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.