Anke Bernau

title.none: MacLachlan and Fletcher, eds., Virginity Revisited (Anke Bernau)

identifier.other: baj9928.0806.006 08.06.06

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Anke Bernau, University of Manchester,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2008

identifier.citation: MacLachlan, Bonnie and Judith Fletcher, eds. Virginity Revisited: Configuration of the Unpossessed Body. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2007. Pp. 204. $55 $55 978-0-8020-9013-3. ISBN: 978-0-8020-9013-3.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 08.06.06

MacLachlan, Bonnie and Judith Fletcher, eds. Virginity Revisited: Configuration of the Unpossessed Body. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2007. Pp. 204. $55 $55 978-0-8020-9013-3. ISBN: 978-0-8020-9013-3.

Reviewed by:

Anke Bernau
University of Manchester

This collection of essays is wide-ranging, including chapters on the virginity of Greek goddesses, on the Roman cult of the Vestal Virgins, on late medieval devotional writing to the Virgin Mary and Margaret Atwood's novel, Alias Grace. It is also methodologically diverse, offering the reader interested in cultural understandings of virginity different perspectives on what is a durable as well as complex identity within Western culture. And this should perhaps be emphasised: the collection focuses on Western history and, predominantly, on female virginity.

There has been a growing interest in virginity over the past two to three decades, but not many collections breach period boundaries in the way that this one aims to do. It is, in my view, one of its strengths, for it manages to highlight both the diversity (and specificity) of cultural understandings of virginity, as well as its durability. The collection consists of an introduction, by Bonnie MacLachlan, and nine chapters, none of which is very long. This has the benefit of providing a selection of stimulating material while leaving the reader enough time and energy to keep reading. It also has some drawbacks, which I will return to later on. The contributions are as follows: Eleanor Irwin, "The Invention of Virginity on Olympus"; Judith Fletcher, "The Virgin Choruses of Aeschylus"; Ann Ellis Hanson, "The Hippocratic Parthenos in Sickness and Health"; Holt N. Parker, "Why Were the Vestals Virgins? Or the Chastity of Women and the Safety of the Roman State"; Kate Cooper, "'Only Virgins Can Give Birth to Christ': The Virgin Mary and the Problem of Female Authority in Late Antiquity"; Ilse Friesen, "Virgo Fortis: Images of the Crucified Virgin Saint in Medieval Art"; Jenifer Sutherland, "Amplification of the Virgin: Play and Empowerment in Walter of Wimborne's Marie Carmina"; Thomas Lennon, "Christ from the Head of Jupiter: An Epistemological Note on Huet's Treatment of the Virgin Birth"; Anne Geddes Bailey, "'Sew and Snip and Patch Together a Genius': Quilting a Virginal Identity in Margaret Atwood's Alias Grace". Rather than outline the argument of each chapter, I want to focus on the themes that crop up in many of the individual contributions, in order to demonstrate the collection's range and coherence.

Taken as a whole, the collection highlights shared issues that are central to discourses on female chastity, as well as some paradoxes that lie at its core and explain the anxiety surrounding virginity. This uncertainty imbues virginity with its symbolic power, which needs to be harnessed and channelled if it is not to be threatening and destabilising to the prevailing patriarchal order. Whereas early Christian writers tended to highlight the stable nature of virginity, which allowed women who remained virgins a measure of both anatomical and mental coherence usually reserved for men, these pieces show that it was virginity's lack of fixedness that makes it so potent. Particularly the first four chapters return to this idea. Both Irwin and Fletcher highlight the transitional nature of virginity; Irwin's chapter discusses the divine (and renewable) virginity of Greek goddesses such as Athena and Artemis, while Fletcher is concerned with Aeschylus's description and function (both social and narrative) of virgin choruses in Seven against Thebes, Suppliant Women and Eumenides. In these tragedies the disruptive power of the virgins erupts when they are not controlled by a male authority figure, here the "chorus leader" or choregos. Unsupervised, they behave in ways that are perceived as "chaotic and threatening to the polis" (27). Once they are "tamed", however, their speech becomes "civilised" and powerfully beneficent.

The idea of virginity as interdeterminate matter rather than inchoate speech is noted by Irwin, who argues that "the androgyny of both goddesses [Artemis and Athena] was consistent with the idea of the virgin as pre-gendered" (17). This view was not only one shared by poets and civic authorities, but also by medical writers--at least those of the Hippocratic Corpus that Hanson discusses in her chapter. Writing from the 5th to the early 4th century BCE, these authorities "situated the parthenos at the brink of a perilous transition from child to adult" (40). Indeed, a woman could not become a woman until she was penetrated sexually by a man: "Only intercourse and pregnancy completed the transformation of the girl-child's body to that of a mature woman" (46). While childhood was treated as a time unmarked by gender difference, this changed dramatically after the onset of puberty. Later writers, like Soranus, who modified the Hippocratic view that virginity was unhealthy, nonetheless subscribed to the view that adolescent virgins had to be carefully regulated. Girls who conceive too early, he explains, do so because of faulty upbringing: "Because they had not been taught proper control over their appetites" (55).

Yet if virginity was understood by some as kind of no-man's land, others saw in its liminality the potential for cohesiveness. That is, rather than representing the gap between two categories, virginity became the glue that united them. Thus, this collection frequently notes the virgin's role as mediator or negotiator, both in the Christian and the pre-Christian imaginary. Irwin shows how the goddess Hecate "mediated between regimes--Olympian and Titan--but also between mortal and divine spheres" (14), while Sutherland suggests that "Mary's success is attributed to her appeal both for individual devotion and communal worship" (130). This point is also relevant to Kate Cooper's chapter, in which she concludes that early Christianity used the figure of Mary as a rallying point around which women from widely divergent class, ethnic and geographical backgrounds could unite. Of course Mary's paradoxical nature of mother and virgin merges such usually distinct categories in a highly dramatic (and for many, problematic) manner without, however, negating them. Sutherland makes the point familiar to scholars of Marian devotion, that the Virgin "allows her devotee to stand with her in a number of different relationships: as sister and daughter, and through her to Christ as sister, daughter and lover" (131). That these subject and relational positions are equally available to both male and female only highlights virginity's transcendent and unifying aspect. Just as Mary's unique virginity troubled thinkers, this proliferation of subject positions made Marian devotion popular--and therefore powerful--as well as risky in the eyes of the medieval Church.

The themes of transformation and gender indeterminacy, which are ubiquitous in Christian discourses of virginity, are also present in pre-Christian discourses, as Irwin shows when she argues that both "[d]ivine and mortal parthenoi" possess a "dynamic androgyny." This meant that they "existed outside the usual boundaries...and exhibited both male and female features" (17). A very visual representation of the virgin who combines male and female physical characteristics is discussed by Ilse Friesen, in her chapter on St Wilgefortis. A popular saint from the late medieval period onwards, Wilgefortis's story is, in most aspects, a typical virgin martyr narrative. Daughter to a heathen father, she tries to escape marriage by praying to Christ that he should transform her "into his likeness" (117). He does so, by furnishing her with a bushy beard. When her betrothed calls off the wedding, her enraged father completes her imitatio Christi by having her crucified. Friesen locates the origins of this narrative in "ancient art and mythology", particularly the myth of the "bearded Venus" in Classical antiquity (119). Wilgefortis' cult was widespread and at time so successful that the Church felt obliged to curb it. Transformation is most complete, however, in the stories recounted by Irwin, in which the virgins Daphne and Syrinx evade sexual violation by turning into, respectively, a laurel tree and water reeds. Virgins, even if pre- gendered, are desirable.

Virginal wildness, which sprung out of the gulf that was perceived to lie between the more regulated states of childhood and womanhood, did not only align the human virgin with animals and the sacred and place her outside of the usual social structures, but finally also provided a justification for male power, even violence. As Fletcher notes: "[T]he parthenos required someone to help her fit into civilized life; she would be too powerful and disruptive a force if left to her own devices" (26). Virginity threatens violence and is threatened by it. This close association is reflected in seven out of the nine chapters in this collection. Irwin notes that virginal deities could be violent and simultaneously the object of violent male desire; Fletcher's discussion of Aeschylus's virgin choruses presents us with women who are linguistically and physically violent, as well as being threatened by violence; Hanson tells us that Hippocratic writers associated prolonged virginity with illness and even suicide, while one Galenic treatise includes remedies that allow violated women to appear virginal once more; Parker discusses the different roles of the Vestal Virgin, which include that of sacrificial scapegoat, pharmakos and prodigium; Friesen's chapter focuses on a virgin martyr; Sutherland's account of Walter of Wimborne's Marie Carmine outlines the Franciscan's devotion to Mary as articulated through a series of violent fantasies; and Bailey's reading of Atwood's Alias Grace focuses on the pseudonymous protagonist, whose story revolves around sexual, economic and homicidal violence.

Although it is a familiar idea to medievalists that the Virgin Mary's perfect virginity is symbolised by specific spaces (such as the walled garden) as well as functioning as a metaphor for community (the Church, for instance), it was of particular interest to me to see a similar dynamic at work in earlier accounts. The first five chapters examine different ways in which virginity was integral to communal life. Thus Irwin describes how the virginal goddess Hestia was closely associated with the hearth, itself representative of "not only stability but security", as "centre of the Greek household" (20). The hearth had to be kept pure, free from sexual pollution, and so the virgin goddess came to embody this central space. Fletcher writes of the important role that the parthenos played "in the civic life of Greece," where "her status [was] defined by state-authorized rituals including initiatory rites and marriage" (25). The fertility of virgins had to be harnessed for the reproduction of the community: "Because she would bear citizen children, the virgin was an essential component of the city-state" (26). Hanson shows how Hippocratic ideas emerged out of and in turn contributed to such understandings by highlighting virginity's dangers and encouraging early marriage. Cooper explores how, in the fifth century, imperial Roman women such as Pulcheria (d. 453) actively intervened in theological debates, in this case to "develop the cult of the Virgin Mary as a form of imperial civic religion" (106), an aspect of the Theotokos controversy that Cooper argues most scholars have overlooked. Parker's account of the Vestal Virgins shows how complex and crucial their role was for the Roman state. Their unique legal status (they were not represented either by fathers or husbands) meant that they "belonged" to the city, and their sexual purity was coterminous with Rome's impregnability: "The Vestal's body served as the microcosm of the city" (71). In the case of political upheaval and threat (from the outside or within), the blame was often laid at their door: they must have compromised their virginity, thereby polluting the city as well. Parker's chapter offers a particularly fascinating discussion of how virginity can be both central to structures of power and placed outside them in order to facilitate their maintenance or renewal.

That virginity is never just a private physical state, and is furthermore difficult to locate or prove anatomically, has been highlighted by recent studies that have focused on its performative, discursive nature. This is also evident in a number of ways in this collection, particularly in Cooper's and Bailey's chapters. Cooper shows how drawing on "the politics of identification" (106) allowed imperial women to align themselves with the Mother of God, particularly by casting themselves in the role of patron. Religious writings "offer[ed] enabling narratives" (111) to women, which they could draw on strategically in order to render their own lives coherent and meaningful. In her discussion of Atwood's novel, Alias Grace, Bailey draws on the metaphor of quilt-making to negotiate the two main strands of the plot: "Grace not only spends her days stitching various pieces of fabric together; she also pieces together her memories, a process which, like a quilt, appears to reveal her inner self but in reality re-veils it" (157). The central dynamic of the novel is sexual as well as textual--again, a conjunction that is familiar to scholars of virginity. For the virgin elicits desire because she is unknown. This is what propels the narrative forward, this is what keeps Simon fascinated, this is what keeps the reader reading. Bailey shows how in this novel virginity confers an agency and a voice that Victorian society did not allow "fallen women." Women who were not in control of themselves sexually could not claim to be able to speak for themselves coherently. The search for truth, which is perceived to lie "within" the subject, is, however, ultimately out of reach. The novel complicates the very opposition of inner and outer, of truth and authenticity. In this sense, Bailey shows Atwood's novel to be a novel about telling stories and about the fundamentally impure nature of narrative. Ultimately, there is no body under the quilt, only the quilt itself.

I have already noted the range and diversity of this collection, which is a real strength. The relative brevity of most of the chapters works most of the time, but I would have liked some to have more space to develop their arguments further. I am thinking here in particular of Fletcher, Cooper and Bailey, whose chapters are full of ideas and associations that could be pursued in greater detail. Sutherland's chapter dealt with a fascinating text, but I found her reading of it less persuasive. Some of the comparisons she draws (for instance, between Barbie and the Virgin Mary) are playfully presented and could be interesting but are not really followed up and risk seeming glib. The critical sources cited were rather dated, which is surprising considering the large amount of scholarship done on related topics in recent years. (In fact, there is a general absence of recent scholarship on virginity: I am thinking in particular of work by Sarah Salih and Kathleen Coyne Kelly.) Lennon's chapter does not obviously fit into the collection in terms of shared themes, but the real problem is that the opening discussion of virginity is incorrect. While Mary's post-partum virginity was understood as a physical state, virginity per se was not "taken to be a brute physiological fact relatively easy to verify" before the seventeenth century. Lennon has not considered work done on virginity in previous periods, which seems a shame considering that the collection as a whole encourages the breaking down of narrow period boundaries. His discussion of Huet's challenging interpretation of the Virgin Birth is interesting, but is weakened again by its conclusion, that the "concept of non-physical virginity" is "novel" (155). Finally, I would have liked Friesen to spend more time exploring the comparison she begins with, between medieval and early modern representations of St Wilgefortis, and postmodern feminist art. As it stands, this chapter is descriptive and genealogical rather than analytical; such a comparison could have offered a new and provocative perspective.