wife’s wedding-night threat led to six years of sexless marriage

In medieval Europe, some elite families arranged marriage for their young children. Medieval Christian canon law required voluntary consent from both parties to have a valid marriage. But formal law often doesn’t control what happens in practice. In practice, a girl and boy from different families might be raised together in one of the families so as to be companions from youth and then spouses, just as Floris and Blancheflour were. How could a young man not consent to marry his childhood friend when their families had been planning for years for him to marry her? In present-day Belgium about the year 1175, such a situation turned out very badly for the nameless husband of Odilia of Liège.

Odilia of Liège and her nameless husband had been raised together in the house of Odilia’s parents since she was age seven. He apparently was a friendly, kindly child who paid attention to Odilia and valued her highly. She, however, came to fear and despise his masculine sexuality. When she was about fifteen, the day came for them to be married:

Distressed in his mind, he drew her apart, and asked whether she loved him. She looked at him with an indignant spirit, eyes lowered but with a fierce expression, and firmly replied: “If I had the authority of one in power, you would know for sure what kind and how great a token of love I bear toward you. Without a doubt, I’d have your neck severed.” She said this because it grieved her that she was going to lose the flower of her virginal chastity on his account. The youth was naturally perturbed by these words, and he became extremely angry and was prepared to renounce her. But the young woman’s father, against his daughter’s will, arranged to have the marriage occur. Furthermore, he performed the wedding according to custom.

{ in amore eius perurgens animum, eam seorsum duxit; si ipsum diligeret, inquisivit. Quem cum indignanti animo, facie submissa ac torvo vultu fuisset intuita, constanter respondit: Si auctoritate fungerer superioris, scires profecto quale et quantum adversum te habeam signum dilectionis. Nam collum tuum procul dubio facerem amputari. Hoc autem ideo dicebat, quia se per eum florem pudoris virginei amissuram dolebat. Ad quae nimirum verba turbatur iuvenis, et vehementer exacerbatus eam dimittere satagebat. Pater vero puellae contra filiae suae voluntatem matrimonium fieri procuravit; nuptias quoque ex more celebravit. }[1]

Lacking understanding and concern about castration culture, scholars have misinterpreted Odilia’s threat to her nameless husband. One scholar declared that Odilia “threatened to have her husband’s head cut off.” Another scholar read that “she would have his throat cut, if she could.”[2] Neither of those interpretations are the most sensible reading. The text literally states that she would “make be amputated {facio amputari}” the nameless husband’s “neck {collum}.” In context, neck is best interpreted as a metonym for the nameless husband’s penis. In short, Odilia threatened her husband with castration. Wives can, either physically or effectively, castrate their husbands. That’s what Odilia threatened to do to her nameless husband if he had sex with her on their wedding night. According to her, castrating her husband would be her token of love to him.

While preserving himself from being castrated, Odilia’s nameless husband endured six years of sexless marriage before Odilia decided that she wanted a child. Under medieval canon law, spouses had a legal obligation to have loving sex with each other, even if one didn’t feel like it. That legal obligation existed only after the marriage was sexually consummated.[3] Presumably Odilia consented to have sex with her husband because she wanted a child. After she allowed their marriage to be sexually consummated, she then was legally obligated to have sex with her husband. Odilia regarded her husband’s body as “fleshly filth {spurcitia carnis}.” She fulfilled her marital obligation reluctantly and unlovingly:

Nonetheless, while her husband was living, she for four years daily washed in tears her marital sexual obligation.

{ adhuc marito vivente, cottidie tamen per quinquennium debitum matrimonii lavabat in lacrimis }[4]

Her husband must have been sexually desperate to endure such a miserable experience of conjugal intercourse. Not surprisingly, he died only four years after his wife started to have sex with him. He probably died of a broken heart and sexual demoralization.

portrait of a Beguine, a medieval religious woman

Odilia became pregnant and give birth while her husband was alive. Neighbors wondered who the child’s father was, perhaps because they had heard stories of her husband’s marital sexual deprivation. The son, named John, took after his mother. John despised the flesh of incarnate human being. As a child he stuck his fingers in his ears when he heard others using dirty words. After his father died, John wanted to live a life of chastity at home with his mother. He eventually became a priest with a position at the largest church in Liège. John materially supported married women who renounced having sex with their husbands so as to pursue spirituality and social justice. Odilia became a well-known public figure revered as a holy woman and an outstanding example to other women in thirteenth-century Liège.

In recent decades, literary scholars, mainly women, have devoted extensive attention to medieval married women who didn’t have sex with their husbands. These women sexually controlled their husbands in a variety of ways. Saint Cecilia raised the threat of her angel lover against her husband on their wedding night. But threat of violence in some cases wasn’t propitious. For example, Delphina of Glandèves married Elzéar, Count of Sabran. He was an eminent warrior as well as a ruler. Using a non-violent tactic, Delphina on their wedding night talked on and on about Saint Alexis, who had fled his elite arranged marriage to become a humble monk. Her husband fell asleep. The couple subsequently had a sexless marriage. Other approaches were possible. Margery Kempe bargained strongly with her husband to make their marriage sexless. Marie of Oignies, in contrast, successfully begged her husband to take a vow of chastity along with her. Saint Audry {Æthelthryth} simply refused to have sex after she married. Clergymen wrote life histories of at least fourteen medieval women prominent for their sexual renunciation and religious practices in the area of present-day Belgium and the Netherlands.[5] Little has been written about husbands whose wives led them into sexless marriage. Often nameless, husbands in sexless marriages have largely been marginalized and silenced outside of meninist literary criticism.[6]

Today’s literary scholarship must do more to include and welcome distinctive men’s voices. Important medieval literature of men’s sexed protest has been marginalized for far too long through name-calling and stereotyping. In reality, women and men have shared goods, responsibilities, and hardships in intimate association with each other throughout history. Moreover, men and women have always been highly vulnerable to each other. The era of stark, ignorant master narratives and cartoon gender history must end. A more humanistic, enlightened era can begin with exploring men’s consciousness in relation to fundamental gender inequality in parental knowledge, epic violence against men, and castration culture.

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Notes:

[1] About the life of Odilia of Liège {De vita Odiliae Leodiensis} 1.6, Latin text from De Smedt et al. (1894) p. 211, English translation (modified slightly) by a leading authority on Latin philology and passion. Odilia seems here to refer sarcastically to Ephesians 5:23. Medieval authorities recognized that husbands didn’t in practice rule over their wives. Lawmakers and administrators weren’t even able to administer effectively sumptuary laws attempting to constrain wives’ luxuries.

The life of Odilia of Liège has survived only in the Bollandist work of De Smedt et al. (1894). Only book 1 of De vita Odiliae Leodiensis recounts Odilia’s life. All the biographical details above are from that book, unless otherwise noted. Odilia of Liège, who lived from about 1170 to 1220, is also known as Odilia of Luik. While she received the status of “blessed,” she was never canonized as a saint.

Odilia’s son John apparently was the main source for her Vita. He provided extensive support for independent women religious (beguines):

John, who became a chaplain at St. Lambert of Liège, endowed a convent for twenty-four beguines in his house close to the church of St. Mary Magdalen in Liège short before his death in 1241, but it is not known since how long the beguines had been living there.

Simons (2001) p. 42. Odilia’s Vita apparently was written shortly after John’s death. The chronicler Aegidius of Orval used Odilia’s Vita in writing his continuation of the chronicle of Liège, Acts of the Bishops of Liège {Gesta Pontificum Leodiensium}, from 1048 to 1251. Odilia’s Vita has been little studied since Aegidius of Orval. The most detailed study apparently is Debruyne (2010).

Odilia of Liège shouldn’t be confused with the fourth-century saint Odilia of Cologne. The latter was associated with Saint Ursula. The risen Saint Odilia of Cologne reportedly appeared to a brother of the Crosier Order in Paris in 1287. She instructed the Crosier brother to move her relics from Cologne to Huy in Belgium. For scholarly study of those relics, Reyniers (2018).

Odilia of Liège also shouldn’t be confused with Saint Odilia of Alsace, who died about 720 GC. The latter became an abbess at the Augustine monastic community of Mont Sainte-Odile (Hohenburg Abbey). She came to be revered as an intercessor for persons with eye problems.

[2] Quotes from Blumenfeld-Kosinski (2000) p. 56 and Simons (2001) p. 70, respectively. The passive voice these scholars use for the violent action is consistent with the reality that women’s violence often occurs through male proxies. But the Latin text leaves open the possibility that Odilia herself would engage in sexual violence against her husband.

Odilia wasn’t asexual. After her husband’s death, she experienced lust for men. Her Vita blamed that spiritual torment on clergy attempting to seduce her and sending demons against her. De vita Odiliae Leodiensis 1.15-18. For an anti-meninist perspective on that reported torment, Elliott (2012) pp. 228-9.

[3] In practice, wives could ignore their legal obligation to have sex with their husbands upon loving request. In the Le roman du comte de Poitiers of the early thirteenth century, a duke falsely claimed that he had committed adultery with a countess. The countess then declared to her husband:

Lord, avenge me for this shame
that the duke so wrongfully did me.
He certainly should die for it.
And may holy Mary help me,
you will not partake of my noble body
again for as long as I live
until you show that he’s a liar.

{ Sire, vengiés moi de cest honte
Que li dus m’a fait a tel tort.
Il en doit bien avoir la mort.
Ausi m’aït sainte Marie,
N’arés de mon gent cors partie
A nul jor mais en mon vivant
Si le n’arés fait recreant. }

Roman du comte de Poitiers, vv. 1056-62, Old French text and English translation from Durling (2000) p. 123-4. Facing the prospect of a sexless marriage, the count killed the duke in a judicial duel. For more on this story, Grodet (2006). Women are complicit in violence against men and must do more to lessen violence against men.

[4] De vita Odiliae Leodiensis 1.11, Latin text from De Smedt et al. (1894) p. 214, my English translation. The previous short quote, “fleshly filth {spurcitia carnis},” is similarly from id.

[5] While medieval Christianity was intensely gynocentric, public attention to “holy women {mulieres religiosae}” increased considerably in twelfth-century cities in present day northern France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and western Germany. These women, who came to be called beguines, numbered in the thousands. The beguines drew upon historical contempt for men’s sexuality to champion women’s renunciation of sex with men. On beguines, Scheepsma (2008) Section 1.5, Simons (2001). For a list of the fourteen vitae, Scheepsma (2008) p. 85. Simons counts eleven between 1190 and 1250. Simons (2001) p. 37.

Modern scholars tend to celebrate the beguines uncritically as strong, independent women. Consider, for example, the early beguine Juetta of Huy. She reluctantly married and had three children. She “hated sex so much that she wished her husband dead.” Simons (2001) p. 70. Her husband undoubtedly suffered from her hatred of sex with him. He died after being married to her for five years. Juetta, who became a religious recluse, then took on the role of a modern anti-meninist professor in nurturing other women to adopt her lifestyle:

While she was an anchoress, Juetta of Huy “raised” from childhood (ab infantia) at least three of the female companions mentioned in her Life.

Id. p. 81.

[6] See e.g. Elliott (2012). Sexual abuse of men and boys has tended to be trivialized from castrating boy-servants in ancient Rome, including to serve the mother-goddess Ceres, through to present-day ignorance and bigotry regarding women raping men.

[images] (1) Portrait of a beguine at the beguinage of Saint Aubertus in Ghent. Painting made about 1840. Source image (image 9) from the book Het begijnhof Sint Aubertus (Poortacker) te Gent in Ghent University Library, via Wikimedia Commons. (2) Melora Hardin singing “Begin the Beguine” (written by Cole Porter in 1935) in a clip from the 1991 Disney movie The Rocketeer. Via YouTube.

References:

Blumenfeld-Kosinski, Renate. 2000. “Sexual and Textual Violence in the ‘Femme d’Arras’ Miracle by Gautier de Coincy.” Pp. 51-64 in Renate Blumenfeld-Kosinski et al., eds. 2000. Translatio Studii: essays by his students in honor of Karl D. Uitti for his sixty-fifth birthday. Amsterdam: Rodopi.

Debruyne, Heleen. 2010. De vita Odiliae Leodiensis: Tussen Religie En Politiek. Een casestudy van een uitzonderlijk dertiende-eeuws document. Master’s Thesis in History. Universiteit Gent.

De Smedt, Carolus et al, eds. 1894. “Vita B. Odiliae Viduae Leodiensis. Libri duo priores.” Analecta Bollandiana. 13: 197-287.

Durling, Nancy Vine. 2000. “Women’s visible honor in medieval romance: the example of the Old French Roman du comte de Poitiers.” Pp. 117-132 in Renate Blumenfeld-Kosinski et al., eds. 2000. Translatio Studii: essays by his students in honor of Karl D. Uitti for his sixty-fifth birthday. Amsterdam: Rodopi.

Elliott, Dyan. 2012. The Bride of Christ Goes to Hell: Metaphor and Embodiment in the Lives of Pious Women, 200-1500. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Grodet, Mathilde. 2006. “Croire, mescroire, recroire. Le procès de la comtesse de Poitiers injustement accusée d’adultère.” Questes. 10: 21-30.

Reyniers, Jeroen. 2018. “De relieken van Sint-Odilia. Balanceren tussen wetenschap en legende.” Antwerpse Vereniging voor Romeinse Archeologie (AVRA). 18: 45-58.

Scheepsma, Wybren. 2008. The Limburg Sermons: preaching in the medieval Low Countries at the turn of the fourteenth century. Leiden: Brill.

Simons, Walter. 2001. Cities of Ladies: Beguine communities in the medieval Low Countries, 1200-1565. Philadelphia, PA: University of Philadelphia Press.

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