The Sexualized and Gendered Tortures of Virgin Martyrs in Medieval English Literature

The Sexualized and Gendered Tortures of Virgin Martyrs in Medieval English Literature

By Eileen Harney

PhD Dissertation, University of Toronto, 2008

Abstract: This work examines the literary English traditions of four Virgin Martyrs: Agatha of Catania, Agnes of Rome, Juliana of Nicomedia, and Katherine of Alexandria. The primary focus surrounds the narratological developments and alterations of these women’s sex-specific or -emphasized tortures. In addition to torments, other details, which may not initially appear sex-specific in nature, are also considered.

As recent scholarship has shown, Virgin Martyrs’ lives tend to conform to a relatively standardized core narrative by the later Middle Ages. This study considers to what extent the lives of these four saints actually conform and to what extent they retain individualism despite this homogenizing trend. An analysis of each narrative’s progression from early Latin sources, when available, through fifteenth-century English texts, which supplements the current scholarly trend of examining Virgin Martyrs as a collective group, is also provided. The tracing of these legends’ sex-specific characteristics allows for clear identification of similarities and deviations within various sources.

Five appendices, each including an analytical table, are included to aid in the visualization of this progression. The tables, which allow for quick and easy identification of variations through chronologically listed sources, demonstrate this process in a concise and user-friendly manner and should be utilized alongside examinations of these legends as presented in each of the central chapters.

The first chapter, on Agatha, addresses her breast amputation and its symbolic implications for femininity and motherhood, as well as the argument that Virgin Martyrs ‘Become Male’ during their passiones.

The second chapter, on Agnes, explores her traditionally eroticized relationship with Christ, the motif of concealment, and Virgin Martyrs’ conventional brothel experience. The third chapter, on Juliana, focuses upon the Warrior Virgin Martyr tradition, her physical and spiritual struggle with the devil, and the tradition of familial rejection.

The final chapter, on Katherine, considers her position as supreme Bride, her limited physical trials, and her relationship with the Blessed Virgin. The final appendix contains a comparative chart of Virgin Martyr legends within the Legenda aurea, which indicates the frequency of motifs and plot devices in these lives.

Click here to read/download this thesis (PDF file)

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