Karen Harris and Lori Caskey-Sigety
THE MEDIEVAL VAGINA
A HYSTERICAL AND HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE OF ALL THINGS VAGINAL DURING THE MIDDLE AGES
About the Cover Photograph
I snapped the photograph that appears on the cover of this book while visiting Scotland and England in June 2013. The photograph is the entrance to Bothwell, a 15th century castle near Glasgow, Scotland. Interestingly, I was a castle virgin before visiting Europe for the first time, so this photograph is particularly fitting for this book.
~ Lori Caskey-Sigety
Welcome to the MV!
Any student of the medieval era worth his/her salt will no doubt be familiar with Geoffrey Chaucer’s
While the authors immersed themselves in researching the Middle Ages, it was their goal to present the volume of academic information in a format that is not only accessible, but fun, light and entertaining. With that objective in mind, Karen Harris and Lori Caskey-Sigety wrote
Each chapter of
The authors, Karen Harris and Lori Caskey-Sigety, met as graduate students at Indiana University South Bend and shared a similar writing style, one that sprinkles a pinch of levity on top of the typically dry and humorless academic research writing. The idea for
Virginity was more complicated in the medieval times, because not only was the vagina attached to the woman, but it was enmeshed with a variety of moral and societal issues. Medieval virginity caused the polarization and unequal separation of men and women; the church, controlled by men, was also heavily invested and involved in the protection and preservation of a woman’s precious maidenhood. Medieval virginity testing was used by the church and families in order to control and ensure that women were moral and pure. (Never mind the fact that there isn’t much—if any—information on penile virginity testing for men.) Finally, since the main focus was on hymen preservation come hell-or-high water, women had to go to great lengths to either maintain or restore the coveted medieval cherry.
The following chapters discuss polarization of men and women in the medieval times; feature examples of intrusive medieval virginity testing; and provide the lengths that women went through to give the illusion of being the medieval virgin.
The concept of medieval virginity was both complex and contradictory. All involved parties — the church, the crown, men — agreed that virginity was a good and desirable thing for women to hold on to, guarding it against both internal worldly desire and external horny boys until… It is when we get to the “until” part that opinions begin to differ. The religious authority viewed virginity as a way to eternal salvation while the secular authority saw virginity as the ideal state of being for an unmarried maiden who will then relinquish her virginity to her husband upon marriage. Herein lays the dichotomy of virginity; should women aspire to be like the Virgin Mary, forever chaste, or like a whore, albeit a married, monogamous one, engaging in immoral sex. The virgin-whore paradox.
To understand the polarized view of virginity, it is first necessary to understand the polarized view of sex in the Middle Ages. Sexual intercourse was not seen as entirely sinful because, it was thought, God would not create such a necessary act, then make it sinful. Only through sex could humans go forth and multiply, as per God’s command. Sex, however, was an awful lot of fun. It was the pleasure derived from a roll in the sheets that was immoral, and this sets up the contrasting idea that sex is both good and bad. Likewise, virginity was viewed as both good and bad. So many paradoxes.
First, the good. Virginity was a necessary trait of a bride and the only way that a bridegroom could be certain that any child born was his, ensuring that inheritance was passed on to a true heir and not some bastard child from his wife’s adulterous fling. The importance of virginity in the Middle Ages was so high that a monetary value was assigned to it. Prospective grooms sought out virgin brides, who often came to the marriage with larger dowries than non-virgins. The combination meant that the maiden’s virginity was turned into a commodity, a commodity which was offered to the highest bidder, or at least to the honorable gentleman, who could most benefit the girl’s family, be it through land, alliance, power, or coin. So in this regard, virginity was good (and a type of goods) until it was parlayed into an ideal marriage.
The church, however, felt that maidens should hold on to that virginity even longer–like forever! The church explained to young girls that donating their dowries to the church coffers and taking the vows to become a nun, thus committing to lifelong virginity, was the ideal way to guarantee passage into Heaven. In this scenario, the father of the new nun has paid the same amount to the church as he would have to a husband, but he does not get an alliance, land, or power in exchange. And he doesn’t even get grandchildren. As much as the clergy tried to spin this scenario as the best option for young girls, many families disagreed.
This debate boiled down to one question: is virginity a consumable commodity that is meant to be spent or a treasure meant to be kept safe and unharmed both on earth ...