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  • Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door: Sexual Renunciation, Eschatology, and Liminality in Ælfric’s Lives of the Virgin Spouses
  • Alison Gulley

At the beginning of Ælfric’s Passio of Saint Julian and his wife Basilissa, the married couple receive a visit from Christ in the marital bed. Basilissa, in agreement with her new husband, has just confirmed her desire “on clænum mægðhade þurhwunian” (to continue in pure virginity), at which point

[Astyrede] þæt brydbed and beorht leoht þær scean, and Crist wearð gesewen mid scinendum werode and his modur Maria mid hyre mædenlicum heape. Crist clypode þa to ðam clænan cnihte .and cwæð þæt he hæfde oferswiðod woruldlice gælsan and þone gramlican feond. Of Marian werode wæs þus gelypod, “Eadig eart þu Basilissa for þan þe þu gebygdest þin mod to halwendum mynegungum and middaneardlice swæsnysse mid ealle forsihst and þe sylfe gearcost to wuldre.”

(The marriage-bed shook and a bright light shone there, and Christ with a shining host and his mother Mary with her company of virgins were visible. Christ then called out to the chaste young man and said that he had defeated earthly pleasures and the fierce enemy. From Mary’s host it was thus declared, “Blessed are you Basilissa because you turned your mind to salutary exhortations and entirely despise the blandishment of the world and prepared yourself for glory.”)1

Several points are immediately evident in this episode. First, paradoxically, is that the glorification of sexual renunciation occurs on the wedding night [End Page 141] in the bedroom, displacing the expected sexual consummation and fulfilment and, thus, subsequent procreation. Furthermore, sexual renunciation and virginity are directly correlated with Christian contempt for the world and, as such, serve as proper preparation for the next, eternal world.

Significantly, the paradox of virginity within marriage is just one of the many that can be found in hagiography, the central one being that stories grounded in the physicality of saints—with their bodies the locus of abnegation and often the site of torture, thereby focusing audience attention on the carnal—are at heart really about the spiritual. The subjects of hagiography are situated at the nexus of body and soul and, as in these examples, on the threshold between earth and heaven. The Virgin Mary is a prime example: she is dead but alive, in heaven but on earth, and, most relevant in these vitae of Virgin Spouses, a figure who is at once mother and wife and yet a virgin. Victor Turner calls such figures “liminal personae,” that is “threshold people,” whom he describes as “necessarily ambiguous, since this condition and these persons elude or slip through the network of classifications that normally locate states and positions in cultural space. Liminal entities are neither here nor there; they are betwixt and between the positions assigned and arrayed by law, custom, convention, and ceremonial.”2

In his study of tribal rites of passage, Turner identifies a set of binaries that initiates must traverse in order to transition from childhood to full membership in the community, passing through a liminal phase into the desired status system. While in the transitional phase, initiates exhibit qualities such as sexual continence, humility, and acceptance of pain and suffering. Set against these are sexuality, just pride of place, and avoidance of pain and suffering.3 The subjects of Virgin Spouses vitae, as initiates to Christianity and eventual sanctity, are in the process of moving from the secular world to the desired status of the heavenly world. However, as Turner notes, “the reader will have noticed immediately that . . . properties [in the transitional category] constitute what we think of as characteristics of the religious life in the Christian tradition.”4 He theorizes that “with the increasing specialization of society and culture . . . what was in tribal culture principally a set of transitional qualities ‘betwixt and between’ defined states of culture and society has become itself an institutionalized space.”5 In Christian belief, and as is clear in the Lives of the Virgin Spouses, the attributes of transition and of desired status are the same, [End Page 142] so that, as Turid Karlsen Seim explains, “The ascetics...


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