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Virginity Revisited

Virginity Revisited: Configurations of the Unpossessed Body

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    Virginity Revisited
    Book Description:

    This is a study of the positive and negative features of sexual renunciation, from ancient Greek divinities and mythical women, in Rome's Vestal Virgins, in the Christian martyrs and Mariology in the Medieval and early Modern period, and in Grace Marks, the heroine of Margaret Atwood's novelAlias Grace.

    eISBN: 978-1-4426-8510-9
    Subjects: History, Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-2)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 3-12)

    Comus, in Milton’s poem of the same name, attempts to persuade the Lady to forfeit her virginity. His rhetoric is summarily dismissed by her, and she responds with serious high praise of the ‘doctrine’ of virginity:

    Thou hast nor ear, nor soul to apprehend

    The sublime notion, and high mystery,

    That must be utter’d to unfold the sage

    And serious doctrine of Virginity.Comus784–7

    As a doctrine, virginity has been a cultural artifact. For much of human history, it has been held in high esteem for young women approaching marriage: virginity has been an essential quality for determining...

  5. 1 The Invention of Virginity on Olympus
    (pp. 13-23)

    It goes without saying that the Greek gods and goddesses were social constructions. They arose from a social reality initially embedded in the Greek Bronze Age, and their characteristics were modified and adapted somewhat to suit the needs of later historical periods. They were, in other words,invented. To some degree their portraits mirrored the lives of Greek men and women, but in certain other ways their narratives sketch some dramatic departures from what we know of the everyday life of the Greeks. We can only conjecture why this was so, assuming that these divine constructs arose in order to...

  6. 2 The Virgin Choruses of Aeschylus
    (pp. 24-39)

    ‘Thundered voiced’ Aeschylus, as his fellow citizen Aristophanes called him, produced dramas reverberating with clamorous, elemental violence. Often this sound and fury emanate from confrontations between male and female forces, battles of the sexes which characterize and symbolize not only the universal forces of the human psyche, but also the conventions and structures of Aeschylus’s own society, democratic Athens. Although his tragedies (with the exception ofThe Persians) are set in the legendary past, they nevertheless address political and social concerns of the poet’s own day: Aeschylus shaped his mythical female characters from a contemporary matrix. His portrait of the...

  7. 3 The Hippocratic Parthenos in Sickness and Health
    (pp. 40-65)

    Medical writers of the Hippocratic Corpus, composing their anonymous treatises in the fifth and early fourth centuries BC, situated theparthenosat the brink of a perilous transition from child to adult.¹ No English word overlaps well with Greekparthenos, although we approximate it with the translations ‘young girl,’ ‘virgin,’ ‘maiden.’ The body of theparthenoswas no longer that of the genderless child, such as she had inhabited it from birth, nor was her body yet able to function like that of a fully mature woman (gyne). As wife, mother, and mistress of her husband’s household, thegynebirthed...

  8. 4 Why Were the Vestals Virgins? Or the Chastity of Women and the Safety of the Roman State
    (pp. 66-99)

    Plutarch seems puzzled. Why did the Vestals have to be virgins? The explanations offered up until recently have tended to be, like Plutarch’s own, unsatisfactory. The work of Mary Beard and Ariadne Staples’s recentFrom Good Goddess to Vestal Virgins² represent major advances in our understanding of the cult of the Vestals. I believe we can go even further. By looking to analyses of similar symbolic structures in a variety of cultures, especially in the area of witchcraft, and by drawing on the work of Maureen J. Giovannini, René Girard, and Mary Douglas, we can offer not only an explanation...

  9. 5 ‘Only Virgins Can Give Birth to Christ’: The Virgin Mary and the Problem of Female Authority in Late Antiquity
    (pp. 100-115)

    The sixth-centuryPassion of Gallicanus, a Latin romance purporting to record the martyrdom of a Christian general of the fourth-century pagan emperor Julian the Apostate, records the prayer of Constantia, daughter of Constantine the Great and virgin of the Church.² Beseeching Jesus, son of Mary, to move Artemia and Attica, the general’s daughters, to dedicate themselves as virgins of the Church, Constantia illustrates the firm belief of Christians at the end of antiquity that human relationships echoed or reflected the mysterious workings of the heavenly realm. According to this view, the Virgin Mary stood as an intercessor before God for...

  10. 6 Virgo Fortis: Images of the Crucified Virgin Saint in Medieval Art
    (pp. 116-127)

    Postmodern feminist artists have thrust the unsettling image of the crucified woman into the contemporary public consciousness, a deliberate and provocative challenge to the most androcentric religious sensibilities. British sculptor Edwina Sandys’sChrista(1975) depicts a naked woman pinned on a cross. Other, more confrontational, works by Barbara Kruger and Sue Coe exploit the form of the crucifix as a metaphor for misogyny and sexual assault.¹

    Although such images, which allow for what Jerry Meyer identifies as a ‘diverse expressive, political and social commentary,’² seem to be a radical departure from the traditional crucifix, they share an antecedent in what...

  11. 7 Amplification of the Virgin: Play and Empowerment in Walter of Wimborne’s Marie Carmina
    (pp. 128-148)

    The men and women who turned to the Virgin Mary for spiritual comfort and guidance in the Middle Ages may have felt that the Mother of God was more approachable than the Father. Certainly this is true of thirteenth-century Franciscan writer Walter of Wimborne. His poetry expresses ambivalence towards the God who ‘prius rigidus et quasi seuiens / sub lege fuerat et leo rugiens’ (previously under the law was rigid / and like a raging, roaring lion), a God who held in his hand ‘ferulam ... et trucem uirgulam’ (the whip and savage rod). Walter seems to have been a...

  12. 8 Christ from the Head of Jupiter: An Epistemological Note on Huet’s Treatment of the Virgin Birth
    (pp. 149-155)

    The birth of Christ from a Virgin Mother can be read as belonging to the Classical tradition of the miraculous birth of Minerva from the head of Jupiter, or of heroes like Perseus or Heracles born of mortal women but fathered by gods. This claim was made by a major thinker of the early modern period, Pierre-Daniel Huet, who was challenging the empirical approach to the virgin status of the mother of Christ. With his claim, which linked Christ’s miraculous birth to a tradition supplied by pagan narratives, Huet entered the arena of intellectual debate that flourished in the age...

  13. 9 ‘Sew and snip, and patch together a genius’: Quilting a Virginal Identity in Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace
    (pp. 156-176)

    Near the end of Margaret Atwood’sAlias Grace, Simon Jordan dreams of a dissection he must perform for his medical examination:

    It’s a woman, under the sheet; he can tell by the contours ...

    But under the sheet there’s another sheet, and under that another one. It looks like a white muslin curtain. Then there’s a black veil, and then – can it be? – a petticoat. The woman must be down there somewhere; frantically he rummages. But no; the last sheet is a bed sheet, and there’s nothing under it but a bed. That, and the form of someone...

    (pp. 177-196)
  15. INDEX
    (pp. 197-204)
  16. Back Matter
    (pp. 205-207)