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Spiritual Marriage: Sexual Abstinence in Medieval Wedlock.

Spiritual Marriage: Sexual Abstinence in Medieval Wedlock. By Dyan Elliott. Princeton: Princeton University, 1993. Pp. xv + 375. $39.50.

Tracing the religious and social history of sexless marriage, Elliott presents a truly fascinating and detailed picture of a neglected phenomenon. By defining what was perhaps the most extreme form of lay piety, she presents a view of the practice against which married Christians of the medieval West must perforce measure themselves. "Total sexual abstinence in wedlock," a practice documented from the earliest Christian centuries to the later Middle Ages, was "a place in the middle" between ordinary marriage and the continent life in monastic community. It was, however, esteemed very differently by church leaders at different times. Spiritual marriage was "a frequently chaotic and unregulated practice [which] could be construed as a spontaneous and complex reaction against society's expectations, a revolt against the reproductive imperative and a pious rebellion against the prevailing view that the call to a higher life of spirituality implied the separation of women and men."

E.'s discussion of the complex religious and social conditions that affected clergy's attitude toward vows of marital continence yields some important insights. During times when canon law permitted husbands to prevent or interfere with wives' pious practices, but gave wives no similar prerogatives, "canonists and theologians alike feared that the transition from a carnal to a spiritual marriage might threaten the husband's authority." Indeed, the much greater number of women than men who instigated intramarital chastity implies that women experienced relief and freedom when they could persuade their husbands to the practice. In fact, "intramarital chastity could be every bit as threatening as extramarital sex."

E. pays attention not only to sex but also to gender, examining how male and female socialization to gender roles and expectations intersected with spiritual marriage. Within the patriarchal societies of the dominantly Christian West, "the consummation of marriage was [viewed as] the supreme act of obedience." Thought of as a female religious practice, men usually resisted spiritual marriage, either before or after consummation of the marriage and the birth of one or more children. E. may give too little weight to men's interest in both sexual activity and offspring when she writes that in the late fourth century, "the husband's relative foot-dragging bespoke his closer association with social position and public life, which a change to chastity undercut." Nevertheless, her attention to the social effects of the practice as well as to its intentions includes close analysis of the devotional practices, institutional politics, and social arrangements that affected this "defiant female spirituality."

Different gender patterns are also discernible in reports of spiritual marriage. In the 13th century, women were likely to vow virginity in childhood, often as a result of strong mystical experience, while men typically did so in penitence for particular crimes or sins. Moreover, male sanctity tended to take the form of strict separation from women; women, always dependent on male priests and confessors, did not have the option of total separation from men, but tended, when they wrote, to picture the sexes as complementary rather than adversarial.

Spiritual marriage was apparently a practice that not only reflected, but also extended women's social prerogatives. Yet women were "only its most celebrated practitioners. They were never its theorists." Dominating spiritual marriage for nearly a millenium and a half, women never controlled or defined it. Because spiritual marriage was "too adaptable to be suppressed and too useful to be ignored," it continued to be practiced, despite the apprehensions of clerical theorists and their never fully successful efforts to control and interpret it. Spiritual marriage was a point of intense and continuing negotiation between lay-women and clergy who often felt threatened when their monopoly on chastity was challenged. By the 16th century, intramarital chastity was in decline. A liberalized ecclesiastical rhetoric of sexuality devalued virginity and continence in marriage; a social consensus was gradually created in which humorists could even poke fun at it.

The practice of spiritual marriage raises crucial questions which E. does not avoid. She comments on the role of sexuality in relation to spirituality and mystical experience, on the ongoing tension between the value of sexual abstinence and patriarchal authority, and the class affiliations of the practice at different historical times. But a book on a practice as counter-cultural as this (historically, as well as in relation to late 20th-century North America) may be expected to raise as many questions as it answers. How did it work? To live, often to sleep, with one's partner without sexual congress is surely a step beyond the fantasies of temptation and resistance by which the fourth-century desert ascetics exercised their spirits. Were practitioners of spiritual marriage motivated primarily by fear of hell and damnation, or was the increased intensity of their religious lives a powerful and fulfilling attraction in itself.? Good historian that she is, E. largely resists speculating on what she cannot document. She provokes questions, however, that will result in further inquiry into the societies of the Christian West. This is an excellent book, pleasurable even as it discusses the renunciation of pleasure.
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Author:Miles, Margaret R.
Publication:Theological Studies
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 1994
Words:851
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