Virgins, mothers, monsters : late-medieval readings of the female body out of bounds

Julian of Norwich 2Virgins, mothers, monsters : late-medieval readings of the female body out of bounds

By Sarah Alison Miller

PhD Dissertation, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2008

Abstract: This dissertation examines representations of female corporeality in three late-medieval texts: the Pseudo-Ovidian poem, De vetula (The Old Woman); a treatise on human generation erroneously attributed to Albertus Magnus, De secretis mulierum (On the Secrets of Women); and Julian of Norwich’s Showings, an autobiographical account of visions she experienced during an illness in 1373. These texts present female bodies whose anatomical structures and physiological processes mark them unstable, permeable, and overflowing – attributes associated with medieval monstrosity. These bodies not only exceed their own physical borders, but vex the ontological and epistemological boundaries that discursively structure the texts themselves.

Chapter One considers how the transformation of a virgin into the eponymous old woman forces the poet of De vetula to confront the slipperiness between the erotized and repulsive female body. I also show how the poet’s conversion to philosophy and Christianity does not free him from the troubling significance of corporeal instability, now extended beyond the economies of individual bodies to the Christian doctrines of the Trinity, incarnation, and resurrection of the body.


Chapter Two analyzes how the gynecology and natural philosophy of De secretis mulierum construct a leaky, contaminating female body whose superfluities threaten the integrity of proximate bodies with wounds, illness, and deformity. Although this text’s disclosure of women’s secrets depends on the legibility of the female body, I contend that the instability of female corporeality and the ambiguity of its signs trouble the text’s claim over this semantic field.


Chapter Three demonstrates how Julian’s Showings recasts the unbounded female body by developing a theology of Christ’s maternity predicated on the permeability of his flesh. I show how the perforated surfaces, uncontrollable flows, and overlapping enclosures of Christ’s body are precisely what make possible communion between humanity and divinity.


This dissertation measures how these texts negotiate classical and medieval representations of female corporeality germane to their particular discursive traditions – that is, of Ovidian bodies, medicalized bodies, and mystical bodies. I also explore how the female body elicits both desire and disgust, and posit that an association between the reproductive female body, the monster, and the corpse invites these responses.

Click here to read this thesis from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill