The Medieval Body: Denied yet Affirmed

Medieval Christian religious practices such as sexual abstinence and fasting seem to deny the body. But do they? Medievalist Dyan Elliott, a professor of history and adjunct to women's studies at Indiana University Bloomington, suggests an alternate view.

"Even though we tend to see medieval people as belonging to a very ascetic culture that denies the body, I don't think that is precisely true," Elliott says. "One could argue that the act of denying the body is sinking more deeply into the body." To regulate heavily the body one must focus a great deal of attention on it, indirectly elevating and affirming its importance. Elliott also points out that the central images of Christianity--the crucified Christ and the Eucharist (a symbolic eating of the body and blood of Christ)--are intensely physical. "Should we call medieval Christianity body-denying or body-confirming? Well, it is certainly body-controlling," Elliott says.

For medieval women in particular, practicing sexual abstinence was also an attempt to gain control over their bodies and their spirituality. Elliott's book, Spiritual Marriage: Sexual Abstinence in Medieval Wedlock, closely examines celibacy within marriage as an expression of the partners' piety. In the introduction Elliott observes, "Women seemed to have availed themselves of spiritual marriage as a means of attaining autonomy in marriage through chastity." In stepping outside the traditional confines of marriage and family--the social institutions created to regulate and perpetuate the body--medieval women were "not necessarily denying their bodies as much as owning their bodies," she says. Elliott is quick to point out that, although we may find this stance difficult to appreciate in our own time when sexual freedom is closely associated with sexual activity, we must remember that the consequences of sex for women in the middle ages were quite different from the consequences today. Methods of birth control were crude and often painful, and each pregnancy was potentially life threatening. However, any power that women gained from participation in spiritual marriage was "limited and situationally defined,"Elliot says. As she explains in her book, women were never the theorists of the tradition of spiritual marriage and only rarely its chroniclers.

Thus, in denying the flesh, medieval people placed extraordinary emphasis on the body. In denying sexuality within marriage as one expression of this ascetic ideal, medieval Christian women challenged traditional gender hierarchies. Christian authorities often did not anticipate such use of official doctrine, even when leading theologians warned of its potential abuse. Elliott mentions that St. Augustine (died in 430), a father of the early church and the primary architect of spiritual marriage, "was very nervous about people actually aspiring to it." Augustine's definition of the ideal marriage, based on the theory that Mary and Joseph were joined in an unconsummated marriage, was actually an attempt to defend marriage against radical Christian sects. However, due to Augustine's negative view of passion and desire, he felt compelled to purify marriage by defining the ideal as celibate. It is "one of the real conundrums of the middle ages, that even though it was thought that marriage was instituted by God for offspring, their ambivalence about the body and the desire to deny it led them to an impossible definition of marriage."

But Elliott has become used to paradoxes and conundrums in her years of research on how medieval Christianity affected and was affected by spirituality, attitudes toward gender roles, and sexuality. In a recently published article, "Sex in Holy Places," Elliott touches on another idea prevalent in the religious rhetoric of the Middle Ages--the conjugal debt--that cannot be taken at face value. The conjugal debt was the idea that each partner in a marriage was indebted to the other and must provide sex on demand, and Elliott believes its implications were--and are--widely misunderstood. "In this one area," she says, "husband and wife were thought to be equal." While the church has "always argued that [the debt] was very progressive" and "people were very happy to accept this," such an argument assumes that "men and women are biologically not just equal but identical and that they have the same sexual needs. It also ignores the fact that sex will have different consequences for each partner," Elliott argues, suggesting that the theory actually worked to the advantage of male sexuality.

In addition, medieval discussions of the conjugal debt were "padded" in ways that Elliott finds prejudicial to women. She explains that women were instructed to dress up so that their husbands' attentions would not stray. Similarly they were not allowed to fast without their husbands' permission because this could diminish their sexual appeal. Such requirements and prohibitions "made considerable inroads into the woman's spirituality," creating special problems for married women who aspired to greater piety or even sanctity.

During the High Middle Ages (1050–1250), church authorities began to lift traditional bans on sex during penitential periods. At first glance, lifting these restrictions appears to have benefited women, but in reality it may not have done so. Citing a particularly brutal example, Elliott tells of a confessors' manual of this period that discusses the question of payment of the conjugal debt by a woman who has just given birth. According to medieval religious doctrine a woman was required to be churched (to receive a purifying rite in the church) following childbirth before she could have sex again. Therefore, the manual advises that the woman rise immediately following childbirth and go to receive the churching so that she will be available to have sex with her husband as soon as possible. "This horrible solution . . . shows how anxious [the church] was becoming about channeling the sex drive and containing the body of the laity within [its] institutions and regulations."

Elliott, whose research focuses primarily on women, recently turned her attention to male sexuality in the Middle Ages, an area of research she thinks is growing. "People are writing about medieval masculinity, and the gaze that has so frequently been turned on women is being turned on men. I think that's good," she says.

In a work not yet in print, Elliott examines sexual repression among the male clergy, further developing her themes. She notes that a surprising number of medieval treatises exist that address the problem of nocturnal emissions ("wet dreams") among the clergy. Here the attention devoted to what we would regard as a minor issue focuses considerable attention on bodies supposedly denied. Here, too, Elliott encountered a paradox. Men were associated with reason and with the will. Yet "they created a kind of bind for themselves," Elliott muses, when the only possible expression of sexuality was that of nocturnal emission, in which the body was out of control. "Excessive unruliness of the body is, moreover, perceived as feminine," Elliott says. Only women had emissions that were considered natural. The female body "seeps and is uncontrolled; women are associated with menstruation." Thus, Elliott ventures, "efforts to consolidate masculine identity through emphasis on rationality lapse into irrational obsession." Furthermore, she notes, "too rigorous a focus on the unruly masculine body has the effect of dissolving it into a feminine one."

This blurring of gender boundaries fascinates Elliott, who sees gender questions as the driving force behind her research. Medieval gender roles were not fixed and divided in the same ways as in our own culture. Moreover, when social and gender roles confront theology, the results are quite interesting. For example, Elliott notes that in the Christian tradition the soul is always feminine in relation to God. Medieval monks saw themselves as brides, with God as the bridegroom.

A theme that intrigues Elliott in her research on the male clergy is "the sexuality of the mind and the mind-body relationship." While the attempt to suppress wet dreams is "a struggle for control of the body on the one hand, the huge player is the mind," Elliott says. This mind-body interface is a thread she is following in her current research on the blurred boundaries between sanctity and heresy in the spirituality of women in the late Middle Ages. Elliott is currently on leave to conduct research for this project. She is particularly interested in examining the writings of medieval physicians, such as Arnold of Villanova, on women's spirituality. "Reading what such ‘crossover' writers had to say about women and spirituality and the interconnection between the body and the mind will be very helpful to me," she says.

In addition to her work on heavily regulated bodies, a second component of Elliott's current research focuses on mystical aspects of female spirituality. Raptures, which were more common among religious women than among their male counterparts, also were seen as evidence of a body out of control. "A way that people would show that they were enraptured by God was in lack of control of the body, particularly insensibility," she says. To test that someone was actually experiencing rapture, confessors or others would attempt to evoke a reaction from the mystic by causing them discomfort and even severe pain. Elliott mentions that in the probation of saints there are accounts describing molten lead being poured on the mystic and nails being driven through her feet to prove her insensibility. Medieval women also were more likely than men to experience a material type of mysticism in which they reported having stigmatic changes, or physical changes relating to Christ's sufferings in the Passion, in the body.

Medieval men believed women to be more susceptible to material and fleshly experiences, which they viewed as inherently weak. Therefore, theologians saw women as more likely to be inhabited by evil spirits. Elliott believes that perceived "dangers of female spirituality" are rooted in medieval beliefs about the female body.

While emphasizing the need to be "very cautious" about making transhistorical comparisons, Elliott says she believes research "can help us understand ourselves" and shed light on "certain kinds of attitudes toward the body and the desire to control the body." She adds, "There are certain kinds of Christian or Western mechanisms that were put in motion during the period that I am interested in. We can still detect the wheels grinding."

--Heather Shupp