Marrying Jesus: Brides and the Bridegroom in Medieval Women’s Religious Literature
By Rabia Gregory
PhD Dissertation, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2007
Abstract: Phrases such as “bride of Christ” and passages which describe Christ as a “Bridegroom,” a “Spouse,” and a “Lover” appear in a wide range of Christian texts composed in both Latin and vernacular languages. The phrase has become almost a generic descriptor for religious women— especially mystics—yet the function of the relationship between Christ and his beloved is never a constant. I explore the language and imagery that surrounds Christ’s many brides by examining a selection of medieval works that portray Christ as a desirable spouse for Christian women. Relationships between Christ and pious women did not consist exclusively of a spiritual re-enactment of courtship and marriage in vision or ritual. Mystics enacted marriage to Jesus in visions, while nuns’ vows and profession ceremonies are described as a marriage to Christ, a chaste union to be consummated in heaven, traditionally modeled upon secular marriage ceremonies. However, the title “Bride of Christ” was not uniformly applied by and to medieval women, and some nuns and mystics never gained a bridal association. Most importantly, married and lay women could become brides of Christ, even if they were not mystics.
As the number of Christ’s brides increased in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, women who claimed this special relationship were less likely to be automatically recognized as holy. Consequently, the phrase “bride of Christ” became politically charged, and by the fifteenth century, it was used in innovative but cautious ways, especially in writing by and for women’s religious communities. My investigation of Christ and his brides between the twelfth and sixteenth centuries highlights the brides’ gradual disassociation from sanctity. Though twelfth- and thirteenth-century women religious became brides of Christ for their chastity and mystical experiences, I argue that the number and nature of brides of Christ in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries contributed to growing doubts about women’s religious writing and creativity, resulting in the introduction of a new model for female sanctity that de-emphasized mystical experience and the bridal relationship in favor of virtuous actions.