“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.

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

  1. I would like to create an extension on Eleanor’s post. I agree that at the heart of “the Nun of Watton” is the sacredness of female virginity and how one must go to great lengths to try and preserve and protect it. Eleanor more than adequately laid out how the community of nuns punishes “the unhappy girl”(Aelred, 453) throughout the passage, and the humble nature in which she accepts it. Eleanor is also correct in her statement that this is proof of the lengths the virgin community will go to regain their communal virginity. However, to strengthen her argument, Eleanor neglected to look at one vital piece that fulfills her arguments—how the community of nuns deal with the male perpetrator, the one that took away or “stole” their communal virginity. Arguably the most violent and grotesque scene of the entire saga, this may even moreso push the extremes of how powerful a community of virgins really is during this time period.
    First, before the idea that the “rapist” male in any way deserved his castration, I feel it is essential to point out, as Dr. Evans did at the start of class, that it is unclear whether or not a rape takes place. Indeed, in Eleanor’s discussion, she assumes that the rape is an actual event when in fact it is much more ambiguous. Our Salih article refers to the situation as a “a sexual relationship” (153) rather than a one time affair (consensual or not). The passage says that the unhappy girl and youthful man “agree on a time and place to…enjoy each other more fully” (453), and, to capture him, the brothers use a trick based off of the way that, presumably, the unhappy girl and young man had used MULTIPLE TIMES for their sexual meetings (Aelred, 455). Therefore it is not enough to simply say that the girl was punished in a sadistic and unjust way and the man, because he committed rape and “stole” her purity, in a way was deserving of some sort of punishment. Indeed, we can only know certainly that he was guilty of the same sin as the girl—the sin of choosing the wrong life, of giving in to sexual desires, and of ripping away such a holy virginity. His fate should then be seen on par with the nun, as, even IF it was rape he was in trouble for, he was being punished for his sexual acts with one not allowed for such activity.
    And punished he was. Though his encounter with the brothers was less detailed and much more euphemized than the actions of the nuns (Salih, 158), the lover is beaten with staffs by multiple men before being brought before the nuns. Once there, in an act meant to be a physical sign of the destroying of unity with her lover (158), the pregnant nun (though unwilling) castrates the man violently, in a foul and bloody manner (Aelred, 455). His tool of passion, the “thing” he used to “ruin” the purity of the community, is removed. And although Eleanor is indeed correct in pointing out the almost savagery of the nuns’ treatment to the title character, at least we are given some closure and know that she survived the encounter—as Salih points out, we have no clue whether or not the “unfortunate brother lived” (157).
    I believe this section of the narrative, even more than the journey of the Nun of Watton herself, backs up Eleanor’s claim about importance and nature of the communal virginity of the nuns. Yes, they do almost kill their own sister rather than have their virginity be tainted—but their actions to the one who tainted it show the extent they truly prize their rejection of earthly passions. As Salih points out, the nuns show not just indifference but “contempt” for the male body and make their “commitment to communal virginity” concrete by showing how much his member disgusts them (158). Not only is a woman in danger when she threatens this sacred virginity, but so is man for giving in to his own passions—his genitalia is taken from him, his fate unknown. Nothing can threaten the nun’s communal virginity, and anything that does pose a danger must be, as this passage violently shows, removed. If you were a man, you could either agree fervently…or end up like the unfortunate brother.
    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.

  2. In an extension post, I would like to consider a different narrative. Salih gives us another angle to the story, one that offers a new way to contextualize the violence of the nuns (and brothers). I think discussing this narrative is also important in offering a wider view of the problem of violence; that the blame for the violence towards physical representations of evil should not rest solely on the nuns, but a larger culture interested in fighting the devil whenever they can.

    The story avoids bringing St. Gilbert in until the authorization is required. At this point though, I cannot help but think that this (subtly) marks his presence during the previous whippings. The vague “they” in “they besought her to tell the whole truth about everything” is followed quickly by the next paragraph, which starts “Then the head of the congregation took some of the brothers aside and explained the matter” (455). This transition is incredibly telling, because it gives the impression that the previous “they” included not only the nuns, but the brothers and St. Gilbert himself. The men are already there, and only now separate themselves in an aside. If this is true, then the previous scenes of torture seem to be connected to Gilbert’s authority; which, as Salih points out, is often paired with disciplinary action (162-163). Depending on the physical layout of the compound, it might also make more sense to include Gilbert from the start, as it might be difficult to hide the chains, wailing, and general commotion involved.

    The only act of violence, then, that does not stem from a man’s authority, is the moment mentioned by Adam in the castration of the young man. There is a clear transition here, passing the man from the brothers to the nuns. “Once in their hands” points wholeheartedly to the women, and it is here that arguably the most violent act occurs (455). Unfortunately, this seems to depict women religious in a worse light than the men, by separating a malicious mutilation from the “bitter antidote” the young man previously received in the hands of the brothers (455). The narrator also seems confused here, first remarking that this act “avenged the injury to Christ” but then immediately following it with “I praise not the deed but the zeal” (455). If the deed is not a good one, then it seemingly could not have avenged Christ, but further slandered Him. It seems the narrator does not care to ask such questions.

    This rationalization does not strike me as any different from those that backed the “morality” of torture and death during the Inquisition, though it does stand out to me by drawing a biased line between the hateful acts of female religious and the “less” hateful acts of the male religious. It is this bias, and the purposeful vagueness, that conceals the workings of men (and the culture) in the story by offering up a stereotypical view of the hysterical woman in its place. The reader is meant to look on the women with disgust, and wonder where the men were in restraining them. I would argue, however, that the distinction between the two groups in “protecting virginity” of the young woman falls apart when you look at the larger cultural approach to issues of immorality.

    Looking at the demonic possession of a young boy from Lindesfarne, it might seem odd to the modern reader why the event was not considered a standard healing. The short answer was that the desire to see Satan, and fight him, filled the void created by the lack of medical knowledge. The religious were a necessary part of society because they were a fighting force for good; they spent their whole lives preparing to fight evil, and now at Watton, they get the chance to do that. The violent events, combined with the inconsistent ruling of the narrator, tell me that this has less to do with fighting to preserve virginity (sorry sexuality classmates) and more to do with the desire to combat evil. The only act that I can see as potentially separate from this desire is the castration of the young man. Perhaps for some, it was a defense of female sexuality and virginity because of the solely female participants. But the lack of interest in the young man’s virginity tells me that something else is brewing beneath the story.

    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.
    Raiswell, Richard, and Peter Dendle. “Demon Possession in Anglo-Saxon and Early Modern England: Continuity and Evolution in Social Context.” Journal of British Studies 47.4 (2008). Web. 31 Oct. 2013. .

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

  3. One possible reading of “The Nun of Watton” is as a gross and violent representation of female sexuality and the lengths its appointed guardians will go to preserve it, as both Eleanor and Adam touch upon with their posts. In particular, the gruesome scene of the castration of the male perpetrator and Aelred’s subsequent commentary appear to largely support this notion, as do the reactions of disgust and horror elicited from modern-day critics such as John Boswell and Giles Constable (Salih 157). I would like to argue, however, that this piece does not necessarily intend to portray the virgin community as a monstrous force in need of policing, but the opposite. Aelred strives to rationalize the vengeance enacted by the nuns upon those responsible for robbing them of their communal virginity and portrays both the male perpetrator and fallen nun as outsiders to the community who are responsible for its corruption.

    Adam brings up the issue of rape in his post, and though it is unclear whether or not the initial sexual encounter between the deviant nun and her lover involved her consent, I argue that regardless, the man indeed performed some form of rape. Virginity was viewed as a communal sexuality, and if we are to apply a particular trait—in this case, sexuality—to an entire body of people, it is only appropriate that we examine each aspect of to that trait relative to the entire body, not just to the individual body part, the individual nun. As it is clear that no other nun offered consent, or would have willingly, the male essentially performed an act of rape—he forced his sexuality upon an unwilling body (of nuns). The question remains, however, of whether or not this rape extended to the fallen nun. Did she consent, or was she coerced? Much of Aelred’s language seems to indicate that he and the other nuns believe she acted willfully. During the castration of the male, the nun is described as “the cause of all the evils,” assigning her not just part of the blame, but the entirety of it (Aelred 455). The nuns view their fallen sister not as a victim, but as an accomplice, as a pimp who prostituted the entire community’s virginity through displays of her own sexuality. Only in describing her initial transgression does Aelred portray her as somewhat of a victim: “seduced and spiritless, she is instantly caught in the talons of the hawk” (454). This passage, though ambiguous, can be read as something other than rape. In the same passage, Aelred calls the nun an “adulteress … already corrupted in the spirit” (454). His explicit opinions contradicting his implicit portrayal of the nun as a victim. Moreover, the intercourse is described in passive voice; the male is not assigned as the subject of these deeds as he is when he is later captured, when “he pounced like a mindless horse or mule on the man he thought was a woman” (455). Through this stylistic choice, Aelred transfers the agency of the sex from the man to the woman, starting with the moment she exits her room, which already, as Sarah Salih argues, “constitutes a sexual transgression” (Salih 155). The language itself alludes to non-consent but can be interpreted otherwise. Aelred compares the nun to a “dove” and associates her capture with her “spiritless” nature, which seems to imply that her predator is ethereal, preying on her lack of grace (Aelred 454). The imagery of the hawk thus may not refer to her lover so much as the power of lust, which is earlier described as “penetrating both their hearts, deposited his fatal venom throughout their vitals” (453).

    Furthermore, I claim that the nun is never actually welcomed back into the community, nor are any attempts are even made to do so. Salih claims that the nun’s performance of the castration initiates a process by which “she begins to be reintegrated into her community, her body subject to the communal will” (Salih 158). I disagree with this reading; I claim that this decision was actually motivated by the nuns’ desire to punish her further, holding her just as much accountable as the male for robbing them of their communal virginity. Forcing the nun to castrate her former lover could be read as a symbolic form of penance, in which “the nun destroys the union with her lover, leaving her free to rejoin the monastic community” (158). However, after this deed is done, another nun forces the bloody testicles of the castrated male into the sinner’s mouth in an act that does not appear to have any significance aside from retribution. It is not penance, let alone forgiveness, but additional punishment. Aelred comments on this, but though he expresses disapproval of the bloodshed, he does not explicitly condemn the nuns’ actions. The way he structures his comments is more reminiscent of a justification rather than a condemnation. He writes, “I praise not the deed but the zeal” as opposed to “I praise the zeal but not the deed,” with his points of emphasis being what he approves of, the “zeal” and the “great outrage” (Aelred 455). Aelred is expressing his sadness at the bloodshed, but also affirming the necessity for vengeance, the necessity to “avenge the injury to Christ” (455). Though retribution is not very Christlike, as Bob points out, it does occupy a space early Christian tradition by means of the lex talionis, and it appears that the Gilbertines, Aelred included, have no problem with it, to the point that it takes moral priority over the way such retribution is enacted. The brother imposed his sexuality on the community of nuns, robbing them of their own sexuality, and the nuns mirror his transgression, robbing him of his manhood and imposing a forced, physical virginity upon him.

    The nuns see the miracle at the end as a result of God’s healing grace, and it could be interpreted as Jesus personally welcoming the fallen nun back into the community, but its beneficiary is not explicitly specified; in fact, Aelred seems to imply that God is rewarding the entire community for its devotion, not the individual nun for her repentance, when he writes, “Rather, one should anticipate and hope that whoever freed her from the others would rescue her also from what still held her” (Aelred 457). Even after this miracle, the community still appears to view the fallen nun as an outcast, not absolved of her corruption. Moreover, the disappearance of the baby benefits the community as much as it does the nun; no longer is the threat of a scandal regarding its communal virginity apparent.

    As monstrous and fanatical as this community might seem today, I claim that it was not perceived in the same way by Aelred, the person responsible for its portrayal. Though he constructs monsters within his narrative, they are not the nuns so protective of their communal virginity, but the transgressive nun and her male lover. Aelred ends his tale by explaining why he has chosen to write it: “to deprive the hostile of any advantage,” which Boswell interprets as “Either the enemies of virtue in general, or those hostile to the Gilbertine order and seeking a scandal such as this to discredit it” (Aelred 458). The first of these reasons seems to relate to Bob’s argument regarding evil; the second reason, I argue, confirms Aelred’s intentions: he seeks to represent the nun and the male as outsiders in order to avoid scandal. They are used as scapegoats who introduced the threat to the communal virginity, vessels of corruption by an external force unrelated to the order itself.

    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.

  4. The story of the Nun of Watton is most interesting to me when considering the narrative layers and how the story is told. The content itself displays a horrifying picture of a 12th Century convent, but it is filtered through the eyes of St Aelred of Rievaulx, who offers his own interpretation of the events along with the occasional moral judgment. While this increases ambiguity in some parts of the story—we do not know if the young woman was raped or who was present at any given scene—the narration also brings new things to light. Much like how Bob and Chester discussed the “Christianness” of the nun’s actions and the link between religion and violence, I was drawn to St Aelred of Rievaulx’s writing the fallen girl with an undercurrent of Christian narratives.

    Aelred switches from sympathy to condemnation when he discusses the Nun of Watton; at some points he figures her as a victim saved by miraculous events, and at some points his narrative aligns him with the nuns who see her as a wretched and unholy person. The idea of rape is portrayed so bizarrely in this story; the line “she is thrown down, her mouth covered so that she cannot call out, and she is corrupted in the flesh as she had already been in the spirit. Wickedness required repetition of this new pleasure” (454) shows a rape victim turning towards sin and deciding to seek out sex after being attacked. This passage shows that the Nun of Watton is not allowed to remain a victim for long and is quickly turned back into a menace. Why, then, would a girl who is seen as a bringer of corruption and impurity to a community of virgins ever be compared to the highest ideal of virginity in the Christian world, the Virgin Mary?

    I want to consider the Gospel of Matthew, a non-canonical text that is NOT to be confused with the Biblical text by the same name. This gospel relates to Aelred’s depiction of the story of the Nun of Watton, and it creates a connection between the Virgin Mary and the Nun of Watton that raises interesting questions about the idea of virginity in Medieval Christian communities. There are several unique aspects of this gospel that I want to examine. First, it shows that Joachim and Anna (Mary’s parents), enrolled Mary in a sort of Virgin school as a toddler: “And having weaned her in her third year, Joachim, and Anna his wife, went together to the temple of the Lord to offer sacrifices to God, and placed the infant, Mary by name, in the community of virgins, in which the virgins remained day and night praising God” (Gospel of Matthew). In the 1st Century Jewish context, there were not ascetic communities of women as there were for men, and therefore it is unclear who the “community of virgins” who live in the Temple are. Also in this gospel, Mary decides to live chastely as a religious act: “Now I, from my infancy in the temple of God, have learned that virginity can be sufficiently dear to God. And so, because I can offer what is dear to God, I have resolved in my heart that I should not know a man at all” (Gospel of Matthew). This implies that Mary has elevated her virginity to a personal gift to God long before her holy pregnancy is asked of her. When she is given in a group of six virgins to Joseph, the others call her the “queen of Virgins” out of “words of annoyance” (Gospel of Matthew). Already in this gospel, we see the emerging idea of Mary as the leader of a holy and communal virginity held by devout Christian women.

    The Virgin Mary, therefore, seems to be the opposite of the Nun of Watton. Why, then, is the Nun of Watton seen as restored to her ideal virginity after the mysterious deliverance of her child? “They felt her belly: such slenderness had replaced the swelling that you would have thought her back was stuck to her front. They squeezed her breasts, but elicited no liquid from them. Not sparing her, they pressed harder, but expressed nothing. They ran their fingers over every joint, exploring everything, but found no sign of childbirth, no indication even of pregnancy. They called the others, and they all found the same thing: everything restored, everything proper, everything beautiful” (Gospel of Matthew). From this description, I get the idea that she is not only no longer pregnant, but she is actually figured as a virgin once more.

    When I read this passage for the first time, I immediately recalled a similar passage from the Gospel of Matthew: “And when she had permitted her to make an examination, the midwife cried out with a loud voice, and said: Lord, Lord Almighty, mercy on us! It has never been heard or thought of, that any one should have her breasts full of milk, and that the birth of a son should show his mother to be a virgin. But there has been no spilling of blood in his birth, no pain in bringing him forth. A virgin has conceived, a virgin has brought forth, and a virgin she remains. And hearing these words, Salome said: Allow me to handle thee, and prove whether Zelomi have spoken the truth. And the blessed Mary allowed her to handle her. And when she had withdrawn her hand from handling her, it dried up, and through excess of pain she began to weep bitterly, and to be in great distress, crying out, and saying…I am made wretched because of mine unbelief, since without a cause I wished to try Thy virgin” (Gospel of Mattew). Spoiler alert: Salome’s hand is restored because of her faith.

    The two examinations seem extremely connected to me. When the nuns are examining the Nun of Watton for signs of childbirth, they find “everything restored” and her physical appearance indicates that she has been physically restored to the status of virgin. The miraculous birth of the Nun of Watton’s child is necessary for her virginity to be restored; she does not even realize when her baby is painlessly carried away from her in white linen. The next morning after her vision, “her face had acquired a girlish if not virginal look” (456), much like how the Virgin Mary remains a virgin even after the painless and bloodless birth of Jesus. Both women are tried, and both are miraculously held or returned to the arbitrary idealized status of virginity despite having conceived and carried children. Physical virginity is so incredibly important to both of these stories that the narrator of each resorts to miracles to account for it.

    The connection between the Nun of Watton, the Virgin Mary, and other famous virgins in the Christian tradition (pointed out in Sarah Salih’s article) either points to Aelred’s own mixed feelings about the Nun of Watton or questions the way virginity was manifested in the Medieval Christian community. I have no direct argument about this connection, I merely wish to think out and explore the questions surrounding it. Are we supposed to read the mystical birth of the Nun of Watton’s child as a gift from God to protect the reputation of the convent? Is the Virgin Mary’s miraculous restoration after Jesus’ birth also a protective miracle? What is the link between religion and virginity? Certainly virginity was equated to purity long before Christianity, but was it widely equated with holiness before the Virgin Mary? Does the Virgin Mary’s role in a “community of virgins” indicate her future as the ideal for all Christian women? And the question that I cannot answer: did Aelred read this gospel, did it inspire this narration, and why would he choose to align the two women?

    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.

    “The Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew” from The Wesley Center Online

  5. I’d like to do an extension post.

    Throughout the readings and blog posts, I find myself most struck by the idea that Eleanor foregrounded at the end of her post: communal virginity. Salih spends a considerable amount of time on this notion, which she calls “nunnish virginity,” saying that it “is shown to be a quality of the communal as well as of the individual body” (152).

    First, Salih argues that the nuns’ various punishments are avenues of “readmitting the nun to her religious identity” (153). Indeed, through the nuns’ beatings, the pregnant sister does begin to “identify herself as an integral part of the virginal community” (156). Likewise, Salih argues that the pregnant nun’s forced castration of her former lover “destroys the union with her lover, leaving her free to rejoin the monastic community” (158).

    Second, Salih shows that the nuns (except the pregnant, transgressive one) tend to act as one unit: “…the verbs are nearly always plural and frequently passive as well, so that they appears [sic] not as individual human actors but as a seething mass of outraged nunhood” (158). She continues to argue that “This virgin community, undifferentiated, unregulated, material and violent, is terrifyingly female” (159).

    Third, Salih points out one of the conclusions we might draw from the Nun of Watton about communal virginity. She says that here “Monastic virginity is revealed to be highly vulnerable, because communal virginity can be threatened by the activities of individuals” (164).

    So here we have this pretty clearly delineated idea of communal, nunnish virginity.

    This brings me back to Eleanor’s post, which is what I’m extending from. The heart of what I want to talk about comes up in her concluding paragraph: “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,” she argues.

    I’d like to tentatively argue that the communal, nunnish virginity that we see in “Nun of Watton” is an early example of a sexual identity, or sexual community. I think that one of the strongest reasons to see this virginity as a sexual identity is that it is policed so carefully.

    Eleanor says that “…female sexuality, individual and communal, needs guarding and policing.” I would argue that any sexuality—and indeed, any category, like gender, sex, class, etc.—tends to be guarded and policed.

    We have seen this again and again this semester—those who transgress, those who step outside their prescribed categories, are either brought back into line or punished. With the category of sex, we might think of the case of the intersex individual who was brought to court and made to wear “appropriately” gendered clothing. With gender, we might think of John/Eleanor Rykener, who was certainly brought to court and likely punished for his/her gender transgression; or we might think of Viola in Twelfth Night, who is returned to her appropriate gender sphere during the play’s resolution. With class, we now have an example in the Duchess of Malfi and Antonio, who seem to have been killed at least in part because they crossed class boundaries (extradiegetically, if not intradiegetically).

    As far as category of sexuality, in the contemporary world, we do this same sort of policing. So, for example, straight men will often say “no homo” to keep the perceived straight/gay boundary in place. In gay and lesbian communities, there is the idea of the “gold star gay,” a kind of title of honor for gay men who have only ever had sex with men, and for gay women who have only ever had sex with women. (I have a great example of this type of policing in this excerpt from the 1994 lesbian film “Go Fish”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KVncpZkleFc) Bisexuals often have to prove to both straight and queer communities that they are actually bisexual (e.g. by dating or having sex with a certain number of people of different genders); at other times, bisexuals (and the ambiguity they represent) are erased entirely and assumed to be either gay or straight depending on the gender of their significant other. This sort of sexuality policing can become violent, as well. I’m thinking of corrective rape, which Wikipedia explains is “a hate crime in which a person is raped because of their perceived sexual or gender orientation. The common intended consequence of the rape, as seen by the perpetrator, is to “correct” their orientation, to turn them heterosexual, or to make them “act” more in conformity with gender stereotypes.” I’ve heard about this especially with men raping lesbian women, aiming to ‘turn them straight.’

    So we know that policing of categories is happening in the 1200 – 1600 time span, and from these contemporary examples we know that sexuality is a category that is heavily policed. But I think that the Nun of Watton may be the first time we see these two ideas joined. It may be the first time we see a sexual identity really as a category…a category that is, almost by definition, rigorously (and violently) policed.

    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.

  6. Pingback: Nun of Watton: judging seduction and castration

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