In the comments section to my previous post “The Church that Changes,” Megan says something really key that I wanted to highlight and use as a jumping off point for a brief reflection on the meaning of St. Wilgefortis.  She says,

“those who claim a hermeneutic of suspicion are actually rooting themselves in the Tradition. So while we may be working with a hermeneutic of suspicion, the suspicion is of those voices historically privileged by the Tradition, seeking to bring forward other voices, perspectives, images, etc. With this in mind, I want to emphasize that the Church is not only the theological developments that have historically been privileged nor the hierarchical magisterium, but also the entire community of believers, the sacramental Body of Christ. I think it is important to keep this broader view of Tradition and Church in mind in order to keep open the possibility of the Holy Spirit, yes working in the Church, potentially working through the Church in those voices that are critical of those elements of the Tradition which have been brought to the fore to the neglect of others. Thus, feminist and liberationist theologies are in some ways, seeking to call the Tradition back to itself. As M. Catherine Hilkert said in class once, the titles “progressive” and “conservative” do not really work if we are all trying to CONSERVE the Tradition.”

I think the popularity of St. Wilgefortis offers a perfect example of the approach to tradition that many of us on this blog are using, which is one of critical retrieval or perhaps I should call it “a hermeneuntics of suspicion out of loyalty to Christ.”

I encourage you all to watch this video Megan posted if you already haven’t.  But just in case you haven’t or can’t, I will offer a brief summary of the cult of St. Wilgefortis, popular in the 15th and 16th centuries.  The story goes that she was bethrothed to marry a pagan king.  She did not want to.  Her father grew very angry and threw her in jail.  While in jail, she prayed to somehow be freed from her bondage.  The next morning, she woke up and had grown a beard.  Her suitor found her unappealing and called off the marriage.  Her father was very displeased and had her crucified.  As a part of this cult, statues of a bearded, bodily female Christa appeared throughout Europe.  Apparently, she was popular among women seeking to be “disencumbered” from abusive husbands.

The popularity of this cult tells us that, even though this story was not historically true, it nonetheless seemed feasible to the people of that time.  That the jailing and then crucifying of a woman by her own father seemed something that could have really happened says quite a lot about the violence of that day’s patriarchy.  It also tells us something about the faith of a segment of the faithful.  The story of Wilgefortis relativizes the definitions imposed upon humanity by the powerful (in this case, a woman is a person with a certain type of body, who, because this body is desirable to men, sexually, reproductively, and as a token of male power, will therefore be subject to the will of men.)  In contrast to the status quo of the day, the cult of St. Wilgefortis suggests that at least some believed that this status of subjection was not after all inescapable.  Instead, this cult reflects a belief that God, not male power, is the ultimate definer of reality and that God not only could but wants to liberate women from marital tyranny.

It seems to me that we have yet to discover the full extent of this counter-cultural undercurrent of Catholic/Christian piety that has always existed but was either ignored, rejected, or violently suppressed by the authorities.  I think we often forget that it is not just in matters of statecraft that the victorious get to write history.  While we must continue to critique “official” theologies both past and present, we must not stop looking for the unofficial and silently subversive theologies, which are proof that the memory of Christ’s liberating powers was never completely forgotten, but kept alive in the hidden “underground” of the church and history.

19 thoughts

  1. This is awesome. Transvestite saints and such are really popular in the study of late ancient Christianity, so I find that photo especially cool. I am so glad you guys started this blog.

  2. Yeah. Transvestite is an awfully anachronistic word. It’s also cool and trendy. History is more complicated than that. Unfortunately they don’t teach that to all late antique historians.

    1. John T,
      Could you please re-state your comment in a more constructive and clear way.
      You comments seems both sarcastic and unclear.
      If you need to, please refer to our “rules of engagement.”

      1. My critique of historians of late antiquity is just that, a critique. It is not a value judgment on anyone’s Catholicism or theological perspective. Regarding theology, one could claim, based on the rules of engagement, that the phrase “transvestite saints” is an unwarranted and (un)ambiguous attack on their theological perspective. I don’t agree with such a claim, but it is something that can be argued

    2. Anachronism is an interesting word that opens up an interesting can of worms (to me, at least). I think the project of a historian has to be both to avoid and embrace anachronism–we have to avoid reading our own perspectives back into the past, obvs, but we also have to try to reconcile past and present, and use the present to illuminate the past. Or, I mean, I guess we don’t have to–but if we don’t have a specific sense of our grounding in our own time period, then we’re not historians, we’re nostalgians. Or historical reenactors. Or whatever.

      (NB I am not saying anything against historical reenactors–my roommates in college were really involved in the SCA, and it always seemed like an awesome time. I myself may or may not have a Scarlett O’Hara dress in the back of my closet. It’s just…different from the study of history.)

    3. John T,

      In response to your post:

      “Yeah. Transvestite is an awfully anachronistic word.”
      Yes, it sure is. And it’s used deliberately.

      “It’s also cool and trendy.”
      Agreed. Is that a problem?

      “History is more complicated than that.”
      Indeed it is complicated. That’s what the deliberate use of anachronisms is meant to highlight.

      “Unfortunately they don’t teach that to all late antique historians.”
      Yes, as you just demonstrated, that is often the case.

      For reference, one of the articles I had in mind was:

      Stephen J. Davis
      Crossed Texts, Crossed Sex: Intertextuality and Gender in Early Christian Legends of Holy Women Disguised as Men
      Journal of Early Christian Studies – Volume 10, Number 1, Spring 2002, pp. 1-36

  3. The example, however, of St. Wilgefortis is profound, and it complicates static notions of gender and identity. That much, I think, can be said with confidence.

    On the other hand, I think one can feel uncomfortable with her example. After all, it appears that her only means of salvation was through “becoming male.” This doesn’t seem to speak highly of the female gender–conformity to Christ in every way possible. If that speaks to people theologically, then so be it. But I do find it a bit disturbing from a modern perspective.

    1. John T,
      Thanks for your comment.
      I think it is important to note with St. Wilgefortis that she did not “become male.” She simply grew a beard. In this sense, she is not so much “transgendered” (to speak anachronistically) as she is “queer” (again, anachronistic). She was still fully female.
      I think it is at least possible to see her beard not as “becoming male” but as becoming “christ-like” and being given a shield against male sexual desire. The reason God gave her a beard was to protect her from male desire, to make her invalid as a reproductive object. I would prefer to see it as a femininity in defiance of masculine uses of femininity. By growing a beard, she became a person who was no longer a person of value to men. And for her, given the realities of the day, this was a liberation.

      But yes, you are right, it is not a story that would capture the modern imagination. No doubt. But we can certainly understand that people can only work with what they’ve got, so to speak.

    2. John T — While I wouldn’t deny that there are problems with Wilgefortis (or other female saints who pray themselves unattractive), her story doesn’t center on “becoming male” to attain salvation. Her holiness is linked, rather, to her refusal to marry the non-Christian man her father wished her to marry, and her subsequent martyrdom. While she grows a beard, she remains female. She’s still a woman, but no longer a sexually-desirable woman.

      The millions of dollars spent by women on depilatory cosmetics alone contest the idea that a woman with a beard is no longer a woman.🙂

      1. I agree with you. My approach to things is not to gloss over potential problems.

        I do think we can retrieve something liberating in these kinds of saints lives and legends.

        What I’m skeptical about is moving too quickly from the problematic legend that emerged from a patriarchal church to the liberating message. For me, at least, that’s ahistorical and creates more problems than solutions.

        As in the case of biblical studies, I prefer to see the text criticized for its assumptions and then reinterpreted and reused for the “good” or “liberating message” that it still contains despite its original authorship.

      2. John T,

        I think it is important to keep in mind that not all of these stories come from those in control in the patriarchal church, but are representative of diverse movements, often expressing (what we might now call today) subversive messages within a larger patriarchal and otherwise oppressive context. It would be a mistake to think of all these stories as the production of representatives of Church authority.

        What seems more troubling to me: If you google St. Wilgefortis, most of the narratives include a great deal of explanation of how she did not exist. Sure, this is true. However, there seems to be a great deal of contemporary effort to dismantle her story– what I would suggest is an effort to deny the symbol its subversive value: perhaps in the idea of a woman on the cross–people seem to have a big problem with this, or perhaps because she would be seen as a woman who managed to free herself from the tight constraints of male imposed feminity.

  4. Insofar as she became “christ-like”, she also became, according to the realities of the day, male.

    I completely agree that, given the realities of the day, she became less desirable to men, and, thus, she achieved liberation.

    This does assume the heteronormative notion that no male in the story would have been attracted to her as a male/”christ-like”/bearded woman.

    I’m fine with theological readings of the legend, but it looks to me like a male-centered account about a woman who became “too ugly” to be desired by any man. It is ultimately a call for women to become nuns. Chastity is autonomy, though not at a small price.

    1. John T,
      You really think a person with a vagina, breasts, XX chromosomes and a female self identity who has a beard is a man?

      Even without divine intervention, there are women who have beards for one reason or another. Certainly, you don’t think they are men?

      I get what you are saying, but I think you’re missing the point. I’m not trying to reclaim St. Wilgefortis for contemporary women; I’m simply saying, “look at the amazing and unexpected things that were going on in the past.”

  5. John T,

    Also, another point to keep in mind: A basic methodological presupposition of feminist theology, along with all other liberationist theologies, is that it is rooted in a particular experience. Fairly obvious, feminist theology is rooted in the experience(s) of women. I would just like to point out to you, that some of the women on this blog (although it was not Katie’s point as she explains above), as well as some of our readers, have indicated finding St. Wilgefortis to be a liberative symbol/story. While I’m going to assume that you are not trying to come onto a blog that is written exclusively by women as a male and dictate what women can identify with as liberative, you should know that that is the way that you are coming across–at least to me. I think it is important to remember, that when standing outside of the particular experience in which a form of liberation theology is rooted, it is important to let those speaking assert what they may or may not find liberative and meaningful in their own lives.

  6. John T,
    You have already said several times that you don’t think St. Wilgefortis is liberating. I am deleting your most recent comments only because you are repeating yourself without adding anything new. Your contribution to the conversation is well-noted.

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