Tits Out Collective; Virgo Fortis

 

We have decided to call our version of the Tits Out Collective Virgo Fortis (courageous woman) after Saint Wilgefortis or Saint Uncumber, a saint popular in the fourteenth century and the patron saint of unhappily married women. At least £4 per skein of this colourway sold will go to Women's Aid.

Saint Wilgefortis

A woman’s life in the Middle Ages was one governed by men and fraught with contradiction. No surprise there, you may think, the medieval mind was adept at holding two contrary views at the same time and believing both. A woman was the daughter of Eve; temptress, sexually insatiable, lustful, devious and definitely not to be trusted by man. Woman needed men’s seed within them to warm their cold phlegmatic humours. A woman was cast in the same mould as the Virgin Mary; a helpmate, patient, loving, strong and virtuous. The cult of the Virgin Mary in the fourteenth century threatened to outstrip God in popularity. After the Norman Conquest, from birth to death woman was the property of first her father then her husband. As the Middle Ages cover such a long period (900AD-1485) there are inevitable fluctuations and changes in women’s fortunes and attitudes towards them. What is seen is the gradual encroachment of the Church into governing every area of life. Attitudes towards marriage, adultery and remarriage after desertion/absence became gradually stricter. In the earlier period a man would be more unlikely to admit to his wife playing away as this would expose him to ridicule as a cuckold. One punishment for this was to put the cuckold backwards on a horse holding a distaff (a woman’s tool) and parade him around a town. He was seen as failing as his wife sought entertainment elsewhere. A certain woman that had run away from her husband with her lover was prosecuted first for the theft of linen and cloth, then as an adulteress, with the theft actually referring to the clothes she stood up in. A widow was swiftly remarried either by the agency of her family or by her direct “owner” the lord of the land she lived on. A woman could not leave anything in her will, bear witness or swear an oath.

There are of course exceptions to these oppressed drudges forced to do men’s bidding. The saints were real women who had transcended their mundane lives to escape into sanctity. As such women could relate directly to them, pray and offer “bribes” or offerings in exchange for something. The saints had lead lives the same as their own and could intercede on their behalf with God. As the Church was again governed by men, these saints were the closest sympathic demi-deities available. Medieval saints lives are fantastic, often gory, full of adventure and often in our modern eyes very amusing.

Wilgefortis was the daughter of the pagan king of Portugal and promised in marriage to the king of Sicily. This presented a problem as she had taken an oath of virginity when she converted to Christianity. The day before her wedding she prayed for deliverance and grew a monstrous beard and moustache. This caused her suitor to withdraw. Her father then ordered her crucifixion. This was an unusual form of martyrdom for a woman. While on the cross, she prayed that all who remembered her would be liberated from all encumbrances and troubles. She is also called Liberata (in Italy and France) and Kuemmernis (in Austria; “kummer” being sorrow or trouble). She was most popular in Southern Europe, from a possible beginnning in Flanders, her cult spread to England where a habit developed of leaving an offering of a handful or peck of oats at her shrine or statue. The oats were to provide for a horse to carry the offending husband off to the devil. In this country she was more usually called St Uncumber. As with other saints, the bare bones of the story become embroidered. While Wilgefortis was tied to the cross a destitute fiddler started playing at her feet. She kicked one of her golden boots towards him and so is often depicted as having one shoe off with a fiddler at her feet.

Saint Uncumber Day 20th July

 

“What is better than wisdom? Woman!

What is better than a good woman? Nothing!” Chaucer

 

Three of the known shrines in England are St Mary’s Church Worstead Norfolk (painting), Boxford Church Suffolk (statue destroyed) and a statue in Henry VII chapel Westminster (remaining).

 

Further Reading

Medieval Women by Henrietta Leyser

eclecticlight.co/2016/07/10/hieronymus-bosch-saint-wilgefortis-triptych/

If you are into Hieronymus Bosch the above Triptych is well worth looking at.

Beard Fetish in early Modern England: Sex, Gender and Registers of Value by Mark Albert Johnston

Oxford Dictionary of Saints

The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England by Ian Mortimer

Women in Medieval England by Lynda Telford


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