The institution of marriage dates back to almost the beginning of written history, with countless variations on how it has been practiced throughout the ages in different cultures and religions.
The medieval era was no different. Many marriage traditions still survive today from the Middle Ages, passed down through the centuries along with Christian ideas and practices. Nevertheless, the medieval custom of spiritual marriage is one practice which has not survived into modern times.
The practice of spiritual marriage, in which a married couple would agree to abstain from sexual intercourse of any kind, began in Western Europe in Late Antiquity with the spread of Christianity. It continued throughout the medieval period with some measure of popularity among religious devotees. But why would a married couple choose to live this way? How did their choices affect their place in society at large? To understand the concept of spiritual marriage, we must examine its beginnings in the late antique period.
St. Augustine and Spiritual Marriage
St. Augustine of Hippo was a Roman bishop, theologian, and philosopher who was born in 354 AD. He is known as one of the fathers of the Latin Church and of Western Christianity. Augustine wrote many influential theological works including The City of God and Confessions. He also wrote several treatises on marriage and sexuality , the most well-known being The Good of Marriage . His theories became so dominant in Western Christian thought that Augustine was considered the authority on marriage, continuing to influence Christian ideas about marriage even in the present day.
It was St. Augustine who first conceived of the concept of a spiritual marriage. Although the practice was not new in the 4th century, none of his predecessors had managed to define the practice in such clear terms:
“In the earliest times of the human race… the saints were obliged to make use of this good of marriage, to be sought not for its own sake but as necessary for something else. But now, since the opportunity for spiritual relationship abounds on all sides and for all peoples for entering into a holy and pure association, even they who wish to contract marriage only to have children are to be admonished that they practice the greater good of continence
Understanding Augustine’s “Good” of Marriage
The “good” of marriage which Augustine spoke of saw sexual intercourse existing purely for the purpose of procreation. Augustine understood procreation to be the primary purpose of marriage. This in turn made marriage “good” because it transformed the evil sin of lust towards God’s purposes. However, he did not envision procreation as the sole purpose of marriage. To Augustine, the secondary purpose of marriage was that of companionship and mutual respect between spouses and he envisioned a way in which marriage could be turned into a “holy and pure association” by practicing continence, a term for abstinence from sex.
For Augustine, continence from all intercourse was the greater “good”, while marital intercourse was only good if for the purpose of conceiving children. Nevertheless, he believed that it would be better for human society to have no need of marriage.
Following his line of thinking, unmarried people were able to devote themselves wholly to the Lord, while married people were obliged to be concerned with the Earthly as well as Divine in that they had to please their spouse as well as God. In fact, Augustine argued that if not for the Original Sin, marriage would not have been necessary at all for procreation:
“If our first parents had not sinned, they would have had children in some other way, with-out physical coition, out of the munificence of the almighty Creator, who was able to create them without parents, and who was able to form the body of Christ in a virgin’s womb, and who, to speak now to the unbelievers themselves, was able to grant progeny to bees without intercourse.”
It is not that Augustine saw marriage or marital intercourse as inherently sinful, only that he believed that a marriage based on spiritual kinship, rather than carnal affinity, was preferable. There were two ways in which Augustine envisioned spiritual marriage might be practiced. The first was that after a period of normal marriage, presumably during the couple’s youth when they would engage in normal sexual activity to conceive children, the couple would transition to a state of abstinence later in life by mutual agreement.
The second form of spiritual marriage in Augustine’s treatise was that in which a couple never engaged in sexual activity. The marriage would remain unconsummated and the pair would live together in virginal chastity for the duration of the marriage. The virginal union was considered ultimately holier than chastity following marital intercourse. Having said that, it was also by far the more controversial of the two because the reality of spiritual marriage was vastly different from the theoretical concept.