Spiritual marriage describes a legal, religious, and/or self-chosen union in which both partners agree to forego sexual relations. Spiritual marriages were practiced primarily in the late classical period (c. 400–330 bce) and throughout the Middle Ages (500–1500 ce) and served as earthly incarnations of the metaphoric marriage between Christ and his church. As sexuality was often interpreted as a sign of humanity's fallen nature, the members of a married couple might choose to abandon sexual intercourse in an attempt to sanctify themselves before God.
The roots of spiritual marriage can be located in Jesus's and Paul's advocacy of celibacy and the single life. Jesus taught that "Whoever comes to me and does hate not his father and mother and wife and children … he cannot be my disciple" (Luke 14.26), and Paul argues that "he who marries his fiancée does well; and he who refrains from marriage will do better" (I Corinthians 7:38). Early Church father Augustine writes in On the Good of Marriage, "In our day, it is true, no one perfect in piety seeks to have children, except spiritually" (p. 17.19). These passages adumbrate widespread beliefs among early Christians that elevated celibacy over sexuality. Marital celibacy symbolized a renewal of virginity in marriage, and virginity presaged rebirth and perfect life in heaven; sexual activity, on the other hand, suggested humanity's hopelessly fallen and earthly condition. Spiritual marriages, then, mediated between the positions of pure celibacy as a virgin and sexual congress in marriage.
Medieval saints' lives frequently emphasize their protagonists' triumph over sexuality in all of its incarnations. The most celebrated spiritual marriage, and the archetype of all others in the Christian tradition, is that of the Virgin Mary and Joseph, based upon the belief that Mary remained a virgin for all of her life. The Catholic Church celebrated feast days for numerous saints married celibately, including Hilary of Poitiers, Julian the Hospitaller, Germaine of Auxerre, Chrysanthus, and Cecilia. The ways in which celibacy is introduced into the marriage vary from legend to legend, but Chaucer's Second Nun's Tale is instructive in its depiction of Cecilia convincing her husband Valerian to choose marital celibacy over sexuality:
And if that [my guardian angel] may feelen, out of drede,
That ye me touche, or love in vileynye,
He right anon wol sle [slay] yow with the dede [deed],
And in youre yowthe thus ye shullen dye;
And if that ye in clene love me gye [guide],
He wol yow loven as me, for youre cleennesse,
And shewen yow his joye and his brightnesse.
Valerian accedes to Cecilia's wishes for a clean love, and they live a life of perfect chastity together until they are both brutally martyred. The tale's focus on the ways in which wives lead their husbands to chastity in marriage is a frequent trope of the genre, and this pattern can also be observed in the fifteenth-century Book of Margery Kempe (1997), the first autobiography written in English, which details Margery's sinful past and her travails in marriage. She overcomes these obstacles when she convinces her husband to transform their marriage into a spiritual one so that she can find greater communion with God.
Although spiritual union appears foremost a method for achieving greater holiness in heterosexual unions, sworn brotherhoods serve as a fascinating subset of such alliances in which two men pledge their eternal fidelity to each other in much the same manner as a marriage. John Boswell (1994) traces the roots of such relationships to the Greco-Roman world and the ways in which early Christian practices syncretized elements from pagan rites. In the early fourteenth century, Edward II's relationship with Piers Gaveston, for example, was described as a covenant of brotherhood that celebrated their deep bonds of love. In the medieval romance Amis and Amiloun (Foster 1997), also dated to the early fourteenth century, the narrator details such a brotherhood oath between the eponymous protagonists. The language of the union is reminiscent of marriage oaths:
On a day the childer, war [aware] and wight [brave],
Trewethes [truths] togider thai gun plight [pledged],
While thai might live and stond
That bothe bi day and bi night,
In wele [good times] and wo [bad times], in wrong and right,
That thai schuld frely fond [nobly prove]
To hold togider at everi nede,
In word, in werk, in wille, in dede,
Where that thai were in lond,
Fro that day forward never mo
Failen other for wele no wo.
Therto thai held up her hond.
Such fraternal alliances appear to mirror marriage in many ways, but it is unlikely that they openly condoned homosexual relationships. Rather, such deep bonds of friendship, which are made public through the ceremony of the oath, mimic heterosexual marriage yet also tacitly highlight its spiritual aspects.
Although many exegetes lauded spiritual marriages as an appropriate escape from carnal desire, other Church fathers were suspicious of them. The concept of spiritual marriage conflicts directly with the concept of the conjugal debt, another basic premise of marriage as propounded by early Church fathers, that demands marriages must be consummated. In the cases of religious women living in the houses of clergymen, great suspicions often arose that the spiritual marriages provided a façade for sexual activity. Spiritual marriages were thus both blessed by and bothersome to various Church fathers due to widespread discomfort with integrating sexuality into Christian life.
Boswell, John. 1994. Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe. New York: Villard Books.
Bray, Alan. 2003. The Friend. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Chaucer, Geoffrey. 1987. The Riverside Chaucer. 3rd edition, ed. Larry D. Benson. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Elliott, Dyan. 1993. Spiritual Marriage: Sexual Abstinence in Medieval Wedlock. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Foster, Edward E., ed. 1997. Amis and Amiloun, Robert of Cisyle, and Sir Amadace. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications.
Walsh, P. G., trans. and ed. 2001. De bono coniugali; De sancta uirginitate/Augustine. Oxford: Clarendon Press.