Is (St.) Margaret a Virgin?

Reading The Life of St Margaret is a trip. Throughout the story Margaret is tortured, kills a dragon, bludgeons a devil, causes an earthquake, and converses with holy doves before she is executed, and her severed head is carried to heaven as a reward for maintaining her virginity in the face of a prefect’s aggressive efforts to take it.  However, the most implausible thing to me when reading this was that the prefect with the power to imprison, torture, and kill Margaret in pursuit of converting and marrying her didn’t rape her to achieve this goal.

In the narrative, Margaret uses her virginity to prove her religious piety and uses her piety as the reason she maintains her virginity. She has “entrusted her virginity to God” (pg. 115) and prays several times not to let her “soul or my body ever be defiled.” (pg. 115) When Margaret, rejects the prefect’s offer of marriage by saying that she has given her virginity to the Christian God, the prefect is so angry that he imprisons her and plots to “destroy her virginity.” (pg. 117) It was at this point that I asked, “Isn’t there a pretty straightforward way to do that?” I simply don’t believe that if he really “desired” her as his wife or concubine, he wouldn’t have taken what he wanted rather than go through all the trouble of torturing her for days and then executing her without ever touching her sexually.

Even if, as we discussed in class, it was more important to him to take her religious conviction from her, then rape still could have theoretically accomplished that goal. If she was no longer a virgin, if the “damage” had already been done, then perhaps she would have given up the God who failed to save her and to whom she could no longer give her pure body. But the prefect doesn’t do that, or at least, the narrator doesn’t explicitly say that he does.

Initially, I took the absence of rape as further evidence in this narrative’s incredibility. Margaret is no longer a saint precisely because the details of this story are so fantastical and cannot be identified in history. The Catholic Church believes that this was a constructed narrative, and I theorized that the narrator didn’t put a rape in because remaining a virgin until she dies makes a better lesson about the divine nature of virginity. Even if it was based on a somewhat true martyrdom, the narrator could have excluded a rape scene for the same reasons.

However, midway through class someone looked up what old English word was being translated as “virginity” and found that it might be better translated as “maidenhood” whose condition was not only virginity but also being unmarried. If this is true, it is possible that the prefect did indeed rape Margaret but that this did not materially affect her status as a “maiden” in the eyes of God because she continued to refuse an earthly marriage.

I find it plausible that the text implies without stating that Margaret was raped because at one point she says to the prefect, “though you have power over my body, Christ will save my soul.” (pg. 119) However, she asks God not to let her “body ever be defiled” (pg.115) in the same way that she asks him to preserve her “virginity undefiled” (pg.119) and her body is never identified as defiled in the text, only tortured and tormented. Although I would like to believe that her being raped does not matter to God, I am not thoroughly convinced given the evidence in the text to suggest otherwise. I would be interested in a more thorough analysis of the way maidenhood and virginity operated in medieval Christianity and society and would love to be proved wrong.

Clayton, M., & Magennis, H. (Eds.). (1994). The Old English Life of St Margaret in Cotton Tiberius A.iii. In The old english lives of st. margaret (pp. 111–139). essay, Cambridge University Press.

Altar frontal from Santa Margarida in Vila-seca painted in late 12th c, courtesy of the Museo Episcopal de Vic

2 thoughts on “Is (St.) Margaret a Virgin?

  1. In the future, please do a bit more research before putting out these kind of essays. Christian thought has long advocated for the innocence of victims of sexual assault, and it’s incredibly insensitive to those victims who remain Christian believes to argue that their own religion sees them as in some way “defiled.” You don’t even have to look very hard–in the first few pages of Saint Augustine’s “City of God,” he defends the innocence of victims, which ran against the Roman culture at the times. For a more medieval perspective, see Aquinas’s Summa, the supplement to the third part, question 96.

  2. One quick point of clarification, since this came up in class and in this essay: Margaret is still a saint! Her feast day is just no longer listed on the general Roman calendar. (This change was part of a broader series of changes in norms for celebrations during the liturgical year that were implemented in the late 1960s.) I think this detail is worth noting because it speaks to a larger point that’s important to keep in mind, which Prof. Saltzman mentioned in his lecture: miracles are meant to be miraculous! It’s absolutely right to notice that this story is really wild and difficult to believe; that’s the point, because it’s meant to show the incredible things that God is capable of.

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