Monday, May 28, 2007

St. Wilgefortis & her bearded nuns

Medieval carvings of a tunic-wearing, androgynous, crucified Christ puzzled Northern Christians. They asked "Just who is this bearded woman and why was she crucified?" This in turn led to the creation of a legendary saint, Wilgefortis (from the German for 'Holy Face.') The legend stated that a beautiful teenaged noblewoman was promised to a pagan king in marriage. She prayed for deliverance and overnight was granted a beard, which ended the engagement. Her enraged father had her crucified. This fictional Wilgefortis became something of a feminist icon, and was known as the 'strong virgin.' Abused women prayed that she would free (or 'uncumber') them from cruel husbands.*

Linda Medley's hefty graphic novel Castle Waiting is a retelling of various fairy tales, generally from a female point of view. Generally humourous and occasionally moving, the story meanders hither and thither without much urgency, looping into flashbacks and stories within stories. However, the final two hundred pages focus on the actions and memories of Sister Peace, a zany 'Solicitine' nun. The Solicitines are an order dedicated to none other than Wilgefortis, and are made up entirely of bearded women. Peace relates a legend of Wilgefortis which is true to the medieval version but which adds on some interesting twists and turns. She explains the origins of her order and its tradition of good deeds, tells the stories of various Sisters, and reminisces about being a bearded teenage girl in a circus. Throughout the book she contends for the souls of the castle's inhabitants, trading scriptural quotations and put-downs with a smart-aleck demon. She also has a penchant for bad puns:

Sister Peace: What d'you think the good Lord would be doing on a beautiful day like today, huh?
Simon: Ummm... tending His flock?
Sister Peace: Nope! He'd be loafing and fishing. C'mon, let's go!

While it doesn't contain the epic conflicts of the even heftier Bone, those who enjoy humane and humourous fantasy with strong female characters (and bearded nuns!) will enjoy Castle Waiting.

*While Wilgefortis never existed historically, her mythology is somewhat reminiscent of the virgin martyrs, who did. In her book The Geometry of Love, Catholic writer Margaret Visser argues that these early Christian women symbolically resisted and overcame the misogynistic pagan culture that sought to control them, though later accretions and our own context make it hard to understand how radical their actions were at the time.


Kay said...


I'm writing an article on women and body hair, from a feminist perspective. I was interested to read your blog about St Wilgefortis, and I wonder if maybe we could chat over the phone on the subject? I think maybe you will have some knowledge on the subject that will help me a lot! If this is possible, please email me at asap! Thank you x

D. G. D. Davidson said...

Very interesting post, Elliot. Thanks. Ahh, Bone...oops, you sent me reminiscing.

Kay, I happen to know of some Jewish midrashim that refer to female body hair; unfortunately, I have no access to my books at the moment and can't give you a citation, but I do know, for example, that stories exist of the Queen of Sheba visiting Solomon and being exceptionally hairy because she was a foreigner. Some of the stories gave me the impression that female body hair was feared and associated with foreigness...I may be sticking my foot in it because this is all from memory, but it might make an interesting extension of your work if your research is in that direction.

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