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.