The Medieval Vagina: A Hysterical and Historical Perspective of All Things Vaginal During the Middle Ages

Karen Harris and Lori Caskey-Sigety



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!

The Medieval Vagina, or the MV as we have come to call it, is intended to offer readers a glimpse of the most feminine of body parts during one particular moment in time. This book is for the feminist. It is for the historian. It is for the medievalist. It is for the humorist. It is for the curious male. It is for the lover of the unusual, the weird, the quirky, and the slightly vulgar. It is for anyone who appreciates the uniquely female organ that plays a key role in progeny, pleasure, punishment and peccadillo.

Any student of the medieval era worth his/her salt will no doubt be familiar with Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, arguably one of the most important literary works of the Middle Ages. In this work, the proto-feminist Wife of Bath mentions a well-known fable of the time in which a man and a lion ponder a painting depicting a man killing a lion. The lion observes that, had a member of his own species painted the picture, the outcome would be different; it would have shown a lion defeating a man. Just as the artist naturally paints himself in the dominant role as the victor, the documentarians of history favor their own kind. We know that the recorders of medieval history had one key commonality — all were sans vagina. The Middle Ages, as with most of human history, was a time of great inequality between the genders. The balance of power favored those with a penis. Men, as the bookkeepers of history, overlooked and/or minimized the role of women, choosing instead to highlight their own masculine accomplishments. This book is an attempt to, like the lion in the fable, reconstitute the bits of evidence that remains about women, gender roles, sexuality, power, equality, and the vagina to textually paint a picture that is quite different from the one painted by medieval men as they recorded histories. In a warped sense, one could say that The Medieval Vagina offers a view of an historical time period through the vaginal lens, with a comical twist.

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 The Medieval Vagina with a fast-paced blend of academic research and biting sarcasm while examining the medieval attitudes, misconceptions, and myths surrounding the vagina. The authors hope to produce a chuckle, snort, or snicker from the readers, as well as a plethora of other emotions — disgust, indignation, injustice, helplessness, along with fascination, wonder, pride, and appreciation. Readers of this book come away with new-found information about the two key words in the title: the medieval time period and the vagina.

Each chapter of The Medieval Vagina is a stand-alone study of its topic, ranging from vaginal torture devices, vaginal references in medieval music to prostitution, rape, and childbirth in the Middle Ages, however, taken as a whole, this book shows the triumph of the vagina… how medieval women embraced their feminine organ amid a sea of men who were either repulsed by or attracted to it.

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 The Medieval Vagina emerged from Harris’s master’s thesis project and a series of Facebook messages between her and Sigety. Drawing on Sigety’s experience in publishing and with encouragement from their husbands, instructors and fellow graduate students, Harris and Sigety embarked on a journey of discovery and research to simultaneously unearth all things medieval and all things vaginal. The culmination of their research is The Medieval Vagina, a collection of evidence showing that, although the Middle Ages was a male-dominated era, there was no escaping the mysterious allure and frightening repulsion of this unique, multi-functional, feminine organ — and that is the paradox of the vagina.


Chapter Overview

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.

Polarizing Virginity

She nevere cessed, as I writen fynde,

Of hir preyere and God to love and drede,

Bisekynge hym to kepe hir maydenhede.

~ Geoffrey Chaucer, The Second Nun’s Tale, The Canterbury Tales

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 ...

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