Advice given to tourists in Scotland is equally applicable to contemporary academia: “If you don’t like the weather, wait a few minutes." Accordingly, those frustrated by reductive accounts of medieval spirituality need not waste energy in protest; the only need wait a few minutes for more sophisticated readings to appear. That minute appears to be now.
Medieval mystics, most famously Bernard of Clairvaux in his sermons on the Song of Songs, periodically used sexual imagery to describe the indescribable: union with Christ. Among many other possible tropes (most notably suffering), erotic language was sometimes used in the Middle Ages to approximate, by metaphor, the love of God that far surpassed it. Bernard was quick to qualify: "Be careful . . . not to conclude that I see something corporeal or perceptible to the senses . . . . I try to express with the most suitable words I can muster the ecstatic ascent of the purified mind to God, comparing spiritual things with spiritual." Sexual language in this context was not a breach of chastity because¯as the monastic audience of the accounts implies¯it transcended physical consummation.
That scholars with a tin ear to transcendence misunderstood this imagery is not surprising¯or new. Aided by a strong dose of misogyny, one eighteenth-century journal dismissed the mystical eroticism of medieval nuns as the laments of "unlucky virgins," forced to take up courtship with Christ. Continuing the tradition, twentieth-century historians psychoanalyzed medieval visions by gleefully collecting the "naughty" passages as grist for the Freudian mill. Most recently, University of Chicago art historian Michael Camille (1958¯2002), in Framing Medieval Bodies , scandalized audiences by (again) suggesting that medieval depictions of the wound in Christ’s side were a "transference of the dangerously open body of a woman in all her horrifying ‘difference.’" Today, however, this technique is less likely to titillate than inspire a collective yawn. Recent historians have grown impatient¯and bored¯with the reductive approach.
Four top medievalists exemplify this weather change, offering a more variegated analysis of classic spirituality. As is often the case, the esteemed Carolyn Walker Bynum of Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study leads the charge, with this from Fragmentation and Redemption :
Physical union with Christ [in the sacrament] is described in images of marriage and sexual consummation . . . . Although scholars have, of course, suggested that such reactions are sublimated sexual desire, it seems inappropriate to speak of "sublimation." In the eucharist and in ecstasy, a male Christ was handled and loved; sexual feelings were, as certain contemporary commentators (like David of Augsburg) clearly realized, not so much translated into another medium as simply set free . . . . The image of bride or lover was clearly a central metaphor for the woman [and man] mystic’s union with Christ’s humanity. In the twelfth century, Hildegard of Bingen actually dressed her nuns as brides when they went forward to receive communion. And Hadewijch and Mechtild of Magdeburg, women given voice by the emergence of the vernaculars, found in secular love poetry the vocabulary and the pulsating rhythms to speak of the highest of all loves.
Similar sentiments come from the University of Chicago’s Rachel Fulton, whose book From Judgment to Passion successfully joins empathetic human encounter with rigorous historical research:
It has been fashionable for some time now (at least in certain academic circles) to see almost every expression of love for Christ’s Mother Mary (or Christ, for that matter) as in some way a manifestation of repressed sexual desire . . . . [T]his vision is, I would insist, much too monolithic, not to say reductive, to take account of the medieval devotion to Mary as a whole and should be resisted.
The prolific Harvard art historian Jeffrey F. Hamburger, whose books have chronicled the visual culture of medieval convents, concurs :
French feminists . . . have acclaimed the eloquent eroticism of mystical speech as a transgression of the social codes that enjoined women to submission and silence. There was, however, nothing inherently transgressive about the use of erotic imagery as a way of expressing ardent spiritual desire. Sanctified by the Song of Songs, somatic, sensual imagery was taken for granted, in male as in female monasticism.
Elsewhere , Hamburger points out the reductive approach’s Inquisitorial resemblance:
We should be wary of reducing female piety to little more than the sublimation of sexual desire, if only because in so doing, we ape one of the marginalizing strategies employed by its least sympathetic medieval (and modern) critics.
The aforementioned scholars are indebted to the accomplished professor emeritus of the University of Chicago Bernard McGinn, who in addition to pointing out that even the fashionable theorist Georges Bataille "distanced himself from those psychologists who tried to give a purely sexual reading of mystical experience," writes the following in Mysticism and Language :
We should be scandalized not so much by the presence of such erotic elements as by their absence . . . . What is involved is not so much the disguising of erotic language . . . as the full and direct use of certain forms of erotic expression for a different purpose¯the transformation of all human desire in terms of what the mystic believes to be its true source.
These scholars appear to understand that "sexual arousal is one expression of a broad range of human appetites (medieval mystics would call this range affectus ) . . . all subtly linked to the human personality, and that physical desire does not exhaust the meaning of love." McGinn encapsulates this new scholarly sensitivity by quoting from the Notebooks of a modern mystic, the French philosopher Simone Weil:
To reproach mystics with loving God by means of the faculty of sexual love is as though one were to reproach a painter with making pictures by means of colors composed of material substances. We haven’t anything else with which to love.
Historians who understand that sex is not everything have set themselves a more complicated task than the "psychoanalysis of visions." Their appointments at leading institutions testify that the results have been more satisfying. Good historiography, however, is no end in itself; its purpose is to facilitate encounter with medieval mystics, one that we moderns would do well to pursue.
That disordered sexuality might find its way into mystical experience, then or now, is not to be denied. But nor should it be denied that rightly ordered sexuality, within the normative bounds of chastity, plays a role in our relations with God, who meets us as we were created, as gendered sexual beings. Still, for the medieval mystic, the goal was not to linger in spiritual ecstasy, however blissful. The final stage of the sexual analogy, for Richard of St. Victor, was its natural conclusion: a household busy in care for needy children, for ultimately the mystic was to leave ecstasy behind to engage in busy service to a needy world. Consolations approximating sexual ecstasy are a rare gift. More likely will it be after this present toil that we sing with Mechtild of Magdeburg :
Lord, now I am a naked soul
And you in yourself All-Glorious God.
Our mutual intercourse
Is eternal life without end.
Matthew J. Milliner is a graduate student in art history at Princeton University. He blogs at millinerd.com .
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?