Fallen Bodies: Pollution, Sexuality, and Demonology in the Middle Ages

Article excerpt

Fallen Bodies: Pollution, Sexuality, and Demonology in the Middle Ages. By Dyan Elliott. [The Middle Ages Series.] (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. 1999. Pp. xii, 300. $49.95 clothbound; $19.95 paperback.)

As its subtitle indicates, Fallen Bodies deals with pollution, sexuality, and demonology in "the high and later Middle Ages" (p. 6). These themes are examined in six chapters: nocturnal pollution and men's bodies (chap. 1), women's bodies (chap. 2), sex in holy places (chap. 3), priests' wives after the Gregorian Reform's insistence on clerical celibacy (chaps. 4 and 5), later conceptualizations of the nature of demons (chap. 6). Although Dyan Elliott says that each chapter could be read separately; she also insists "the book as a whole demonstrates the ways in which these issues resist separate treatment and interpenetrate one another" (pp. 12-13).

The interpenetration results from the author's reading of a wide variety of medieval texts that goes beyond "interpretations that medieval authors would themselves 'approve'" (p. 8j-This is accomplished through a penchant for a psychoanalytical reading of texts. The book abounds with the language of impulses, fantasies, dreams, guilt, fears, anxieties, repression, the subconscious. The following comment on an exemplum is illustrative: "This radicalization (and oversimplification) is initially resorted to as a defense mechanism against feelings of guilt, ambivalence, and anxiety . . ." (p. 32).

The overall thesis of the book seems to be that in the course of the Middle Ages a subtle development occurred in the conceptualization of women and demons. Demons came to be thought of as intellectual, evil spirits, women as material, impure temptresses. They both came together in the witch, the servant and consort of the devil well expressed in the late fifteenth-century Malleus maleficarum. …


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