Monday, October 22, 2007
Book Review: "Virgins: A Cultural History"
Stephen Phelan reviews "Virgins: A Cultural History" for the Sunday Herald (Scotland):
There was a time when people believed that only a virgin - and only females were considered true virgins - could coax a unicorn out of hiding. Like most other folk tales, that legend can now be easily re-read in Freudian terms. Seven centuries of secular thought and medical science have discounted, if not discredited, the idea that sexual inexperience is a source of spiritual power, along with any number of pseudo-biological theories as to how maidenhood manifests itself physically. But virginity has not yet been demythologised. A few still believe in unicorns. Almost everyone still believes in virginity, which is elusive in its own way. "If someone asks you what it means to be a virgin," says Anke Bernau, author of the newly published Virgins: A Cultural History, "or what it means to lose that virginity, you might start by saying, Of course, we all know what it is', or Of course, it's not important any more'. But the more you think about it, the less certain you become about defining it. Virginity is still important to people, but they don't actually know what it is." Bernau is speaking from experience as a professor of mediaeval literature at Manchester University, where her students consistently choose to write papers on such subjects as Joan of Arc and the sexual politics of the 15th century. Their assumptions, and her own research, led Bernau "into thinking about how the modern world regards the mediaeval in general". "Ideas of contemporary virginity," she says, "especially all this talk of abstinence education and chastity movements, made me interested in how scholars from other periods thought and wrote about it. How does the idea of a virgin saint make sense today?"
For another recent book on the history of virginity, see this post: Hanne Blank's "Virgin: The Untouched History".