The story of St. Margaret highlights many features of the Christian worldview, perhaps most notably the nature of ideal behavior. Saints are canonized in the Christian religion as role models- they are inherently aspirational figures. St. Margaret is portrayed as an ideal Christian figure in two ways: firstly, through her purity, translated as “virginity” or “chastity” in the text, and secondly, through her endurance in the face of extreme violence. She has pledged herself to God and God alone, and her uncompromising viewpoint- both in bodily faith and religious faith- is idealized in the text as she withstands torture and never acquiesces. This torture is similarly portrayed as an aspect of her sainthood, and of sainthood as an institution: saints are Christians brutalized and tortured for their faith, who nevertheless remain loyal to their religion. This consecration of martyrdom evokes the original Christian figure, Jesus Christ, and his sacrificial death. Echoes of this tragedy are memorialized in Christian art, and embedded in the religion itself. Displayed in churches and homes alike and worn as a necklace by countless Christians, the most recognizable Christian symbol is itself the cross upon which Jesus was crucified.
However, these two aspects appear, to an extent, antithetical. Violence is thought to be impure or dirty intrinsically- likely for both physical reasons, as violence can leave lasting effects in injuries or literally dirty the body, and for metaphysical reasons, as the mere act of witnessing violence can mentally alter a person forever. Typically, one would presume violence as contradictory to purity or innocence- it is a corrupting force. This is why the depictions of suffering in the life of St. Margaret appeared alien to myself and others in the class- in particular, the line “the executioners beat her tender body so that her blood flowed on the ground as water does from the purest spring (page 119)” seemed odd. The juxtaposition of a beautiful scene of nature with extreme acts of violence emphasizes the contradiction within Christian ideals- that it is aspirational to be both brutalized and unadulterated. How can Margaret, faced with physical and likely sexual violence continue to be described as pure and chaste- and why does this matter?
St. Margaret was de-emphasized from the Christian canon of saints, likely because her story as depicted is difficult to believe, more so than saints’ stories usually are- a dragon arrives quite suddenly, and is dispatched just as quickly through the power of the Lord. This means that the story is likely, to some degree, fictionalized, and as such is less a depiction of real-world logic or events, and more the ideal Christian view of sainthood. This is the lens by which I wish to analyze this account.
An interesting feature of this text, as observed by the class, is the strange behavior of St. Margaret’s captor. Despite his clear wishes to take her as his wife, he instead chooses to coerce her into accepting his proposal through torture. This seems irrational- either he cares for her consent, and would not torture her, or he doesn’t, and wouldn’t bother torturing her rather than simply marrying her by force. This seeming issue, however, is ameliorated when interpreting the conflict through a symbolic lens: the text conflates the notion of virginity or purity and St. Margaret’s religion. St. Margaret’s captor, the prefect Olibrius, gives her his ultimatum as such: “if you do not pray to my god, my sword shall test your body and I will break all your bones. If you obey me and believe in my god, I say to you before all this crowd that I will take you as my wife (117)”. This indicates that the notion of St. Margaret’s chastity and her religion are linked: she must choose both or none. What is important is not that St. Margaret has vowed chastity, but rather that “she entrusted her virginity to God (115)”. In choosing to marry Olibirus, she would implicitly disavow this pledge and by extension her faith in the Christian God.
Thus, Olibrius’ struggle with St. Margaret’s agency is not an approach to sexual consent, but rather symbolic of religious conversion. Religion is so personal, and so private, that conversion can never be truly forced- even if one embraces the rituals of another religion, their personal beliefs and prayers may still not align. This conflict of religion in marriage mirrors real-world conversion, where typically a wife is beholden to take her husband’s religion as her own. Agency therefore is paramount to this religious struggle of identity, and Olibrius has no choice but to grapple with it. As St. Margaret says, “for this reason I give my body over to torments, that my soul may be victorious in heaven (page 121)”.
The distinction between body and soul is a culturally accepted one, yet still puzzling. Our minds are our bodies- our thoughts electric sparks fired between neurons that physically exist in our skulls. Why, then, do we draw this distinction? I believe that in this seeming contradiction of St. Margaret lies the answer. The soul, or the mind, is the one aspect of a human that corresponds directly and seamlessly with the will. The body can be overcome, and brutalized, and forced into any number of situations, but the soul cannot. The soul requires its own conscious consent to act. Thus, this idea that suffering of the body purifies or justifies the soul serves to emphasize this juxtaposition. It proves and rationalizes the disconnect between the physical and spiritual. As a voice from the heavens (largely implied to be God) says to St. Margaret, “blessed are you who desired virginity (131)”. Notably, he doesn’t say “blessed are you who is a virgin”- but you who desires it. The soul- inherent, freely chosen faith- overcomes the circumstances of the flesh.
Clayton, Mary, and Hugh Magennis, eds. and trans. The Old English Lives of St Margaret. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.
Raphael, St. Margaret and the Dragon. 1518.