Comments on: Like a Virgin History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present Sun, 21 Sep 2014 11:42:55 +0000 hourly 1 By: Profane Fri, 28 Nov 2008 21:23:46 +0000 It was possible to canonically regain ones virginity through a long enough period of chastity. There is an unintentionally amusing piece of praise poetry about an early medieval Irish bishop which praises him both for his virginity and his many fine children. . .

By: figleaf Wed, 26 Nov 2008 16:31:11 +0000 In “A History of Celibacy” Elizabeth Abbott makes the case that in Roman times, well before Christianity was established, it was already believed that after menarche women were constitutionally incapable of overcoming their desire for children (women, of course, would *never* be interested in plain old sex.) On the other hand virginity was already highly esteemed so marriages tended to be arranged for daughters *very* early. That might account for Latin-derived associations of never had sex, unmarried, and young women. Side B of that in the face of such amoral desire for children virtue and chastity was supposed to fall to men. (Abbott says after marriage fidelity in women was still esteemed but abstinence for women wasn’t a priority.)

She also says that pagan Romans particularly marveled that Christian women could “mortify their flesh” by remaining virgins into adulthood, and that that became a big selling point for the power of piety. Her chapters on monastic early-Christian “desert fathers” recounts the sometimes extraordinary lengths pious men would go to to try and expunge sexual yearning.

For the record, in “Puritan Conscience and Modern Sexuality” Edmund Leites says it wasn’t till the Puritans that primary responsibility for chastity and moral virtue was offloaded on to women. Leites hints the shift was engineered so Puritan men could shirk sexual responsibility. (It was only a *shift* in blame since since of course women were already blamed for their alleged uncontrollable amorality in pursuit of pregnancy.) But I digress.

Anyway for a kindergartner it might be slightly more accurate, and maybe developmentally appropriate, to define a virgin as someone who hasn’t yet tried to be a mother or father.

By: Historiann Wed, 26 Nov 2008 13:42:56 +0000 hysperia, thanks for that link and the tip. I’ll have to check that one out.

“The fruit of thy womb” actually wasn’t a problem for us, since it’s just a metaphor for an actual biological process. That was easy–it’s the meaning of “virgin” that more difficult, in light of my modern problems with the concept as well as the multiple possible meanings detailed here.

By: Professor Zero Wed, 26 Nov 2008 05:32:55 +0000 Hail Ruth, Tom, Servetus, and Squadromatico – great job on words!

By: hysperia Wed, 26 Nov 2008 03:04:58 +0000 By chance, I recently read a review of a book on the history of virginity at Feminist Review. The book is called “Virgin: The Untouched History”, by Hanne Blank. Here’s the link to the review:

As a young Catholic child used to reciting the “Hail Mary”, I recall asking my mother “what’s a womb and why is there fruit in it and why is Jesus a fruit?”

I can’t remember her answer. My recollection is that it was simply clear that it was not a question I ought to have asked. (circa late 1950s)

By: Historiann Tue, 25 Nov 2008 23:52:54 +0000 Kit–I think it was this child’s innovation, not something that ze was taught at school to do before meals.

And, Ruth–I think I’ll stay away from the particulars, and go with the vague theological explanation you suggest!

By: Kit Tue, 25 Nov 2008 19:05:58 +0000 That’s an odd before meal prayer. The one I was taught is as follows:

Bless us O Lord,
And these thy gifts
Which we are about to receive
From thy bounty,
Through Christ Our Lord,

It’s sufficiently standard that every Catholic I know knows it as “the Grace before meals” and it goes in the prayer book as “Grace Before Meals”. I never encountered the St. Michael Prayer as a Grace before and I’m cradle Catholic.

By: Ruth Tue, 25 Nov 2008 17:24:54 +0000 I got so caught up in the scholarly part that I forgot the question was about what to tell a kindergartener . . .

I think the kid might find it confusing to be told a virgin is a woman who isn’t married, because the Virgin Mary *was* married. (And I won’t digress into medieval theology and canon law on that question–but consummation was not required for a valid marriage.) I wouldn’t say “she had a baby without a daddy or a doctor,” either, because those aren’t the only options. In my experience kids who are taught the ‘facts of life’ tend to focus on the sperm and the egg rather than how the sperm gets there, so if s/he knows the basics you could say that Mary had a baby without a sperm.

But if you want to explain to the child what it means in this context, without going into the biology of it, you could just say it means she was a woman chosen specially by God.

By: Susan Mon, 24 Nov 2008 20:35:14 +0000 Sorry to come so late to this. I’m not nearly so learned as your other commenters, but I have a vague memory (sorry, I’m not at home right now, so I don’t have the references) that sources like Bachofen suggest that “virgin” means complete in herself. . . so it wasn’t lack of sex, but ability to be without a man. That’s in mythology, not Roman/Christian tradition, of course. But I’ve always liked it.

Then there is the silly scene at the end of Elizabeth I (the movie) where she re-virgins herself. By the mythic definition, this was never necessary.

By: Dr. Crazy Mon, 24 Nov 2008 18:23:55 +0000 Re: the explanation for the kindergartener, I’ll say this: my mom explained the virgin thing pretty concretely to me when I was around the same age. Basically, she tacked it on to the info she’d already given me about where babies come from, and she explained that the thing that made the birth of the baby Jesus a miracle and that made Mary miraculous was that Mary got pregnant with Jesus without there being any daddy. (Now, in the 21st century and not in a working-class, totally heteronormative catholic setting, you’d probably need to say “no daddy and no doctor to make her pregnant” or something like that.) So she surely didn’t go into the broader meaning of “virgin” as being about all sexual activity, but it was made very clear to me that Mary hadn’t done what it normally takes to get pregnant, however vaguely I understood it. I do have to say, though, I’m glad she gave me that much explanation, because I think it would have been weird to me if she’d said the thing that made Mary amazing was that she got pregnant with a baby without being married. Even in 1980 or so I knew people who had babies without being married, or who got married because they “had to” (ahem, my parents).