Skip to content
IUScholarWorks Journals
21.04.23 Engh (ed.), The Symbolism of Marriage in Early Christianity and the Latin Middle Ages

The Medieval Review

21.04.23 Engh (ed.), The Symbolism of Marriage in Early Christianity and the Latin Middle Ages


The introduction to this important book points to what cognitive sciences can tell historians about how symbolism works. The exposition of "Conceptual Metaphor Theory" and "Blending Theory" (the preferred version of the co-author of the introduction, Mark Turner) deserves close attention from both historians and literary scholars. The potential for interdisciplinary insight is exciting and it may be hoped that much more research will follow along the path Engh has cut. Most of the contributions do indeed use the conceptual framework outlined in the introduction.

It is followed by a wide-ranging essay on conjugal and nuptial symbolism in medieval Christian thought by Philip Reynolds, a leader in this field. His chapter begins with a sophisticated analysis of the range of medieval concepts roughly equivalent to modern ideas of symbolism. He draws attention to the absence of one-to-one correlations between medieval and modern vocabulary in this area. These pages should be required reading for scholars interested medieval, and indeed also modern, ideas about representation, similarity, analogy, metaphor, and resemblance. Anyone wanting to understand medieval sacramental theology generally, not just ideas about marriage, needs to absorb Reynolds's exposition. The key feature of medieval ideas is the notion of representation as intended by God.

Turning to the specific case of nuptial and marriage symbolism, Reynolds starts with the Song of Songs, emphasizing that medieval exegetes "did not look for historical veracity" in it. He engages with and argues against Jean Leclercq's thesis that monastic exegesis of the Song of Songs was an implicit exaltation of the value of marriage as "great and beautiful." Reynolds coins the phrase "inverse analogy" to make his point, which deserves serious consideration. (Note though that there is other evidence that Bernard of Clairvaux did in fact endorse marriage, and note the tension with Alessandro Scafi's interpretation.) Next, moving on to the conjugal system, Reynolds explores the link between it and indissolubility, notably in Innocent III's support for Ingeborg of Denmark's marriage and in the writings of Aquinas. The chapter continues on to give an account of the crystallization of sacramental theology in the twelfth century and marriage's place in this, and of the further idea, which became standard in the thirteenth century, that marriage, like the other sacraments, conferred grace. Reynolds ends with some fascinating paragraphs on the sixteenth century.

The focus is on New Testament texts about marriage in the contribution by Anna Rebecca Solevag, a New Testament theologian. She distinguishes between wedding feast passages, which are primarily Christological and look towards the end of the world, and passages about marriage as a state rather than an event, in which the human structure is mapped on to the organisation of the Church. With time, the two kinds of symbolism became blended. The metaphorical framework of Christ's conjugal relation with the Church affects practical Pauline instructions to husbands and wives, and this "overlap between theologically charged marriage metaphors and exhortations about marriage and family life was transmitted, along with the biblical canon, to patristic writers and subsequently to medieval exegetes, clerics and canonists who proceeded to elaborate and expand on their ideological, social, legal, and ecclesiastical inferences" (107). She draws on New Testament scholarship (concept of kyriarchy, "interlocking, hierarchically ordered structures of discrimination," 92, quoting Schüssler Fiorenza), and Conceptual Metaphor Theory, emphasizing the dependence of metaphor on its social and cultural context.

Next, David Hunter traces the genesis of the rule that clerics can only get married once, and to a virgin. Late Antiquity is the setting, so he is talking about a married clergy. After reaching the rank of deacon a cleric and his wife were obliged to abstain from sex, according to Western Church rules, but were not supposed to separate. The rule against second marriage, and also a new obligation to have their marriage blessed, enhanced the cultural prestige of both the clerical and the married state. By the mid-fifth century, the rule had acquired a symbolic rationale: the marriage of one to one symbolised the union of Christ and the Church.

Hunter's most important contribution is to trace the genesis of these ideas and their early development. A key role was played by Origen, in the third century. He introduced the symbolic rationale. At the end of the fourth century, in the text regarded by most scholars as the first decretal, Pope Siricius declared that the digamy prohibition was a legal obligation. Augustine of Hippo took the next step by integrating bigamia into his argument about the symbolism of marriage as the basis of indissolubility. His ideas are much more clearly developed than Origen's and set the pattern for future centuries. Then Leo I in the mid-fifth century confirmed that the rule--the ban on a priest marrying a second time or marrying a widow--had a symbolic link with the marriage of Christ and the Church. In the passage quoted Leo talks about bishops or priests, but the rule could be applied to other clerics also. The rule was in fact understood more broadly than the literal sense of the scriptural texts cited could really bear. In Hunter's chapter Tertullian figures as a forerunner: he linked once-only marriage with the priesthood, though he was against remarriage generally.

Tertullian is also an innovator in Karl Shuve's chapter on virgins as brides of Christ. Shuve is interested in the origins of this characterisation of virgins but not in proving that Tertullian started the tradition. Instead, he uses Tertullian's writings as a source for a debate in the Carthage c. 200 C.E. about the use of the veil in prayer. Some Christians in Carthage apparently believed that virgins were exempt from the obligation to wear it, and should not do so because it would give the impression that they were married. Tertullian's riposte was that they were indeed married--to Christ.

The thesis of the well-known canon law historian Abigail Firey's chapter is that in late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages the veil had many meanings, of which the "bride of Christ" idea was by no means to the fore, at least until the end of the Carolingian period. In Carolingian times it could be a symbol of female authority but also of female subordination. She ends with the interesting general reflection that "the polysemic nature of symbolism can reduce conflict without requiring substantial change in the positions of the opposed parties" (172).

Though the book is about Western marriage symbolism, Alessandro Scafi gives it an extra dimension by discussing Western views of Islamic sexual imagery--the idea attributed to Islam that heaven would include the attentions of lovely ladies. Scafi uses the topic uncover the logic of Western sexual symbolism. He postulates a connection between the Christian critiques of Islamic ideas and their own symbolism. Christian writers thought that their use of sexual imagery was quite different because it was about marriage and "it was precisely because human marriage was closely associated with the divine mystery of God's love for humankind that sexuality within a Christian union could be understood as a holy sign of higher realities. ...the physical union of a man and a women that takes place after marriage was an actual embodiment of the sacred union between Christ and the Church" (181). Scafi recognizes that Islamic thinkers like Avicenna thought that the sensual paradise was an allegory; his argument is that the Christian view, as evidenced by understanding of the Song of Songs, went beyond allegory: he doubts if it was an accident that commentaries on the Song of Songs proliferated when the sacramental theology of marriage was being worked out. He is aware of the tension between his interpretation and that of Philip Reynolds, in this volume, and brings counter-evidence against his "inverse analogy" argument. Such internal debates are a strength of Engh's volume.

Martha Newman discusses the imagery of Engelhard of Langheim in messages sent to nuns. The chapter anticipates her book on the subject. She argues that Engelhard's marital imagery involves real gender asymmetry, but that his maternal imagery provided metaphors transcending the gender of the audience. Her comments are framed by analysis of the apse mosaic of Santa Maria in Trastevere.

The mosaic in question is the subject of Lasse Hodne's contribution. A survey of the disagreements among scholars about the meaning of this intensely studied mosaic is followed by arguments for seeing it as part of a cycle, and understanding it as a Coronation of the Virgin image, with the preceding Assumption indicated by the embrace. Hodne links the emergence of the Coronation theme around this time with the new emphasis on celibacy and twelfth-century reinterpretations of the Song of Songs. Celibate monks and priests were seen as brides of Christ. The Coronation motif expressed the union between Christ and humanity, represented by Mary. Mary's chastity made her a model for celibate priesthood.

In a succinct synthesis, Maria Pavón Ramirez gives a tour d'horizon of conjugal and nuptial imagery in illuminated manuscripts. In illustrations of Song of Songs manuscripts the images nudge interpretation of the text towards a more passionate view of marriage as symbol of Christ's union with the Church. A strength of the chapter is the range of genres covered: in addition to Bibles, there are liturgical manuscripts and legal manuscripts, Civil Law as well as Canon Law.

Liturgical sources are examined by Sebastián Salvadó, contributing to a notable recent increase in attention to medieval liturgy in a broad religious and cultural context. He has sought out marriage symbolism in eight treatises on the liturgy, for instance a passage from the Gemma animae of Honorius Augustodunensis (note that it is not safe to translate this as "Autun") in which "marriage is used as a master narrative to frame the liturgical feasts" (291).

The volume editor's essay on Innocent III is a master class in the analysis of symbolic language. She starts with the Gregorian Reform idea of the bishop as bridegroom of his see, and with Bernard of Clairvaux who reclassified the pope as "friend of the bridegroom" of the Church, Christ. Then she shows how Innocent manages to spin the symbolism so that the pope becomes both husband and father of the Church, thus using "marriage to anchor papal power" (314). While he uses a lot of marriage canon law imagery, it is to point out how different the papal marriage is from carnal marriage. Engh coins the word "disanalogies." Interestingly, she points out and partly distances herself from modern historiography's obsession with discourse as just veiled power.

Line Engh's explication of Innocent III's marriage symbolism shows how many valences it could possess. There is in fact a hierarchy of marriage symbolisms, some fleeting and rhetorically opportunistic, others influential on practice without being absolutes--and then there is the special case of the symbolism of a consummated marriage between baptised people. Wolfgang Mueller's "Do not mind if I am wrong" paper should perhaps show a greater appreciation of this hierarchy--the bishop's marriage to his Church, notably, was progressively moved down the hierarchy as it became increasingly acceptable for bishops to change sees--not a controversial point.

Müller's paper is a frontal attack on this reviewer's argument in Medieval Marriage: Symbolism and Society ("fundamental challenge to d'Avray's assertions" (331)). Any argument benefits from a "Sed contra..." from such an able and learned scholar. Some of the objections are not objections. There is no dispute that marriage symbolism did not go together with indissolubility when the parties were not baptised. Even here, though, symbolism is obliquely involved. Innocent III distinguishes between indissoluble marriage between Christians which is ratum, ratified, and a sacrament of the faith, sacramentum fidei, on the one hand, and, on the other, a marriage between non-Christians, which is a marriage but not ratum. [1] The word ratum is linked with sacramentum. At any time in its Christian history the concept of sacramentum involved symbolism. Innocent III and his readers could not fail to call to mind the association of husband and wife as one flesh with "a great sacramentum...in Christ and in the Church" (Ephesians 5: 31-32). Again, the symbolic objections to bigamia (double marriages of clerics or their wives), though higher up the symbolic hierarchy than the bishop's marriage to his Church, and appealing perhaps precisely because it encapsulated marriage symbolism, did not amount to an absolute value. (Mueller has written an important article about this elsewhere). In this chapter, Müller's core argument though is that MMSS is too narrowly focussed on papal sources to notice that canon law commentaries by Huguccio and Bernard of Parma take a different view: but the canon law tradition on this precise issue was closely studied long ago by Thomas Rincon, El Matrimonio Misterio y Signo, Siglos IX-XIII (Pamplona, 1971). There was and should be no need to duplicate Rincón's work, but it shows that Müller misconstrues the admittedly highly compressed passages he quotes. Anyone who reads Rincon's thorough explications of the text of Huguccio (pp 237-243) and Bernard of Parma (pp. 380-383 375-380) will see that the theories of these canonists do not undermine the argument of MMSS. In the passage of Huguccio which Müller transcribes (345-346) and discusses (334-335) the canonist is explaining in symbolic terms why candidates for the priesthood (actually, here, for the episcopate) don't have to be virgins while their wives do; he is arguing that they don't have to have been married at all (the common situation in his day): this is against the idea that an unmarried cleric could not signify Christ's union with the unitas fidelium. Huguccio certainly wants to hold on to Augustine's symbolic rationale for the bigamia prohibition. As Müller anyway recognizes at the start of his essay, and as Hunter shows in this volume, and as MMSS adumbrates, the symbolic rationale for the bigamia rule goes back to Antiquity. Then: far from Bernard of Parma contradicting Innocent III (an unlikely scenario anyway) Rincón writes that ''En líneas generales hay una concordancia sustancial con el pensamiento del Pontifice" (380). Bernard is not refuting Innocent III but drawing out an idea which the latter does not quite make explicit, which is that a priest is a symbol of Christ's marriage to the Church, and does not have to have been married even once for that symbolism to work. Rincón's seminal work covers the canon legal and theological theories, but stays on the level of ideas. Müller puts Innocent III more or less on a level with canon law commentators, but Innocent matters more because he affected action: (a) marriage symbolism as the rationale of indissolubility clearly mattered greatly to him (see Reynolds in the volume, l73, and MMSS, 101 n. 89; cf. d'Avray, Papacy, Monarchy and Marriage,Cambridge 2019, 75-76, 80-85), and (b) legal indissolubility became a social reality as a result of his striking refusal to annul royal marriages and his reform of marriage law--turning points.

Müller's chapter provides spirited and erudite finale to a book packed with ideas and empirical findings, which should stimulate much more research in the same spirit.

--------

Notes:

1. Decretals of Gregory IX, in Corpus iuris canonici, vol. 2, ed. Friedberg, 4.19.7, cols. 722-723.