“‘He Doubted That These Things Actually Happened:’ Knowing the Other World in the Tractatus de Purgatorio sancti Patricii.” Accepted for publication in History of Religions (2018).

Abstract: This article examines how the author of the twelfth-century Tractatus de Purgatorio sancti Patricii suggested his readers understand the claim that an Irish knight, named Owein, descended into the Other World through a cave in northern Ireland while still within his body. The vision’s author made two seemingly contradictory assertions regarding Owein’s bodily journey to the afterlife: first, that the knight encountered material objects, apparently through his bodily senses, in the other world, and second that what the knight saw and experienced were really immaterial signs, spiritual things signified “in a corporeal shape and form.” Some scholars have found these assertions so obviously contradictory that they suggest the author did not believe his own story. In contrast, this essay argues that the vision’s author sincerely embraced both assertions, taking the knight’s epistemic claims seriously while also understanding Owein’s sensory impressions, regardless of source, as a type of mediation between the indescribable spiritual world and the material world of the living. The author made these interpretive suggestions by weaving together an epistemological framework for the vision through unacknowledged borrowings from other works that situated the reader within a set of contemporary theological commonplaces and familiar inter-textual references. This framework reveals a mid-to-late twelfth-century sensibility in which a true vision must nevertheless be read as a combination of allegory and empirical observation. Close attention to the interpretive suggestions made in this visionary text illuminate the ways twelfth-century readers understood visionary texts and answered the question, “Did this really happen?”

“Bodies of Spirit and Bodies of Flesh: The Significance of the Sexual Practices Attributed to Heretics from the Eleventh to the Fourteenth Century.” Journal of the History of Sexuality 25.3 (2016): 387-419.

Abstract: This article examines accounts of the nocturnal sexual rituals ascribed to medieval heretics by hostile orthodox authorities, what Norman Cohn termed “the nocturnal ritual fantasy.” It argues that the sexual morphology attributed to certain groups of medieval heretics illustrated what learned authorities took to be essential elements of their character. This character was spiritually inert and self-consuming. The orthodox body was a union of many members brought about through the spiritual power of caritas, which promised both a spiritual as well as an eventual material redemption. Those outside this orthodox social body and institutional Church were joined together in one fallen body that distinguished itself through gross carnality and the absence of a redeeming spiritual unity. This supposed spiritual deficiency was reflected in the sexual acts attributed to heretics that emphasized their spiritual infertility, through homosexual intercourse and the literal cannibalism of the fruits of heterosexual intercourse, often taking the place of the spiritual communion between believers and the Christian God. The inversion at the heart of heretics’ identity reflected how they had turned away from the spiritual unity of God and believer for an eternal immersion in a fallen understanding and love of matter. These presentations of medieval heretics’ supposed sexual activities as a kind of religious inversion lie at the root of what some might today term “Christian homophobia,” as well as enduring negative portrayals of non-Christian cultures and religious groups.

“The Fires of Hell and the Burning of Heretics in the Accounts of the Executions at Orleans in 1022.” Journal of Medieval History 40.4 (2014): 399-420.

Abstract: This article examines the significance of Hell and hellfire in the sources for the first recorded burning of humans for the crime of heresy in the medieval West at Orleans in 1022. It suggests that the main sources for this event describe the execution of the heretics by fire as an enactment of their eschatological destinies. The division of humanity into two overarching communities, namely the saved and the damned, shapes both the accounts near-contemporaries offered of this event and also the context in which they placed it. The exposure and destruction of the heretics at Orleans reinforces the shared identity of Christian society. The fires of execution literally handed the heretics at Orleans off to the fires of Hell, enacting in miniature the fate that awaited all those who failed to take their place within a united Christian society, be they heretics, Muslims, or Jews.

“In a Corporeal Flame: The Materiality of Hellfire Before the Resurrection in Six Latin Authors.” Viator 44.3 (2013): 1-20.

Abstract: This article examines pre-thirteenth century discussions of the materiality or immateriality of hellfire in the time before the resurrection in the works of Augustine, Gregory the Great, Julian of Toledo, Hugh of St. Victor, Peter Lombard, and Aelred of Rievaulx. I chart two possibilities regarding hellfire’s nature. In the first, the flames of Hell are incorporeal like the souls of the damned and are experienced in a manner parallel to the images encountered by dreamers. In the second, hellfire is a corporeal fire that torments the souls of the damned before the resurrection, as well as their souls and renewed bodies after the resurrection. Discussions of hellfire’s corporeality illuminate the relationship between the spiritual and the material, particularly that between material reality and its immaterial likenesses. In these discussions, incorporeal likeness or image often functions as the equivalent of the material and the experience of the bodily senses; nevertheless, a corporeal fire that is more than spirit or image consistently emerges as a key point of belief and material continuity between the embodied present and the eschaton.