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Fallen Bodies

Pollution, Sexuality, and Demonology in the Middle Ages

By Dyan Elliott

Publication Year: 1999

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.

Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press


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pp. vii


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pp. ix-x


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pp. xi-xii

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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...

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1. Pollution, Illusion, and Masculine Disarray: Nocturnal Emissions and the Sexuality of the Clergy

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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...

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2. From Sexual Fantasy to Demonic Defloration: The Libidinous Female in the Later Middle Ages

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pp. 35-60

FROM THE TIME OE 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...

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3. Sex in Holy Places: An Exploration of a Medieval Anxiety

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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...

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4. The Priest's Wife: Female Erasure and the Gregorian Reform

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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...

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5. Avatars of the Priest's Wife: The Return of the Repressed

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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...

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6. On Angelic Disembodiment and the Incredible Purity of Demons

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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...

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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...


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pp. 165-266


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pp. 267-288


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pp. 289-299

E-ISBN-13: 9780812200737
Print-ISBN-13: 9780812216653

Page Count: 312
Publication Year: 1999