other works

The physical body and spirituality

Analyse the relationship between the physical body and spirituality in The Life of Christina of Markyate

Analyse the relationship between the physical body and spirituality in The Life of Christina of Markyate

In ‘The Life of Christina of Markyate’ (which has no known author, although it is widely assumed that it was written by a monk who was close to Christina with some help from the saint herself), there are many clear links between spirituality and the physical body.  This is shown through the way Christina presents herself to the world through her choice in clothing; the physical trauma she endures as a result of her choice to remain a virgin and live a chaste life and there are also many examples of the spiritual world manifesting itself in different physical forms.  As she matures and gains more authority over her body, her spirituality grows too, resulting in her many interactions with God himself, showing the truth in the idea that ‘one is not born, but rather becomes, a saint’.[1]  Christina has to undergo many trials, both mental and physical, in order to achieve sainthood and this proves that the physical body and spirituality are inextricably linked within this hagiographical tale.  Whilst this is true, there are also indications that visions and mental images are equally as important as they seem to affect Christina just as much, if not more than the physical manifestations.  This may be because when only Christina can see something she realises the importance of it as it cannot be anything other than a divine message.

The physical body and spiritual self are very clearly intertwined in this book, and one way this is most clearly shown is through the clothing Christina wears.  This is significant as ‘sainthood is an identity inscribed on the surface of a body, which operates as a stage where the appearance of a core of internal holiness is performed’.[2]  Her clothes identify or protect her, acting as a kind of camouflage in some cases.  When she is cast out of her home by her father for refusing to submit to his wishes, she is ‘stripped…of her bodily garments, but more blessedly clad with the jewels of virtue’[3], showing how important her spirituality is in protecting her from the world when the opinions of others that have been imposed onto her all of her life have been removed, they can see who she truly is at her core.[4]  During her first encounter with the Virgin Mother, she is dressed in a white robe whilst Beorhtred is in a black one.  The colour white has strong connotations of purity (i.e. virginity), innocence and is also reminiscent of Saint Perpetua’s vision of the martyrs, thus clearly identifying Christina herself as one of them.[5]  When she arrives at Flamstead, she ‘put on a rough garment as her religious habit’[6] and sacrifices her life of comfort and luxury in order to more fully devote herself to God and worshipping him.  By succeeding in her escape, she has shed her past life and has almost been freed from the chains of the human world and truly begun entering the spiritual realm as her religious journey progresses.[7]

A trope of virgin martyr tales is that the young girl will have to undergo some kind of immense physical torture which often overtly sexualises her.  These scenes show the physical weakness of the martyr, but the immense strength of her words (i.e. spiritual preachings and experiences).  Christina endures a lot of physical damage to her body from those close to her ‘seized her by the hair and beat her…the scars on her back never faded’.[8]  This is as a direct result of her wish to remain a virgin and shows how her spirituality leads to her flesh being damaged.  Flesh encompasses the whole human being, an almost liminal object that encompasses both body and soul at once but is neither.  It is a permeable barrier that determines whether you are corrupted or redeemed through your faith and is thus apt to allegorize the situation Christina is in.[9]  From a young age this link between the morality of her behaviour and torture was established, as a child she ‘beat her tender flesh with whips whenever she thought she had done something forbidden’[10], an ideal upheld by female saints who were seen as models of suffering and inner spirituality.[11] When her parents tried to ‘harm [her] with particularly powerful magic’ it is revealed that there are ‘two apparitions…who accompany the maiden at all times and defend her on every side from all assaults’, therefore showing the power of her spirituality over all malevolent acts directed at her and how it is strong enough to protect her physical body as well as her soul.[12]  There have been theories that suggest that a strong enough faith could be weaponized but only in order to defend the physical body spiritually and not allow any harm to come to it.  The two apparitions then, may be a spiritual manifestation of this idea.[13]  Multiple times throughout Christina’s life she comes very close to death before being saved by divine intervention, the worst being when ‘at any moment she was expected to breathe her last’ but instead woke up the following night and ‘found herself restored to full health’.[14]  The fact that her staunch, unwavering belief in God caused this to happen is a testament to how connected the physical body and spirit are and what can happen if you truly believe in a divine power.  This could also be another example of the idea of weaponized faith, fighting off the infection which is trying to cause damage to Christina’s body.

Throughout her life, Christina has many visions which seem to affect her as much as the physical repercussions of her devout faith and the life choices she has made because of it.  She ‘unwillingly endures lustful urges’[15] when she is alone and sees this as the Devil trying to attack her faith.  This is the sole temptation Christina faces, but she must strive for a pure spirit in order to be worthy of being the Bride of Christ.  By retaining her virginity, she rises above the supposed weaknesses and limitations of her femininity and such evades spiritual harm.[16]  During the time Christina is healing the sick woman, she is the ‘only one of those present able to see…that Christ had sent his apostle’[17], thus proving he did not have a physical form and confirming that this is a vision.  However, Christina knows that this is as real an experience as if he had instead appeared in a corporeal form.  This suggests that spirituality may transcend the physical body and in some cases, does not need to manifest itself in a human form in order to have just as much spiritual significance.

Following on from this idea, there are many points at which Christina’s spiritual self and the protection that gives her acts upon her physical body.  The prime examples of this are her two feats of miraculous strength- when she jumps over the fence with ease and when she hangs off the nail in order to avoid Beorhtred.  We know that neither of these actions are humanly possible, so we can only assume that she is granted the ability to perform them through divine intervention, therefore these are cases of spirituality acting upon the physical body and influencing it.  There are many points at which the Devil is shown to physically manifest himself, for example through the apparition of toads in Christina’s cell and as ‘a body without a head’[18] outside the church in order to try and scare Christina in a physical manner, as he could not achieve this in any other respect due to the immense strength of her faith.  When Christina becomes consecrated, she undertakes a solemn oath to dedicate herself to being the virgin Bride of Christ and this clearly links her physical self and spiritual self as by having a ceremony it is made clear to all around her that this is truly her path in life.  By holding a ceremony to ‘put her neck under a yoke of obedience and to confirm her vow’[19] to become the Bride of Christ which she made at such a young age, it almost becomes an earthly marriage and the spiritual connection to Christ is forever bestowed onto Christina’s physical body.

In conclusion, it is clear to see that throughout the tale undeniable links are made between the physical body and spirituality.  The best example of this is the twig Christina is given to keep by the Virgin Mother, which later is revealed to be from the Camilla flower.  The plant as a whole represents Christina’s body, and the blossom the ‘honour of her virginity’.[20]  This, as well as her ability to be in two different places at once (as shown when she visits Geoffrey in his dream, whilst she too is sleeping) shows how she has become a liminal being.[21]  The boundary between her physical body and her spirituality becomes blurred and she begins to transgress them, engaging with both realms equally.  It is evident how inextricable the two ideas are, as both play as equally important a role in establishing her true identity as a saint and this contrast epitomises the ‘day to day struggles between [her] faith and physical form’ which is a common issue faced by saints.[22]


Beauvoir, Simone de, The Second Sex, ed. by H. M. Parshley (London: Vintage, 1997)

Donovan, Leslie, Women Saints’ Lives in Old English prose (Gateshead, Tyne & Wear: Athenaeum Press, 1999)

Royle, Joanna, “Transitional Holiness In The Twelfth Century: The Social And Spiritual Identity Of Domina

Christina Of Markyate” (unpublished Ph.D, University of Glasgow, 2008)

The Life of Christina of Markyate, trans. by C.H. Talbot (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009)

The Holy Bible, New International Version (Colorado Springs: Biblica Inc, 2011)


[1] Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, ed. by H. M. Parshley (London: Vintage, 1997), p. 295.

[2] Joanna Royle, “Transitional Holiness In The Twelfth Century: The Social And Spiritual Identity Of Domina Christina Of Markyate” (unpublished Ph.D, University of Glasgow, 2008). p.184.

[3] The Life of Christina of Markyate, trans. by C.H. Talbot (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), p.24.

[4] Royle, p.172.

[5] The Holy Bible, New International Version (Colorado Springs: Biblica Inc, 2011), Revelation 7:9-14.

[6] The Life of Christina of Markyate, p.34.

[7] Royle, p.172.

[8] The Life of Christina of Markyate, p.25.

[9] Royle, p.178.

[10] The Life of Christina of Markyate, p.4.

[11] Leslie Donovan, Women Saints’ Lives in Old English prose (Gateshead, Tyne & Wear: Athenaeum Press, 1999), p.13.

[12] The Life of Christina of Markyate, p.24.

[13] Donovan, p.125.

[14] The Life of Christina of Markyate, p.51.

[15] Ibid., p.48.

[16] Donovan, p.121.

[17] The Life of Christina of Markyate, p.49.

[18] Ibid., p. 81.

[19] Ibid., p.63.

[20] Ibid., p.67.

[21] Royle, pp.167-8.

[22] Donovan, p.124.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *