Friday, 1 May 2015

Sarah Emanuel: Virgin Heroes and Cross-Dressing Kings: Reading Ambrose's On Virgins 2.4 as Carnivalesque

Neil McLynn phrased it well when he wrote that Ambrose was a “master of ceremonies,” contending that each of his accomplishments was “more spectacular than the last."*  In this essay, I explore how Ambrose’s public theatricality similarly permeated his written works, particularly those concerning virginity.  More specifically, I analyze Ambrose’s On Virgins 2.4 through a Bakhtinian lens, investigating the various theatrical representations of the carnivalesque in his depiction of the virgin and her soldiered hero. Focusing on the virgin who swaps clothing with a Christian soldier in order to escape death – only to then choose the crown of martyrdom alongside her champion in drag – I argue that the relationship between the virgin and soldier evokes ancient Roman notions of humor and Saturnalian imagery.  In fact, by producing for its readers a moment in which normative hierarchies are reversed through subversive jest and the crowning of traditionally rendered anti-heroes, Ambrose’s On Virgins 2.4 is infiltrated by topsy-turvy performances that, although comedic, produce for its readers the serious and potentially liberating effects of a successful, carnivalesque scene.
* Neil B. McLynn, Ambrose of Milan: Church and Court in a Christian Capital (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1994), 220 and xiii.

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