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02.09.14, Salih, Versions of Virginity

The Medieval Review

02.09.14, Salih, Versions of Virginity

Can lost virginity be restored? Medieval gynecologists knew techniques for counterfeiting it, and modern ones can perform "hymenoplasties" to help women who dread humiliation or death on their wedding nights. A contemporary evangelical website, addressing rape victims and other distressed women, holds out the promise of perfect innocence renewed by "a supernatural God whose enormous yearning to restore your virginity" drove him to sacrifice his own wholeness "like a defiled virgin" ( On the other hand, St. Jerome -- echoed by numerous medieval writers de virginitate -- warned Eustochium that if she fell, not even almighty God could restore lost virginity. This dictum eventually worked its way into a scholastic quaestio that interrogated the meaning of God's omnipotence by asking whether he could do precisely that. Thomas Aquinas took a characteristically nuanced position, arguing that the formal element of virginity (a firm purpose to remain chaste) could be restored by penance, while the material element (an intact hymen) could theoretically be restored by miracle; but even God could not alter the past, causing a sexually experienced woman to become inexperienced (ST 2-2, q. 152, art. 3, reply to obj. 3).

This question is germane to Sarah Salih's subtle volume on medieval English virginities. Like most medieval religious authors, Salih rejects a merely negative or anatomical understanding of virginity. Like many but not all of them, she regards it as a dynamic and unstable condition that must be continually renewed and renegotiated. For Salih, religious virginity is what Judith Butler would call a performative gender identity, complete with multiple variants and subgenders. To be a virgin is therefore to behave like a virgin within some culturally acceptable context. A female virgin may or may not be a "woman," since in some texts (such as virgin martyr legends) virginity is effectively written as a third gender. Moreover, she may or may not be sexually experienced, since in some cases (like those of Margery Kempe and the unfortunate nun of Watton), virginity once lost is reclaimed by a decision to perform gender differently. Nor is even intact virginity the mere rejection of sexuality. Instead, it entails a sexuality of its own, for if a "man" is a person who desires women and a "woman" one who desires men, a virgin can be defined as one who desires God.

In her two introductory chapters, Salih reviews medieval theories of virginity and claims her place within a spectrum of theoretical and feminist writings. Like many authors on the subject, she recognizes two basic subtypes of virginity or female spirituality, which she labels "militant" and "bridal," while recognizing that the two could alternate or even coincide within the same texts. Although Salih cites these virginities as points along a continuum, she is reluctant to frame her account as a chronological narrative, in part because her chief examples of militant virginity -- the early legends of SS. Katherine, Margaret, and other martyrs -- circulated widely throughout the Middle Ages. Salih privileges Augustine's influential theory of virginity, which locates the virtue in the complex relationship between body and will. Like the website quoted above, Augustine addressed the plight of rape victims, assuring them that if they had never consented to their violation or willingly experienced pleasure, they could still consider themselves virgins.

Salih's argument relies heavily on the congruence between the Augustinian doctrine of will and Butlerian performativity, enabling us to see medieval virginity far more dynamically than previous writers have done. Yet, although this emphasis appeals more to postmodern readers (as it probably did to medieval virgins themselves), it does lead Salih to neglect the counterinfluence of Jerome and others who fetishized virginitas intacta. The disparity between Augustinian and Hieronymian views may well explain why virgin martyr legends so frequently threaten their heroines with rape, yet never actually stage it. God does not protect his saints from public exposure or barbaric torture, but he does allow them to remain anatomically as well as ethically virgin. The scandal of rape would have forced too painful a confrontation between the competing theoretical positions.

Salih's three case studies, arranged in order from the most triumphantly idealized to the most contested, are the virgin martyr legends of the early thirteenth-century Katherine Group; a set of rules, visitation registers, and other texts pertaining to English nuns; and the Book of that aspiring neo-virgin, Margery Kempe. Virgin martyrs were among the most beloved and popular saints of medieval Europe, but these particular Middle English legends (Katherine of Alexandria, Margaret, and Juliana) were retold for the same anchoritic women who constituted the primary audience of Hali Meidhad and Ancrene Wisse. In Salih's reading, the heroines of the Katherine Group are represented not as women but as "virgins who look like women" (63), thus baffling the pagan gaze of their tormentors. If this is the case, she argues, many feminist critics have repeated the mistake of the spectators in assuming that the virgins typify femininity, when in fact they defy it. The pagan suitors and judges read the martyrs' bodies as objects of desire; as soon as they reject male desire they become objects of violence. Yet, far from being the passive victims they superficially appear, the virgins demonstrate their agency, efficacious speech, and invulnerability precisely by overcoming torture, retaining their beauty and wholeness no matter what they suffer. The virgin martyr, apparently shamed by her public nakedness, actually controls her own spectacle: it is only to the pagan gaze that she appears pathetic. To the Christian gaze, including that of the reader, "torture reveals a body which is unfeminine, unashamed, impenetrable, miraculously self-healing" (96). Though often compared with the objectified heroines of romance, the virgin martyrs of legend deconstruct that genre, for "hagiography sees and exposes romance's tendency to mystify, to write domination as love" (59). The martyr's ultimate victory is the death that seals and eternalizes the virginity she has successfully performed, marking the consummation of her power as well as her desire.

While hagiographic virginity belonged to an exotic and idealized past, monastic virginity had to compromise with the exigencies of the present world. Salih's chapter on nuns centers around two symbols of the enclosed virgin body, the veil and the convent wall, together with the monastic practices they signified: profession and enclosure. The ceremony of profession, or clothing, marked the moment at which a woman formally "became" a virgin, that is, a consecrated nun. Like Griselda before her marriage, or at her divorce, the novice making profession was publicly stripped down to her shift in token of her liminal passage from secular to monastic dress. Unlike the virgin martyr in the arena, however, such a novice was "an abject form, visible without being culturally intelligible" (131) until the imposition of the veil conferred her new identity as a nun. Salih considers Christina of Markyate at the outset of her religious career as an instance of this transition gone wrong. Christina's abortive marriage and her family's disapproval left her "stuck" in the liminal state for years, with no social identity at all, enclosed in a tiny cell that simply concealed rather than proclaiming her virginity. In contrast, the enclosure of nuns was meant not so much to shield them from view as to set a physical barrier between virginity on the inside and sexuality on the outside of the convent wall. Salih considers the variable practices of active and passive enclosure as they can be read from monastic rules, visitation records, canon law, and archaeology. (It should be noted, apropos of p. 142, that English Minoresses followed not St. Clare's rule, but that of Isabelle of France.) This chapter concludes with a probing analysis of enclosure's most notorious failure -- the pregnant Gilbertine nun of Watton, who according to a famous account by Aelred of Rievaulx was miraculously delivered by the Virgin and restored, after harsh punishment, to her lost virginity.

Salih's chapter on Margery Kempe, entitled "Like a Virgin?", follows Sarah Beckwith in implying a symbolic link between the English mystic and the American pop star Madonna. One can only wonder what either woman would have made of that connection. Of course the frequently pregnant wife of John Kempe was only "like" a virgin insofar as Christ had declared her to be "a maiden in [her] soul." But for that very reason she becomes the star witness for Salih's contention that, pace Jerome, holy virgins are made, not born. The author's rich, multi-faceted reading of Margery's Book defies easy summary, but manages to shed a remarkable amount of fresh light on this much-studied text. Especially notable are Salih's discussion of Kempe as both born-again virgin and apostoless, "a Thecla without a Paul" (192), and her treatment of the infamous white clothes. Although most critics have taken Kempe's white clothing to be an unambiguous (but therefore controversial) declaration of virginity, Salih shows that neither brides, nuns, Lollards, vowesses, nor anyone else in medieval England commonly wore white. Rather than proudly affirming her renewed virginity, therefore, Margery's unorthodox habit "positions her as a permanently liminal figure" (223) and so attracts an extra portion of the slander that constituted her unique, self-chosen mode of "virgin martyrdom."

Versions of Virginity is a shrewd, sophisticated, and forcefully written book, confident in its demonstration of virginity's theoretical challenge not only to binary gender, but also to many of the assumptions that have governed feminist criticism to date. Not the least of these is that "tempting anachronism" that both author and reviewer, among many others, have found so alluring -- "the assumption that medieval women wanted to be liberated" (243).