virgin in brothel won double crown with transvestite martyr

When the Romans were persecuting Christians, a young virgin woman was cast into a brothel as punishment for her Christian faith. A strong, independent woman, she remained defiant:

The enemy denies me martyrdom and prefers to destroy me by dishonor rather than by the sword — prefers that I live as a harlot rather than die as a martyr. But it is for you, O Lord, both to preserve virginity and to give martyrdom. And if I am not worthy to be either your spouse or your martyr, I will remain even as your harlot professing your creed.

{ hostis negat martirium, et mauult perdere stupro quam gladio, mauult uiuere scortum quam mori martyrem. Sed tuum est, Domine, et uirginitatem seruare et martyrium dare. Quod si nec sponsa nec martir tua esse merear, uel scortum tuum in tua confessione permanens ero. }

Men’s sexuality has historically suffered symbolic brutalization. So it was with the description of men eager to pay for sex with this woman:

A piggish crowd of men-debauchers grunted for her all around. The victim of the Lord stands inside, like a dove besieged by ravens, like a lamb besieged by wolves.

{ Obgrunnit in circuitu suilla corruptorum caterua, stat intus Domini uictima, ut coruis columba, ut agna lupis obsessa }

two gray wolves

This woman’s first customer at the brothel was distinctive:

An adolescent, still beardless, was in his girlish beauty and reputation preeminent among the others. No one seemed more lustful than he. He entered first as if to abuse her.

{ Adolescentulus adhuc imberbis, puellari decore et auctoritate ceteris prestantior, quo nemo uidebatur petulantior, ut insultaturus primus ingreditur. }

In classical literature, a lustful boy with “girlish beauty {puellaris decorus}” would typically be a boy who enjoys having men sexually penetrate him. But this girlish boy didn’t have sex with the young Christian woman in the brothel. The Lord had a different plan for him:

The Lord was looking upon this man in his wolf’s form as a lamb, by which he might preserve his lamb. Now he said, “Do not fear, my lady, I have come to save you, not to destroy you. Just obey my advice. We are of the same age, stature, and appearance. Just let us exchange clothes and be dressed you as a man and I as a woman. So go out as me and escape. I will remain as you and deceive the whore-seeking men. You will not be detected easily, since from such a place you will go out ashamed, with your head covered.

{ Verum hunc in lupino schemate Dominus agnum intuebatur, quo agnam suam tueretur. Hic ille: “Ne timeas,” inquit, “domina mi, seruare te, non perdere, ueni; tantum consiliis meis obaudi. Etas, status et facies eadem est nobis; tantum uestes mutemus, et tu uiriles, et ego uirgineas induamus; sic pro me egredere et euade, me pro te remanente et scortatores fallente. Nec deprehenderis iacile, quia, de tali loco egredieris pudibunde, operto capite. }

What wonderful love this young man enacted! He became a transvestite sex-worker to save the chastity of a Christian virgin condemned to a brothel. She dressed as he and escaped through the crowd of men surrounding the brothel.

The young man suffered for his love. This was a time when even adults were readily able to distinguish between men and women:

And so when that deception, which was so holy, was discovered by the next fornicator, a clamor rang out. The adolescent in the virgin’s clothes was dragged off to slaughter.

{ Vtque successore mecho tam sanctus dolus deprehensus est, clamor tollitur, adolescens cum uirginea ueste ad iugulum rapitur. }

The global propaganda apparatus recently waged a factually preposterous and grammatically monstrous “HeforShe” campaign. That propaganda campaign exploits preferential concern for women’s lives. Faithful Christians under Roman persecution, in contrast, promoted gender equality in good faith. She acted for him:

The young woman, dressed in a manly manner and spirit, ran out to meet them in their rage and proclaimed, “Me, kill me. I am the one who is guilty of this deed. The innocent ought not to be punished for the guilty.”

{ Puella uiriles habitus et animos induta, furentibus occursat et: “Me, me percute,” proclamat, “Ego rea sum huius facti; non debet innocens pro rea puniri.” }

The young woman and the young man wrestled in love for each other:

On the other side, protesting that he himself was the deviser of this plan, the adolescent contended to be slaughtered for the virgin.

{ Econtra adolescens concertabat pro uirgine iugulari, protestatus se machinatorem huius consilii. }

Not bothering to adjudicate this “good-willing struggle {benigna contentio},” the Romans slaughtered both of them. The medieval monk Goscelin of Saint-Bertin, narrating this story for his beloved nun Eve, praised the Lord:

O, in what inseparable love, in what blessed embraces they were then going to cling to one another perpetually in Heaven! Who, O gracious Jesus, glorious in your saints, will sing your praises worthily? She had feared being shipwrecked by wickedness. You not only have caused her to triumph gloriously without corruption, but also have given her forever a companion of the same age and worth. Hence, as mediator of the two, you bind each of them together, joined most closely in your love, on your right and left hand. Blessed be your mercy forever.

{ O quam inseparabili caritate, quam beatis amplexibus inde sibi perpetuo celo inhesuri! Quis tua, Ihesu benigne, in sanctis tuis gloriose, digne canet preconia? Que a turpitudine timuerat naufragari, non solum incorruptam gloriose triumphare fecisti, uerum etiam comitem illi coeuum et condignum sempiterne donasti. Hinc in tua iunctissimos dilectione, dextra leuaque, mediator duorum constringis utrumque. Benedicta misericordia tua in saecula. }

This story of the virgin in the brothel and the transvestite martyr is scarcely conceivable today. Modern narrow-mindedness impoverishes ideals of social justice and love.

Morally troubling aspects of this story should be critically contextualized. In medieval Christian understanding, the virgin gained the double crown of preserving her virginity and being a martyr for Christ. The adolescent who lustfully entered the brothel probably wasn’t a virgin. He gained only martyrdom. That inequality in crowns might trouble devout proponents of gender equality. Women are no more intrinsically worthy of receiving crowns than are men.

Even if one manages to overlook gender inequality in crowns, more morally troubling aspects of this story remain. Contrasting women as (white) doves with men as (black) ravens is both sexist and racist. More generally, representing the men around the brothel as pigs, wolves, and ravens is dehumanizing and morally offensive. Christianity understood men to bear a seminal blessing. Classical society, however, was deeply enmeshed in castration culture. Goscelin elsewhere approvingly cited classical asceticism and disdain for the fleshly body:

One, when he saw another drink water with cupped hands, broke the cup that he was carrying, saying: “For one hole in my stomach shall I carry three flasks, when I have two with my hands?” Others, hating servitude to lust, have amputated their very tools of wickedness. Having progressed into insanity, some have even cut out their own eyes, believing that the sight of the heart, not wandering outside but secluded within, would direct its force more purely to philosophy.

{ Quidam, cum uidisset aliquem concauis manibus aquam potare, iregit sciphum quem portabat dicens: “Egone ad unam uentris lacunam tre lagenas feram, qui duas in manibus habeam?” Alii seruire libidini execrantes, ipsa sibi arma nequitie amputauere. Nonnulli insanius progressi, etiam oculos sibi eiecerunt, credentes aciem cordis ab exteriori euagatione seclusam intus se intendere posse purius ad philosophiam. }

The phrase “tools of wickedness {arma nequitie}” refers to men’s penises. That phrase points to the terrible legacy of castration culture. In describing men as pigs, wolves, and ravens, Goscelin failed to extricate himself from deeply rooted sexism and anti-meninism.

Despite its moral shortcomings, the story of the virgin in the brothel and the transvestite martyr should be celebrated today as an example of heroic love. A girlish young man was willing to sacrifice himself sexually by dressing as the young woman and taking her place in the brothel. She, a strong, independent woman, vigorously attempted to save his life. Like these two heroes, women and men should be for each other.

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The above story is from Goscelin of Saint-Bertin, Comforting Book {Liber confortatorius}, Latin text from Talbot (1955) pp. 98-9, English translation (modified slightly) from Barnes & Hayward (2004) pp. 184-5. All quotes are sourced similarly, unless otherwise notes.

Liber confortatorius, which Goscelin wrote about 1081, survives in only one manuscript: British Library, MS Sloane 3103, folios 1-114. The British Library dates this manuscript to the first half of the twelfth century.

Goscelin refers this story to Saint Ambrose (Ambrose of Milan):

Here also it seems pious to remind you of what Saint Ambrose attests in Concerning the Glory of Virginity. But as I am without that book and such worthy eloquence, I touch on such a worthy subject with an unpolished narrative.

{ Hic etiam pium uidetur memorare tibi, quod sanctus Ambrosius testatur in De laude virginali. Verum exsors eius libri et tam digne eloquentie, tam dignam rem elingui palpito serie. }

Goscelin apparently is referring to Ambrose, Concerning virgins, to Marcellina his sister {De virginibus ad Marcellinam sororem suam} Bk. 2, para. 22-33 (chapter 4), Latin text from Patrologia Latinae 16.212C-216B, . For an English translation, De Romestin, de Romestin & Duckworth (1896) in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Series II, Vol. 10 (alt. presentation). In Liber confortatorius, Goscelin sets an extensive scholarly reading program for Eve. Hollis (2004a) pp. 312-8.

Goscelin’s story differs significantly from Ambrose’s story. The man who enters the brothel and seeks to save the virgin (specified in Ambrose’s story as a virgin of Antioch) is a Christian virgin soldier. In Goscelin’s story, the first male into the brothel is a lustful, girlish adolescent who isn’t explicitly called a Christian. Goscelin’s claim that he lacked Ambrose’s book perhaps provided a pretext for adding the additional element of same-sex sexuality.

Being a harlot wasn’t an obstacle to becoming a holy Christian women. Ancient Christian saintly lives include a variety of holy harlots. Ambrose’s story of the virgin of Antioch was widely retold. Jacobus de Voragine’s Golden Legend {Legenda aurea}, probably compiled in the mid-thirteenth century, includes a version of this story. Here’s an account of a recent retelling.

Immediately before telling the story of the virgin in the brothel, Goscelin summarized the story of Potamiana:

As the Ecclesiastical History of Eusebius shows, after all types of tortures, Potamiana was put into a brothel. Adolescent men, the devil’s bird-catchers, gathered quickly for the prey. Basilides, who was in charge of the torturers, drove them back. He was zealous for the dignity of the virgin.

{ ut Ecclesiastica Eusebii probat Historia, post uniuersa tormentorum genera lupanari est addicta. Concurrunt ad predam diaboli aucupes adolescentes. Reppulit eos Basilides prelatus tortoribus, dignitatem uirginis zelatus }

Liber confortatorius 98. Goscelin apparently was referring to Ecclesiastical History 6.5. Eusebius’s story, which became well-know, doesn’t include Potamiana being put into a brothel.

While distancing Christian behavior from traditional Greco-Roman self-mutilation, Goscelin referred to castration within a more spiritualized response to temptation:

Indeed the law of Christ is not so terrible such that we should tear out our eyes, but avert them so as not to see vanity. Nor does it order that we mutilate our penises, but that we amputate vices, and from vices and lusts be castrated, circumscribed, and crucified.

{ Nec uero lex Christi tam dira est, ut oculos nostros eruamus, sed ne uideant uanitatem auertamus. Nec iubet membra nostra mutilari, sed uitia amputari, et a uitiis et concupiscentiis castrari, circumcidi, crucifigi. }

Liber confortatorius 74, with Latin textual corrections of Barnes & Haywood (2004) p. 211. Circumcision, a form of a genital cutting, is required under Jewish law. Genesis 17:10-13. Jesus rhetorically commanded self-mutilation. Matthew 18:6, 8-9. Here’s more on the history of bodily mutilation and forgiveness.

[image] Gray wolves at Wolf Park, Battleground, Indiana, USA. Photo thanks to Raed Mansour on Wikimedia Commons.


Barnes, W. R. and Rebecca Hayward, trans. 2004. “Goscelin’s Liber confortatorius.” Part 2 (pp. 97-216) in Hollis (2004b).

Hollis, Stephanie. 2004a. “Wilton as a Centre of Learning.” Pp. 307-338 in Hollis (2004b).

Hollis, Stephanie, ed. 2004b. Writing the Wilton Women: Goscelin’s Legend of Edith and Liber confortatorius. Turnhout: Brepols.

Talbot, C. H, ed. 1955. “The Liber Confortatorius of Goscelin of Saint Bertin.” Pp. 1-117 in M. M. Lebreton, J. Leclercq, C. H. Talbot, eds. Analecta Monastica: Textes et études sur la vie des moines au moyen age. 3rd series. Studia Anselmiana, 37. Rome: Herder.

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