Academic journal article Spenser Studies

"Of the Sicke Virgin": Britomart, Greensickness, and the Man in the Mirror

Academic journal article Spenser Studies

"Of the Sicke Virgin": Britomart, Greensickness, and the Man in the Mirror

Article excerpt

The second canto of Book III of Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene ends with a peculiar attempt by the nurse Glauce to cure the princess and "sicke virgin" Britomart. Many critics claim that Britomart is lovesick; however, lovesickness in the period is primarily an ailment of male lovers or lascivious women. I argue that Britomart suffers from greensickness, a "disease of virgins" that can be found in medical discourse throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and for which the best cure is married sex. By using Helen King's recent research on greensickness and evidence from early modern herbal texts to support my claim that Britomart suffers from greensickness, I bring the historical context of early modern women's sexuality to bear on a text that is purportedly written in homage to Elizabeth I. Because its symptoms, cures, and cultural implications are associated with anxieties about the desiring female virgin, greensickness allows for a new reading of Spenser's treatment of female chastity, female desire, and the ruling queen of England in The Faerie Queene.

WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO CALL Britomart, Spenser's Knight of Chastity, heroine of the third book of The Faerie Queene, and one of many shadows of Elizabeth I in the epic, a "sicke virgin"?' The answer I would like to suggest is that Britomart suffers from greensickness. The sixteenth century saw the rising prominence of this disease known as the "disease of virgins." In addition to physical symptoms, the disease was marked by longing for an unspecific love object; its preferred cure was marriage. As critics have noted, the prominence of greensickness in the period suggests concerns about and attempts to regulate female desire and sexuality.2 Britomart's greensickness not only reveals that the regulation of the female body is inextricable from the concept of chastity; her illness also hints at the dangers of underlying undirected female desire, a desire threatening to a culture that depends upon marriage and procreation. Because its symptoms, cures, and cultural implications are associated with anxieties about the desiring female virgin, greensickness allows for a new reading of Spenser's treatment of female chastity, female desire, and the ruling queen of England in The Faerie Qneene.

After Britomart sees "a comely knight" in her father's mirror, she becomes "sad, solemne, sowre, and full of fancies fraile" (III.ii.24, III.ii.27). That "comely knight" is not a recognizable man, but rather an unspecified love object. When Britomart sees the figure ofArtegall in her father's mirror, she has no proof that he is anything more than an image in a mirror. Nevertheless, she feels longing for him. This unclear love object, which distinguishes greensickness from other ailments such as lovesickness, suggests that Britomart's virginity is in fact a threatening sexuality because her desire does not have a clear target. The feelings Britomart describes sound a lot like the medieval courtly lover associated with lovesickness-she is taken "unwares," she experiences pain (a "hidden hooke"), and she is "subjected to loves cruell law." But whereas the lovesick courtly lover longs for an unattainable, though present, love object, Britomart's love object is unattainable because he is both absent and an apparition. Britomart thus uses the language of courtly love to describe a scenario that does not have its own language because, unlike the (male) courtly lover, Britomart's painful longing has no clear mark. Far from being an inaccessible but identified love object, Artegall is not (to Britomart at least) a man "nor other living wight," but "th'only shade and semblant of a knight":

Nor man it is, nor other living wight;

For then some hope I might unto me draw,

But th'only shade and semblant of a knight,

Whose shape or person yet I never saw,

Hath me subjected to loves cruell law:

The same one day, as me misfortune led,

I in my fathers wondrous mirrhour saw,

And pleased with that seeming goodly-hed,

Unwares the hidden hooke with baite I swallowed. …

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