Saint Kentigern’s reported virgin birth rationalized with rape

In twelfth-century Glasgow, ordinary persons regarded the great Scottish saint Kentigern, affectionately known as Mungo, to have been born of a virgin mother named Taneu. In Christian understanding, the young woman Mary conceived of the Holy Spirit and as a virgin gave birth to Jesus. Clerics regarded belief that Taneu similarly birthed Saint Kentigern to have arisen among “foolish and stupid people living in Saint Kentigern’s diocese {populus stultus et insipiens in diocesi Sancti Kentigern degens}.”[1] Two clerics authoritatively constructed Kentigern’s reported virgin birth to have resulted from a man raping Kentigern’s virgin mother. Under Christian doctrine, rape cannot deprive a woman of her virginity. A literary construction of rape thus rationalized popular belief in Kentigern’s virgin birth. In deploying rape for rationalizing, medieval clerics shrewdly drew upon deeply entrenched suspicion of men’s sexuality.

According the mid-twelfth-century Herbertian Life of Kentigern, Kentigern’s mother Taneu was the daughter of King Leudonus. That king ruled the province of Leudonia in northern Britannia. King Leudonus was only “semi-pagan {semipaganus}.” Moreover, Taneu was born of a “stepmother {noverca}.” This pedigree opened the possibility for Taneu to have Christian heritage despite her father:

Indeed this young women nonetheless had Christian faith. After the voice of apostolic doctrine was breathed into her ears, she re-oriented herself to learn most devoutly what she could about Christian rites.

{ Hec quippe puella, fide tamen Christiana postquam apostolice sonus doctrine in auribus ejus ventilabatur, Christianis se ritibus quos discere potuit devotissime mancipavit. }[2]

Christians regard Christ as their model. Mary was the first Christian and the preeminent disciple of Christ. Taneu sought to imitate Mary:

She constantly meditated upon the virginal honor and also upon the maternal blessedness of the most holy Virgin Mary, mother of our lord Jesus Christ. Pondering them in her heart, she said simply, “O how glorious is the name of this excellent virgin, and how gloriously her name is celebrated by all people throughout the four regions that constitute the world. I wish that I could be made similar to her in virginity and in birthing for the honor and salvation of my people in these northern parts.”

{ De virginali etiam honore et de materna beatudine sanctissime Virginis Marie, matris Domini Nostri Jesu Christi, iugiter meditabatur, et in corde suo revolvens simpliciter dicebat: O quam gloriosum nomen hujus virginis generose, et quam gloriose celebratur ab omni populo per iiijor climata mundi constituta. Utinam in virginitate et in partu, ad honorem et salutem gentis mee in partibus saltem aquilonalibus, illi possem assimilari. }[3]

Jesus’s disciples James and John wanted to sit at Jesus’s right and left hands in his glory. That’s a prideful desire. Taneu, in contrast, sought the honor and salvation of the non-Christian Leudonians. Perhaps she also desired to have her name honored and celebrated like that of the Virgin Mary.[4] In any case, popular belief celebrated Taneu as a virgin who gave birth to Saint Kentigern.

O Virgin of virgins,
how shall this be?
For neither before thee
was there any like thee,
nor shall there be after.

Daughters of Jerusalem,
why marvel you at me?
The thing that you behold
is a divine mystery.

{ O Virgo virginum,
quomodo fiet istud?
Quia nec primam
similem visa es,
nec habere sequentem.

Filiae Jerusalem,
quid me admiramini?
Divinum est mysterium
hoc quod cernitis. }[5]

Learned clerics insisted that Taneu could not be like the Virgin Mary in giving birth as a virgin. The Herbertian Life of Kentigern perceived Taneu to be challenging the divine order:

Her life could not be as she wished. Moreover, it was imposed because of her mind’s presumption and the impudence of her vainly sought glory that she endure large and dreadful torments.

{ volebat sicut fieri non potuit. Ob mentis autem imposte presumptionem, vaneque glorie petulanciam, tormenta dira et magna sustinuit. }

The Herbertian Life of Kentigern designed those torments to come from the “most elegant {elegantissimus}” young man Ewen, “sprung from the most noble lineage of the Britons {nobilissima Brittonum prosapia ortus}.”[6] The Herbertian Life of Kentigern made this Ewen rape Taneu. It thus taught that even an apparently very admirable man could be a rapist.

Ewen didn’t initially act like a violent man. He was ardently in love with Taneu. He spoke to her words of love and lovingly gave her gifts. He sought to marry her. Moreover, he gained her father’s support for marrying her. Nonetheless, because she wanted to be like the Virgin Mary, Taneu resolutely rejected Ewen’s marriage proposal. She radically misunderstood the glory of human love in Christianity.

Like most fathers throughout history, Taneu’s father wanted the best for his daughter. Daughters sometimes reject their fathers’ pleas without regard for their father being nominally a king, merely a household servant, or even a person academically defined as the pater familias. Mis-educated about father-daughter relational reality, Taneu’s father became furious and acted cruelly toward her:

The king, the father of the young woman, after many sweet words and flattering speeches that he thought would change her mind to love the young man, was seeing himself to be toiling in vain. He then spoke to her shamelessly: “Either you will be handed over to the care of a swineherd, or you will keep warm in marriage to this young man. Therefore, from these two decrees now choose what you wish.” The king indeed said this, aiming to provoke by any means the young woman’s spirit to love for the young man.

{ Cum autem Rex pater puelle, post multa verba dulcia et sermones blandos, quibus animum ejus juvenis amori putabat posse converti, se incassum laborasse conspiceret, illi procaciter intulit: Aut cure subulci traderis aut adolescentis hujus connubio perfoueris: ex his igitur binis decretis nunc elige quod vis. Hoc quippe rex dixit, estimans animum puelle in juvenis amorem quoquomodo provocare. }

The prodigal daughter Taneu preferred to serve a swineherd as a virgin than to abide in the warmth of marital love. Indignant at her choice, Taneu’s father cast her out. That’s the biblical story of the prodigal son, reversed. Taneu’s father was an ungodly father.[7]

The cruel behavior of Taneu’s father saddened Ewen. He regarded his love for her as the cause of her father’s outrage. Ewen also pitied Taneu for her wretched living circumstances. He therefore hired a woman go-between to try persuade Taneu to leave the swineherd to enjoy his love. After many visits in which the go-between reminded Taneu that she could have a much more comfortable life with Ewen, the go-between gave up. She complained to Ewen:

It would be easier to convert rocks into wood and wood into stones than to recall this virgin’s mind from the folly she has begun.

{ Facilius possunt saxa in ligna et ligna in lapides converti, quam hujus virginis animus ab incepta stulticia revocari. }

If a woman prefers to live with a swineherd as a virgin rather than marry a most elegant and most noble young man, that’s her choice.[8] At least she didn’t coerce him into a sexless marriage. Ewen should have found a cure for his lovesickness. Many men throughout history have suffered love rejection and gotten over it successfully.

To have Taneu conceive a child while remaining a virgin, Ewen became a rapist. According to the Herbertian Life of Kentigern, Ewen gained Taneu’s confidence by disguising himself as a female farm servant and helping her to feed the swine. One day Taneu was alone, washing herself at a stream near a forest. Ewen in his female disguise came to her and tenderly implored her for help in carrying wood:

The young woman was influenced by the gentle speech that she heard from the mouth of the young man. He excessively desired to obtain her. She innocently believed all his words. She simply followed the crafty young man immediately wherever he happily wished.

{ Mitis igitur puella orationis effectu quam ab ore juvenis audivit nimis potiri desiderans, quoniam innocens credit omni verbo, mox juvenem feliciter subdolum simpliciter quo voluit sequebatur. }

Everyone shouldn’t merely listen and believe women. Even a gender bigot should stop and consider whether to disbelieve a woman, for a woman might actually be a man in disguise. Taneu’s innocence and Ewen’s wickedness produced a terrible wrong:

When they came to a place suitable to the young man’s inclination, he suddenly seized the young woman as if for sex-play. He impregnated her with a thrust forward and then leaping back like an echo. She resisted being raped with all her strength and exertions.

{ Cumque pervenissent ad locum juvenis voluntati competentem, arripuit repente juvenis puellam quasi ludendo, et velut in eccho resultu ab ictu fecundavit vi oppressam totis nisibus reluctantem. }[9]

Ewen having raped Taneu provided a rational explanation for her conceiving a child. Moreover, from a Christian perspective, rape doesn’t deprive a woman of her virginity.[10] The Herbertian Life of Kentigern thus rationally explained Taneu’s virgin birth.

The Herbertian Life of Kentigern also had to rationalize Taneu’s belief that she never had sex with a man. Moreover, it had to get Ewen out of his beloved Taneu’s life. To serve these goals, Ewen was made to act and speak bizarrely after raping her:

Promptly rising, the youth appraised her, whom he had thought to be a virgin, to have been the swineherd’s concubine. Therefore the young man’s love cooled. He said to the young woman, who wasn’t able to speak because of her tears and sobbing, “Don’t weep, my dear, because I have not known you as a man would usually know a virgin. Am I not a woman like you? To lament for sex-play is therefore wickedness. Go in peace, and it is for you by your choice either to weep or to be silent.”

{ Puer autem statim consurgens, quam putavit fuisse virginem, estimavit subulci esse concubinam. Tepescente igitur juvenis amore, dixit ad puellam pro lacrimis singultivis loqui non valentem, Noli flere, soror mea, quoniam non novi te ut homo virginem nosse solet. Nonne mulier sum ego sicut et tu? Improbitatis est ergo pro ludo lugere: vade in pace, et in tuo sit arbitrio vel flere vel tacere. }

Taneu was a virgin. Yet Ewen in having sex with her wrongly sensed that she had considerable sexual experience as the swineherd’s concubine. He then suggested that he, disguised as a woman, had raped her in a lesbian way. Moreover, he called her lamenting having been raped in a lesbian way to be wickedness. That’s absurd. Taneu reasonably would be confused. That’s the purportedly rational explanation for why she claimed that she never had sex with a man.[11]

Because the Herbertian and other accounts of the life of Kentigern were regarded as unsatisfactory, late in the twelfth century the Bishop of Glasgow requested the Cistercian monk Jocelin of Furness to write another life of Kentigern. After recognizing popular belief that Taneu never had sex with a man, Jocelin declared:

By no means however should the truth of the matter be lost in the mind of anyone who is discerning.

{ nequaquam tamen rei Veritas perire debet in animo cujuslibet discreti }[12]

Jocelin pointed out how Lot’s daughters raped him:

Going to the sacred volumes, we read in the book Genesis that Lot’s daughters not only furtively seized for themselves their father’s sexual embrace when he was drunk and wholly ignorant of the deed, but also both daughters became pregnant.

{ ad sacra volumina accedentes, in libro Genesis filius Loth non solum paternos complexus furtim sibi surripuisse, sed etiam ab eodem inebriato et rei penitus ignaro, utramque concepisse legimus. }

Without mentioning Ewen, Jocelin suggested that Taneu was raped in a similar way:

Many have taken the drink of oblivion that physicians call lethargy to fall asleep. They have endured incisions in their limbs and sometimes burning and abrasions in their vital parts without feeling anything at all. After being shaken out of sleep, there are ignorant about these activities. We frequently hear of fortune-teller’s tricks overthrowing a young woman’s chastity and the very one deflowered knowing little of her deflowerer. Something of this kind may have happened to this young woman by the secret judgment of God, and so she had no sense of sexual intercourse, and now she was impregnated yet understood herself to be undiminished.

{ multos sumpto potu oblivionis quem fisici letargion vocant, obdormisse; et in membris incisionem, et aliquociens adustionem, et in vitalibus abrasionem perpessos, minime sensisse: post sompni excussionem, que erga sese actitata fuerant ignorasse. Audivimus frequenter sortilegorum prestigiis puellarem pudicitiam expugnatam esse, ipsamque defloratam defloratorem sui minime nosse. Potuit aliquid hujusmodi huic puelle accidisse, occulto Dei judicio, et ut commixtionem sexuum non sentiret, ac per hoc jam inpregnata se illibatam intelligeret. }

The verb “deflower {deflorare}” encodes disparagement of men’s sexuality, as does the assumption that pregnancy diminishes a woman. If a woman has sex while drunk, she may not remember having sex. If her husband or boyfriend was drunk after they consensually arranged to get drunk and have sex, then she raped him as much as he raped her. In practice, the crime of rape is judged with grotesque penal discrimination against men. Jocelin’s rationalization of Kentigern’s virgin birth is drenched in anti-men gender bigotry.

Jocelin seems to have internalized the anti-meninism that has long been an aspect of gynocentric culture. While implying that a man raped Kentigern’s mother, Jocelin asserted that Kentigern “nonetheless came forth just like a rose from a thorn {velud rosa tamen de spina … processit}.” The figure of a “thorn {spina}” has long been used in disparaging men’s sexually active penises. Consider moreover how Jocelin lamented the deplorable state of sexual morality in twelfth-century Britain:

Behold, all sexes and all statuses of person, all plunge into a slough of carnal filth, almost as impudently as cheerfully for lack of punishment. And not only the most vile commoners are polluted with such contagion, but also indeed those who are sustained with ecclesiastical benefices and attached to divine offices. As much as they are polluted they judge themselves to be that much happy. But now the hammerer of the entire earth, namely the spirit of fornication, passes through them.

{ Ecce omnis sexus, omnisque conditio, in omne volutabrum carnalis colluvionis, pene tam licenter quam libenter, quia impune, immergitur; et non solum vilissimum vulgus tali contagio polluitur, verum hii qui ecclesiasticis beneficiis sustentati, et divinis officiis applicati, quanto sunt fediores, tanto sese feliciores esse arbitrantur. Sed nunc illos pertransit ille malleator universe terre, spiritus scilicet fornicationis. }

Today the oppressive dogma of rape-culture culture has helped to quell the spirit of fornication. But the hammerer, who engages in banging, remains as a crude figure for men performing sexual labor. Like far too many persons right up to our time, Jocelin had little respect for men’s work:

Surely it is absurd to explore further and concerning this matter judge who was the sower and how he plowed and sowed the earth when, with the Lord giving favor, this earth brought forth the best, most abundant fruit.

{ Sane absurdum, et ab re arbitramur, diutius indagare quis quomodo sator terram araverit vel severit; cum, Domino dante benignitatem, terra ista fructum optimum et opimum protulerit. }

In a common sexual figure, the man-farmer plows the woman-earth. Here Jocelin gave the woman-earth all the credit for the fruit that was the life of Saint Kentigern. Such erasure of men’s seminal gifts contributes to the crisis of men’s self-esteem and supports massive gender discrimination against fathers in family courts.

In the miraculous context of a saint’s life, various means are possible for a virgin birth. Consider, for example, Jocelin’s story of Queen Languoreth having an adulterous affair with a soldier much subordinate to her.[13] She give him a jeweled golden ring in appreciation for his sexual service to her. Her husband, the Cambrian king Rederech, heard through an informer of his wife’s adultery. He secretly took from his wife’s soldier-lover that jeweled golden ring and hurled it into the river Clyde. When King Rederech returned home, he demanded that his wife return the ring he had given her. She urgently, secretly messaged the soldier to return it to her. She learned in despair that he had lost the ring.

Queen Languoreth confessed her sin to Kentigern. She pleaded to him for help. He instructed a man to fish in the Clyde and return with the first fish that he caught. Kentigern cut open that fish. Within it he found the ring. He had it secretly returned to the queen, who returned it to the king. The king then profusely apologized to the queen for suspecting her of adultery. Kentigern mercifully and confidentially told the queen to repent of her adultery and sin no more against her marriage.

Jocelin had Saint Kentigern find a lost ring in a fish’s belly in order to conceal a queen’s adultery. A story no less implausible and no more salacious could have rationalized Kentigern’s virgin birth. According to the Alphabet of Ben Sira (Pseudo-Sirach), written in Hebrew about 900 GC, Ben Sira was born of a virgin. Ben Sira’s mother had conceived him by bathing in water into which the prophet Jeremiah had been forced to masturbate. Similar events could have accounted for Kentigern’s virgin birth. For example, perhaps Ewen dreamed passionately of his imagined wedding night with Taneu and ejaculated into his underwear. Ashamed, he then went and washed his underwear in a spring near the palace in which Taneu lived. Taneu soon afterwards bathed in that spring. While remaining a virgin, she thus conceived from Ewen’s spring-born semen. Medieval authors familiar with saints’ lives surely could have imagined such a story explaining Kentigern’s virgin birth.[14]

Hail joy of women through the triumph of glory,
the most noble of virgins across every corner of the earth
that sea-dwelling men have ever heard spoken of —
relate to us the mysteries which came to you from the heavens,
how you ever took on your increasing, through the birthing of a child,
never knowing any kind of coupling that the minds of men
would understand. Truly we have never learned
of anything like this happening in the days gone by,
that you should take hold of this in your unique grace,
nor need we look for that event occurring any time ahead.

{ Eala wifa wynn geond wuldres þrym,
fæmne freolicast ofer ealne foldan sceat
þæs þe æfre sundbuend secgan hyrdon,
arece us þæt geryne þæt þe of roderum cwom,
hu þu eacnunge æfre onfenge
bearnes þurh gebyrde, ond þone gebedscipe
æfter monwisan mod ne cuðes.
Ne we soðlice swylc ne gefrugnan
in ærdagum æfre gelimpan,
þæt ðu in sundurgiefe swylce befenge,
ne we þære wyrde wenan þurfon
toweard in tide. }[15]

Writing lives of Saint Kentigern in the twelfth century, clerics rationalized popular belief in Kentigern’s virgin birth via stories of a man raping Kentigern’s mother without her knowing it. Modern scholars have unpoetically naturalized these stories.[16] Yet in the miraculous context of a saint’s life, rape is a vicious, men-disparaging means for bringing about a virgin birth. Believing an ancient holy woman’s claim that she as a virgin gave birth to a saint should be regarded as more reasonable than believing that a man raped her without her knowing it.

Either of those beliefs is more reasonable than believing the recent newspaper headline, “Nearly quarter of men in Asia-Pacific admit to committing rape.”

Saint Kentigern (Mungo) stained glass window

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[1] Jocelin of Furness, Life of Saint Kentigern, Bishop and Confessor {Vita Sancti Kentigerni Episcopi et Confessoris}, chapter 1, Latin text from Forbes (1874), my English translation, benefitting from those of id. and Green (1998). Subsequent quotes from Jocelin’s Vita Sancti Kentigerni are similarly sourced.

According to traditional understanding, Saint Kentigern was born in Scotland in the sixth century. He learned Christianity under the Scottish saint Serf (Servanus). Kentigern evangelized the Scottish Kingdom of Strathclyde and became the first Bishop of Glasgow. He died in 614 GC. For a critical account suggesting that Kentigern was Gonothigernus, bishop of Senlis near Paris, Gough-Cooper (2003).

Jocelin was a Cistercian monk from Furness, a part of Cumbria in northwest England. He wrote his Life of Saint Kentigern for Jocelin, the bishop of Glasgow from 1175 to 1199. Jocelin of Furness most likely wrote Life of Saint Kentigern in the late 1180s or early 1190s. Birkett (2010) pp. 11-2.

Jocelin named Kentigern’s mother Taneu for the first time in chapter 4 of his Life of Saint Kentigern. In the Herbertian Life of Kentigern, she is named Thaney. On other names associated with Kentigern’s mother, Forbes (1874) pp. 326-7. Taneu is honored as a saint in Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican Christian churches.

[2] Herbertian Life of Kentigern, chapter 1, Latin text from Forbes (1874), my English translation, benefitting from that of id. An unknown cleric wrote the Herbertian Life of Kentigern for Herbert, Bishop of Glasgow.

Subsequent quotes from the Herbertian Life of Kentigern are similarly sourced. The two previous short quotes, “semi-pagan” and “stepmother,” are from the Herbertian Life of Kentigern, chapter 1. The subsequent nine quotes above are seriatum from chapter 1 (“She constantly meditated upon the virginal honor…”; “Her life could not be as she wished…”; “most elegant”; “sprung from the most noble”; “The king, the father of the young woman…”; “It would be easier to convert rocks into wood…”) and chapter 2 (“The young woman was influenced by the gentle speech…”; “When they came to a place suitable…”; “Promptly rising, the youth appraised her…”).

[3] The Herbertian Life of Kentigern here deploys a biblical allusion to Mary. Meditating upon Mary’s virginal honor and maternal blessedness, Taneu was “pondering them in her heart {in corde suo revolvens}.” After shepherds visit the holy family in the manger and tell of an angelic greeting, Mary kept their words, “pondering them in her heart {conferens in corde suo}.” Luke 2:19, with Vulgate text to show the Latin parallel. Jocelin’s Life of Saint Kentigern features other parallels to Mary giving birth to Jesus. Cowan (2017) p. 574.

[4] On James and John seeking to be seated next to Jesus in glory, Mark 10:35-45 and Matthew 20:20-23. When being hurled from a precipice in punishment for her suspected extramarital sexual activity, Taneu acknowledged her folly in a prayer to the Virgin Mary:

O most holy Virgin Mary, because I desired what one cannot do, that is to be comparable to you, you who are the first seen, and no similar existing nor following, I consider this judgement, predestined for me, to be merited.

{ O sanctissima virgo Maria, quia quod nullatenus potest fieri hoc insipienter desideravi, tibi videlicet comparari, que nec primam similem visa es habere nec sequentem, hoc mihi reor periculum merito esse predestinatum. }

Herbertian Life of Kentigern, chapter 4. Taneu here quotes the Gregorian O antiphon “O Virgin of virgins {O Virgo virginum},” vv. 3-5.

[5] O antiphon “O Virgin of virgins {O Virgo virginum},” Latin text from Campbell (1959) p. 53, English translation (modified slightly) from Neale (1851) p. 209. The Herbertian Life of Kentigern, chapter 4, quotes vv. 3-5 of this antiphon.

The O antiphon “O Virgo virginum” goes back at least to the Book of Responses {Liber Responsalis}, dating from about 600 GC and attributed to Pope Gregory the Great. The Frankish liturgist Amalarius indicated use of “O Virgo virginum” in the ninth century. Campbell (1959) pp. 6-8. In England this antiphon came to be used on December 23 (two days before Christmas in the Gregorian calendar). It remains in liturgical use, along with other O antiphons.

Neale (1851) provides musical notation from the Salisbury Antiphonary {Antiphonale Sarisburiense} / Sarum Antiphoner. Cambridge, University Library, Mm.ii.9 is a Sarum Antiphoner from the second quarter of the thirteenth century. Fere (1901-25) is a facsimile of a Sarum Antiphoner from the early thirteenth century. The 1519 Sarum Antiphoner is freely available online.

In an antiphoner from Marseille cathedral (Antiphonarium Massiliense) written between 1190 and 1200, an O antiphon similarly declares:

O surpassingly glorious lady beyond the stars, you who were the first seen, and no similar existing nor following, alone without a precedent, you are a virgin who pleased Christ.

{ O gloriosa domina excelsa super sidera quae nec primam similem visa est nec habere sequentem sola sine exemplo placuit virgo Christo }

Latin text from folio 204v of Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des Manuscrits, Latin 1090 via Cantus, my English translation. Similar praise of the Virgin Mary was incorporated into the Book of Hours (use of Utrecht).

[6] According to the Herbertian Life of Kentigern, Ewen was the son of Erwegende. But the Life reports another parentage: “in the Deeds of the Historical Accounts he is called Ewen, son of King Ulien {In gestis historiarum vocatur Ewen filius regis Ulien}.” Id., Chapter 1. These details indicate that Ewen was a known historical figure.

In fact, Ewen in the Herbertian Life of Kentigern apparently refers to a figure called Yvain / Ewen / Owain / Owein. This Ewen, a prince, was “one of the most famous characters in the medieval Welsh traditions about the Britons of the North.” His father Ulien about 600 GC was the King of Reget somewhere in south-west Scotland or north-west England. Jackson (1958) pp. 283-4. Prince Ewen was a plausible figure for a mythic story:

Incidentally it should be noted that this son of Urien was a popular figure in Welsh (and evidently Cumbric) story who attracted all kinds of tales and legends to himself, and that there is no positive reason to think that he was really the father of Kentigern. A saint had to have a royal father, and ‘Euen son of Uruegen’ would be an obvious candidate in the eyes of a Cumbric compiler of a Life. Indeed it would be absurd chronologically, since Kentigern, who died in 612 according to the Annales Cambriae, would presumably have been born about 540 or 550, which would make Urien’s son a younger contemporary of the man whose father he was reputed to be.

Id. p. 286.

The mythic story of Ewen raping Taneu has similarities with the mythic story of the Viking chief god Odin raping the Ruthenian princess Rindr. Hill (1986). But Odin raping Rindr didn’t arise from the need to rationalize a virgin birth.

[7] As Jephthah also experienced, daughters can act strongly and independently relative to their fathers. Unknown to Taneu’s father, the swineherd was secretly a Christian. He respected Taneu’s chastity and taught her what he had learned of Christian faith and doctrine.

[8] In praying to the Virgin Mary and apparently speaking on behalf of all Christian virgin women consecrated to Christ, Taneu with sensual figures described Jesus’s incarnation in the Virgin Mary:

He, the flower of the angelic mounds, without injury to your snow-white chastity, in your humble valley, fertile of all virtues, was deigned to be made. He is the lily of our ravines.

{ ille flos angelicorum montium, sine lesura tui nivei pudoris, in te valle humili, omnium virtutum fertili, effici dignatus est nostrarum lilium convallium }

Jocelin of Furness, Life of Saint Kentigern, Chapter 3. While men tend to view themselves as merely instruments, women typically appreciate more their own distinctive sexual being. In Christianity, women are much better positioned than men to imagine themselves as the spouse of Christ.

[9] Kentigern “though conceived through rape, is not fathered by a wicked, lustful monster but by a desperate, love-sick swain.” Marshall (2013) p. 72. Before he raped Taneu, Ewen apparently aspired to stimulating Taneu sexually in order to induce her to marry him:

On hearing this {the go-between’s exasperation}, the young man inflamed with the fire of natural love in his heart, with anxious sighs said, “If by chance I could touch the node of this young woman’s virginity, perhaps afterwards she would consent to me.”

{ Hoc juvenis audito naturalis amoris igne inflammatus in corde suo cum anxiis dixit suspiriis: Si fortuitu hujus puelle nodum virginitatis tangere valerem, forsitan mihi postea consenciet. }

Herbertian Life of Kentigern, chapter 2. By “node of this young woman’s virginity {hujus puelle nodus virginitatis},” Ewen was plausibly referring to Taneu’s clitoris. Gardner (1998) p. 117. Men of course should not touch a woman’s clitoris without a warm invitation to do so.

Ewen also rationalized his deceptive request that Taneu follow him:

This the young man said, estimating that by chaste intercourse he could pull her up from cultivating swine to a royal palace, and from a keeper of swine make her a lady ruling over knights.

{ Hoc autem dixit juvenis, estimans illam per castum coitum de ara suili attrahere ad regale palacium, et de custode suium dominam facere militum. }

Herbertian Life of Kentigern, chapter 2. Men commonly seek to raise women’s status. Rape, however, is in no way “chaste intercourse {castus coitus}.” It’s also a wrong way to seek to improve a woman’s welfare.

[10] The Herbertian Life of Kentigern explicitly states that rape cannot deprive a woman of her virginity:

Virginity is after all not lacking there where the integrity of holy devotion remains. Furthermore, under law she who did not assent to her corruptor is not repudiated as corrupted, but thus is acknowledged as a virgin. Therefore when a virgin of Christ suffers violation of her body, she does not lose the reward of virginity, but that is esteemed to her reward, as Lucy said to Paschatius, “If you make me violated against my will, chastity has for me doubled my crown.”

{ Ibi quippe non deest virginitas ubi sancte devotionis permanet integritas. In lege etiam quasi corrupta non repudiatur que assensum corruptori non prebuit, sed ut virgo suscipitur. Cum ergo quelibet Christi virgo violentiam patitur carnis, non amittit virginitatis lucrum, sed deputatur illi ad premium, dicente Lucia ad Paschasium, Si invitam me feceris violare, castitas mihi duplicabitur ad coronam. }

Herbertian Life of Kentigern, chapter 8. Saint Lucy asserted that a virgin who is raped acquires, in addition to the Christian crown of virginity, the Christian crown of martyrdom. Apart from such Christian belief, all women and men of good will today should assert that a man who has consensual sex with a woman should not be smeared as a corruptor, nor should he be martyred.

Regarding rationalization of Kentigern’s virgin birth in the surviving twelfth-century lives of Kentigern, Cowan declared:

Whether the sexual encounter in either case would have been perceived as rape by Jocelin’s contemporaries is unclear.

Cowan (2017) p. 583. The Herbertian Life of Kentigern clearly describes Ewen as raping Taneu, as Cowan subsequently makes clear. Id. Cowan goes on to quote Kathryn Gravdal, “in hagiography, no rape is ever completed.” Id. p. 584. In recent decades of medieval literary scholarship, no demonization of men is ever completed.

[11] The Herbertian Life of Kentigern provides a physiological explanation for Taneu’s confusion about what happened:

The virgin remained most wretched and sorrowful, doubting whether or not she was diminished, since from the young man, whom she considered to be a woman, she heard that she had not been touched in the way that a man touches a woman. In addition, because of the signs of the feminine sex, as in all women during the age of conceiving children, were in her beginning to abound, the sure sign of corruption could not be known, although it would have spread fleshly pain. Since during all the time of menstruation, the vaginal entrance naturally has a loosened structure in virgins as well as in non-virginal women, the opening is always accessible for entrance.

{ virgo squalidissima et mesta remansit, hesitans utrum esset libata vel non: quoniam a juvene, quem mulierem esse rebatur, se non tangi audierat quemadmodum virgo tangitur a viro, et precipue quia sexus femineus, sicut in omni muliere tempore prolis conceptionis, in ipsa tunc florere incipiebat: signum agnosci non potuit certum corruptionis, licet dolorem passa sit carnis. Omni namque tempore menstruo, dissolutis naturaliter membrorum compagibus tam in virginis quam in femine janua, patulus patet semper introitus. }

Herbertian Life of Kentigern, chapter 2. The point seems to be that Ewen alleged raped her when she was menstruating. Neither Taneu nor Ewen would then have been able to distinguish the small flow of blood sometimes associated with a woman’s first sexual intercourse of reproductive type. In addition, the text implies that during menstruation a woman’s vagina is looser. Taneu was thus less able to sense Ewen’s penis penetrating her vagina.

Gardner apparently relied excessively on Forbes’s inexact translation concerning Taneu’s emotional, cognitive, and vaginal circumstances. Here is Forbes’s translation:

the virgin remained wretched and sorrowful, in doubt whether she was defiled or no; since she had heard from the youth, whom she thought to be a woman, that she had not been touched as a virgin is touched by a man, and chiefly because the tokens of her sex were then beginning to appear in her as in every woman at the conception of a child, so that she could not discern the certain sign of corruption, although she had suffered from pain in the flesh. For at such times the membranous structures are naturally relaxed, as well in virgins as in those bearing children, and thus the means of defilement always lie more nearly within reach.

Forbes (1874) pp. 127-8. Garner interpreted that passage with relevant expertise:

What ‘signs of corruption’ would she look for? Surely a little bleeding associated with the tearing of the hymen. She obviously did not find any, as on my reading of the ‘case-history’ (as it were) it was not torn, although the tender vulvar mucosa may well have been abraded and thus caused some pain. However, the writer appears to imply that the issue was confused by those ‘tokens of her sex’ which he believed to be normally associated with conception. This probably refers to the flow of clear cervical mucus which is one of the signs of ovulation which we teach women whose complaint is infertility to look for as an aid to timing profitable coitus. As Thaney conceived she must have been at this stage in her cycle.

Gardner (1998) p. 119. Gardner had “a full career as a consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist for the NHS {U.K. National Health Service}.” Id. p. 126. That makes Gardner an expert in the female reproductive system, as well as in sexual intercourse in relation to conception. Such expertise in no substitute for knowledge of medieval Latin philology. Gardner seems not to have appreciated the value of medieval Latin philology. He complained:

Bishop Forbes then adds a bizarre gloss (at 128): ‘and thus the means of defilement always lie more nearly within reach.’ (A modern glossator might prefer: ‘and thus encourage the successful migration of sperm up the female genital tract’.)

Id. p. 119, n. 20. For the Latin text “patulus patet semper introitus,” Forbes’s translation (“bizarre gloss”) is better than that of Garder’s imagined “modern glossator.” Modern philology has served women better than men. At least Thomas D. Hill, a medievalist with considerable philological expertise, interpreted this passage correctly. Hill (1986) p. 231.

[12] Jocelin of Furness, Life of Saint Kentigern, Prologue. With verbal parallels to Luke’s account of Jesus’s birth and reception by shepherds and a holy man (Simeon for Jesus, Saint Serf for Kentigern), Jocelin nonetheless associated Taneu giving birth to Kentigern with the Virgin Mary giving birth to Jesus. Cowan (2017) p. 574. Cf. “Jocelin does not explicitly note any parallel with the nativity scene in Bethlehem.” Birkett (2010) p. 87.

Subsequent quotes above are from Jocelin’s Life of Saint Kentigern, Prologue (“Going to the sacred volumes…”; “Many have taken the drink of oblivion…”), Chapter 2 (“Behold, all sexes and all statuses of person…”), and Prologue (“Surely it is absurd to explore further…”).

[13] Jocelin of Furness, Life of Saint Kentigern, Chapter 36 (“How the Saint wondrously restored to the queen a ring that the queen had indecently gifted and that for this reason was thrown into the river Clyde by the king himself {Quomodo sanctus anulum a regina indecenter datum, et ab ipso rege in flumine Clud projectum, mirabiliter regine restituit}”). This story is an instance of a story type called the Ring of Polycrates (Aarne–Thompson–Uther tale type ATU 736A), after the earliest known instance in Herodotus, Histories 3.40-42.

King Rederech (Rhydderch of Strathclyde) was the King of Alt Clut in the Old North {Hen Ogledd} about the year 600. His wife Queen Languoreth had been barren, but with the blessing and intercession of Kentigern she gave birth to a son. Life of Saint Kentigern, Chapter 33.

[14] Hagiographers have preferred to construct virgin births through rape. The Welsh saints Saint Cadoc, Saint David (Dewi), and Saint Dubricius (Dyfrig) were reportedly born of virgin mothers through rape. Green (1998), n. 161, and associated main text. The wizard Merlin had a quasi-virgin conception through the apparently consensual action of a daemon-incubus. Kentigern’s teacher Saint Servanus reportedly was conceived miraculously. Marshall (2013) p. 73, n. 26.

[15] “Christ A” / “Christ 1,” vv. 71-82p (poem 4, vv. 1-12p), Old English text (alternate source) from Exeter Book (Exeter Cathedral Library MS 3501) folio 9r-9v via Campbell (1959) p. 53, modern English translation (slightly modified) from Aaron K. Hostetter, “Advent Lyrics (Christ I).” The Exeter Book was written late in the tenth century. Here’s a digital representation of the Old English letter-forms. Some thoughts on this poem.

Gardner noted:

David Farmer (whose Oxford Dictionary of Saints, 1978, is a standard work) assures me: ‘To the best of my knowledge and belief, orthodoxy of the 11th-12th century was that the Virgin Birth was a quite unique event without any parallel’ (personal communication).

Gardner (1998) p. 120, n. 23. The issue seems to have been more precisely the influence of the O antiphon “O Virgo virginum.” Texts now regarded as non-musical were associated with medieval singing.

Mary has long been a dominant figure in Christianity. The “Christ A” Old English interpretation of the O antiphon “O Virgo virginum” modified its Latin source to include sons of Jerusalem along with daughters of Jerusalem. Daughters, however, occupy the final, more poetically important position in the verse. Nonetheless, in the context of deeply entrenched anti-meninism, the male-inclusive gesture of the Old English poem should be applauded. Cf. Reider (2019) para. 13.

[16] Scholars seem not to have considered any alternate means for rationalizing Kentigern’s virgin birth. One scholar lamented that the two surviving twelfth-century lives of Kentigern contain “men that only cross-dress in order to sexually assault a woman.” Bull (2019) p. 51. That short article contains 39 instances of the word “rape” as well as “rapist” in its title. Another scholar put forward a modern form of literalism-fundamentalism concerning Kentigern’s mother Taneu (Thenew):

St Thenew is actually Scotland’s first recorded rape victim, battered woman and unmarried mother. From the time of her death in the seventh century until the present day, there is a discernable trail of oppression and violence against women.

From promotional blurb for King (1993). The trail of oppression and violence against men since the seventh century has been much less commonly recognized. The story of Kentigern’s virgin birth “is still quietly insisting on its presence.” Cowan (2017) p. 589. Naturalization of men raping women is an even more insistent presence. “Vita Kentegerni was a text written with a contemporary audience firmly in mind.” Birkett (2010) p. 113. Criminalizing men for allegedly “corrupting” women continues to appeal to the public right up to this day.

[images] (1) Verbum Gloriae performing “O Virgo virginum & Magnificat,” Gregorian chant O Antiphon in honor of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Via YouTube. Here’s a recording of “O Virgo virginum” by Gabriel Jackson and The Oxford Choir in 2019. (2) Saint Kengtigern (Saint Mungo) stained glass window by Douglas Strachan in Bute Hall, University of Glasgow. Installed in 1909. Source image thanks to Vysotsky and Wikimedia Commons.


Birkett, Helen. 2010. The Saints’ Lives of Jocelin of Furness: Hagiography, Patronage ,and Ecclesiastical Politics. Woodbridge, Suffolk: York Medieval Press with Boydell & Brewer.

Bull, Andrew. 2019. ‘“Am I Not a Woman Like Thyself?” -The Transvestite Male Rapist Narratives of Óðinn and Rindr, and Ewen and Thaney.’ Kyngervi. 1: 36-56. Alternate source.

Campbell, Jackson Justice. 1959. The Advent Lyrics of the Exeter Book. Princeton N.J: Princeton University Press.

Cowan, Mairi. 2017. “A Contested Conception: Jocelin of Furness and St Kentigern in Twelfth-Century Glasgow.” Pp. 571-589 in Tristan Sharp, ed. From Learning to Love: Schools, Law, and Pastoral Care in the Middle Ages. Essays in Honour of Joseph W. Goering. Toronto, Ontario, Canada: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies.

Frere, W. H. 1901-25. Antiphonale Sarisburiense. A reproduction in facsimile from early manuscripts of the 13th century, with a dissertation and analytical index. London, UK: Plainsong and Mediæval Music Society, Gregg Press.

Forbes, Alexander Penrose, ed. and trans. 1874. Lives of S. Ninian and S. Kentigern. Compiled in the Twelfth Century. Edinburgh: Edmonston and Douglas.

Gardner, Rex. 1998. “’Something Contrary to Sound Doctrine and to Catholic Faith’: A New Look at the Herbertian Fragment of the Life of Kentigern.” Innes Review. 49 (2): 115–26.

Gough-Cooper, Henry. 2003. “Kentigern and Gonothigernus: A Scottish saint and a Gaulish bishop identified.” The Heroic Age: A Journal of Early Medieval Northwestern Europe. Issue 6. Online.

Green, Cynthia Whidden. 1998. Saint Kentigern, Apostle to Strathclyde: A critical analysis of a northern saint. M.A. Thesis, Department of English, University of Houston. With English translation Jocelyn, a monk of Furness: The Life of Kentigern (Mungo). Alternate source.

Hill, Thomas D. 1986. “Odin, Rinda, and Thaney, the Mother of St Kentigern.” Medium Ævum. 55 (2): 230–37.

Jackson, Kenneth Hurlstone. 1958. “Sources for the life of Kentigern.” Chapter 6 (pp. 273-357) in Nora K. Chadwick, ed. Studies in the Early British Church. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

King, Elspeth. 1993. The Hidden History of Glasgow’s Women: The Thenew Factor. Edinburgh, Scotland: Mainstream Pub.

Marshall, Susan. 2013. “Illegitimacy and Sanctity in the Twelfth-Century Lives of St. Kentigern”. Pp. 67-90 in Clare Downham, ed. Jocelin of Furness: Essays from the 2011 Conference. Donington, UK: Shaun Tyas. Volume review by Julie Kerr.

Neale, John Mason. 1851. Hymnal Noted Parts I & II. London & New York: Novello, Ewer and Company, J. Masters & Company.

Reider, Alexandra. 2019. “Ic ane geseah idese sittan: The Woman and Women Apart in Old English Poetry.” The Heroic Age: A Journal of Early Medieval Northwestern Europe. Issue 19. Online.

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