Sunday, 3 May 2015

Caroline Musgrove: Ordering Knowledge on the Virginal Body in Medical and Christian Literature

It is widely acknowledged that female virginity gained special significance during late antiquity, coinciding prominently with a rise in Christian asceticism. But despite this surge of interest in Christian virginity, modern scholarship has paid little attention to the virginal body in late antique medical texts: a curious omission, considering that ‘virginity’ was often taken by late antique contemporaries to denote an inherently physical state of being female. In this paper, therefore, I will examine medical discussion on the virginal body in late antiquity, focusing particularly on the fourth century encyclopaedist Oribasius, and on Stephanus of Athens and the medical commentators of the sixth and seventh centuries. I will describe the ways in which these authors adopted, adapted and reordered the knowledge of their predecessors on the subject of the virginal body, allowing them to offer representations of virginity that were uniquely their own. This originality in ordering medical knowledge was particularly distinctive in discussions of the virginal hymen: a structure medically affirmed for the first time in antiquity in the medical commentaries of late antique Alexandria. But why was medical knowledge on virginal anatomy challenged and reimagined in this period, and to what extent should we assume that such shifts were influenced by broader Christian attention to virginal lifestyles? This paper will suggest some answers to these questions; as well as offering a wider medical context in which to position more familiar Christian discussions on asceticism, virginity and female sexuality.
[Part of the panel titled “Virginity’s Anatomy.”]

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