“The Virgin Community” and female sexuality in The Nun of Watton


For this week’s launch post, I’d like to look more closely at the Virgin Community of Nuns in The Nun of Watton and draw some conclusions on how their actions complicate attitudes toward female sexuality.

This is a devastating and grotesque tale that Aelred pens to show the miraculous restoration of a rebellious young girl back into the respectable ranks of a virgin nun community.  However, there can be no doubt that this redemption came at the cost of many torturous and unimaginable cruelties. Not only is she most likely raped and abandoned by her lover in the loss of her virginity, but immediately after the sinful nun confessed, the community of nuns “clapped their hands together and fell on her, ripping the veil from her head. Some believed that she should be burned,… skinned alive,… [or] tied to a tree and roasted over charcoal” (Aelred 454).  The older nuns manage to avoid her death at the hands of the younger nuns by having her “stripped, stretched out, and whipped without any mercy,”  after this the nuns chained and locked her in a prison cell (Aelred 454).  Soon the nuns begin to see reminding evidence of her egregious sin through her pregnancy.  Again, only protection of the fetus by the older nuns is what saves her from abuse and torture at the hands of the younger nuns.  And through all of this, “she bore all these ills patiently, crying out that she deserved yet greater punishment” (Aelred 454-455). Until this point, one might argue that this might simply be the story of a young nun who finally saw the error of her “girlish” ways.  However, beyond that, I argue that this story, particularly the actions of the demonic “nun unit” (thank you Bridget for that handy term) from beatings to bloody castration, has wide implications for virginity as the honored sect of female sexuality.

Other than the sinful nun, the other nuns of the community are rarely separated or singled out except by age as “younger and older”, which is not very descriptive either. Together, they form “a community united by their devotion to virginity but… that unity takes them across the line from perfect to monstrous virginity” (Salih 159).  Keeping them faceless, shallow, and impulsive characters, allows the audience to more easily demonize not only their brutal actions, but also their personalities, as outrageous and cruel.  It is very easy to take this virgin community and transplant their monstrous devotion to any tale with a convent involved.  Because of this, it is much easier now to associate nuns’ defense of virginity with impulsive and passionate cruelty, rather than piety or the typical passive or weak response we’re used to associating with women in narratives.  It is also relatively easy, from this, to conclude that female sexuality, individual and communal, needs guarding and policing.

A complication in this narrative is the sinful nun’s seemingly compliant attitude toward her punishment and confinement after her confession.  Until she was “caught in the talons of the hawk,” this rebellious virgin nun was “flirtatous.. indecorous… suggestive” (Aelred 454, 453).  Did all this rebellion disappear because she was raped?  Does Aelred do some objective interpretation here to achieve his planned poetic justice? I’m inclined to think that it’s more related to the second question.  Also, her compliant nature throughout the rest of the narrative after her sexuality is revealed reinforces the idea of female sexuality as the weaker, submissive counterpart to the male.  Aelred does double duty here: he shows the importance of humbly accepting a punishment for the sake of the community, and he continues to render individual female sexuality as submissive.

And what does this say about virginity and female sexuality? It shows, quite obviously, the lengths to which the community will go to protect or regain their communal virginity.  The cost, however, is the dignity of one of their own; and, after reading such an account, it would be quite difficult to not see why the male clergy, who still held all the power over any monastic community, felt female sexuality should be policed so rigorously.  Although the ideal of the virgin was highly valued during the Middle Ages, it seems to allow this strange paradox wherein a physically impossible ideal for women is mercilessly punishable by women and only leads the requirements to be lifted higher, making the ideal more impossible.  Virginity is female sexuality via social coercion, merely masked with honor. For the virgin community, it’s not a sexual identity; it’s life or death.


Works Cited

Aelred of Rievaulx. “The Nun of Watton.” The Kindness of Strangers: The Abandonment of Children in Western Europe from Late Antiquity to the Renaissance. Trans. John Boswell. New York: Pantheon, 1988. 452-58. Print.

Salih, Sarah. “The Nun of Watton.” Versions of Virginity in Late Medieval England. Cambridge: Brewer, 2001. 152-65. Print.

“I Wol You Nat Deceive”: The Pardoner’s Layers of Deception (The Ultimate Salesman)

For this week’s blog post, I would like to examine the character of the Pardoner. I have a few ideas about his peculiar and ambiguous characterization, and I am really curious to know what you all think about him. The Pardoner commits offenses against the morality of Chaucer’s time; “he is not only a ‘geldyng or a mare’ (II. 669-91) but also both a ‘pardoner’ peddling false relics (II. 692-706)” (McAlpine 8). I see a common thread moving through each of the Pardoner’s roles, and the link seems to be the paradoxical idea of open deception. The reader encounters a character who calls attention to his differentness; he “flaunt[s] his friendship with the Summoner” (McAlpine 15), makes no effort to cover his ambiguous face as “dischevelee save his cappe he rood al bare” (685), and he acknowledges his use of false relics. I would like to suggest that despite the unsavory nature of his character, the Pardoner is weaving a complex veil. The more he exposes to us, the more we become aware that he may be one step ahead as he slowly reveals a more complicated intention, making curious allusions to Church debates, sodomitical practices, etc and forcing the reader think about his true motivation. I think that the Pardoner builds a strong defense to protect his precarious position in society by layering openness with deception, and that his ambiguous external appearance is merely an extension of the Pardoner’s manipulation. How can he be prosecuted if he complicates his crimes and confuses his companions?

There is something unique about a man with “A vois he hadde as smal as hath a goot” (690) choosing to sing loudly to his male companion: “Of Rouncival, his freend and his compeer/ That straight was conmen fro the Court of Rome/ ful loude he soong, ‘Com hider, love, to me’” (General Prologue 672-6). I would like to use this song as an example of the Pardoner’s peculiar body and behavior, and not as evidence of a homosexual relationship with the Summoner. Whether the blurring of the gender line is biological (if the Pardoner is a eunuch from birth or by some act of castration) or a choice on the Pardoner’s part (if he chooses to adopt potentially effeminate traits) we are left with a sexually ambiguous character who flaunts this sexual ambiguity in front of his companions. We have all seen through past texts that gender deception in the Middle Ages is extremely dangerous; “in such cases [of sodomy] the gender-conforming parties do not seem to have been punished as severely as their gender-bending associates” (Mills 74). Therefore, no matter the Pardoner’s backstory, he must assume a defensive position to both sell his pardons successfully and occupy his unusual position.

I suggest a reading of the Pardoner where he is neither a victim of circumstance nor a greasy charlatan, but rather an intelligent master of artifice. He subtly weaves manipulation into his story by telling a tale that incorporates most of the commonplace sins (avarice, gluttony, violence, etc) while including a personification of never-ending Purgatory with the character of the Old Man who cannot die. Intense feelings of guilt for the sins and fear of punishment would likely leave the Pardoner’s companions wishing for a temporal pardon despite their logical knowledge that the pardons are false. The Pardoner simultaneously does his business and protects himself by subtly “exploiting the potential self-deceit in those he imagines condemn him, [and he] attempts to convict his customers of being themselves ‘envoluped in synne’” (McAlpine 16). By calling attention to the sins of his customers, he downplays his own sins while urging them to buy his pardons.

In the Pardoner’s Prologue, Tale, and Epilogue, the narrative voice shifts to a tone of certainty, openness, and rhetorical persuasion. The Pardoner’s technique of disclosing to his companions that “for myn entente is not but for to winne/ And nothing for correction of sinne” (115-6) is brilliant; who better to sell to sinners than a sinner? The trick seems to be an angle of familiarity and self-deprecation; by confessing to engaging in the falsehood his companions may already suspect, he makes them feel special, and by appearing as a potential eunuch or queerly gendered being, he makes himself seem nonthreatening. Therefore, the Pardoner avoids trying to make purchasing a pardon seem logical and instead relies on guilt, fear, and a level of intimacy (however falsely constructed) to do the selling for him.

Finally, I argue that the Pardoner is somewhat successful in his sales pitch. Although the Host does not respond well to the Pardoner’s suggestion to “unbokele anoon they purs” (657) and purchase a relic, the reader can see that the Pardoner has succeeded in making one sale: the Knight urges the Host to forgive and kiss the Pardoner. The Host is clearly unconvinced by the Pardoner’s sales pitch; in his outburst he calls attention to the Pardoner’s ambiguous sexuality and false salesmanship “thou woldest make me kisse thyn olde breech/ And swere it were a relik of a saint…I wolde I hadde thy coilons in myn hand…Lat cutte hem of” (663-666). However, because the Knight is of a higher social standing than the Host, I read the tidy close of the Epilogue as the Pardoner landing the sale that counts the most: The Pardoner sold no relics, but he sold the Knight on himself. The group going to Canterbury essentially represents a microcosm of the larger society (including a member of each main class and trade,) and therefore when the Knight allows the Pardoner to remain a safely established member of the group, I argue that the Pardoner’s sales technique is ultimately successful.


 McAlpine, Monica E. “The Pardoner’s Homosexuality and How it Matters.” PMLA 95.1 (1980): 8-22.

Chaucer’s General Prologue and the Pardoner’s Prologue, Tale, and Epilogue. 

Mills, Robert. “Homosexuality: Specters of Sodom.”