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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
  • Ericka Swensson
Dyan Elliott, The Bride of Christ Goes to Hell: Metaphor and Embodiment In the Lives of Pious Women, 200–1500 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press 2011) 472 pp.

Dyan Elliott’s monograph is a natural outgrowth of her previous work on spiritual marriage in the Christian church and her more recent scholarship on the relationship between the inquisition and the early modern European witch craze. In The Bride of Christ Goes to Hell, Elliott examines the metaphor of the sponsa Christi, or bride of Christ, as it evolved from the abstract to the literal. Elliott shows how the female mystics of the Middle Ages were “one link in the chain” (6) that united them to the so-called witches of the early modern period by examining the evolution of the sponsa Christi in western Europe from 200–1500 CE. Beginning with her analysis of the works of early church fathers, Elliott’s focus then travels northward to conclude her examination with the Beguines. In her first chapter, Elliott casts Tertullian, who was decidedly against marriage, as the unlikely originator of the sponsa Christi imagery. Elliott argues that in the late antique period there were two ways that early Christians understood the relationship between gender and chastity. The first was represented by the image of the virile woman whose chaste body, like the Desert Mothers and St. Perpetua, became male. The second category was that of the vita angelica which represented a “realized eschatology” (12) on earth in which the bodies of the chaste became androgynous like that of the angels. However, for Tertullian, the notion of the vita angelica became increasingly problematic as it created the context for miscegenation between (female) virgins and angels. Tertullian’s response was to cast the sexed human body as the point of difference between humans and angels, even in the afterlife. Tertullian then used the imagery of the sponsa Christi to place female virgins, not on par with angels or men, but at the mercy of their bridegroom.

In chapter 2, Elliott broadens her scope to show how subsequent church fathers, including Cyprian, Origen, Athanasius, Ambrose, and Augustine, used the imagery of the sponsa Christi to moderate women’s dress and behavior, and to situate male clerics as authorities over consecrated virgins. One of the more interesting developments during this period was the way in which women increasingly began to embrace the imagery of the sponsa Christi which afforded them both a place of honor and a recognized legal and social status, albeit at great sacrifice. In her third chapter, Elliott examines the bride of Christ in the Barbarian West, demonstrating how the term came to include widows and mothers, as manifested in Aldhelm’s three degrees of female chastity. Elliott also explores the case of Queen Radegund, and her male and female hagiographers, who deployed the rhetoric of the sponsa Christi in various ways. In particular, Elliott focuses on Baudonivia’s life of Radegund claiming that her vita both anticipated the writings of subsequent female mystics and demonstrated how the sponsa Christi had become a “point of identification” not just imposed upon women but readily embraced by them. [End Page 258]

Elliott explores the emergence of chaste heterosexual couples such as Abe-lard and Heloise in the eleventh and twelfth centuries in chapters 4 and 5, which coincided with increasing importance of the idea of consent in medieval marriage. Elliott also analyzes the unique relationship between women and their male confessors: labeling the phenomenon “heteroasceticism,” she describes it as a intense emotional attachment between a man and a women who are committed to a celibate life. Elliott argues that partners in these heteroascetic unions described themselves as participating in a quasi-conjugal union and, in doing so, directly engaged with the language of the sponsa Christi. However, the distinction between what she deems the “forebears” of heteroasceticism, represented by the relationships between Jerome and Paula or Fortunatus and Radegund, and the contemporary examples, such as Peter Damian, is not always clear.

In chapter 6, Elliott discusses the emergence...


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