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.
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.