motif of ritual intercourse with Satan--a myth derived less from popular beliefs than from systematic parody of the divine nuptials, celebrated in the consecration of virgins and anticipated in mystic visions.
Elliott's story is a dark one, but she writes with wit and flair. Though marred by poor copyediting, The Bride of Christ is a deeply compelling book. Its argument finally turns on an "implacable … law of gravity" (282): any metaphor cultivated as long and as ardently as that of the mystical marriage is bound to take flesh, in this case disastrously. Hence, while the demon-haunted Thomas of Cantimpré proves a dangerous ally to women, Gerson ironically turns out to be a sympathetic foe. Realistically wary of unbridled imagination, he saw the looming danger and tried to avert it, but in vain: "Mystics and theologians alike had carefully prepared the marriage bed and were now compelled to lie in it. The groom was not the one they had hoped for; it was the one they had always feared" (279).