Like a Virgin?
The Medieval Origins of a Modern Debate
Although well-behaved women seldom make history, they do sometimes make the news. Over the past few days, numerous news outlets have reported on a new Vatican ruling concerning consecrated virgins. These unmarried Catholic women, also known as ‘brides of Christ’, take a vow of chastity and perform various religious works, but do not enter a religious order or live in a convent.
According to Ecclesiae Sponsae Imago,
It should be kept in mind that the call to give witness to the Church’s virginal, spousal and fruitful love for Christ is not reducible to the symbol of physical integrity. Thus to have kept her body in perfect continence or to have practiced the virtue of chastity in an exemplary way, while of great importance…are not essential prerequisites in the absence of which admittance to consecration is not possible.
What this means is that, at least in theory, a woman can now be consecrated as a virgin even if she has lost her virginity. Unsurprisingly, this ruling has provoked considerable controversy. Although some Canadian vowesses have welcomed the change, a statement by the United States Association of Consecration Virgins described the new document as
deeply disappointing in its denial of integral virginity as the essential and natural foundation of the vocation to consecrated virginity… It is shocking to hear from Mother Church that physical virginity may no longer be considered an essential prerequisite for consecration to a life of virginity.
Given that we live in a society which tends to view virginity as a purely physical state, many people who have read the news reports will share the bafflement of the USACV: how can a woman who has had sex be called a virgin? But if a medieval Christian was presented with the new Vatican ruling, she might well be far less confused than her modern counterpart, since medieval definitions of virginity were rather more complicated than ours. In particular, virginity was widely recognized as a mental and spiritual condition as well as a physical one. Consequently, medieval virginity involved not only a lack of sexual partners, but also the renunciation of all forms of sexual activity, including masturbation and impure thoughts.
For those who were trying to remain virginal, such broad definitions were deeply problematic. But for some pious women, the complexity of medieval ideas about virginity offered hope. In The City of God, St Augustine (354-430) reassured Christian women who were raped during the Sack of Rome that ‘purity is a virtue of the mind…it is not lost when the body is violated.’ His point was reinforced by the story of a virgin whose hymen was broken during a medical examination. ‘I do not suppose that anyone would be stupid enough to imagine that the virgin lost anything of bodily chastity, even though the integrity of that part had been destroyed.’
According to St Augustine, it was the will which was central in such cases: if the woman had not experienced desire, then her spiritual virginity was intact, even if her body was not. Many medieval theologians took this point even further, and asked whether God was able to restore lost virginity. Some were doubtful: St Jerome (347-420) declared that ‘though God can do all things, He cannot raise up a virgin after she has fallen.’ The anonymous thirteenth-century author of Heli Meidenhad agreed, writing that ‘maidenhood is the treasure that, if it be once lost, will never again be found.’
Others were more optimistic. Thomas Aquinas (1225-74) suggested that corporeal virginity could be restored through a miracle, and spiritual virginity through the forgiveness of sin. For Peter Damian (1007-72), those who questioned God’s ability to restore both physical and spiritual virginity were guilty of questioning His power. If, Damian fumed, God could be born of a virgin, then of course he could achieve the much lesser feat of repairing lost virginity.
For pious women who longed for the religious life, but were obliged to marry, such arguments offered the possibility (perhaps quite literally) of salvation. Patricia Cullum has suggested that some late medieval wives (and perhaps a few husbands) may have seen themselves as spiritual virgins, provided that they had not experienced sexual desire during their marriage. Others took vows of celibacy in widowhood, which could be interpreted as a restoration of virginity. This was the path followed by St Elizabeth of Hungary (d. 1231), a princess who married in accordance with her father’s wishes, but vowed that if she outlived her husband, she would live ‘in perpetual continence.’ She kept her vow, and attained the ‘hundredfold fruit’ which was traditionally the heavenly reward of virgins. Her experiences would seem to confirm the claims of the Ancrene Riwle (a thirteenth-century English rule for anchoresses) that, although marriage turns a virgin into a wife, a subsequent marriage to God (in the form of a vow of chastity) can restore virginity to one who has been married.
In the fifteenth-century, the Norfolk mystic Margery Kempe (c. 1373-1438) received the ultimate proof that sexual intercourse did not have to signal the end of a woman’s spiritual life. Margery was tormented by her lost virginity, which she considered to be her ‘great sorrow.’ Married at twenty, she bore fourteen children before her husband finally agreed to live chastely. But, when she tearfully bewailed her fallen state to Christ (with whom she often conversed), He reassured her:
Because you are a maiden in your soul, I shall take you by the one hand in heaven, and my mother by the other, and so you shall dance in heaven with other holy maidens and virgins, for I may call you dearly bought and my own beloved darling.
Although it seems unlikely that the Vatican’s new ruling was in any way inspired by The Book of Margery Kempe, her story hints at the complexities of religious virginity- and demonstrates that there strong historical reasons for adopting a more flexible approach.
Katherine Harvey is a Research Fellow at Birkbeck, University of London. She is the author of Episcopal Appointments in England, c. 1214-1344 (Ashgate, 2014), and has published on topics including the medieval episcopate, bodies, and sexual health. She is currently writing a book on the medieval episcopal body for OUP. She tweets from @keharvey2013. This article was originally published by Notches.