Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Eve of St. Agnes

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.)

The story of St. Agnes seems an odd base for such a folk tradition to build around.

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!"


Hels said...

It is interesting that in all the portraits of St Agnes, except for the Ribera which is your top image, St Agnes is shown as a fully mature woman.

I think that there was a lot of huffing and puffing about her duty to God Vs her responsibility to obey men's orders. But people didn't have the stomach to show a little girl (12) being raped and murdered, just because an adult male got his knickers in a twist over her disobedience.

"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.." I agree... there were limits even to male control.

Vania Moreira said...

Yes, definitely, it’s an ambiguous story! I have never heard it before. Anyway, she was a very determined person to decide not to marry, mainly at that time, when women had no right to have rights!

ChrisJ said...

Thanks for reminding me - I forgot to mention the painters!
I see what you mean about her age and the depictions.

ChrisJ said...


Early christian women and medieval women often decided to remain celibate - early nuns, really.

Thank you for commenting.

Ciss B said...

A lot of them remained celibate to get the chance to move up the religious, "corporate ladder," and get beyond the drudgery that was life for a woman of that age as well.

ChrisJ said...


The other choices were pretty dismal - drudgery's a good word for their lives.

Hels said...

Rachel Hartman, in "Nun, Widow, Wife, and More!: Career Options for Medieval Women", said nuns didn't have to worry about dying in childbirth, a consideration that surely carried some weight in an era where the average life expectancy for married women was only 30 years. Medieval nuns lived to an average age of 60 years.

I don't suppose being a celibate nun was much fun, but it certainly beat dying at 30 from puerperal fever.

ChrisJ said...


That would make celibacy quite attractive - plus no one around to leave the lid up on the toilet :)

Trulyfool said...

" . . . 'O may I ne'er find grace/When my weak voice shall whisper its last prayer,/If one of her soft ringlets I displace,/Or look with ruffian passion in her face."

(from the Keats poem you've mentioned -- 'The Eve Of St. Agnes')

ChrisJ said...

Trulyfool, Thanks for the Keats quote. The whole idea for the post, initially, was to focus on the poem, but the writing wanted to go off in another direction.

I love Keats - did my MA thesis on his work.

Trulyfool said...

I tended more to the Modernists, but from high school started to 'model' myself after Byronic heroes. Not really 'me' -- I seem to have settled for Prufrock.

Interesting since then to see the 'stock' of various poets/authors rise and fall. Eliot's taken a hit in the USA for his conservatism in our (academic) age of radicalism.

Keats has remained high -- am ready to see DVD of Bright Star. Campion's a very good director, not afraid of 'fullness' both of character and of cinematic 'look'.

ChrisJ said...


I'm leary of Bright Star - too attached to my view of Keats probably, which means that I should definitely see it!

Trulyfool said...


Finally did see Bright Star. I hesitate trying to place here my written response to it.

If you okay that, I will try to cut-and-paste. It might be easier for you to check it out on my website?

Let me know?