During the Middle Ages a woman’s virginity was highly prized (meanwhile it did not seem to matter too much whether or not a man was a virgin). A lady was expected not to have sex until she was married, and that her wedding night would be a kind of test to show that she had remained ‘pure’. However, if she did have sex before, was there a way she could cheat on this test?
This was one of the topics raised in Kathleen Coyne Kelly’s book, Performing Virginity and Testing Chastity in the Middle Ages. She takes a look at how virginity was viewed and defined during the medieval period, finding that there were many viewpoints on the matter, which went beyond the medical and physiological. One text from the time states signs of virginity could include “shame, modesty, fear, a faultless gait and speech, casting eyes down before men and the acts of men.”
The most common sign of virginity in a woman was that her hymen remained intact, and husbands would expect that a new wife would bleed during the first time they had sex. There are some medieval texts that gives advice to women about how to trick a man into believing she was still a virgin. One version of the Trotula for instance, gives a couple of options for a lady facing this situation:
This remedy will be needed by any girl who has been induced to open her legs and lose her virginity by the follies of passion, secret love, and promises…When it is time for her to marry, to keep the man from knowing, the false virgin will carefully deceive the husband as follows. Let her take ground sugar, the white of an egg, and alum and mix them in rainwater in which pennyroyal and calamint have been boiled down with other similar herbs. Soaking a soft and porous cloth in this solution, let her keep bathing her private parts with it.
But the best of all is this deception: the day before her marriage, let her put a leech cautiously on her labia, taking care lest it slip in by mistake; then blood will flow out here, and a little crust will form in that place. Because of the flux of blood and the constricted channel of the vagina, thus in having intercourse the false virgin will deceive the man.
Kelly adds that other tricks involved a woman arranging to have her wedding take place while she was menstruating, or (at least in medieval literature) secretly substituting the bride with another woman when it came time to consummate the marriage.
Unsurprisingly, medieval men wanted to find out whether a woman was a virgin or not, and several solutions were offered. For example, Niccolo Falcucci, a fifteenth-century Italian physician, wrote about these ‘medical’ tests:
If a woman is covered with a piece of cloth and fumigated with the best coal, if she is a virgin she does not perceive its odor through her mouth and nose; if she is smells it, she is not a virgin. If she takes it in a drink, she immediately voids urine if she is not a virgin. A corrupt woman will also urinate immediately if a fumigation is prepared with cockle. Upon fumigation with dock flowers, if she is a virgin she immediately becomes pale, and, if not, her humor falls on the fire and other things are said about her.
Examination of urine is another method to test a woman’s virginity. De secretis muleirum, a 13th century text, states that the urine of virgins is “clear and lucid, somethings white, sometimes sparkling.” Another expert recommended observing the process, for a virgin “urinates with a subtle hiss, and indeed takes longer than a small boy.”
If the reader might consider those solutions strange, consider what one fourteenth-century writer, John of Trevisa, offered as a test to see if a woman was cheating on her husband – it involved using a magnet:
Placed under the head of a chaste wife, makes her suddenly embrace her husband, and if she is “spousebreaker,” she will take herself out of the bed suddenly because of a frightening vision.
It is extremely unlikely that any of these tests were effective at determining virginity, no matter how much husbands wanted to know. Undoubtedly, some women were successful at keeping their sexual pasts a secret, although perhaps none quite so successful as Alatiel, a character in Boccaccio’s Decameron, who marries the king of Algrave. She was able to convince him of her virginity, “despite the fact that eight separate men had made love to her on thousands of different occasions.”
Kathleen Coyne Kelly is a Professor of English at Northeastern University. Her book, Performing Virginity and Testing Chastity in the Middle Ages was published by Routledge in 2000. Click here to read an excerpt.