Barbara Newman

title.none: McInerney, Eloquent Virgins (Barbara Newman )

identifier.other: baj9928.0405.004 04.05.04

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Barbara Newman , Northwestern University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2004

identifier.citation: McInerney, Maud Burnett. Eloquent Virgins from Thecla to Joan of Arc. Series: The New Middle Ages. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. Pp. xi, 250. $45.00 0-312-22350-1. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 04.05.04

McInerney, Maud Burnett. Eloquent Virgins from Thecla to Joan of Arc. Series: The New Middle Ages. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. Pp. xi, 250. $45.00 0-312-22350-1. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Barbara Newman
Northwestern University

As if to compensate for its debasement in our own culture, virginity in the Middle Ages has received an astonishing amount of scholarly attention lately. Studies by Brigitte Cazelles, Karen Winstead, Jocelyn Wogan-Browne, Kathleen Kelly, and Sarah Salih have staked out a wide range of positions, reminding us that in this case as in so many others, we must learn to speak of "virginities" in the plural. Even the virgin martyr, seemingly the most monolithic of female stereotypes, proves to invite multiple receptions.

Maud Burnett McInerney's volume differs from most in dealing chiefly with the Latin tradition. Beginning with early Christian texts such as the Acts of Thecla and the Passion of Saint Perpetua, she moves briskly through the church fathers, dwells lovingly on Hrotsvitha and Hildegard of Bingen, detours into the vernacular to examine Wace and Clemence of Barking, and returns via the Golden Legend to end with "the last of the virgin martyrs," Joan of Arc. McInerney's thesis is simple but absolutely convincing as she deploys it through a series of attentive and supple readings. From the beginnings of Christianity, virginity offered women an avenue of escape from marriage and the networks of social control it entailed, and at least in some cases, a concomitant freedom with regard to emerging structures of patriarchal authority in the Church. The virgin, unlike the good Christian wife, might claim the right to free speech, spiritual opportunities and status equal to men, and the power of resistance against tyranny. Recognizing these dangers, churchmen from Tertullian onwards sought to circumscribe such liberties by tying virginity ever more tightly to meekness in the face of torture: "it will no longer be the speech of the virgin martyr that testifies, but her beautiful, passive, vulnerable body" (67). One thinks of the old anti-AIDS slogan, "Silence equals death." Despite this official line on virgins and virginity, however, virgin martyr legends always retained their potential for subversion, and women writers in particular could be counted on to rediscover and renew it. In McInerney's telling, therefore, the long history of virgin martyr legends becomes a tug of war between two fundamentally opposing tendencies, with each text occupying its own position somewhere along a hagiographic spectrum.

In an introduction titled "Genuine Devotion, Imaginary Bodies," McInerney opens with an engaging account of a neo-medieval play still performed in the Burgundian village of Alise-Sainte-Reine to honor the local martyr. Conceding the ahistorical status of most such legends, she notes, "It is precisely the imaginary nature of the virgin martyr that proves her indispensability; she did not exist, and it was necessary therefore to invent her" (4). The virgin body, whether speaking or silent, was an ineluctably female body--and here McInerney takes issue with the "gnostic" ideal of virginity influentially characterized by John Bugge as "both asexual and ungendered" (5). McInerney's position also contrasts with Sarah Salih's more recent reading of virginity in at least some texts as a "third gender," consciously constructed in opposition to normative femininity. [[1]]

Chapter 1, "Strange Triangle: Tertullian, Perpetua, Thecla," juxtaposes two outspoken women, the first a non-virgin and the second a non-martyr, with pronouncements on female silence from the fiercely anti-heretical heretic Tertullian. Perpetua of Carthage and her companion Felicitas were historical martyrs put to death in 203; their tale was told in Perpetua's remarkable prison diary and converted to a martyr legend, The Passion of Saint Perpetua, by an anonymous redactor who added an eyewitness account of their execution. Both were young mothers, so childbirth and lactation play a memorable part in their story--yet later martyrologies recast them as virgins, demonstrating the magnetic pull of convention. Tertullian, who may or may not have been the redactor of Perpetua's diary, had earlier written a Prescription Against Heretics in which he denounced the audacity of heretical women who presumed to teach, dispute, exorcize, and baptize. Yet the same author, one of the most deeply paradoxical figures in church history, ended his life as a Montanist and thus a disciple of two such women, the prophetesses Prisca and Maximilla. More surprisingly still, Tertullian's heretication led to a heightening rather than the expected softening of his antifeminist rhetoric, especially in his Montanist treatise On the Veiling of Virgins. Veiling symbolizes both the subordination of women and their inescapable sexuality, which is only intensified by the allure of virginity. Tertullian apparently viewed ecstatic female prophecy as a kind of sexual possession by God, making him all the more fearful of virgins who might be possessed by demons. Among the "wrong" sort of virgins was Thecla, a legendary protegee of Paul, whose popular Acts Tertullian denounced as a forgery. It is not hard to see why, for Thecla preserved her virginity but escaped martyrdom altogether, pursuing her bold missionary career into old age and wearing as her trademark habit not the virgin's veil but the philosopher's cloak.

In Chapter 2, "Androgynous Virgins and the Threat of Rape in the Fourth Century," McInerney explores the age she rightly sees as a watershed in the history of virginity. She begins with a road not taken, at least not in Western Christendom: that of a truly androgynous or gender-neutral virginity, based on a high-minded Platonism that does not so much denigrate as sublimate the body. This is the choice of the neglected and highly unusual Greek theologian, Methodius of Olympus, whose Symposium christianizes Plato's by staging a contest among ten virgins who give speeches in praise of virginity. The all-female contestants, including the winner Thecla, are portrayed as virtuous philosophers equal, and in fact remarkably similar, to men. Yet male sexuality is also celebrated, and male virginity presented as a realistic option. In contrast, desert fathers such as Cassian and Paphnutius, in their woman-free world, plumbed the dynamics of male continence with something akin to envy for the female virgin, whose integrity seemed so much easier to measure. The influential Latin theologians Jerome, Ambrose, and Augustine all essentialized female virginity in their varied ways. Jerome, the misogynist whose best friends were women, echoes Tertullian's paradoxes: virgins and widows were among his favorite students, yet he would not tolerate them as teachers. Ambrose, the first theologian to represent the inviolate virgin body as a symbol of the church, thus created an ideology "both enormously potent and enormously oppressive" (67). Augustine, worrying over the rape of consecrated virgins during the sack of Rome, gave with one hand what he took away with the other, allowing that a woman who had not consented to her rape remained a virgin, yet casting doubt on the very possibility of non-consent in view of what he took to be the inescapable pleasure of sex.

Hrotsvitha, the tenth-century canoness and court poet, receives a subtle reading in Chapter 3. Despite her debt to Aldhelm, whose works were brought to the Continent by British missionaries, the "strong voice of Gandersheim" created virgin martyrs who for the first time display "not only subjectivity but attitude" (88). Aldhelm's women, unlike his male virgins, are neither prophets nor miracle-workers; they reveal saintliness only by their ornamental deaths. Hrotsvitha, retelling many of the same legends, de-eroticizes these virgins and gives them forensic eloquence instead. Comedy, hardly a normal feature of virgin martyr legends, marks what may be the most celebrated instance of the female gaze in medieval drama: the scene from Agapes, Chionia and Hirena (aka Dulcitius) in which three sisters watch through a peephole as their maddened would-be rapist embraces kitchen pots, imagining that he is in bed with the virgins. As McInerney observes, the empowered virginity of Hrotsvitha's heroines reflected the genuine power and influence of her community, inhabited by such "princesses of the Church" as Sophia of Gandersheim, a sister and close advisor of Otto III.

Hildegard of Bingen's Symphonia is the subject of Chapter 4. The author aptly characterizes Hildegard as a "radical conservative" and her ideal of virginity as a "radical femininity" (114-15), harking back to the pre-lapsarian womanhood God created in Eve. Unlike Hrotsvitha's virgins, Hildegard's are intensely erotic, but their sensuality is linked with fertility in a way that distinguishes them from both the prevailing ascetic discourse on virginity and the romance discourse on love. McInerney remarks that "the masculine principle in divinity often seems like little more than a hyphen, a conduit for female desire directed at female objects of desire" (141). While this may not be true of Hildegard's Gesamtwerk, it holds for the largely homosocial world of her Ursula songs. As an interesting sidelight in this chapter, McInerney considers Hildegard's knowledge of the sibylline tradition, which may have inflected her representation of the prophets in the Ordo virtutum as well as her own Nachleben.

In Chapter 5, McInerney returns to the vexed problem of male virginity, which arises in Hrotsvitha's Pelagius legend and again in Hildegard's songs for St. Rupert. The Ottonian poet represents Pelagius, a near-contemporary martyr from Umayyad Spain, as the object of a would-be homosexual rape by the Caliph 'Abd al-Rahman III. Emphatically rejecting "Abdrahemen's" advances, Pelagius dies much like a female virgin, resisting the united threats of apostasy and sexual assault. While McInerney does not attempt to resolve the source-critical problems raised by the legend or the sexuality of the caliph, she argues that, for Hrotsvitha, this unique male virgin was an exception proving the rule: virginity can be vindicated only by the threat of rape. To Hildegard, conversely, virginity was a trait so essentially female that men by definition could not be virgins. They could at best be chaste, like the apostle John or the noble Carolingian St. Rupert, for whom Hildegard is our sole hagiographic source. According to McInerney, the boy saint celebrated in some of the composer's most elegant lyrics "is a near miss on all counts, not quite a virgin, not quite a martyr, and perhaps not even quite male" (146) because he is so conspicuously feminized. Like Ursula, in fact, Rupert becomes a type of the Church, ordinarily the role of Christ's bride.

In Chapter 6, "Catherine and Margaret: Vernacular Virgins and the Golden Legend," McInerney turns to the virgin martyrs who inspired Joan of Arc. Comparing two Anglo-Norman lives, she finds that, although Wace's Vie de Sainte Marguerite gives the saint a quasi-magical eloquence, he prefers to stress her fundamental naivete, preserving the now-classic genre traits of female passivity, male sadism, and audience voyeurism. The nun Clemence of Barking, on the other hand, uses her Vie de Sainte Catherine to present a genuinely complex, psychologically conflicted persecutor as well as a philosopher-theologian on the model of Thecla. Clemence's Catherine is a plaideresse or "female lawyer" who can vanquish the emperor's rhetoricians on their own ground. In the most popular of all hagiographic texts, the Golden Legend (extant in more than a thousand manuscripts, not counting translations), the author's deliberate conservatism excludes virtually all female saints except for virgin martyrs. Jacobus de Voragine's virgins are hardly meek or silent: indeed, their speech is so aggressive that "it must be silenced at all costs" (193). Despite their fearless eloquence, however, these martyrs are decidedly admirandae sed non imitandae. In giving their bodies to an endless series of tortures, they appear to be not only inhuman but figures of the remote, legendary past. Nevertheless, however much they repel readers today, these martyrs could always be reinvented by medieval women as sources of authority and power. In a moving epilogue, McInerney considers Joan of Arc as "the most visible woman of the Middle Ages," the one who "literalized the virgin martyr narrative completely" (195). Tragically, the only element of the legend that Joan seemed quite unable to anticipate was its outcome: pure, brave, and holy, the heroine always dies in the end.

Medievalists with an interest in hagiography, women's history, and graceful writing have reason to thank Maud Burnett McInerney for this elegant revisionist study.


[[1]] Sarah Salih, Versions of Virginity in Late Medieval England (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2001). I reviewed Salih's volume for TMR (02.09.14) during the interval when reviews were not being circulated to subscribers. Interested readers may consult the TMR website.