The Bride of Christ Goes to Hell: Metaphor and Embodiment in the Lives of Pious Women, 200-1500

The Bride of Christ Goes to Hell: Metaphor and Embodiment in the Lives of Pious Women, 200-1500

The Bride of Christ Goes to Hell: Metaphor and Embodiment in the Lives of Pious Women, 200-1500

The Bride of Christ Goes to Hell: Metaphor and Embodiment in the Lives of Pious Women, 200-1500


The early Christian writer Tertullian first applied the epithet "bride of Christ" to the uppity virgins of Carthage as a means of enforcing female obedience. Henceforth, the virgin as Christ's spouse was expected to manifest matronly modesty and due submission, hobbling virginity's ancient capacity to destabilize gender roles. In the early Middle Ages, the focus on virginity and the attendant anxiety over its possible loss reinforced the emphasis on claustration in female religious communities, while also profoundly disparaging the nonvirginal members of a given community.

With the rising importance of intentionality in determining a person's spiritual profile in the high Middle Ages, the title of bride could be applied and appropriated to laywomen who were nonvirgins as well. Such instances of democratization coincided with the rise of bridal mysticism and a progressive somatization of female spirituality. These factors helped cultivate an increasingly literal and eroticized discourse: women began to undergo mystical enactments of their union with Christ, including ecstatic consummations and vivid phantom pregnancies. Female mystics also became increasingly intimate with their confessors and other clerical confidants, who were sometimes represented as stand-ins for the celestial bridegroom. The dramatic merging of the spiritual and physical in female expressions of religiosity made church authorities fearful, an anxiety that would coalesce around the figure of the witch and her carnal induction into the Sabbath.


Virginity is a spiritual kind of marrying.


A young woman eschews all mortal ties to unite herself irrevocably with a man who has been dead for centuries, yet has nevertheless managed to lure countless women into this suspect arrangement: a polygamist on a grand scale. Although it may sound like a plot worthy of Bram Stoker, I am, of course, alluding to the traditional understanding of the consecrated virgin as bride of Christ—a concept so intrinsic to female spirituality and so familiar to medievalists that it is difficult to imagine when it was otherwise. But there was a time when the bride was just a metaphor unattached to any particular body—before she tumbled from the symbolic order, became entangled in text, and then finally came to land with a thump upon the body of the virgin who has dedicated her life to God. It is this story of embodiment that is at the heart of the present study.

It is important to remember, however, that although the consecrated virgin is preeminent as the human face of the bride, the image was and would remain a veritable calliope of overlapping metaphors. At its root was the mystical marriage between God and the human soul that, from the perspective of ancient and medieval commentators, found its most eloquent and provocative expression in the Song of Songs. Like the enterprising bride of the Canticles, all true believers should pursue the celestial bridegroom in anticipation of an ecstatic consummation in the afterlife. The mystical marriage was also possessed of an incorporated dimension as evident in Christ’s marriage with the church of all believers. In addition, it had important institutional applications. By the eleventh century the bishop, standing in loco Christi, was customarily understood to be married to his see. During the papal schism, John Gerson (d. 1429) would raise the fraught question of what to do if the pope, the church’s most immediate proxy for the celestial bridegroom, was bewitched and incapable of providing children for the virginal Ecclesia.

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