Tomorrow is the feast day of St. Agnes of Rome, a virgin who was martyred at the age of twelve or thirteen for refusing to marry the son of a Roman official. Here is one version of her death:"The Prefect Sempronius wished Agnes to marry his son, and on Agnes' refusal he condemned her to death. As Roman law did not permit the execution of virgins, Sempronius had a naked Agnes dragged through the streets to a brothel. As she prayed, her hair grew and covered her body. It was also said that all of the men who attempted to rape her were immediately struck blind. When led out to die she was tied to a stake, but the bundle of wood would not burn, whereupon the officer in charge of the troops drew his sword and beheaded her, or, in some other texts, stabbed her in the throat. It is also said that the blood of Agnes poured to the stadium floor where other Christians soaked up the blood with cloths. She did not want to marry but wanted to have God in her life." (Wikipedia)
Another version leaves out the horrific details, concentrating on Agnes's pledge of purity to god in her faith,
St. Agnes was a Roman girl who was only thirteen years old when she suffered martyrdom for her Faith. Agnes had made a promise, a promise to God never to stain her purity. Her love for the Lord was very great and she hated sin even more than death! Since she was very beautiful, many young men wished to marry Agnes, but she would always say, "Jesus Christ is my only Spouse." (Catholic Online)A tradition has grown up around the patronage of St. Agnes for unmarried young women - young women who would have been assumed to be virgins because unmarried.
In short, the young virgin will have a vision in a dream of her future husband (known or not) if she goes to bed without supper, lies naked on her back to sleep, hands under the pillow, looking nowhere but to heaven. (John Keats's poem "The Eve of St. Agnes" tells of the tradition in the lives of Madeline and her love Porphyro.)
Agnes was put to death (martyred and sanctified for it) for choosing to remain celibate. Agnes as the patron saint of virgins, girls, chastity, rape victims, and Girl Guides makes sense based on her story.
But she is also the patron saint of engaged couples - a seeming example of those IQ-test questions which ask which of the items does not fit. How is the saint canonized as a martyr to celibacy also the patron saint of engaged couples?
It's difficult to know just whose interest is being served with the traditions of St. Agnes's eve - the young virgin's or that of the future husband who will have a bride primed for naked submission to him and spiritual submission to god.
Yet the folk tradition does serve the chuch and religious authority is reinforced, as such submission of a woman to god through submission to her husband has been ritualized for centuries, both officially and in folklore.
And how is a religion to flourish with too many of its young women remaining unmarried and virginal? And what are the men to do without wives? And how to ensure virginity until marriage? Part of the tradition is that the vision in the dream is only for virgins.
Poor Agnes! A real young girl (A.D. 291 - 304), killed and possibly raped with state sanction because she did not want to marry. She may be held up as a martyr to her faith, yet her sad story has been used throughout the centuries to honour the very thing she so suffered for.
I must say it on her behalf: "No means no!"