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The Bride of Christ Goes to Hell

Metaphor and Embodiment in the Lives of Pious Women, 200-1500

By Dyan Elliott

Publication Year: 2012

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.

Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press

Title Page

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Copyright Page

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Table of Contents

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pp. ix

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pp. 1-7

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...

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Chapter 1: A Match Made in Heaven: The Bride in the Early Church

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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...

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Chapter 2: The Church Fathers and the Embodied Bride

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pp. 30-61

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...

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Chapter 3: The Barbarian Queen

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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....

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Chapter 4: An Age of Affect, 1050–1200 (1): Consensuality and Vocation

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pp. 106-149

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...

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Chapter 5: An Age of Affect, 1050–1200 (2): The Conjugal Reflex

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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...

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Chapter 6: The Eroticized Bride of Hagiography

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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....

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Chapter 7: Descent into Hell

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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...

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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...

List of Abbreviations

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pp. 287-291


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pp. 293-408


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pp. 409-450


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pp. 451-464

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pp. 465-477

Acknowledgments are the hardest part of a book. When I resolve at the outset not to sound like one of those dopes at the Academy Awards, weeping tears of joy and dispensing sugary platitudes from the stage, I seem to end up sounding much worse. Certain perfunctory acknowledgments don’t present a problem....

E-ISBN-13: 9780812206937
Print-ISBN-13: 9780812243581

Page Count: 472
Publication Year: 2012