Academic journal article Yearbook of English Studies

Menacing Virgins: Representing Virginity in the Middle Ages and Renaissance

Academic journal article Yearbook of English Studies

Menacing Virgins: Representing Virginity in the Middle Ages and Renaissance

Article excerpt

Menacing Virgins: Representing Virginity in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Ed. by Kathleen Coyne Kelly and Marina Leslie. Cranbury, NJ: University of Delaware Press; London: Associated University Presses. 1999. 246 pp. 30 [pounds sterling].

As the editors explain, the title of this volume expresses a purposeful ambiguity. Virgins in the arts in both the Middle Ages and the Renaissance are at once passive victims subjected to menaces, and troubling, charged figures seen as sources of menace. All women are virgins for at least part of their lives, and the term virgin embraces many different figures: the nubile maiden on the verge of marriage; the unfortunate victim of seduction or rape; the other-worldly saint who defies sexuality; and the fearsome, androgynous virago or Amazon. In turn, virginity and chastity can mean many things, from biological intactness, to spiritual integrity, to sexual fidelity within marriage. The themes of the essays thus include not only such sexual matters as seduction, impotence, rape, and cross-dressing, but also the very relations between signs and meanings.

The subject, then, is a vast and multi-faceted one, and the contributors address it in relation to a wide range of materials, from thirteenth-century Icelandic sagas, through Vives's early sixteenth-century conduct book Instruction of a Christian Woman, to Margaret Cavendish's idiosyncratic seventeenth-century romance Assaulted and Pursued Chastity. As a result the volume epitomizes many of the pleasures and frustrations of the essay collection. On the one hand, it is refreshing to address a subject from a range of angles, extending across nations and disciplines as well as periods: literary criticism of Chaucer and Milton mingles here with discussions of paintings on Florentine wedding furniture and of a seventeenth-century Italian cantata. On the other hand, there is a danger that the reader will be left with a feeling that only fragmentary glimpses of a theme have been snatched.

In their introduction the editors endeavour to map a difficult course, tracing some connections between different versions of virginity while acknowledging that `medieval and early modern attitudes toward virginity are not generalizable and evolutionary, but specific, changeable, and often conflicted'. It is not surprising to find a wide diversity of attitudes to virginity in such diverse sources; yet at the same time the multi-contributor essay collection format sometimes restricts scope for the drawing of illuminating comparisons. …

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