Inspired by this post at Feminist Law Professors, headlined “French Court Rules Virginity is Not an “Essential Quality in a Bride,” I’ve been thinking a lot about virgins today, and the concept of virginity. (The linked story is about a French Muslim man who sought and obtained an annulment from his bride because she wasn’t a virgin. An appeals court ruled that “a lie that does not concern an essential quality is not a valid basis for annulling a marriage.”) I don’t think “virginity” is a reasonable or meaningful category for describing people’s lives today for a number of reasons, mostly feminist and pro-gay ones, but I have questions about the history and etymology of the word virgin and the state of being a virgin, which is to say, “virginity.”
A little background here: I have a young friend in a Catholic Kindergarten who is learning the “Hail Mary” (“blessed art thou among virgins women”–sorry about the error) and singing songs like Silent Night (“round yon virgin, mother and child…”), so a word previously not in hir lexicon is coming up on a regular–nay, daily–basis. So I’m expecting (and dreading) the question, “what’s a virgin?” My canned answer is “an unmarried woman,” and I’ll hope that flies. This eventuality has led me to ponder the roots of the word “virgin” and of the concept of “virginity.” Was “unmarried woman” the original meaning of “virgin,” or was the original meaning connected to a specific kind of (lack of) sexual experience? When did the marital and sexual connotations first collide in this word? Was it ever a term applied equally to men and women?
Happily, a number of medieval studies types read and comment here, so I’m calling on you all specifically: Tom at Romantoes, New Kid on the Hallway, Notorious Ph.D., Squadratomagico, and Another Damned Medievalist at Blogenspiel, can you help? (Anyone else I’ve missed, please chime in–I’m just listing the people you can track back to a blog somewhere.) Am I totally off-base in thinking this has something to do with Latin, Norman French, or Anglo-Saxon? Are there any interesting titles you’d recommend that discuss the history and etymology of this word?
One other observation: Catholic education introduces a lot more violent, sexual, and otherwise very adult themes into a child’s life than a happily sanitized modern secular education. This is not a complaint–I frankly think that children are patronized too often, and then they’re subject to commercial exploitation by sexualized and violent images and products without having the tools they need to process and deal with them appropriately. Are any of you familiar with St. Michael’s Prayer? It’s really a trip to hear a 5-year old recite it before tucking into a meal!