Eve and her Descendants
(Note to readers: This is the second part of the essay titled, “Religious Revanchism in the USA and that Old Antipathy for Women,” which appeared in the September 2022 issue of WordCity.)
Who is Eve and what does she stand for? It has become an important question of late, especially in the wake of the overturning of Roe v. Wade and now, as nationwide protests in Iran over women’s right not to wear a hijab enter their second month. There’s a connection between religious revanchism in the USA and religious fundamentalism in Iran. Central to both is the question of women’s rights — in essence, nothing less than women’s sexual and reproductive autonomy. In Iran, this translates into whether and how women get to display their bodies and hair. Fundamentalists, and even conservative religionists, insist that women’s bodies and head hair are an eternal temptation to men. Without being concealed, they argue (sadly, not only in Iran), all girls and women are an unbidden provocation to men.
Eve as Unflattering Archetype
As a child of Jewish parents, I only ever knew Eve as the mate of Adam. She was made of his rib, and was therefore his natural partner. Additionally, Eve was partly responsible for the couple’s expulsion from Eden, since it was she who handed Adam the apple from the tree of knowledge. Both Adam and Eve were forced out of G-d’s garden, both had to endure the hardships of life from thereon, and Eve was given the additional punishment of experiencing the pangs of childbirth. Nothing more was added to this story or its symbolism, from what I recall.
There is early rabbinic literature, as I discovered, that describes Eve as inferior to Adam in every sense, but the general presentation on the subject turns her into a minor figure, whatever her character flaws may have been; the same literature renders her inconsequential in terms of her impact on later humanity. Eve was naive, even childlike, and, well, merely human. Besides, Genesis quickly yields a string of laudable matriarchs — Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel — which supersede Eve in Judaism’s thought and imaginary.
Origin stories and their narratives tend to have a powerful hold over the collective imagination. Still, as an adult, I continue to be amazed by the number and types of meanings Eve, the first woman, has been assigned — especially in some prominent Catholic and orthodox Christian camps. Eve is a slut, a fornicator, a lier, a snake, the devil’s companion, the cause of the Fall of mankind, the source of all misery, and like some noxious odour that fouls up a place, she refuses to dissipate. She’s everywhere, even when buried under piles of religious platitudes or explanations. What’s worse, she’s every woman tempting men to sin, or at least that’s what we’re told early Christian thinkers argued — for example, Paul, Matthew, Augustine, Pelagius (though not, it’s worth noting, Julian of Eclanum, nor the theologian-philosopher Thomas Aquinas).
So many of today’s Christian teachings stem from exegetical interpretations of the “words of Christ” — that is, interpretations of his interpreters. What’s more, so much of the emphasis on Eve’s sin comes from Christian “fundamentalists.” It doesn’t seem to matter that they’re more than 1900 years removed from the Apostles’ social surroundings (largely pagan), and some 1600 years removed from the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers.
Elaine Pagels’s books, Gnostic Gospels and its sequel, Adam, Eve, and the Serpent, examine the first four centuries of Christianity, up to and including Augustine. It was a period of “doctrinal disputes,” which continue to generate controversy, writes Joan Hartman, Professor of English and Humanities at William Paterson University. Hartman describes Pagels’s books as important “because [Pagels] historicizes what conservatives theologize: the nature of women and men, and relations between the sexes.” Pagels shows that “[t]hese might have been otherwise…as she traces through the early history of the church a series of incompatible interpretations of the first three books of Genesis. When Augustine’s interpretation prevailed, his culture pronounced our nature” (Hartman, p. 197).[i] To clarify, sometime between 386 and 430 CE, Augustine developed the concept of “Original Sin,” which from thereon shaped the meaning of Christ’s sacrifice, redemption, and grace, and hence also the relationship between Christ and his adherents. What followed were either categorically endorsed or condemned relations between man and woman, man and wife.
Most pertinent is that for Augustine, sexual activity and sexuality reprised original sin. Marriage helped curb lust by alleviating it, but it was also a regrettable distraction from the only union that mattered — oneness with Christ. Besides, didn’t Jesus himself set the leading example with his asceticism and celibacy.[ii] Pagels compares and contrasts Augustinian interpretations of the story of Adam and Eve’s expulsion from Eden with those of Gnostic Christians, like Pelagius. Given this essay’s particular aims, one key observation is this: Augustine’s theology contained “a pervasive debasement of sexuality and its attendant misogyny” (this is clear from the profusion of anti-marital writing produced in its wake). Furthermore, it’s important to grasp that the forms of Christianity entrenched today are derived from first millennia Christian movements that succeeded where others didn’t (compare the fates of the various gnostic strands with Pauline Christianity, for instance). Crucially, they succeeded in large part by delegitimizing rival sects — that is, by characterizing them as heresies rather than competing philosophies. In other words, as Pagels argues and Hartman concurs, Christianity’s take on Eve as responsible for man’s downfall — a calamity that only Jesus’ sacrifice could mitigate — wasn’t a foregone conclusion. Eve could’ve been a different construct; instead of a seductress, she could’ve been merely gullible, an innocent.
Several factors assured the success of some Christian movements instead of others: either more energetic and compelling proselytizing (note that the word Gospel comes from the Anglo-Saxon term god-spell, meaning “good story”); astute maneuvering (sidling up to those who were powerful politically and militarily); and, significantly, mass murder or violence routinely committed against rival creeds (the consequences of the Edict of Thessalonica in 380 CE are a case in point, but the systematic slaughter of Cathars in medieval Europe is another apt example).
Historical developments are nearly always the aleatory result of multiple concurring factors. Hartman writes: “Christian doctrine as Augustine defined it emerged from a complex of historical circumstances some 1,600 years ago to become orthodox and is not, by virtue of its antiquity, natural.” She commends Adam, Eve, and the Serpent for the ways “Pagels deconstructs [doctrinal] naturalness….” (p.200). Philosopher Martha Nussbaum, the Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago, devoted her book, Sex and Social Justice, to a similar set of goals: to demonstrating that the naturalness or rational inevitability that most people read into entrenched or commonplace societal beliefs and conventions are often anything but. Past civilizations had various cultures and sometimes startlingly different attitudes toward sexuality, she explains in the chapter “Constructing Love, Desire, and Care.” It’s no coincidence, for instance, that “[t]he precise species of guilt and shame about the body that many Christian cultures experience and cultivate has no one-one equivalent in ancient Greece and Rome” (Nussbaum, pp. 260-1). Nussbaum wants readers to see that societies in the current day could also be other than they are now by embracing newer institutions and values, and redesigning laws to better protect their most vulnerable members, including women, minors, and people whose sexualities don’t match long-held heteronormative expectations.
Celibacy, Chastity, and Mariology: Past and Present
Interestingly, in “The Notion of Virginity in the Early Church,” Peter Brown, the Philip and Beulah Rollins Professor of History at Princeton University, makes the issue of naturalness central by arguing that it was precisely the unnaturalness of celibacy, particularly in relation to common social norms, that appealed to clerical or patristic authors, from Origen of Alexandria (185 – 253 CE) to Jerome of Stridon (342 – 420 CE). Lifelong abstinence from sexual relations, the rejection of marriage and its comforts, was assumed to set devout Christians literally and figuratively apart from ordinary members of society and other practicing Christians. As Brown explains, celibates were taken “out of circulation in society” as potential husbands or wives, fathers or mothers. Not for them the bodily surrender to the needs of society; not for them “the abrasive, transient, and tarnished ‘communion’ of the married.” Instead, “the radical exegesis of the story of Adam and Eve [and its reduction to original sin] provided conceptual tools of great emotive power with which to explore…[alternative forms of] voluntary association” (p. 431). Such living arrangements were outside of customary social intercourse and profane authority. Yet precisely these ideas, which unfortunately also equated sex with fornication, were formalized by Benedict of Nursia (480–550 CE). His instructional book, Rule of Saint Benedict, introduced in 516, was well received by post-Nicene Church leaders,[iii] and was promptly deployed to lay the foundations for a life of monastic seclusion throughout Europe. Its impact on medieval Europe by way of the “regular church,” as opposed to the “secular church” wing of the institution as a whole, and its fixation on, and elevation of celibacy and chastity to the status of supreme moral goods, cannot be underestimated.
Despite these foundations in the 5th and 6th centuries, which later gave rise to numerous monastic orders, the fixation on celibacy among Christian fathers and later Christian theologians poses a challenge for scholars of Late Antiquity and the Medieval period. No other religion supported celibacy among religious leaders. How and why, then, did celibacy and chastity persist as a central preoccupation — becoming a virtue above all others? Brown’s explanation is that since “Christianity had rendered itself patently absurd to thinking pagans — and even more so to Jews, and later to Muslims — by its doctrine of the direct, unmediated joining of the highest God to human flesh in the person of Christ” (433), it remained for Christian thinkers to search obsessively for “tangible forms of mediation between God and humanity.” Celibacy and virginity in particular, that “angelic,” untarnished state, offered up one avenue for bridging the distance between man and the highest and holiest of beings. Martyrdom was another. It’s no coincidence that female martyrs were usually represented as virgins who became shining examples of virtue for refusing to marry.
Brown quotes Edmund Leach, writing in Genesis and Myth: “….although the central ‘problem’ of religion is…to reestablish some kind of bridge between Man and God… ‘mediation’ (in this sense) is always achieved by introducing a third category which is ‘abnormal’ in terms of ordinary ‘rational’ categories… The middle ground is abnormal, non-natural, holy” (Edmund Leach quoted in Brown, p. 432). What, then, can be said of Mary, that paradox of paradoxes, the unsullied birthmother of Jesus and holiest of all virgins? As a symbol of virtue, or as an instrument of “mediation,” is she not also the most abnormal or unnatural of constructs?
Mary was “chosen” to bring Jesus into the world and then nurture him with her body. Pope Pius X, who grew to adulthood during Queen Victoria’s reign, described Mary as “the model of virtue, and a life free of sin.” Brown writes: “[t]he style of a whole Christian society was rendered visible in the figure of the Virgin holding the Ruler of All on her knees” (pp. 438-9). Here then is a point not reiterated often enough: The veneration of Mary and Marian iconography are a devastating millstone for women. For what woman, young or old, could possibly measure up to that innocent, giving figure hung about the house? Perhaps the bigger question is this: What explains the fact that Mary’s pristine example — of chastity, devotion, and passivity — has endured for 1600 years as the yardstick by which all women are judged worthy of affection or opprobrium?
Anti-abortion legislation is, to state things simply, one way of punishing women for having sexual relations. This kind of stark thinking tends to be set aside in our contemporary western liberal societies — until, that is, something like the overturning of Roe v. Wade takes place. To bring an age-old lamentable equation back into the harsh light one needs to be apprised of the right sources; one needs to know where to look. Check, for example, how the late Paul Lardier, a director of research at France’s Centre national de la recherche scientifique (CNRS), and a founding member of the Centre de sociologie de l’éthique (the centre for sociology and contemporary research ethics), summed up France’s Protestant and Catholic authorities’ positions on abortion. He wrote the following in his “Religion, morale et politique: le débat sur l’avortement” (“Religion, Morality and Politics: The Abortion Debate”): “[D]uring hearings held from July-November 1973 by the Commission of Cultural, Family, and Social Affairs of the National Assembly concerning the proposed abortion legislation…[there were] internal Catholic challenges to the official position [which] appeared to rest principally on the question of when life begins but also touched on the inappropriateness of viewing unwanted pregnancy as a punishment for sexual activity.” Abortion in France was decriminalized in 1975, but the arguments and testimonies delivered by Catholic and Protestant theologians in response to proposed revisions of abortion law, and the beliefs guiding them, demonstrate that hard-core Catholics and Protestants in the 20th century have continued to view women’s sexual liberality (or free expression thereof) as deserving of punishment.
The central question needs reiterating here: How did Mary and her insignia of virginity endure and become such a toxic facet of Catholicism and Christianity in general? How did Mary become a yardstick for all women, specifically in relation to sexual behaviour? A casual reader can easily look up the history of Marian worship for themselves. However, they might miss the centrality of the Immaculate Conception in the schema of Catholicism as we know it today. It’s worth reiterating here that the immaculist thesis didn’t go unchallenged from the start. It was a feature of one Christology among several competing explanations. It just so happened that its supporters outnumbered or outmaneuvered others, as the condemnation of Nestorius at the Council of Ephesus in 431 illustrates.
Here are a few more pertinent facts: By the Middle Ages, veneration of Mary as virgin and God-bearer reached cult-like status — so much so, that later Protestant reformers considered Roman Catholic Mariology a sign of atavistic paganism, idolatry, or superstition. Iconoclastic riots swept through many parts of Protestant Europe in the first half of the 16th Century, but devotion to Mary persisted, despite the questions provoked by the aporia of her impregnation.
Enthusiasm for the Immaculate Conception as Church dogma and creed was revived in the 19th centuries with Pope Pius IX (the “Immaculata” became the patron of the US in 1846). It continued to right up until the latter half of the 20th. One might speculate that in current-day America, Mary as virgin and mother has regained all of her former glory and oppressive powers.
There are several ways of adumbrating the reasons for Mary’s outsized influence in relation to women’s status, and as a measure of their virtue especially. Some of the underlying theology has been touched on already. The causes for the uptick of Marian veneration in the Middle Ages require some additional fleshing out, which I attempt below. What also needs looking at, however, are the psychological dimensions of Mariology. What accounts for this clinging to the undefiled virgin? Let’s be clear, efforts to guard or alternatively capitalize on the pristine state of young women were a feature of all ancient patrilineal societies. Yet Christianity, which inherited the concept of virginity as a good from the pagan world, also managed to turn it into a powerful fetish as well as instrument of control.
Evolutionary Psychology and the Mary/Eve Dichotomy
The field of evolutionary psychology offers new ways of delving into the Mary/Eve constructs that achieved currency with Augustine, Jerome, and others. For instance, Vladimir Tumanov, scholar at the University of Western Ontario, argues in his article, “Mary Versus Eve: Paternal Uncertainty and the Christian View of Women,” that “Eve, the inventor of female sexuality, is repeatedly viewed by the church fathers…as Mary’s opposite: ‘Death by Eve, life by Mary’ (St. Jerome).” The Mary-Eve contrariety “has given a conceptual basis to what is known in psychology as the Madonna-Whore dichotomy: the tendency to categorize women in terms of two polar opposites.” This has been the predicament for all women since Christianity succeeded at making their formulations respecting Eve and May clear-cut and categorical. All women have been and continue to be appraised on the basis of their sexuality. Tumanov explains what this categorizing is really about: the male psyche’s eternal angst with regard to the biological reality of paternal uncertainty.
When viewed through the lens of evolutional psychology, Christian discourse concerning the cunning and sexual promiscuity of Eve becomes the psychologically distressing fear of being cuckolded, according to Tumanov. Christianity’s answer — in part because of the licentiousness witnessed among pagan peoples by early Christians — was to “c[o]me up with an ingenious attempt to overcome biology through mythology, namely, by splitting up the female into two distinct figures: Eve (along with her heirs) and the Virgin Mary.” How do we know Tumanov is on to something? We know because this phenomena is universal. Tumanov points out that forms of mate guarding are “common social institutions of patrilineal societies…. The repeated convergent invention of claustration practices around the world and the confining and controlling behavior of men even where it is frowned upon reflect the workings of a sexually proprietary male psychology” (Wilson and Daly quoted in Tumanov). The rigid insistence on women wearing hijab or burka is merely another manifestation of the same phenomena. For Christians, Tumanov writes, what Mary offers the male psyche by remaining a virgin when she conceives Jesus is this: “she allows [it] to have its reproductive cake and eat it too.”
As an aside, it’s worth pointing out that Mary’s polar opposites, Eve and her descendants, have always courted collective censure, condemnation, and punishment — as they do now by means of anti-abortion legislation. Tumanov explains that “fervent Mariological discourse…eventually led to the witch hunts of the late Middle Ages and beyond…[One] key accusation [in charges of witchcraft] was sexual misconduct, i.e., female sexuality outside of masculine control” (Hays quoted in Tumanov). Thus, Queen Elizabeth I of England, who refused to give up her prerogatives to a husband, made sure to be perceived as a virgin and, therefore, as morally upright throughout her long reign. In 17th century Puritan New England, where Salem’s witch hunts took place, “Eve was the main symbol of woman-as-evil….[because] all witchcraft comes from carnal lust which in women is insatiable.” The devil may have “tempted Eve, yet Eve seduced Adam” (Hays quoted in Tumanov). Given the Originalist readings of the American Constitution, we might well conclude that a return to Puritanism is what we’re witnessing in the USA today.
It’s important to see that the subjection of women’s sexual lives to scrutiny is the result of a singleminded and pernicious fixation on virginity and its conflation with moral integrity. Scholars like Tumanov help us see one important dimension of Marian worship: it’s an expression of men’s deep-seated desire to control women’s sexuality and reproduction. It’s also, quite simply, a desire to control and subjugate women in general. The current-day religious revanchism in the USA, which has unfortunately infiltrated the Supreme Court, is really a tooth-and-nail struggle to re-establish systemic patriarchy.
Monasticism and its Constructs
Today’s medievalists are doing the crucial work of illuminating significant developments that contributed to the rise of Mariology and its implications. These developments include stereotypical constructs of the virtuous lady in courtly love literature (and in the music and poetry of the troubadours), and in various forms of popular culture. A great deal of scholarly work touches on the Cluniac or Benedictine Reforms which began in the 10th century. This and related scholarship looks at the influential figures behind the reforms, and the resulting dissemination and successful circulation of attractive or compelling ideas. The reforms themselves were intended to restore Western monasticism and its outposts, the monasteries, which served as centres of religious piety and worship, as well as important places of learning, and production of Christian manuscripts and iconography. The restoration of the monastic movement, therefore, had broad and profound consequences for medieval societies and commonly held attitudes and conventions.
In Europe, Monasticism as an institution had been steadily undermined during the 9th and 10th century by the Vikings’ repeated attempts at invasion. William I, Duke of Aquitaine (c.875–c.918), and the abbot, Odo of Cluny (c.878 – c.942), each in their own capacity, spearheaded the building of monasteries throughout France (Burgundy, Provence, Auvergne, Poitou) and across Italy and Spain. Comparable work began in England with Alfred the Great (c.849 – c.899), King of the Anglo-Saxons from 886 until his death. Building of monasteries continued with his grandson, the uber-cultured Athelstan (c.894 – c.939), King of the English as of 927. It was carried out after him by King Edgar (c.959 – c.975), also a supporter of the monastic reform movement’s goals of replacing secular, often married clergy with celibate monks.
This sketch, hopefully, will give readers a sense of the historical and political context in which certain religious figures of this period, their writing and teachings especially, came to prominence. Most relevant for our purposes are men like Dunstan, Archbishop of Canterbury (c.909 – c.988), Ethelwold (or Æthelwold), Bishop of Winchester (c.904/9 – c.984), and his student, Elfric (or Ælfric) of Eynsham (c.955 – c.1020), who was an English abbot, as well as a gifted and prolific writer of hagiographies, homilies (Judith, is an apt example), and commentaries. He was also a teacher, grammarian, and a translator of Biblical texts from Latin to English.
Medievalists are now grappling with the lasting impact on Christianity of monasticism and influential theologians like Dunstan, Ethelwold, and one of their most notable intellectual heirs, Elfric. Feminist inquiry in particular is tracing the ways Elfric came to have an outsized influence on the intellectual and spiritual landscape of medieval England and beyond. Thus, in “Virginity and Misogyny in Tenth- and Eleventh-Century England,” author Catherine Cubitt writes:
The monastic reform movement was an almost deafeningly articulate one whose disciples produced a plethora of texts justifying their own revolution; outstanding amongst these writers is the monk Ælfric, pupil of Bishop Æthelwold, monk of Cerne Abbas and abbot of Eynsham, and the author of a great programme of vernacular translations….Ælfric aimed to supply a complete series of sermons covering essential doctrine, aimed at the laity and secular clergy, to ensure that the errors and heresies of Anglo-Saxon vernacular teaching were eradicated. His work is marked by a desire to impose monastic standards upon the whole of society, from the secular clergy to the laity, and it shows the far-reaching implications of the new reform movement. It is a rich field for the examination of reform attitudes to sex and to women. (p.2)
Cubitt follows up by highlighting the connection between Elfric’s ideas and attitudes regarding women’s sexuality that eventually became predominant:
A whole history of sexuality can be traced in Ælfric’s writings….[T]he Fall introduced the evil of concupiscence (galnysse) and thenceforth sex was subject to restraint….[Mankind] exasperated God with various crimes, and above all with fornication….On the Day of Judgment, mankind will be judged according to its sexual record:….Such is their merit that the virgins will not be judged but will rather take their place judging alongside Christ. In Ælfric’s sexual hierarchy, virginity is the highest good” (pp. 4-5).
Cubitt highlights furthermore that “Virginity was the banner of the reform movement….Sexual abstinence was the hallmark of the new monasticism…. Chastity and virginity (in Ælfric’s own terms, claennyss and maeg∂had) were not for Ælfric simply one aspect of Christian morality but occupied a central place in his theology” (p. 3). Furthermore, it appears that a general distrust of women coloured his work: “[Ælfric] seems to have viewed virginal and chaste women with grave suspicion in a manner reminiscent of the strictures of the Regularis Concordia. His negative and indeed fearful view of women’s sexuality with regard to the female religious is seen too elsewhere in his writings on women” (p. 15).
Similarly, and particularly with regard to the dissemination and persistence of ideas and values derived from Anglo-Saxon clerical authors, Aldhelm (c.639 – c.709) and the above-mentioned Elfric, in “Virginity and Chastity for Women in Late Antiquity, Anglo-Saxon England, and Late Medieval England: On the Continuity of Ideas,” author Melissa Hoffman elaborates:
While Aldhelm [the late seventh-century Benedictine English scholar] continued to be cited as an authority and Ælfric’s Lives continued its circulation, women patrons and their need for information led to the writing of new treatises on virginity after the Conquest [of England by William, Duke of Normandy, in 1066] by clerics, chaplains, and confessors….Saints’ lives were written not only for women but by women, and in the thirteenth century such works were as likely to be written in either French or English. For example Ancrene Wisse was circulated in both English and Anglo-Norman but was still being exchanged in French in fifteenth-century England (Wogan-Browne 12, 13).
Elfric’s homily on Judith depicted her as a wealthy widow, who elects to remain single and chaste after her husband’s passing. The emphasis in Elfric’s exegesis repeatedly falls on Judith’s ‘clǽnnes’ and purity (lines 391-394). Accordingly, as Hoffman explains, the symbolic power of virginity in medieval society increased in line with the growing availability of monastically-inspired literature:
Ideas from Late Antiquity are elaborated in treatises such as Hali Meidenhad. The rewards for virgins in heaven are enthusiastically presented: Virgins will be accorded a special place in heaven, wear a special crown that shines brighter than the sun, be like angels, sing songs that only virgins are allowed to sing and at which all will wonder, walk next to God, and wed the fairest bridegroom of all, Christ. The writer….painstakingly catalogs the disadvantages of marriage, to which [virgins] might be tempted. Once maidenhood is lost it is irrecoverable, and the writer ends by exhorting the virgins to resist temptation. (p. 6)
Significantly, according to Hoffman, “virgins received a one hundred-fold reward in heaven; widows a sixty-fold reward; wives, thirty” (p.1). Additionally: “As in earlier periods, virginity was not a static construct. The division of virginity into physical and spiritual states continued, as did claiming honorary forms of virginity for widows and wives, because virginity was ‘too powerful and prestigious a cultural ideal to be ignored or discarded’” (Wogan-Browne quoted in Hoffman p. 6). Ultimately, in medieval societies, all women came to be categorized in relation to this ultimate measure of goodness or purity, a state Mary represented in full. It also goes without saying that no woman on earth could approach this standard of holiness without first being martyred as a virgin (for such is the purported state of all female saints in the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches).
Let us end here with the excruciatingly suggestive fact that in medieval societies women came to be categorized not on the bases of their character, demonstrated skills, or even socio-economic particulars, but on whether they were virgins, widows, or wives. These three categories denoted socially recognized and agreed-upon statuses and were applied to all women and girls. In terms of the evolving cultural expressions of these statuses and the values assigned to them during the Middle Ages, Hoffman writes this:
The state of virgins in heaven evolved to reflect the ideals of medieval society: In the late twelfth and thirteenth centuries, they are represented as living in “eternity as elegant young noblewomen at God’s high medieval court, just as the iconography of heaven itself shifts from that of paradise garden to celestial city” (Wogan-Browne, quoted in Hoffman p. 6).
As with the Mary/Eve contrariety, the place imagined for women who were neither virgins, nor wives, nor widows (who had reconsecrated themselves to chastity) was the opposite of the ‘celestial city.’ Women who had sexual relations outside of marriage, “fallen virgins,” or women deemed to be in a state associated with ‘fallenness,’ were perceived as deserving of condemnation, punishment, and inflicted suffering. It’s important that we understand how and in which forms these medieval ideas continue to structure attitudes and expectations today. We also need to recognize that any society that clings to practices that involve punishing women for being insufficiently ‘chaste’ is itself in essence medieval, backward in the broadest sense. Finally, let’s remind ourselves that the 21st Century is no time or place for any version of medievalism.
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[i]Augustine believed that even marriage and procreation were tainted: “…yet, whenever it comes to the actual process of generation, the very embrace which is lawful and honourable cannot be effected without the ardour of lust….This is the carnal concupiscence, which, while it is no longer accounted sin in the regenerate, yet in no case happens to nature except from sin.” See Augustine, “On Marriage and Concupiscence,” Book I, cp. 27. See also Elizabeth A. Clark’s “Antifamilial Tendencies in Ancient Christianity,” where she writes: “Indeed, Jerome argues on the basis of Luke 18:29-30 that Jesus promised a reward to his devotees for leaving their children and wives to follow him” (p. 365).
[ii]In his essay, “The Notion of Virginity in the Early Church, Peter Brown explains the implications of celibacy vis-a-vis the reigning social structures and convention. In the fourth and fifth centuries, the “classical” age of Christianity’s expression, “writers such Athanasius, Gregory of Nyssa, John Chrysostom, Ephrem the Syrian, Ambrose, and Jerome (to name only the better known) mobilized all the resources of a late classical culture in its Christian form to glorify the practice of virginity” (Brown).
[iii]Pope Gregory I portrayed Mary Magdalene as a prostitute in an Easter sermon in 591. Conflating her with the unnamed “sinful woman” who is forgiven (Luke 7:36-50), Gregory I thereby propounded the belief that Mary Magdalene was a repentant prostitute or promiscuous woman, an archetypal opposite of Eve.
Olga Stein holds a PhD in English, and is a university and college instructor. She has taught writing, communications, modern and contemporary Canadian and American literature. Her research focuses on the sociology of literary prizes. A manuscript of her book, The Scotiabank Giller Prize: How Canadian is now with Wilfrid Laurier University Press. Stein is working on her next book, tentatively titled, Wordly Fiction: Literary Transnationalism in Canada. Before embarking on a PhD, Stein served as the chief editor of the literary review magazine, Books in Canada, and from 2001 to 2008 managed the amazon.com-Books in Canada First Novel Award (now administered by Walrus magazine). Stein herself contributed some 150 reviews, 60 editorials, and numerous author interviews to Books in Canada (the online version is available at http://www.booksincanada.com). A literary editor and academic, Stein has relationships with writers and scholars from diverse communities across Canada, as well as in the US. Stein is interested in World Literature, and authors who address the concerns that are now central to this literary category: the plight of migrants, exiles, and the displaced, and the ‘unbelonging’ of Indigenous peoples and immigrants. More specifically, Stein is interested in literary dissidents, and the voices of dissent, those who challenge the current political, social, and economic status quo. Stein is the editor of the memoir, Playing Under The Gun: An Athlete’s Tale of Survival in 1970s Chile by Hernán E. Humaña.
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