Essays in French Literature, Thought and Visual Culture
Edited By Jenny Chamarette and Jenny Higgins
Mary Flannery The Shame of the Rose : A Paradox 51
Mary Flannery The Shame of the Rose : A Paradox It has generally been acknowledged that, in the Middle Ages, the only ‘good’ woman was a chaste woman. A medieval woman’s honour was largely deter- mined by her degree of sexual continence. In ascending order of chastity, the three honourable categories that women could occupy were those of wife, widow, and virgin.1 Although female saints, martyrs, and mystics were held up as examples of peerless women who had successfully managed to resist their innate, sinful female sexuality, religious women did not have a monopoly on virginity. Secular women were also expected to retain their virginity until marriage, and thereafter to remain the sole sexual property of their husbands. Since appropriate sexual behaviour was prized as the single greatest signifier of a ‘good woman’, ‘shame’ or modesty became central to this distinction, for it was shame that was the guardian of female honour. But this emphasis on honour through modesty, or on the preservation of virginity and on female chastity, had an ironic side effect: by making vir- ginity and chastity the essential criteria for female honour, it inextricably linked definitions of female honour to the potential for that honour’s 1 These three categories are listed in this order as the remedies for the sin of luxury in the thirteenth-century Summa Virtutum de Remediis Anime: ‘Continencie siue castitatis tres sunt partes: pudicicia coniugalis, continencia uidualis, integritas [uir- ginalis]’ (Summa Virtutum de Remediis Anime, ed. Siegfried Wenzel, The Chaucer Library (Athens, GA:...
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