Like a Virgin: How to tell if your neighbor is one

Left to Right: Queen Elizabeth I (The Amanda Portrait), The Zampieri fresco, The Vestal Virgins, Katharine of Aragon (Sittow), Phythia, Mars and Venus: An Allegory of Peace, Lady Flora Hastings

A warning: This is going to be a long post. There was just too much goodness to cover. 
If you missed part 1, check that out here.

“The virgin” as concept is nothing new, neither is humanity’s weird obsession with it. Traditionally, it is a woman (or man, but usually focused on women) who has never engaged in sexual intercourse or in some instances, simply an unmarried woman. The points in history at which virginity mattered vary as do the bizarre ways by which humanity has tried to prove virginal status.  

Power to the Priestesses

In ancient civilizations, virginity was generally less of a morality issue and more of a status issue. While certain powers and divine abilities were ascribed to virgins, the idea of virgins making better spouses did not take primacy, especially in societies such as Ancient Egypt and Greece.

(Sidebar: It is worth noting that a virgin in Ancient Greek culture was more or less an unmarried woman and not necessarily a woman who had not yet had sex.)

In Ancient Rome, there was a small group of virgins known as the Vestal Virgins who served as priestesses of the goddess Vesta. Usually, they were consecrated around age six and would serve for a period of 30 years. In exchange for their celibacy, these women were highly respected and given privileges and freedoms not afforded to the average woman of their day. The downside? If they had sexual relations during this time, they were buried alive. Yikes.

Pythia, the Oracle of Delphi (one of the most important oracles in Greek mythology), was believed to be a virgin priestess of Apollo who emerged sometime between the 8th and 7th century B.C.E. and continued to be consulted as late as the 4th century C.E. Pythia was legend to prophesy after inhaling fetid vapors that would rise from cracks in the earth. She was a highly venerated and sought-after oracle and is one of the few individual mortal (or quasi-mortal) women recorded in Ancient Greek literature.

Where we really begin to see fervor for proving one’s sexual inexperience is the Middle Ages; however, virginity was one of those things that when it worked in one’s favor (e.g. a husband bringing charges of infidelity against his wife) it was crucial, but if it worked against one’s favor (e.g. a neighboring princess’s family has land and resources, but she is a bit of a floozy or has been previously married), then it appeared to be glossed over.

In both cases, the most important question to ask is how can one possibly know if their desired spouse is a virgin?

“We Shall Use My Biggest Scales!”

What has become one of my all-time favorite scenes in Monty Python’s Quest for the Holy Grail is one in which Arthur and his men haphazardly gallop onto a witch trial. As a middle schooler, I thought it was silly. As an adult with some medieval history under her belt, I think it is darn hilarious. In this scene, the adjudicator takes the gathered crowd through a completely batty round of deductive reasoning: we burn witches why? > because they are made of wood > wood floats > ducks also float > so if a woman weighs as much as a duck = she is a witch!

Sadly, the virgin-hunt of human history is not much better, ranging from the embarrassingly invasive to the completely inane.

The Rather Explicit Part

As mentioned before, during the medieval period, we see a more prominent rise in virginity equating to sexual inexperience. Virgins start to appear in religious allegories and mystery plays (often portrayed by white-clad women representing the virtues), and with this newer-found keenness relating virginity to holiness, people began to devise ways to test it.

A popular medieval method of virginal testing that is still promoted in certain pious circles today is the inspection of the hymen. At least in theory, it was believed that women’s reproductive organs came conveniently (and possibly divinely) sealed with an exterior membrane that partially or completely covered the vaginal opening. If the membrane or hymen was found to be intact (virgo intacta), then the woman was found to be a virgin.

Through centuries of advancements in women’s health, we now know that the inspection of the hymen to prove virginity is not iron-clad. Some women are born without one, and some women rupture the fragile membrane during strenuous non-sexual activity. However, potential suitors and the medieval midwives who examined young women did not know this, and as a result, there were many false allegations of promiscuity.  

Aside from the actual exam, brides were known to keep the bloodied bedsheets from their wedding night as proof of their previously undefiled virginity. (Katharine of Aragon is famously said to have presented her bedsheets as evidence of her chastity when Henry VIII sought to divorce her.) However, it is also noted that blood-evidence could be and purportedly was manufactured by obtaining animal blood, storing it in a ring or pendant, and releasing it in the throes of love-making (because nothing says “romance” like a locket full of sheep’s blood).

A slightly more contemporary instance of invasive, gynecological virgin-hunting is the tragic case of Lady Hastings, a lady in waiting in Queen Victoria’s court. There is not enough space or time to get into that debacle, but if you are interested, the wonderful women over at the Stuff You Missed in History Class podcast did a fantastic episode on the subject.

Unicorns Love Virgins

My favorite virginal tests are truly the most bizarre. A virgin was believed to be able to calm a swarm of angry bees or perhaps a wild black bear (or other favorite beast).

A woman who could hold her liquids in various forms was deemed virginal. This included a hearty bladder, lack of crying, even the ability to hold water in cupped hands and not allow any to leak out between the fingers.

Once again, there isn’t enough page-space here, but medieval virginity restoration techniques were very real. If you are interested in what sorts of odd potions women tried in order to restore their virginity, I commend the blog History Undressed to you (also, because it is just a highly informative and entertaining read all the way around).

The most bizarre use of a virgin (and subsequently, a test of a virgin) comes from medieval bestiaries which were collections of allegorical works regarding animals- real or mythological- that usually had some moral thrust.

In essence, it was said that you could use a virgin as bait to catch a unicorn, because unicorns are hopelessly attracted to untainted sexuality. Once the unicorn falls asleep in the maiden’s lap, it can be captured or, maybe more violently, mercilessly slaughtered.

Ground up unicorn horns featured prominently in various poltices and cataplasms for a variety of ailments, which makes one wonder just how effective these treatments could actually be. Also, it should go without saying, please do not try to lure unicorns to your house by using your daughters as bait, nor should you make them try to calm swarms of bees in your backyard.

Join us again in November as we take a look at where we are now: contemporary portrayals of virginity, purity culture, and the difference between chastity and the purity movement.