«No one has disgraced my virgin body.»[1] Virginity tests and early Christian ascetics and monks

Dr Despina Iosif

            ‘If there is a virginity test, I will take it’, the protagonist Leukippe in the Achilleas Tatius’ novel Leucippe and Clitophon, written in the third quarter of the second century, declared to her mother who refused since she wished to avoid all the gossip and attention this would attract.[2] Life in the Mediterranean late antique world was far from easy; for our sensitive western standards that is.[3] And it must have been even harder for women that came from the lower classes.[4] Domestic violence,[5] rapes[6] and virginity tests seem to have been common.

Cyprian sometime between 251 and 254 wrote in his Epistle 61.3-4 in support of virginity tests performed by midwives, especially for virgins who had lived in the same house with men, although he knew and admitted that sometimes midwives were deceived by their eyes and hands and that there were other parts of the body that could be corrupted and could not be detected. If these women were found guilty they were, according to Cyprian, to be considered adulteresses against Christ, and only after successfully completing a repentance programme supervised by the local priests and bishops were to get admitted back to the Church and start receiving communion again. A contemporary, Gregory Thaumaturgus, around 256 composed his Canonical Epistle where he expressed his reservations whether women held captive by brigands ought to be blamed for not safeguarding adequately their virginity and thus be excluded from the Church; if they actually proved that they led prior to their captivity a totally blameless life then they were to be left undisturbed.[7] The early Christian ascetics and monks were promoted in their biographies as suitable to dispel any kind of doubt, even concerning a hard virginity case. They were consciously presented to successfully deal with any situation: they reportedly performed amazing miracles and healings, even resurrections from the dead, tamed wild animals, predicted the future, spotted evil, acted as military advisors for emperors, and as family councilors, and last but not least dealt with virginity cases. The early Christian monastic and ascetic literature shows that virginity tests not only were quite common but that they were also public and that frequently esteemed ascetics and monks got involved.

According to the History of the Egyptian Monks 28, a description of the anonymous author and six Palestinian monks’ meetings with famous Egyptian desert fathers composed in 394, an evildoer had by magic arts transformed a young virgin into a mare. Her parents brought her to Macarius and begged him if he would be ever so kind to change her back into a woman by his prayers. Macarius made it clear that it was merely an illusion for the crowd and that he alone could see her human form. He then shut her in a cell on her own for seven days, her parents staying nearby, while he occupied himself with prayer in another cell. On the seventh day, he went in the cell with the girl’s parents and he rubbed her all over with oil.[8] Then he prayed for a last time and as soon as he finished his prayer the girl regained her human appearance. Unfortunately this is the only information on the story given. Historians are left wondering of the social implications or even stigma of her embarrassing transformation into a mare, of the girl’s feelings and thoughts during her seven day solitary confinement in a cell in the desert and the public exposure of her ordeal. A similar story can be found in Lausiac History, a collection of anecdotes published in 419/20 about famous ascetic and monastic figures which the author, Palladius bishop of Helenopolis in Bithynia, met or heard of. This time a woman is brought to Macarius by her husband. The spell of a sorcerer had affected all those who saw her and made them think that she had been transformed into a mare while she retained her human form. Macarius did not touch her body but poured holy water over her, and reprimanded the couple for not having attended Eucharist for five consecutive weeks, something that had made them particularly vulnerable to witchcraft.[9] The moral is plain and hard to miss: certain victims of the demons have a considerable share of the blame for their most unfortunate condition (like losing or seemingly losing one’s human form) since their unchristian behaviour had facilitated a demon to enter their bodies; thank God the ascetics and monks were available.

Someone suspecting that his daughter was possessed by a demon (one wonders what sort of behaviour made him reach such a conclusion) brought her to Pachomius who was recognized as the founder of Christian coenobitic monasticism and enjoyed great fame. Pachomius, it is explained, was not in the habit of consorting with women so he asked to see a washed piece of cloth that belonged to the girl. When he touched it Pachomius said that the cloth did not belong to her; and this is perhaps the only incident in the text when the saint is reported to be wrong. When he was reassured that it did belong to her, Pachomius told those present that the girl did not keep her virginity as she has promised to do, but no one thought that Pachomius might be wrong for a second time. Pachomius full of anger and sorrow interrogated the girl until she publicly confessed her mistake and promised never to fail again. Pachomius gave her an oil ointment with which she rubbed herself and she was instantly cured.[10] It looks as if the whole episode was somehow easily forgiven and forgotten, although the moral codes of the times demanded from a girl and pressured a girl to go to extra lengths in order to preserve her virginity.

Graeco-Roman novels were as popular reads as the early Christian ascetic and monastic literature was; highly popular and highly influential for the same readership. The preservation of virginity and respect for chastity, mainly for women but often for men also,[11] is a central theme in many of these novels.[12] In Xenophon’s An Ephesian Tale 5.8, composed sometime in the mid-second century, we encounter a story of a desperate endeavor to preserve virginity. Anthia is at some point in the story found confined in a brothel and in order to preserve her virginity intact and keep clients away she schemes an elaborate plot: she fakes what we might today interpret as an epileptic fit. Her acting is convincing as clients are rather revolted. The panderer however, feels sympathy for her and takes her in his house and looks after her. Anthia feels the need to give a credible explanation of the origin of her state: it was during a religious celebration during the night that she accidentally approached a tomb from which someone appeared and hit her in the chest and made her act occasionally strange. The story has many similarities with Tarsia’s determination to retain her virginity, against all odds and in the brothel where she found herself despite her will, in The Story of Apollonius King of Tyre 33-36, dated between the second and sixth century AD. Tarsia thought of recounting her misfortunes to her clients when left alone with them, which in fact removed any sexual desire from them.[13] It seems to me that the Graeco-Roman novels served among other uses, as manuals as to how to preserve virginity[14] or to properly court, if need be. Christian circles circulated their own stories of heroic virgins. For example in 377 AD Ambrose wrote of a Christian virgin at Antioch, who having refused to sacrifice to idols was condemned to a house of ill-fame from which she escaped unharmed, after changing clothes with a Christian soldier.[15]

Femininity could lead to trouble, according to the Christian mentality. When Macarius cured a little girl whose flesh had been eaten away and the inside parts of her body were laid bare and she had innumerable worms by arranging for prayers to be said for seven days and by anointing her limbs with oil, he provided another service he was not asked for: he made the girl on purpose lose her femininity, so as not to attract men and get them and herself into trouble.[16] Bringing women to ascetics and monks in order to certify publicly whether they had kept their virginity as it was expected of them, or not, is presented in early Christian ascetic and monastic literature as something common and unproblematic for late antique people. To the best of my knowledge the cases recorded dealt with women who were recognized to have failed to retain their virginity and, yet, were accepted back to the Church, as far as the ascetic or monk was concerned. Christianity was more interested in sinners, as a valuable tool for edification and for proving the Christian God’s magnificent capacity for forgiveness. It remains a mystery how these fallen women, after the official verdict of their crime was publicly announced, got to be treated by their circles and by less saintly figures.

[1] Achilleas Tatius, Leucippe and Clitophon 2.25.

[2] Achilleas Tatius, Leucippe and Clitophon 2.28.

[3] On how embedded violence was during late antique times see Despina Iosif, ‘Religious Violence’ in Augustine in Context, Tarmo TOOM, (ed.), Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2017, p. 195-202.

[4] Sosthenes proposes to have Leukippe whipped with lashes and ‘a thousand other torments’ for refusing to comply with the sexual advances of her master in Achilleas Tatius, Leucippe and Clitophon 6.20. Sexual favours to masters were part of the job description for both male and female slaves; see for example Iamblichus, A Babylonian Story 2. At the same time, in Heliodorus, An Ethiopian Story 7.12, 7.20 and 8.8 we learn of married women who stared at unmarried men ‘with such intensity and lack of modesty’ and treated them as objects of their desire and made no effort to hide their ‘dishonorable intentions’.

[5] Chariton, Chareas and Callirhoe 1.14. However it ought to be noted that the victims were not exclusively the women of the family. Graeco-Roman fathers could also, and did, exercise physical violence to their sons if they felt unhappy with them, as we learn from Heliodorus, An Ethiopian Story 1.10 and 1.12.

[6] See Longus, Daphnis and Chloe 1.15 and 1.20, Chariton, Chareas and Callirhoe 2.6 and 8.4, Xenophon of Ephesus, An Ephesian Tale 2.5 and 4.5 and Heliodorus, An Ethiopian Story 1.7 and 1.19. For a case of a husband raping his own wife see Heliodorus, An Ethiopian Story 6.9 and for a case of a father raping his own daughter see The Story of Apollonius King of Tyre 2. Rape seems an unavoidable fate for captives of pirates, brigands and war, in Heliodorus, An Ethiopian Story 1.19 and 1.21. Polyidus took an oath to the temple never to rape Anthia in Xenophon of Ephesus, An Ephesian Tale 5.4. And Charikleia reminds Theagenes of his oath to respect her chastity when he is in the verge of breaking it, in Heliodorus, An Ethiopian Story 5.4. Beauty attracts unwanted attention in Heliodorus, An Ethiopian Story 5.19 and ‘beauty is an incitement to violence against her’, both from humans and gods, in Heliodorus, An Ethiopian Story 10.7.

[7] Gregory Thaumaturgus, Canonical Epistle, Canon 1.

[8] On the widespread, yet problematic, practice of massages with holy oil in early Christian ascetic and monastic circles see my forthcoming note in Postaugustum.

[9] W. Harmless, Desert Christians. An Introduction to the Literature of Early Monasticism, Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2004, p. 297.

[10] David Brakke, Demons and the Making of the Monk. Spiritual Combat in Early Christianity, Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts, London, 2006, p. 83.

[11] Achilleas Tatius, Leucippe and Clitophon 5.20, 8.5 and Xenophon of Ephesus, An Ephesian Tale 5.14. Practicing self-control was also an important ideal of the time; see for example Longus, Daphnis and Chloe prologue, Heliodorus, An Ethiopian Story 2.25 and Pseudo-Lucian, The Ass 9.

[12] ‘Honour chastity: it is the sole mark of virtue in a woman’, in Heliodorus, An Ethiopian Story 4.8 See also Xenophon of Ephesus, An Ephesian Tale 2.9.

[13] In The Story of Apollonius King of Tyre 33 Tarsia asks her pimp to have pity on her and to help her preserve her virginity. It must have been a sensational story. We also learn from the same passage that having sex with a virgin for money was very profitable for her pimp.

[14] Αnother way to preserve virginity was to resort to a temple, as we learn in The Story of Apollonius King of Tyre 27.

[15] Ambrose, Concerning Virginity 4. See also the fifth century Acts of St. Agnes of Rome in which all men who tried to have intercourse with the Christian virgin Agnes, in the brothel where she was put, were immediately struck blind.

[16] Despina Iosif, ‘I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. Illness as Demon Possession in the World of the First Christian Ascetics and Monks’, Mental Health, Religion and Culture, Routledge Journals 14.4, April 2011, p. 323-340.

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