Medieval scholars, clerics, and religious perceived important resemblances between marriage and the relationship between God or Christ and the Church or its individual members. They construed the divine–human relationship as a mystical marriage, but they also used such analogies to explain the laws and morality of human marriage and as the basis of the doctrine of marriage as one of the sacraments. This chapter explores the diversity of such comparisons. Having noted the limitations of symbolism as our overarching category, Reynolds proposes that the implicit common denominator within medieval thought was a notion of representation, that is, a resemblance posited between corresponding items on two hierarchically ordered planes, respectively spiritual or divine and corporeal or created. Lower things, construed as signs or figures, provided cognitive and rhetorical access to analogous higher things, whereas higher things could function analogically as exemplars that lower things were required to emulate. But these two vectors of comparison were not always coincident.
Keywords: conjugal; nuptial; analogy; figurative exegesis; mapping; sacrament of matrimony
Medieval Christian writers maintained that the union between a man and a woman resembled that between God or Christ and human beings in salient and consequential respects. They posited such resemblances not only to shed light on the divine–human relationship but also to support moral claims about the estate of marriage and to show how marrying was one of the sacraments of the Church.
My purpose in this essay is to survey the different ways in which medieval authors made such comparisons, to reflect on how they conceived and spoke about them, and to ask how the three modes of comparison were related to each other. Was there a common denominator or essence? Today, we regard all three as forms of symbolism. Is that their common essence? If so, what do we mean by ‘symbolism’? To keep a necessarily large survey within practical limits, I shall not consider comparable symbolism in visual art or in ritual. Nor shall I consider such kindred discursive comparisons as that between marriage and a bishop's union with his diocese.
Analytical and Interpretive Tools
Although our primary task as interpreters of medieval Christian texts is to explicate the underlying medieval rationale, and not to impose an extraneous rationale of our own, the medieval authors were not always as forthcoming as we might wish.