Valerian saw and respected Cecilia's angel lover

Ecstasy of Saint Cecilia in sexless marriage with Valerian

Lacking a loving friend like Valerius or the intervention of angels, Valerian ardently sought to marry Cecilia. She had troubling associations with Bona Dea, the so-called Good Goddess.[1] Bona Dea was a traditional Roman fertility god that women worshiped in December. While pretending to abstain from wine and sex, the women in secret rites of Bona Dea engaged in wild orgies.[2] Valerian had no idea what marriage with Cecilia would be like. He was in for a wedding-night shocker.

Despite her association with Bona Dea and her going through with her marriage to Valerian, Cecilia wanted to remain a virgin. She sang in her heart to God alone:

Keep my heart and my body spotless, and let me not be mixed-up. [3]

She started wearing a hair shirt under her golden clothes. She fasted and prayed and sought the support of holy women and men in heaven:

She summoned the angels with prayers, disturbed the apostles with tears, and prevailed upon the entire holy procession serving Christ, that with their prayers they would help her commend her chastity to the Lord. [4]

Cecilia seemed to have believed that having sex with her husband would contaminate her. That’s a demeaning view of men’s sexuality.

The most widely distributed medieval version of Cecilia’s life doesn’t even bother to explain why she married Valerian if she didn’t want to have sex with him. But a version that probably dates from the late fifth century explains:

The resolve of her family and fiancé was raging around her with such force that she could not reveal the desire of her heart or disclose by clear indications that she loved only Christ. [5]

In medieval Europe, loving only Christ was highly respected. Moreover, a woman couldn’t be married without her consent. Perhaps Cecilia was too meek to declare her dedication to Christ and refuse to consent to marriage with Valerian. But even by the relatively weak standards for rationalizing women’s behavior, that’s completely implausible.

Cecelia showed on her wedding night that she was a strong, independent woman. Celicia and Valerian were then together in the bedroom for the first time as husband and wife. She said to him:

O dearest and most loving young man, I have a secret to tell you if you will swear to do everything in your power to keep it hidden.

Was it that her mother wanted to move in with them? But that couldn’t remain a secret. Perhaps a venereal disease? Pregnant already? Several secret children with other men? Valerian, mind racing with possibilities, swore to keep Cecilia’s secret. Cecilia then said:

I have an angel of God as my lover, who guards my body with extreme jealousy. If he should see any indication that you touch me with polluted love, he will immediately release his rage against you, and you will lose the best part of your wonderful youth. But if he knows that your love for me is pure and spotless and that you keep my virginity completely unimpaired, then he will love you just as he loves me and will show you his favor. [6]

A lover already? An angel lover? A bisexual angel lover? Manly men don’t put up with this kind of bizarre crap from their wives. Valerian declared:

If you want me to believe your words, show me this angel; and if I determine that he is truly an angel of God, then I will do as you say. But if you love another man, I will run you both through with my sword.

Valerian probably lacked good legal alternatives for terminating his marriage and receiving compensation for the damage done to him. If you want peace, work for justice in divorce courts.

Cecilia led Valerian to believe and see her angel lover. Sex is so simple that all kinds of animals do it. Seeing an angel lover required a multi-step process. Cecilia explained to Valerian:

If you promise to follow my advice, permit yourself to be purified in the unfailing wellspring, and believe there is one God in heaven, living and true, then you will be able to see him.

Cecilia directed Valerian to go to the third milepost from the city on the Appian Way. There he asked some destitute persons to show him the holy old man Urban. The holy old man Urban purified Valerian’s wild, fierce masculine sexuality with a prayer:

Lord Jesus Christ, good shepherd, sower of chaste purposes, receive the fruit of the seeds which you sowed in Cecilia. Lord Jesus Christ, good shepherd, your handmaiden Cecilia zealously serves you like a disputatious sheep. For her spouse, whom she received as a fierce lion, she has sent to you as a very gentle lamb. This man would not have come here if he did not believe. Therefore, Lord, open the gate of his heart to your words, that he may recognize you as his Creator and renounce the devil with all his vainglorious displays and idols. [7]

Valerian proclaimed: “One God, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all and in us all.” He believed as all Christians believe. More distinctively, instead of a fierce lion for a husband, Cecilia got a very gentle lamb. Wimpy husbands who see their wives’ lovers as angels help to sustain sexless marriages.

Having a sexless marriage isn’t necessary to be a perfect Christian. Cecilia’s angel lover gave both Cecilia and Valerian crowns of “shimmering roses and gleaming lilies” as a sign of their sexless marriage to each other. The angel lover also promised to fulfill whatever Valerian wished. Valerian could have asked the angel for a beautiful mistress to provide him consolation within his sexless marriage to Cecilia. With better faith, Valerian instead asked that he and his brother Tiburce be made perfect Christians. They were made perfect Christians. That didn’t require Tiburce to enter into a sexless marriage.

Like Valerian and Margery Kempe’s husband, many husbands today have sexless marriages. These aren’t marriages in which their wives have angel lovers. Their wives simply refuse to provide affirmative consent, in accordance with all duly established sex regulations, when their husband requests permission to initiate an act of marital sexual relations. In such circumstances, husbands should seek an angel lover and strive to imitate Cecilia, a widely celebrated saint.

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[1] The church of Saint Cecilia in Trastevere was regarded as having been built upon the house in which Cecilia lived. Archaeological investigation showed that underneath the church are ruins of an important shrine to Bona Dea. Connolly (1994) pp. 40-51.

Bona Dea, also known as Fauna and Fatua, came to be associated with various myths. One myth suggests that Bona Dea (Fauna) was the wife of Faunus. Faunus found her secretly drinking wine. As punishment for that offense, he beat her with myrtle twigs. Plutarch, Roman Questions 20. A more exaggerated variant has Fauna drinking a “a full vessel of pure wine.” Her husband Faunus then beat her to death with myrtle. He subsequently deified her out of regret for his violence against her. Versnel (1994) p. 273.

Another Bona Dea myth anticipates discourse about rape culture. This myth is factually inconsistent with the previous one:

It is said too that she {Fauna / Bona Dea} was the daughter of Faunus, and that she resisted the amorous advances of her father who had fallen in love with her, so that he even beat her with myrtle twigs because she did not yield to his desires though she had been made drunk by him on wine. It is believed that the father changed himself into a serpent, however, and under this guise had intercourse with his daughter.

Macrobius, Saturnalia 1.12.20-9, from Latin trans. Brouwer, from Versnel (1994) p. 273. Common features of the myths are mythic claims about men’s violence against women and mythic depictions of men’s moral inferiority to women.

Publius Clodius Pulcher, a young patrician, barely escaped alive after, dressed as a woman, he attended the Bona Dea ritual. For a conventional political discussion of the incident, Yoshida (2008). The Clodius Pulcher incident with Bona Dea indicates the extent of social acceptance of violence against men and the harsh punishment of men transgressing women’s privileges.

The life of Saint Cecilia, like the myth of Fauna / Bona Dea and Faunus, depicts Valerian’s moral inferiority to his wife Cecilia. The cult of Bona Dea at Trastevere, perhaps reflecting Juvenal’s revelations, associates Bona Dea with cures of blindness. Enlightenment and truly seeing is an important theme in the life of Saint Cecilia.

[2] Juvenal, Satires 6.314-41. See also Juvenal, Satires 1.36, 5.18; Tibullus 1.6.21-2; Ovid, Ars amatoria 3.631-37.

[3] My translation from the Latin Fiat cor meum et corpus meum immaculatum, ut non confundar, from ll. 10-11 of In festo Sancte Cecilie virginis et martyris (On the feast of Saint Cecilia, Virgin and Martyr), Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, MS. Latin 3278 (dating to later thirteenth century), in print with English translation in Reames (2005) pp. 516-27. MS. Latin 3278 is an abbreviated version of Passio S. Caeciliae, but is identical with the latter through to the middle of the Christian catechism of Valerian’s brother Tiburce. Reames (1990) p. 338. All subsequent quotes are from early in the Passio S. Caeciliae. They are thus taken from Reames’s text of MS. Latin 3278, in Reame’s English translation unless otherwise noted.

Singing in the heart has deep biblical resonances. In biblical language, the heart encompasses the whole moral orientation of the person. Singing is associated with joy and cosmic order. Ephesians 5:18-9 declares:

be filled with the spirit as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts

For further discussion of the biblical resonances of singing in the heart, Connolly (1994) pp. 64-6. The biblical Song of Songs made clear to medieval Christians that joy in the Lord doesn’t require sexless marriage.

Passio S. Caeciliae is now thought to have been written sometime between 486 and 545. The best edition of Passio S. Caeciliae is currently generally regarded to be Delehaye (1936) pp. 194-220, based on Municipal Library of Chartres MS. 144 (from the tenth century) and Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale MS. Latin 10861 (from the eight century).

[4] This text isn’t included in the life of Saint Cecilia in Jacobus de Voragine’s Legenda aurea (Golden legend), written in the 1260s. Reames (2006) pp. 504-16 provides a Latin text with English translation of the life in the Legenda aurea. Ryan (2012) provides an English translation of the full Legenda aurea. Across manuscripts of Legenda aurea, omissions of text in the life of Saint Cecilia are common, but rewritings are rare and additions practically non-existent. Reames (2006) p. 496. For an insightful analysis of differences in versions of the life of Cecilia, Reames (1980).

Major scholarly works on saints, sexuality, and chastity are tainted with gynocentric values and misandry. Like much medieval scholarship, scholarly works on saints’ lives show little understanding of medieval men’s very high mortality, prevalent violence against men, disparagement of men’s genitals, and oppressive, pervasive courtly ideology of men’s subordination in love to women, among other injustices. Leading scholarly works on saints and sexuality have mainly served to reinforce dominant gynocentric ideology:

everywhere — embedded in language, in law, and in practice — is the association between heterosexual intercourse and the subordination of women.

Elliot (1993) p. 157. Tell that to Matheolus, Merlin, Aristotle, Ruodlieb, the Ménagier de Paris, two married women and a widow, and many others from medieval times. Just as with anti-men bias in criminal law, medieval men’s sexual hardships are conceptually excluded from concern:

Altogether 64 of 151, or 42 percent, of the female saints in our sample had conflicts of one sort or another arising from their sexual lives. For men the corresponding figures are 137 of 713, or just over 19 percent. The facts themselves, stated in this bare way, are eloquent. The differences bespeak both cultural prejudice and social reality.

Weinstein & Bell (1982) p. 97. Unfulfilled sexual desire is a source of enormous conflict in men’s lives. It also motivates much violence against men. Apparently such conflicts didn’t count in “conflicts … arising from their sexual lives.” That reflects cultural prejudice and social reality: the relatively low social value of men’s sexuality.

[5] This text also isn’t in the life of Saint Cecilia in Jacobus de Voragine’s Legenda aurea. The Legenda aurea version was very widely distributed. While nearly contemporary collections of saints’ lives have survived in only a couple of dozens of manuscripts:

Jacobus’s Legenda Aurea, by contrast, has survived in almost a thousand manuscript copies of the Latin text alone, with another five hundred or so manuscripts containing translations of all or part of the Legenda into one or another of the great European vernaculars.

Duffy, Intro. p. xi in Ryan (2012).

This above quoted text and the previously quoted text also weren’t incorporated into Chaucer’s verse version of the life of Saint Cecilia, the Second Nun’s Tale in the Canterbury Tales. Recent discussion of the Second Nun’s Tale emphasizes currently fashionable academic claims about transgressing boundaries:

the ambiguity about the gender of the speaker in the Prologue, rather than indicating incomplete revision, might have been purposefully left by Chaucer because it sets aside gender boundaries that create exclusive categories.

Dobbs (2013) p. 215. Chaucer, envisioning the future, also ironically celebrated in the Second Nun’s Tale the humanistic genius of Christine de Pizan. Flewellyn (2009).

[6] The Legenda aurea version of Cecilia’s life is more direct about the threat to Valerian: statim feriet te (“he will immediately kill you”), my translation from Latin text at Reames (2006) p. 205.

[7] Bibliothèque Nationale, MS. Latin 3278 has ap{i}s tibi argumentosa deservit, which Reames translates as “serves you like an ingenious bee.” Reames (2006) pp. 506-7. While apis argumentosa is a common manuscript variant, ovis argumentosa also exists. The earliest surviving manuscript, Bibliothèque Nationale, MS. Latin 10861 (dates to the eighth century) witnesses to ovis. Moreover, the translation “ingenious bee” has only diffuse relevance in context. Connolly (1994), n. 28, p. 293, insightfully states:

That the word was originally ovis seems evident from the context, for Christ has just been addressed as a “good shepherd” who is attended by Cecilia, and Valerian has been changed from lion to lamb — all rather more in keeping with the activity of a sheep than a bee.

The translation “busy bee” in Ryan (2012) p. 705 is best understood as a back projection from Chaucer’s Second Nun’s Tale, ll. 195-6:

Lo, lyk a bisy bee, withouten gile,
Thee serveth ay thyn owene thral Cecile.
{Lo, like a busy bee, without guile,
Always thine own servant Cecile serves Thee.}

In the early Life of Cecilia, the disputatious sheep Cecilia used her argumentative skills to convince Valerian to accept a sexless marriage. That’s significant for understanding men’s subordination to women. The shift to Cecilia the “busy bee, without guile” reflects Chaucer’s anti-meninism, along with the more general women-are-wonderful effect.

[image] Ecstasy of Saint Cecilia in sexless marriage with Valerian. Raphael, 1516-17. Held in Pinacoteca Nazionale, Bologna. Thanks to Wikimedia Commons.


Connolly, Thomas. 1994. Mourning into joy: music, Raphael, and Saint Cecilia. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Delehaye, Hippolyte. 1936. Étude sur le légendier romain, les saints de novembre et de décembre. Bruxelles: Société des Bollandistes.

Dobbs, Elizabeth A. 2013. “The Canaanite Woman, the Second Nun, and St. Cecilia.” Christianity & Literature. 62 (2): 203-222.

Elliott, Dyan. 1993. Spiritual marriage: sexual abstinence in medieval wedlock. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Flewellyn, Meghan. 2009. “Medieval Feminine Humanism and Geoffrey Chaucer’s Presentation of the Anti-Cecilia.” University of New Orleans Theses and Dissertations. Paper 998.

Reames, Sherry L. 1980. “The Cecilia Legend as Chaucer Inherited It and Retold It: The Disappearance of an Augustinian Ideal.” Speculum. 55 (1): 38-57.

Reames, Sherry L. 1990. “A Recent Discovery concerning the Sources of Chaucer’s ‘Second Nun’s Tale.'” Modern Philology. 87 (4): 337-361.

Reames, Sherry L. 2005. “The Second Nun’s Prologue and Tale.” Pp. 491-527 in Correale, Robert M., and Mary Hamel. Sources and analogues of the Canterbury tales. Volume II. Woodbridge: D.S. Brewer.

Ryan, William Granger, trans. and Eamon Duffy, intro. 2012. Jacobus de Voragine. The golden legend: readings on the saints. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Versnel, Hendrik S. 1994. Inconsistencies in Greek and Roman religion Vol. 2:  Transition and reversal in myth and ritual.. Rev. Ed. Leiden: Brill.

Weinstein, Donald, and Rudolph M. Bell. 1982. Saints & society: the two worlds of western Christendom, 1000-1700. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Yoshida, La’akea. 2008. “Clodius Pulcher: Caesar’s Willing Puppet. The Bona Dea Affair and Its Effect on Cicero and the Fall of the Republic.” Hohonu: A Journal of Academic Writing. 6(2): 3-8.

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