Fallen Bodies

Fallen Bodies: Pollution, Sexuality, and Demonology in the Middle Ages

Dyan Elliott
Copyright Date: 1999
Pages: 312
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Fallen Bodies
    Book Description:

    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.

    eISBN: 978-0-8122-0073-7
    Subjects: Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Abbreviations
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-13)

    This book is purposefully situated on slippery and shifting terrain. Its central concerns are twofold. First, it attempts to reveal aspects of the clerical intelligentsia's reinterpretation of inherited sexual and religious traditions within the altered conditions of the high and later Middle Ages. Out of necessary deference to tradition, this reinterpretative effort frequently employed obfuscation, subterfuge, and disavowal. Second, the work as a whole suggests various forms of sullen self-maintenance by which the past resisted eradication and even reasserted itself within the very discourses intended to effect its suppression. Certain discursive zones attract attention to themselves by their extremes of...

  6. 1 Pollution, Illusion, and Masculine Disarray: Nocturnal Emissions and the Sexuality of the Clergy
    (pp. 14-34)

    In his Moralia Gregory the Great (d. 604) discusses some of the more insidious ways in which the devil afflicts God’s holy people. Although making little headway during their waking hours, the devil is nevertheless permitted to fill the minds of the saints with filthy thoughts in sleep. But Gregory also prescribes a remedy, one that precociously anticipates Freud’s theory of sublimation. A person must overcome these anxieties by raising the mind to higher things. Thus he glosses the biblical verse “So that my soul rather chooseth hanging and my bones death” (Job 7.15):

    What is designated by the soul...

  7. 2 From Sexual Fantasy to Demonic Defloration: The Libidinous Female in the Later Middle Ages
    (pp. 35-60)

    From the time of Augustine, the genitals’ noncompliance with the will was the most compelling example of the postlapsarian body’s revolt against reason.¹ This paradigm of unruliness was supposed to pertain to both sexes. But since Augustine’s observations were apparently based on the genitals’ irrational movements, and were therefore more evocative of phallic folly, the female instance was very much at the margins of his concerns. The treatment of nocturnal emissions is a case in point. Although theoreticians such as Albert the Great (d. 1280) granted that both women and men had night pollutions, female emissions never received the same...

  8. 3 Sex in Holy Places: An Exploration of a Medieval Anxiety
    (pp. 61-80)

    Hildegard’s prophetic denunciation of sacrilegious pollution is premised on a set of conventional assumptions. Pollution prohibitions in the Christian tradition were of sufficient antiquity to provide the kind of illusory stability essential to religious belief structures. Yet the expression and meaning of a particular anxiety still remained sensitive to historical contingency. This chapter examines a case in point.

    A rather startling story enjoyed popularity across all genres of medieval didactic literature in the high and later Middle Ages. A man and a woman have intercourse in a holy precinct: be it a church, a monastery, a cemetery, or near a...

  9. 4 The Priest’s Wife: Female Erasure and the Gregorian Reform
    (pp. 81-106)

    In the eleventh century, the western clergy, Europe’s intellectual elite, reinvented itself—an imaginative act necessarily accompanied by efforts to eradicate evidence of past identity. Elites are wont to do this, and, since they command the communicative media with representational authority, they generally succeed. Reinvention is a faltering process, and the result is never seamless. There are always discontinuities, fissures, awkward persistences — historical anomalies that mark the difference between the official story and other rejected versions of the past. The eleventh century, particularly the period from midcentury onward known as the Gregorian Reform, is illustrative of this process in that...

  10. 5 Avatars of the Priest’s Wife: The Return of the Repressed
    (pp. 107-126)

    Efforts to consolidate clerical chastity, hence ensuring sacramental efficacy, moved well beyond the rhetorical strategies of eleventh-century polemicists. Devotional beliefs, pious practices, and theological innovations all united in augmenting the awesomeness of the Eucharist against the necessary backdrop of a polluting presence. At the very heart of these interlocking discourses was the preoccupation with the material presence of Christ in the sacrament of the altar. Attendant upon and, in fact, intrinsic to this sacramental focus was the rise of the cult of the Virgin Mary. Clearly, an emphasis on the mother’s physicality would sustain the claims for the son’s material...

  11. 6 On Angelic Disembodiment and the Incredible Purity of Demons
    (pp. 127-156)

    So spoke the Lord to the people of Israel, articulating a series of injunctions and prohibitions designed to distinguish the Jews, hallowed and set apart by their purity, from the other depraved people of the world. The twelfth-century Glossa ordinaria explains just exactly who constitutes these other nations by glossing them as follows:

    Demons: who on account of their multitude arc called all the nations. Who rejoice in every sin: but especially in fornication and idolatry: because in these sins both the body and the soul are stained and the entire person which is calles the land. But God visited...

  12. Afterword
    (pp. 157-164)

    This rambunctious dialogue is taken from a formulary attached to Robert of Flamborough’s early thirteenth-century Penitential Book — an appendix to the main body of the work that was perhaps written by Robert himself. A formulary is basically a medieval “how to” manual. The one in question attempts to furnish some guidelines for a priest hearing confession. Bent on maximum efficiency, the author has compressed as many sins of the flesh as possible into his model interrogatory. In keeping with the efficiency paradigm, the status of the fictional penitent shifts to suit the sin in question. Thus when asked about incestuous...

  13. Notes
    (pp. 165-266)
  14. Bibliography
    (pp. 267-288)
  15. Index
    (pp. 289-300)