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The Importance of Virginity in the Middle Ages

Female virginity was of utmost importance in the Middle Ages. If a bride went to her marriage bed having already engaged in illicit intercourse with anyone but her husband, she would be considered as a 'whore' and would likely be treated as an outcast by her family and friends. But why was this? What was the law on so-called 'false virgins'? And to what extent would women go to restore it?

Throughout history, and even in many cultures today, a bride was expected to go to her wedding bed as a virgin. It was believed that once she had engaged in intercourse with a man, she automatically became his property. It seems outdated now, but in the Middle Ages this view was widely accepted. A woman's life was defined by men - until her wedding day, a young woman was the property of her father (hence the tradition of fathers walking their daughters down the aisle to 'give her away'!). Upon her marriage to a man, she automatically became his to command. Therefore, when a new bride was discovered to have already engaged in intercourse with another man before her marriage, it caused a huge legal headache.

If a groom discovered that his bride had already been 'deflowered' before their wedding night, he was legally allowed to call the wedding guests into the bedchamber and rip open his wife's dress to expose her lower body. The bride would then be forced to admit that she had already had a sexual relationship with another man, and her husband would be entitled to compensation! This practice (which was completely legal!) was known as the "Law of the False Virgin".

But how would a groom possibly know that his bride's virginity had already been taken? A woman may admit to her husband that she was no longer a virgin, or another person may have informed the groom. It was also typically believed that if a woman did not bleed during her first experience of intercourse, or that her hymen was missing, then she was lying about her virginity and therefore guilty of pre-marital intercourse. Of course, not every woman did bleed during intercourse, and many did not even have a hymen in the first place! These women were not necessarily guilty, and many may have just been born that way, but in the minds of medieval men it was worthy enough of legal intervention.

Unfortunately, this meant that for many innocent medieval women, they faced unfair judgement from their husbands. So, recipes were written-up for the new bride to ensure that she would pass 'the virginity test' - and, as you can probably imagine, they were utterly horrific. These recipes were not just followed by anxious brides, but also by women who were actually guilty of pre-marital intercourse, as well as a popular trick used by prostitutes of the time! The recipe below came from the Trotula, a medieval recipe book aimed at gynaecology and women's health. Please do not try this at home!

"A Good Constrictive so that they may appear as if they were virgins":

1. Take the whites of eggs and mix them with water in which penny-royal and hot herbs have been cooked.

2. With a new linen cloth dipped in, place it in the vagina three times a day.

3. Take the newly grown bark of a holm oak and dissolve it with rainwater. With a linen cloth, place it inside the vagina.

4. Take powdered natron and place it inside the vagina. Then, let her place leeches in the vagina so that blood comes out, and thus the man will be deceived by the effusion of blood.

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