Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
The Bride of Christ Goes to Hell

The Bride of Christ Goes to Hell: Metaphor and Embodiment in the Lives of Pious Women, 200-1500

Dyan Elliott
Copyright Date: 2012
Pages: 480
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt3fhpmr
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    The Bride of Christ Goes to Hell
    Book Description:

    The early Christian writer Tertullian first applied the epithet "bride of Christ" to the uppity virgins of Carthage as a means of enforcing female obedience. Henceforth, the virgin as Christ's spouse was expected to manifest matronly modesty and due submission, hobbling virginity's ancient capacity to destabilize gender roles. In the early Middle Ages, the focus on virginity and the attendant anxiety over its possible loss reinforced the emphasis on claustration in female religious communities, while also profoundly disparaging the nonvirginal members of a given community. With the rising importance of intentionality in determining a person's spiritual profile in the high Middle Ages, the title of bride could be applied and appropriated to laywomen who were nonvirgins as well. Such instances of democratization coincided with the rise of bridal mysticism and a progressive somatization of female spirituality. These factors helped cultivate an increasingly literal and eroticized discourse: women began to undergo mystical enactments of their union with Christ, including ecstatic consummations and vivid phantom pregnancies. Female mystics also became increasingly intimate with their confessors and other clerical confidants, who were sometimes represented as stand-ins for the celestial bridegroom. The dramatic merging of the spiritual and physical in female expressions of religiosity made church authorities fearful, an anxiety that would coalesce around the figure of the witch and her carnal induction into the Sabbath.

    eISBN: 978-0-8122-0693-7
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[viii])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [ix]-[x])
  3. Introduction
    (pp. 1-8)

    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...

  4. CHAPTER 1 A Match Made in Heaven: The Bride in the Early Church
    (pp. 9-29)

    The association between women and consecrated virginity is an ancient one. Moreover, the evidence suggests that women were already drawn to the condition of lifelong virginity, perhaps in part for some of the practical advantages it conferred, without the kind of patriarchal prodding we will witness in the fourth century. But there is little in scripture to foster the exaltation of the virginal state. Paul, who is usually singled out as the original advocate for celibacy, presents the unmarried as better positioned for serving God (1 Cor. 7.32). His reasons are practical: the time was short and people should be...

  5. CHAPTER 2 The Church Fathers and the Embodied Bride
    (pp. 30-62)

    If Tertullian had humbled virgins by marrying them to Christ, the subsequent tradition would attempt to transform sponsa Christi into a title of supreme honor, concealing the defeat at the heart of this persona. Occasionally we catch a glimpse of the process of metamorphosis. The anonymous continuator of Perpetua’s journal describes her entrance into the amphitheatre: “Perpetua followed behind, with a clear gait as a matron of Christ, beloved of God.”¹ As Thomas Heffernan points out, this is the first occurrence of Christ as the celestial bridegroom to appear in Christian hagiography.² Its application to Perpetua is nevertheless tinged with...

  6. CHAPTER 3 The Barbarian Queen
    (pp. 63-105)

    Although perhaps ironic, and from some perspectives even tragic, the progressively embodied nature of female spirituality is hardly surprising: the cultural laws of gravity favoring virginity were strong, making it virtually impossible for the Latin fathers to set aside their preoccupation with physical intactness. It was part of the classical heritage. The hearth of Rome was presided over by Vestal virgins. Any sexual lapse on the part of a Vestal was considered a capital offense, which from the fifth century BCE meant being buried alive.¹ Plutarch remarks on how “the Romans . . . give their maidens in marriage when...

  7. CHAPTER 4 An Age of Affect, 1050–1200 (1): Consensuality and Vocation
    (pp. 106-149)

    The twelfth century was a time of immense social and cultural change—a period of turmoil during which society took comfort in the belief in a substratum of unchanging values.

    Virginity was certainly one of these values, and its allure was augmented by a redoubling effect: it was not only deemed a timeless value in its own right but was further imbued with the power to make time stand still. Nowhere is the dual capacity clearer than in the hagiographies of Goscelin of St. Bertin—a Norman monk who arrived in England as part of an episcopal entourage toward the...

  8. CHAPTER 5 An Age of Affect, 1050–1200 (2): The Conjugal Reflex
    (pp. 150-173)

    The saga of Abelard and Heloise is every bit as extraordinary as the lovers themselves. Nevertheless, their relationship can in many ways be taken as representative—expressive of a new emphasis on interpersonal relations and the life of the emotions that characterized this period. In a religious context, this new relational affect could manifest itself in a number of ways. For instance, John Boswell identified the triumphant flowering of a gay subculture among the clergy, while Brian McGuire and others have pointed to the emphasis on spiritual friendship that was awakening in monastic communities. The devotion to Christ’s passion and...

  9. CHAPTER 6 The Eroticized Bride of Hagiography
    (pp. 174-232)

    Few people question the ubiquity of sex in our own culture, whether this term is understood implicitly or explicitly. Sex is as invasive as kudzu: its imagery dominates every medium and art form. It is used to sell just about anything. Distaste over the omnipresence of sex in advertising unites religious conservatives and feminists alike.

    A person situated in Latin Christendom in the high Middle Ages might well have considered their own society in a similar light. For instance, the literary discourse of courtly love, however refined, was ultimately concerned with either gaining or losing the sexual favors of the...

  10. CHAPTER 7 Descent into Hell
    (pp. 233-279)

    Once upon a time there were five widows: Bridget of Sweden, Margery Kempe, Dorothea of Montau, Odilia of Liège, and Ermine of Reims. Three of them were lucky. Bridget of Sweden was engaged to Christ—an arrangement that brought her both personal satisfaction and power. Margery also prospered in her own way: she was engaged to the son, but married his father. Dorothea enjoyed parallel prestige: she was not just destined to become the bride, but the wife of the Son of God. The marriage was consummated, and Dorothea proved remarkably fecund. But the other two widows did not fare...

  11. Conclusion
    (pp. 280-286)

    This study is framed by two alarming instances of credulity. Early in the third century, Tertullian married the consecrated virgins of Carthage to Christ out of the conviction that the antediluvian flood of biblical lore was visited by God as punishment for miscegenation between the angelic and human races. Fearing that history would repeat itself, he insisted that the virgins remove any possible temptation they might provide for angels by covering their heads in the manner of matrons, arguing that they were, after all, married to Christ. Yet the horrible rendezvous between women and angels was not averted—merely postponed....

  12. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. 287-292)
  13. NOTES
    (pp. 293-408)
  14. BIBLIOGRAPHY
    (pp. 409-450)
  15. INDEX
    (pp. 451-464)
  16. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
    (pp. 465-466)