Ive just been reading Robert Mills chapter Can the virgin martyr speak?, from Anke Bernau, Sarah Salih & Ruth Evans (eds) Medieval Virginities. This considers ideas of agency and objectification in the hagiography of virgin martyrs and whether there is some way of getting beyond debates about whether these accounts reflect patriarchal violence or female empowerment. In order to complicate things yet further (its an interesting paper, but fairly theory-dense) he brings in ideas about colonialism: his title is a riff on a paper by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak: Can the subaltern speak?, which discusses a Bengali widow who practices sati (sutee) and sacrifices herself on her husbands funeral pyre.
I found the combination of the virgin martyr and the sati a provocative comparison, but I had to think about it quite hard to get beyond simply Western Christian prejudices and find a more coherent explanation. As Mills points out, you cant really get at the agency of either the martyr or the sati: its not clear that you can hear them speak through the cultural narratives, or at least you may just end up hearing what you want to hear. He wonders whether you can get further by shifting the focus onto the experience of pain and protest against it, but cant find this as a key motif in textual and visual representations of virgin martyrdom (he focuses on St Agnes in the twelfth century onwards for this). Its worth noticing at this point that the period hes looking at is one where both word and image increasingly encourage affective piety via imagining the torture and crucifixion of Christ. If the virgin martyrs dont seem pained, therefore, its not because the Middle Ages cant imagine pain.
I think theres a point here that Mills doesnt develop, which is about the nature of violence in a lot of the virgin martyrs narratives. In the text themselves (whatever may be behind them) the violence offered to the martyrs often becomes cartoon violence. This isnt in the sense of the exaggeration you get in film and literature, where a bullet to the shoulder or a sword cut in the thigh just makes you stagger round painfully. I mean cartoon violence in the sense of defying natural laws. St Catherine is attached to a spiked wheel to be executed, but this doesnt work; shes then beheaded. Agnes is burned but the fires dont touch her, so they behead her. Celia is unsuccessfully suffocated in her bathroom, then ineffectually beheaded (she lives for several days after). Agatha is racked, has her breasts cut off and then ‘rolled naked over live coals mixed with broken potsherds’, which seemingly kills her. The violence here is purely arbitrary: its not that theres a move to devise more effective torments until they find the martyr kryptonite. Its a game being played by God and the virgin, and they could keep it up as long as they choose: its only because the prospective martyr has really to actually be a martyr that something is finally allowed to kill her.
All this doesnt have much to do with actual sati (or even Western culturally sanctioned ideas of self-sacrifice); its more like Superman with bullets bouncing off his chest. But the question is then: why are virgin martyrs so popular in this game? The standard answer is that the accounts have elements of torture porn: male writers like dwelling on women being stripped and hurt. But while you can argue there may be pornographic elements in the gaze on the naked female martyr, it doesnt seem to me you can really talk about torture porn when the woman isnt in pain. In that sense torture porn needs the No, No, No and the scream of the woman as much as ordinary porn needs the Yes, Yes, Yes.
So why virgins? Then it dawned on me: were not talking Superman here, were talking Claire Bennet from Heroes. Why, of all the characters, is it her who has the regenerative ability (just like the martyrs)? I dont think its about pornography; I would argue its because she makes the most satisfying figure for that ability.
The regenerative ability wouldnt be so impressive if it was in a hulking guy (Matt Parkman) or even a physically strong adult woman (Niki Sanders); they arent imagined as vulnerable to injury in the same way. On the other hand, you dont want someone too vulnerable: a young child who could regenerate allows the possibilities of horrendous abuse. The cheerleader or the virgin martyr is young and frail enough to seem helpless, but just old enough for full agency (unlike Micah Sanders). Their unnatural resilience is the ultimate improbable reversal of reality, a contemptuous rejection of the normal world.
Does all this tell us anything about the virgin martyrs or simply show my odd tastes in TV? I think it does raise one interesting suggestion about the reception of the martyr legends and particularly their reception by female readers. Can the figure of Claire Bennet really empower a girl watching it? After all, the whole thing is fantasy: if you jump from a high building in real life, you wont bounce back. But even a fantasy story (perhaps particularly a fantasy story) can produce in the viewer/reader at least a belief in agency (however unrealistic); a belief that they too can make a difference. (That after all, is one of the key messages of Heroes: having powers is no good if you still decide to go back to Japan or India or Odessa, to run from the evil and not be prepared to stand up to it). Did late medieval girls specifically who heard the virgin martyr narratives (at a time when martyrdom was little more probable than gaining superpowers) nevertheless gain something from its very unreality? I think it is at least possible that they did.