Medieval Virginity Testing and Virginity Restoration
In the Middle Ages, virginity was a sought-after commodity, primarily because it was the surest method to guarantee paternity. The only way to make absolutely sure that a child born to a marriage--a child who would inherit property from his father--is a legitimate heir was to bed a virgin bride. Thus a high value was placed on virginity, making it a commodity of sorts. As with all things, once a value is assigned an object, people will go to great lengths to prove its authenticity and to regain it if it is lost. Such was the case with medieval virginity.
A unique feature of the vagina is that it comes hermetically sealed. For centuries, that seal, the hymen, has been the tangible proof of virginity. An intact hymen, or virgo intacta, offers evidence to the male block of society (the clergy, the courts, the crown, fathers, and future husbands…all the ones who have assigned a high monetary value to virginity) that determined its presence.
The most obvious way to verify a woman’s virginity was to inspect the hymen. While this was commonplace in the Middle Ages, it was not infallible. Some women are born without hymens and others rupture theirs prematurely doing the strenuous activities that comprised women’s work in the medieval era. It fell to midwives to do hymen inspections. Some midwives, demonstrating the bonds of sisterhood, declared a woman to be a virgo intacta when she clearly wasn’t. But most midwives were honest in their appraisal and their findings served to, in a sense, throw their fellow female under the medieval bus. Why would they do this? The thumb of oppression under which medieval women lived was so large, so omnipresent, so engrained in society, that most women believed the cultural rhetoric that labeled females as wicked, untrustworthy, inferior, and dishonest. To “fake” her findings to help another woman save face would be a bold and courageous move for a medieval woman who lived her whole live believing she belonged in the second-rate, subservient role.
Most often, however, the absolute proof of the presence of virginity occurred as it was lost. Honeymoon sheets streaked with blood was all the evidence a bridegroom needed to verify virginity. In fact, the bloody sheets were sometimes snatched from the bed and shown around to others as evidence of wedding night purity. Katherine of Aragon, legend says, kept her blood-stained honeymoon bedding for years and presented them to the court during the annulment case brought against her by Henry VIII. Yes, the spilling of virginal blood was proof of purity, but this, too, could be faked.
It wasn’t too difficult for a clever, yet soiled bride to acquire a vial of blood. Most medieval households had adjoining farms and animals were routinely butchered for dinner. A bit of chicken blood could easily be hidden in a piece of jewelry and spilled on to the sheets under the cover of darkness.
The first-night’s blood and the hymen inspection were tangible, medically-based ways to ascertain virginal status, however, equal validity was granted to spiritual and folkloric virginity tests. Virgins, it was believed, were endowed with magical powers and could quiet swarming bees, tame wild animals, hold water in their hands, and control the urge to urinate, among other things. Medieval medical books often included references to this last myth. To see if a maiden was truly a virgin, the medical books advised, have the woman drink large amounts of a diuretic. If she was able to refrain from visiting the little girls’ room, then she was, indeed, a virgin. But tinkling meant she was lying about her sexual experience. These same medical tomes also suggested a close inspection of woman’s urine as another way of verifying virginity. A pee sample that was crystal clear could only come from a virgin.
This connection between peeing and virginity is closely connected to one of the other folkloric legends...virgins holding running water in their hands. One common way to test a maiden’s virginity status was to hand her a sieve and see if, in her pure and virginal hands, it would hold water. A leaky sieve was akin to a leaky bladder and signified a sullied maiden. Anecdotal evidence tells us that women could “cheat” the sieve test by simply coating the inside of the sieve with lanoline. This metaphor of the water-tight sieve was so prevalent in the Middle Ages that it can be seen in the symbolism of the art and literature of the time. The famous 1579 painting of Queen Elizabeth, the Virgin Queen, shows her holding a sieve, and Cesare Ripa’s 1611 woodcut illustration depicts the personification of Chastity, fighting off Cupid with one hand while holding a sieve in the other.
If the ability to hold her fluid was a hallmark of a virgin, the passing of water in general – urine, tears, water – all seemed to point to a sinful woman. The metaphor extended to include not only actual fluid, but verbal fluid as well. A talkative, gossipy woman became synonymous with loose morals; after all, if she easily opened one orifice, she would open them all. Here, I am reminded of Chaucer’s Wife of Bath, who rambles on and on in her lengthy Prologue before she even gets around to telling her tale.
Although virginity was such a valued commodity in the medieval era, it was not a renewable resource. Once it is gone, it is gone forever, for as St. Jerome noted in his Letter to Eustochium, “Although God is able to do anything, He cannot raise a virgin after she has been defiled.” Of course, his words did nothing to discourage women, either those conscious of the economic value of virginity or ones attempting to erase a bad decision or two, from trying.
Much like virginity testing, virginity restoration techniques ran the gamut from medically-based remedies and potions to prayers, incantations, and pseudo-scientific quackery. Again we can look at medieval medical books and other texts to see directions for potions and remedies to restore virginity. One recipe said to boil together myrtle leaves and nettles without prickles in water then the woman should use this mixture to wash her feminine parts every morning and evening for nine days to restore her virginity. If one needed quicker results, another medical book advised placing ground up nutmeg in the vagina, and instantly virginity would return. Within the literary works of several people, including Ovid, Samual Pepys, John Wilmot, and John Baptista Porta, there are references to the use of alum water as a virginity restorer. Alum water is a chemical compound of hydrated potassium aluminum sulfate used to tan leather and pickle meats and set the dye in wool. A key property of alum water is that it is an astringent. It shrinks and tightens skin. So used in the vaginal area, alum water could shrink the tissue, giving the illusion of virginity, without actually replacing the hymen.
Fumigation was a common medical treatment option in the Middle Ages so it is not surprising that some virginity restoration techniques made use of fumigators. Vessels containing water mixed with some sort of herbal substance, often foul smelling ones, were heated over open fires until steam was produced. The steam was funneled through a tube inserted into a fallen woman’s vagina so the restorative properties of the herbs and steam could repair the ruptured hymen. Even more awkward was the use of perfumed resin, suppositories and rings that were inserted into the vagina of medieval women. These devices acted like a surrogate hymen, giving resistance during sexual penetration and thus, tricking the partner into thinking he was bedding a virgo intacta.
Other virginity restoration techniques concerned the spiritual, rather than the physical. In the Penitential of Finnian, written in the early years of the Middle Ages (525-550), a penance is offered as a way to reclaim absent virginity. This is also a lengthy process, for, “She must live for six years on bread and water and in the seventh year, she shall be joined to the alter; and them we say her crown can be restored and she may don a white robe and be pronounced a virgin.”
In keeping with her name, the Virgin Mary made appearances in numerous medieval texts as a virginity doctor. Stories abound about helpless maidens whose virginity was taken by force, but the Virgin Mary would appear and assure the victims that their virginity would be restored, even if a child was born. Sometimes, the maiden didn’t need to be the victim of a rape for the Virgin Mary to make her a born-again virgin...she just needed to feel really guilty about giving into the fleshly temptation.
What we know about medieval virginity is that it had less to do with values and morals, and more to do with ownership and trust. The sexual status of a medieval woman was very much a public matter because her virginity, so they thought in the Middle Ages, was not hers to own. Rather, a woman’s intact hymen was “owned” by a man, either her father or her husband. Verifying virginity was the only way that a future husband could feel confident that his bride was pure because simply asking her about her past infidelities was unheard of. Women were eyed with suspicion in medieval times and it was common knowledge that all women were prone to lying and easily tempted by carnal desires. Coupling that attitude with the economic and spiritual value of virginity and it is no wonder that an experienced lady sought to reclaim her most valued asset, her virginity, and the reputation that came along with it.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS:
Karen Harris is a college instructor by day and a writer by night. Writing offers Karen a chance to dabble in her other areas of interest, including history and science. She has written numerous freelance articles and feature stories for publication. She is a hobby farmer, environmental volunteer, and advocate for volunteer firefighters.
Lori Caskey-Sigety started writing in 1991. She hasn’t stopped. Her writing includes blogs, book reviews, essays, lyrics, plays, poems, and puppet shows. Lori has authored two poetry books, and her other works have appeared in Wildfire Magazine, Orlo, Indiana Libraries, and Public Libraries. She is an artist, college instructor, librarian, and musician.
In the Middle Ages much like today, the vagina conjured fear and repulsion, yet it held an undeniable allure. In the Medieval Vagina, the authors explore this paradox while unearthing medieval myths, attitudes and contradictions surrounding this uniquely feminine and deeply mysterious organ.
What euphemisms did medieval people have for the vagina? Did medieval women use birth control? How was rape viewed in the Middle Ages? How was the vagina incorporated into literature, poetry, music, and art? How did medieval women cope with menstruation? The Medieval Vagina delves into these topics, and others, while introducing the reader to a collection of fascinating medieval women – Pope Joan, Lady Frances Howard, Margery Kempe, Sister Benedetta Carlini, and Chaucer’s Wife of Bath – who all shaped our view of the medieval vagina.
The Medieval Vagina takes a quick-paced, humorous peek into the medieval world; a time when religious authority combined with newly emerging science and medicine, classic literature, and folklore to form a deeply patriarchal society. It may have been a man’s world, but the vagina triumphed over oppression and misogyny.