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Sex in Holy Places: An Exploration of a Medieval Anxiety Dyan Elliott But those who forget their fear of me and in insane wickedness destroy the temples dedicated in My name, or defile that dedication originated by Jacob by polluting holy places with murderous blood or the impure seed of adultery or fornication ... O woe to those wretches.1 Hildegard of Bingen'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 paper 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 sainf s shrine. As punishment for this inappropriate act, the couple is miraculously stuck together, only to be discovered in this humiliating predicament by a wondering populace, whose reaction ranges from high hilarity to deep disgust. They are eventually released by the united prayers of the community. This graphic depiction of what specialists call penis captious or vaginismus (depending on which set of genitals is preferred as the locus of the drama) is fabricated from a tissue of anxieties.2 When construed primarily as an expression of gynephobia with the female genitalia as the singular site of "danger," the tale can take its place alongside more celebrated motifs like the vagina dentata? Nor does the adhesive climax of this particular narrative fail to achieve a transhistorical and transcultural ubiquity. Medical historians have demonstrated the breadth of its dissemination;4 when I first heard a version of this story it was making the rounds of préadolescent circles as an urban legend. In this latter context, the tale functioned as a generalized warning against the dangers of sex.5 Yet the historical longevity of this particular motif ought not to beguile us into regarding it as either static in form or meaning. The characteristic medieval rendering of the story focuses on consecrated soil as the locus of © 1994 Journal of Women-s History, Vol 6 No. 3 (Fall) 1994 Dyan Eluott 7 transgression and danger. As such, it is specific and timely with respect to origins, meaning, and application, as are its particular variants. The earliest versions of this topos surfaced around 1100. In a miracle in the acta of St. Guignerius (d. ca. 450), the offense was perpetrated on the tomb of a bishop who had been a member of the household of the father of the saint. The couple, locked together like dogs (more canum), were conveyed to the shrine of the saint "where by the merit of the witness of Christ and by the intercession of the faithful they were liberated."6 When compared with later analogues, proximity to the holy is notably oblique in this narrative. The consecration of a cemetery, the site of the offense, is of lesser occasion than that of a church. In the ceremony that evolved to contend with this and other forms of pollution, the cemetery's solitary defilement does not affect the integrity of the church-proper. On the other hand, if the church is polluted in some way, the cemetery is likewise desecrated.7 Similarly, the deceased bishop whose tomb is the site of the transgression is only remotely associated with the saint in question. Especially noteworthy is the fact that the author of the acta takes no pains to differentiate between actions that are unseemly and those which are ritually polluting. In the marvel immediately preceding our incident, for example, two soldiers are horribly punished for urinating on the rock where Guignerius had once anchored his ship.8 But there is all the difference in the world between urine on a rock (even a rock associated with a saint) and semen on consecrated soil, since the latter requires deliberate and public purification. Thus the boundaries for what constitutes "the sacred" seem somewhat amorphous. The "once-removed" proximity...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-2036
Print ISSN
1042-7961
Pages
pp. 6-34
Launched on MUSE
2010-03-25
Open Access
No
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