Medieval clerics believed that original sin had rendered their
"fallen bodies" vulnerable to corrupting impulses-particularly
those of a sexual nature. They feared that their corporeal frailty
left them susceptible to demonic forces bent on penetrating and
polluting their bodies and souls.
Drawing on a variety of canonical and other sources, Fallen
Bodies examines a wide-ranging set of issues generated by
fears of pollution, sexuality, and demonology. To maintain their
purity, celibate clerics combated the stain of nocturnal emissions;
married clerics expelled their wives onto the streets and out of
the historical record; an exemplum depicting a married couple
having sex in church was told and retold; and the specter of the
demonic lover further stigmatized women's sexuality. Over time, the
clergy's conceptions of womanhood became radically polarized: the
Virgin Mary was accorded ever greater honor, while real, corporeal
women were progressively denigrated. When church doctrine
definitively denied the physicality of demons, the female body
remained as the prime material presence of sin.
Dyan Elliott contends that the Western clergy's efforts to contain
sexual instincts-and often the very thought and image of
woman-precipitated uncanny returns of the repressed. She shows how
this dynamic ultimately resulted in the progressive conflation of
the female and the demonic, setting the stage for the future
persecution of witches.
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