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Spiritual Marriage: Sexual Abstinence in Medieval Wedlock

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The early Christian and medieval practice of spiritual marriage, in which husband and wife mutually and voluntarily relinquish sexual activity for reasons of piety, plays an important role in the development of the institution of marriage and in the understanding of female religiosity. In this book Dyan Elliott traces the history of spiritual marriage in the West from apostolic times to the beginning of the sixteenth century. Drawing on hagiography, chronicles, theology, canon law, and pastoral sources, she ...
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Overview

The early Christian and medieval practice of spiritual marriage, in which husband and wife mutually and voluntarily relinquish sexual activity for reasons of piety, plays an important role in the development of the institution of marriage and in the understanding of female religiosity. In this book Dyan Elliott traces the history of spiritual marriage in the West from apostolic times to the beginning of the sixteenth century. Drawing on hagiography, chronicles, theology, canon law, and pastoral sources, she brings to life the tense relationship between the theory and practice of a marital arrangement that has long intrigued students of the Christian sexual tradition. As a paradigm patterned after the chaste union of Mary and Joseph, spiritual marriage upheld Christian doctrine; as a spontaneous practice, however, it aroused the suspicion of the very church authorities who extolled its virtues. Through this union women could achieve a measure of spiritual and physical autonomy, which threatened not only their husbands' authority but also that of the clergy. Elliott shows how spiritual marriage could be manipulated by male-dominated institutions as well: it enabled early medieval kings to mask their unilateral repudiation of infertile wives, the church to establish the roots of a ritually pure priesthood, and the late medieval clergy to underline female submission to patriarchal authorities. Far from being a curiosity peripheral to the study of Christian sexuality, spiritual marriage emerges as far-reaching in its implications and long-lasting in its influences.
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Editorial Reviews

American Historical Review - Penelope D. Johnson
[Dyan Elliott] reveals the deep tensions and ambiguities about sexuality and marriage in the Christian church as attitudes evolved from apostolic times to the sixteenth century. . . . I loved this book for its magnificent scholarship, clarity of expression, provocative ideas, and scholarly modesty.
History - Philip F. Riley
A penetrating study for a wide scholarly audience on the place of women, marriage, and sexuality in Christianity from Augustine to the Renaissance. . . . Using spiritual marriage as a prism, Elliott is able to examine the themes of sacramental theology, female spirituality, sin, sexuality, and gender relations.
From the Publisher
"[Dyan Elliott] reveals the deep tensions and ambiguities about sexuality and marriage in the Christian church as attitudes evolved from apostolic times to the sixteenth century. . . . I loved this book for its magnificent scholarship, clarity of expression, provocative ideas, and scholarly modesty."—Penelope D. Johnson, American Historical Review

"A penetrating study for a wide scholarly audience on the place of women, marriage, and sexuality in Christianity from Augustine to the Renaissance. . . . Using spiritual marriage as a prism, Elliott is able to examine the themes of sacramental theology, female spirituality, sin, sexuality, and gender relations."—Philip F. Riley, History

"Elliot masterfully examines why female spirituality was perceived as a threat to the church and society at large, challenging the boundaries of sanctity and heresy. . . . By tracing the downward trajectory of holy women through medieval society's progressive reliance on inquisitional procedure, Elliot argues that inquisitional mechanisms for assessing female spirituality created confusion between the saintly and the heretical; these efforts to constrain female spirituality were part of a larger program of constraining women."Choice

American Historical Review
[Dyan Elliott] reveals the deep tensions and ambiguities about sexuality and marriage in the Christian church as attitudes evolved from apostolic times to the sixteenth century. . . . I loved this book for its magnificent scholarship, clarity of expression, provocative ideas, and scholarly modesty.
— Penelope D. Johnson
History
A penetrating study for a wide scholarly audience on the place of women, marriage, and sexuality in Christianity from Augustine to the Renaissance. . . . Using spiritual marriage as a prism, Elliott is able to examine the themes of sacramental theology, female spirituality, sin, sexuality, and gender relations.
— Philip F. Riley
Choice
Elliot masterfully examines why female spirituality was perceived as a threat to the church and society at large, challenging the boundaries of sanctity and heresy. . . . By tracing the downward trajectory of holy women through medieval society's progressive reliance on inquisitional procedure, Elliot argues that inquisitional mechanisms for assessing female spirituality created confusion between the saintly and the heretical; these efforts to constrain female spirituality were part of a larger program of constraining women.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780691086491
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press
  • Publication date: 7/12/1993
  • Pages: 390

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments
Abbreviations
Introduction 3
1 "A Place in the Middle": Intramarital Chastity as Theoretical Embarrassment and Provocation 16
2 Spiritual Marriage as Insoluble Problem or Universal Nostrum? 51
3 Eleventh-Century Boundaries: The Spirit of Reform and the Cult of the Virgin King 94
4 The Conjugal Debt and Vows of Chastity: The Theoretical and Pastoral Discourse of the High and Later Middle Ages 132
5 Spiritual Marriage and the Penitential Ethos 195
6 Virgin Wives 266
Conclusion 297
Appendixes 303
Select Bibliography 321
Index 355
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