Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Testing Virginity: The Middle English Way

It’s windy, it’s dark, and it’s the first day back at work after the festive holidays. So to cheer us all up, what more could you wish for than a weird medieval virginity test: specifically, the virginity test proposed by the Sultan of Babylon in Floris and Blancheflur, a Middle English romance dating from the mid thirteenth century.

Floris and Blancheflur, a romance extant in four manuscripts dated between 1260 and 1400, tells the story of Floris, the pagan son of the King of Spain, and Blancheflur, the Christian daughter of a slave woman, who are raised together and fall in love. Through his parents’ plotting, who disapprove of their relationship, Blancheflur is sold to merchants who gift her to the Sultan of Babylon, where she is imprisoned in a fortified tower with other maidens, guarded by eunuchs.

When he hears of Blancheflur’s fate, Floris goes to her rescue and manages to enter the tower, concealed in a basket of flowers. The lovers are reunited and go immediately to bed, but are later discovered by the furious Sultan. They are sentenced to death, however the Sultan’s advisors take pity on the children and persuade him to spare their lives. All are reconciled and their identities revealed: Floris is knighted and marries Blancheflur, before returning to Floris’ kingdom to rule as King and Queen.

The Sultan proposes a virginity test in order to help him select a new wife from amongst the captive maidens each year. On the Sultan’s request, the women are brought into an orchard, ‘The fairest of al middelhard [The fairest in all the world]’ (649). In the orchard lies a well, the water of which comes from ‘Paradis’ (659) and which is lined with gravel of ‘preciouse stone’ (660). The test proposed by the Sultan is that the women should ‘waschen here honed [wash their hands]’ (667) in the water. ‘Yif ther cometh ani maiden that is forleie [If any woman approaches who is not a virgin]’ (665), the water ‘wille yelle als hit ware wo [scream as if it were mad] / And bicome […] so red so blod [as red as blood]’ (668-9). Such a woman is then put to death. Yet when a virginal woman washes her hands, ‘The water wille erne stille and cler / Nelle hit hem make no daunger [The water will flow silently and clearly / Posing no danger to the woman]’ (674-5).

The symbolism of a fountain or well being associated with virginity is a folk motif. I found several examples of wells or fountains being used to measure virginity. These include two wells (one muddy, one clear) being used as a chastity index; a well that if an unchaste woman were to dip her arms into it, her skin would boil away; and a spring which wells up if the woman is not a virgin (Thompson, 412).

The association of wells with virginity is also present in the Middle English romance Bevis of Hampton. A dragon is besieging Cologne and before going to fight it, Bevis dreams that ‘a virgine / Him broughte out of al is pine [a virgin relieved him from all his pain]’ (2689-2690). Injured whilst battling the dragon the next day, Bevis is thrown into a nearby well.

The welle was of swich vertu

A virgine wonede in that londe

Hadde bathed in, ich understonde

That water was so holi

That the dragoun, sikerli

Ne dorste neghe, the welle aboute

Be fourti fote, saundoute.

[The well was of such virtue

A virgin living in the area

Had bathed in it, I understand

That water was so holy

That the dragon, truly

Did not dare approach nearer the well than

Forty feet, undoubtedly] (2804-2810).

The water in the well heals Bevis and he defeats the dragon.

The particular virginity test in Floris and Blancheflur is unique to the Middle English version of the romance. In the Old French Floire et Blanceflor on which the Middle English romance is based, if an unchaste woman crosses the stream it becomes muddy: ‘quant il I passe pucele / Lors est li clere et bele / Et au passer de feme éue / L’eve en est lués toute méue [When a virgin crosses [the stream], the water remains clear and beautiful, Yet when a non-virginal woman crosses, the water becomes smeared with mud]’ (1811-14).

This makes the Middle English romance version more visceral than the Old French; Kathleen Coyne Kelly has noted the parallel between the fountain which runs with blood and screams and the moment a virgin is penetrated (9). By visually reminding us of the loss of virginity at this moment of testing, it seems that the Middle English Floris and Blancheflur places more emphasis on this testing than other variations of the romance.

Yet it is also clear that this emphasis on virginity is more about ensuring ownership than ideals. Virginity would usually be tested to assuage concerns about heritage and miscegenation, yet there is no mention of any children produced from any of the Sultan’s marriages. Even so, the Sultan still tests to ensure that his harem of women are virgins. The severity of the punishment for any woman found not to be a virgin indicates how highly virginity is prized.

Darce Frenier has noted that ‘virginity [has] a manipulative value’ (37-38) in contemporary romance and the economic and social value of virginity in the Middle Ages has been well documented. This is reflected in Floris and Blancheflur, which frequently refers to women in terms of ‘merchandise’. Whilst this is not exclusively referring to their virginity, the emphasis on female virginity in the romance might suggest that the value of women is intimately tied to their virginity.

Blancheflur’s value is expressed economically; Floris’ parents expect ‘muche catell and goode [property and goods]’ (150) in return for selling Blancheflur and they receive a valuable and ornately described ‘coupe [goblet]’ (163) in return. Even Floris alludes to an economic valuing of Blancheflur as on his quest to find her he tells people that he is seeking his ‘marchaundise’ (484; 564), directly aligning the value of Blancheflur with the economic value of goods and possessions.

The Sultan similarly values Blancheflur economically, paying ‘sevin sithes of golde her wight [seven times her weight in gold]’ (508) in order to ‘own’ her. The romance has established early on that Blancheflur is a ‘mayde clene [a virgin]’ (59), thus her economic valuing is inextricably tied with her value as a virgin. By paying an enormous amount of money for her, the Sultan’s economic evaluation of the value of virginity is made clear; by keeping numerous virgin maidens in his tower, the Sultan enhances both his economic and social profile.

However, Kelly suggests that the virginity test in Floris and Blancheflur, as with many methods of testing virginity, is not perhaps as reliable as might appear. She draws attention to the second part of the Sultan’s selection process, where a flower from the ‘Tre[e] of Love’ (678) falls onto the woman whom the Sultan will then select as his wife. However, the text reveals this part of the test can, and will, be manipulated by the Sultan.

And yif ther ani maiden is
That th'Amerail halt of mest pris,
The flour schal on here be went
Thourh art and thourgh enchantement.
Thous he cheseth thourgh the flour,
And evere we herkneth when hit be Blauncheflour.

[If there is any maiden

That the Sultan values above the others,

The flower will fall towards her

Through skill and through enchantment.

Thus the Sultan controls his choice through the flower

And we expect to hear that it will be Blancheflur he chooses] (684-9).

The Sultan’s ability to manipulate the virginity test casts doubt on its reliability. Kelly argues that ‘the two signifiers, fountain and tree, participate in a destabilising exchange by virtue of their narrative juxtaposition. That a signifier can be so patently false as the tree casts doubt on the signifier immediately preceding it – namely, the fountain’ (9). If this most visually arresting virginity test can be manipulated by the Sultan, does this suggest that the women forced to participate can also control the results? And if virginity is so highly economically valued in this romance, what does it mean for the romance’s idea of wealth if the test to prove that virginity is able to be manipulated? The virginity test in Floris and Blancheflur seems to offer less clarity on these issues, not more.



References to the Middle English Floris and Blancheflur are from Floris and Blancheflour, in Sentimental and Humorous Romances, ed. Erik Kooper (Kalamazoo, Michigan: Medieval Institute Publications, 2006), accessed online http://www.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/teams/ekfbtxt.htm.

References to the Old French Floire et Blanceflor are from Floire et Blanceflor, in Floire et Blanceflor: Poèmes du 18ième Siècle, ed. M. Édélstand du Méril (Paris, 1856), pp. 1-124.

Mariam Darce Frenier, Good-bye Heathcliff: Changing Heroes, Heroines, Roles, and Values in Women’s Category Romances (New York: Greenwood Press, 1988).

Kathleen Coyne Kelly, Performing Virginity and Testing Chastity in the Middle Ages (London: Routledge, 2000).

Stith Thompson (ed.), Motif Index of Folk Literature, vol. 3 (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1966).


The first image is of "Virgo", from a set of celestial cards by Sidney Hall (London : 1825). The second image is of the The "Red" or "Blood" Well in Glastonbury (www.chalicewell.org.uk). The third image is a fifteenth-century painting of the Tree of Life and the garden of Eden. All images are from Wikimedia Commons.


  1. I haven't read the medieval Castilian version (Flores y Blancaflor) of the text, but I know it exists. I wonder how/if it differs.

    On the topic of the economic value of a woman, while I was googling, I came across a short description of the Historia de la donzella Teodor and she too is treated as a commodity, but it seems (a) the plan to raise money is her idea and (b) her value derives from her great wisdom/knowledge.

  2. Thanks for your comment Laura. I actually have a copy of a later 1512 version of Flores y Blancaflor, edited by Adolfo Bonilla y San Martin, but I haven't had a chance to compare the virginity test yet (although this would be interesting). Yet both these Spanish versions post-date the Middle English version by at least 100 years. I must admit, I find the transmission of this romance throughout Europe, and its interpolations and omissions, to be fascinating. I'd be interested to know what you think of the Spanish version if you do get a chance to read it.

    I am always surprised at how relentlessly Blancheflur is economically valued in this romance, and it is something I have come across in many of the Middle English romances I've read. Few of them seem to have the confidence or presence of mind to control their own economic value as thoroughly as Teodor seems to do.

  3. I'm not likely to come across the Spanish version as I'm not working on medieval texts any longer, but I did search inside the David Arbesú-Fernández edition and I couldn't see any references to blood matching the ones you discuss here. That said, it could well be that I should have used different spellings. I searched inside the book by Grieve and she mentions on page 67 that the chronicle version of the story doesn't include the Tree.

    Anyway, re

    Kelly argues that ‘the two signifiers, fountain and tree, participate in a destabilising exchange by virtue of their narrative juxtaposition. That a signifier can be so patently false as the tree casts doubt on the signifier immediately preceding it – namely, the fountain’ (9).

    It occurs to me that the two signifiers might be working together to demonstrate the workings of a society in which a powerful man almost always gets precisely what he wants. The water test is a general sorting process, like a sieve, and the tree is then used to narrow the choice to a single woman.Actually, it begins to sound like a medieval version of the X Factor, with the Sultan/Simon Cowell selecting the next star for his harem/recording studio. That's all about money too.

  4. Ha, yes! I like your Simon Cowell/Sultan analogy. A Spanish friend came over last night and I showed him the 1512 Spanish version I have and he found some interesting things in it which relate to my points about the economic valuing of virginity.

    When Blancaflor is considered for purchase by the Sultan, his butler negotitates for him, stating that her purchase will be considered only if she is a virgin. Once this is established, a higher price is negotiated based on her beauty. So here, a little like your reading of the two-part virginity test in the Middle English version, virginity is a condition of purchase, and it is beauty which determines the value: the virginity is the general value, and the beauty determines a specific price.

    There is also no mention of the Sultan marying any of the maidens in this Spanish version, which states that there can only be 100 maidens in the tower and that when one dies, she is replaced with another (it is not clear whether the Sultan kills them himself).

    There is also a virginity test in this version, but it is much less elaborate than the Middle English version. There is an evergreen flowering tree in a garden, next to a fountain with very clear water which has a particular virtue: it is a test which reveals lack of virginity. Every day, the Sultan makes the women from the tower take a flower (from the tree, presumably) and makes them throw it into the fountain. If the woman is a virgin, the water turns out clear, but if she is not, the water becomes turbulent and red like blood.

    This version clearly echoes the Middle English, but also differs: there is no mention of any potential manipulation of the test, or of the consequences for any woman who is not a virgin (although this might be related to the Sultan's one-in one-out policy).

  5. I'm glad you found someone who could help with reading Flores y Blancaflor.

    "Every day, the Sultan makes the women from the tower take a flower"

    Does he make all the women take a flower every day? I'm beginning to wonder if he just likes to store virgins in that tower (which, now I think about it, could be rather phallic) but he doesn't actually bother de-virginising them.

    Again, that would tie in with the idea that virginity is an expensive commodity, which would make that towerful of virgins the equivalent of a vault full of gold.

    And to get back to pop music, I wonder if there's something going on which is akin to the way that the young Britney Spears had value partly because she claimed to be a virgin:

    her innocent image was actually part of a carefully constructed publicity campaign, according to new reports.

    Lawyer Eric Ervin, who worked with Britney during the earlier part of her career, claims her "virgin" image, which included a vow by the star to save herself for marriage, was purely a "PR blitz."

  6. It seems that yes, he does make them take a flower each day - and I agree that the lack of mention of a wedding or intent to marry any of these women, along with the explicit economic valuing of Blancaflor's virginity suggests that these virgins form part of the Sultan's economic wealth. I suppose you could say that his economic wealth is based upon a potential but never fulfilled sexuality - just as Britney's (economic) success was based upon her (lack of) sexuality, so it seems that part of the Sultan's economic wealth is based in his sexuality through the tower of virgins.

    Although I do find the one-in one-out upon death policy really creepy - it reminds me of Bluebeard.

  7. "I do find the one-in one-out upon death policy really creepy"

    I wonder (and this is a very tentative suggestion) if the woman-as-flower metaphor might be at work here. I took a brief look at it in For Love and Money but one thing I didn't discuss there (because I didn't have any relevant textual evidence) is the connection between flowers and youth.

    Now admittedly, the "flower of youth" tends to be associated with young men, but that's probably because women's youth is generally associated with maidenhood i.e. maidens tend to be thought of as both young and virginal.

    So, it strikes me that if virgin women are like flowers/have a flower, and that's obviously the case here, then since flowers fall from the tree and die, so too will the women because even if they can retain the flower of their virginity, they cannot remain perpetually in the flower of their youth.

  8. I like this idea, and had wondered myself about the association of flower/virginity.

    Moreover, if the Sultan were to kill the women because they were not virgins (whether he himself had slept with them or not) this would underscore the link between a lack of virginity and death.

    Although the reference to the tree being in perpetual bloom in summer and winter might suggest the opposite: a never-ending youth/virginity?

  9. "Although the reference to the tree being in perpetual bloom in summer and winter might suggest the opposite: a never-ending youth/virginity?"

    Well, I think one could see the tree as the unchanging standard against which women are measured. The fact that youth and virginity are perpetually demanded of women in order for them to retain their value doesn't in any way guarantee that women (in general or in this particular case) will always meet those standards.

  10. I came across a comparison of the French and Castilian versions of this story and I thought you might find it interesting because even though it's not on the topic of virginity, it does point out the power of a Christian woman's breastmilk. It's by David Wacks and

    This is the version of the French Floire et Blancheflor (Crónica de Flores y Blancaflor, ca. 1300 to its modern editors) we find woven into the Castilian chronicle known as Estoria de España. The Estoria was the section of the massive historical project begun by Alfonso X of Castile-León (r. 1252-1284), the Primera crónica general, meant to record all of human history from creation to the current regime.