Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 16. Nr. Juni 2006

9.6. Spreading the Word: Texts and the Text
Herausgeberin | Editor | Éditeur: Mihaela Irimia (University of Bucharest)

Dokumentation | Documentation | Documentation

"Queen Virtue’s court" - from Virgin Martyrs to Home-Front Propaganda

Adina Ciugureanu (Ovidius University Constanta, Romania)


The concept of ‘virtue’, stemming from the Latin virtūs (‘manliness’), is primarily a philosophical term referring to the quality of good in human conduct. The term has its origins in the ancient world, particularly in the writings of Plato and Aristotle. With Plato, the cardinal virtues were wisdom, courage, temperance, and justice. A person was not born with them, but could manage to attain them through proper training and discipline. With Aristotle, one possessed the same virtues with the distinction that they would all go in the same packet because possessing one virtue meant possessing all of them. Just like Plato, Aristotle thought that virtues had to be practiced, but in addition to Plato, the practice of virtues were supposed to lead to eudaimonia (‘human happiness’). Christian theologians thought of three more virtues: faith, hope, and charity, which they added to the four natural virtues described by Plato and Aristotle, to form the seven cardinal virtues corresponding to the seven-day week that God had created. Possessing and practicing all seven virtues would have led to saintliness both in men and in women.

In what follows, I will attempt to discuss the concept of ‘virtue’ as a metaphor for perfection in a number of texts written by male authors, such as Pearl, a literary text of the late 14 th century, by which the seven virtues had already been established, a Renaissance sonnet (Sidney’s ‘Sonnet 9’ of Astrophil and Stella), and a 1931 short text representing woman in American prewar propaganda. The texts under scrutiny reveal representations of woman by male imaginary ranging from metaphorical vision to unattainable desire, to endowment with masculine features and abilities. The texts were popular at the time of their circulation and representative for the idealized image of woman in male imaginary. Parallel to the texts the illustrations will focus on the idea of saintliness both in traditional terms (the virgin martyr) and in more modern terms (the moral saints). In the first case possessing the virtues means being a Christian and reaching eudaimonia means attaining sainthood. In the second case being virtuous means being patriotic and sacrificing oneself for the welfare of a nation under siege. In this way, ‘virtue’ is analyzed as virtue ethics with its extended meanings related to the philosophical theories of ‘utilitarianism’ and ‘act-consequentialism.’

In the Middle Ages, one of the typical representations of woman in male imaginary was the maiden, a young woman in her mid-teens when she was supposed to be most desirable and ready for womanhood as the next step in her life.(1) A maiden was usually described as very young, somewhere between a child and an adult, beautiful, virginal and chaste, aspiring to embody the seven cardinal virtues mentioned above. Interestingly, the maiden models of the Middle Ages shared many similarities despite the discrepancies that may have existed between the flesh-and-blood French, Italian and English beauties, as the conventions of feminine beauty in medieval times were remarkably consistent in Western Europe (Phillips, 7). The beautiful woman in Italy, France and England in both literature and the visual arts had long, fair or golden hair, very white skin, rosy lips and cheeks, blue or green eyes, a slender body, narrow waist and small breasts. The breasts, as part of the female body, are the sign of her transformation from a virgin into a woman and a sign of gendered sexuality, through the torturing of the female parts of the body as in the case of the virgin-martyrs.

One of the earliest descriptions of a medieval beauty in England is the Pearl Maiden in the anonymous poem Pearl, a popular text at the time, composed most probably in the fourteenth century with another three texts discovered together with it: Cleanness, Patience, and Sir Gawain and the Greene Night. The maiden, who appears in a dream vision, has golden hair hanging loosely on her back, white skin, whiter than "whale bone" or "lily flower" and gray eyes. She is wearing a white dress and a crown of pearls and flowers. Her dress is in the style of late Middle Ages fashion revealing not only her bridal purity, but also her social status: she is an aristocrat. Though the Pearl Maiden died when she was only a few years old, she appeared in her father’s vision as an adolescent in her late teens, beautifully adorned and still a virgin. According to the English translation of the text, the opening reads as follows:

Pearl, pleasing for a prince’s treasure
Utterly flawlessly clasped in gold so bright:
From the orient, I confidently say,
I never came upon her precious equal.
So round, so fine in every respect,
So neat, so smooth were her sides
Wherever I have judged gorgeous gems
I would set her apart as unique
Alas, I lost her in an arbour (garden)
Through grass to the ground it went from me
I am pinning away, utterly done for by the power of love
For that cherished pearl without a blemish.

The ‘pearl’, a conceit for perfection whether for woman or for an abstract idea (purity, innocence) can be read both ‘literally’ (the flawless form of the body/object) and ‘spiritually’ (her ethereal bodily beauty matching the perfection of the lady’s soul). The maiden is the visionary image of a saint who has attained happiness (or eudaimonia) or paradise through her purity and chastity. She has not practiced the virtues, but she seems to possess them all.

Pearl’s idealized representation and dream appearance matches the saintliness of the virgin martyrs, the most popular type of female representation in late medieval England. Unlike Pearl, who died of natural causes and not through martyrdom, virginal adolescents such as Margaret, Katherine, Lucy, Christina, Cecilia, Dorothy, Agnes, Barbara and Agatha (Phillips, 10) attained saintliness through pain. They practiced the virtues, focussing on the Christian ones, without neglecting, however, the four cardinal Platonic ones. Like Pearl, they are represented with a crown or an aura on their heads, in a state of beatitude, or suffering the pains of martyrdom, but preserving the same happiness on their face.

The virgin martyrs, as individualized versions of the Virgin Mary as a paragon of virtues, were popular characters in late-medieval Western European culture. Their image was on stained glass, paintings and carvings for ordinary people to see and on illuminated manuscripts and other hagiographic collections for the aristocracy. The cult of the virgin figure was not only meant to offer people of both sexes and different age a model of virtuous life, but also to implement a "most powerful image of ideal femininity", that of the maiden (Holmes in eds Johnson & Grieco, 16). The virgin martyr model also had didactic purposes, being used to teach young girls moral, religious and social behaviour, in other words, the virtues, as shown by the fourteenth-century Book of the Knight of the Tour Landry, a very popular conduct handbook written for girls and women (Lewis in eds Lewis, Menuge & Phillips, 27). The girls were taught that temperance, fortitude, prudence, and justice should operate in women’s lives and keep them from error and folly. This gave them the necessary wisdom to be faithful to their husbands (render them justice), live in hope and do charity deeds. The Christian virtues were meant to mix with the natural virtues of Plato and Aristotle in both the private and public lives of young medieval aristocrat women.

The reading of virtuous women in medieval times is not, simply, a narrative of their lives and deeds, but also a reading of their body as text. According to critics, the body as text may be read literally (following the narrative of violence and martyrdom) and spiritually (resorting to the metaphorical understanding of the body as text). Thus, the life of a virgin-martyr can only achieve its spiritual signification through the representation of literal violence done to the female body.(2) The saint's body functions as the hermeneutic tool that "enables spiritual signification, to the extent that it is only through the display of literal violence that spiritual meaning is achieved."(3) The Lives of Saints Agatha, Lucy, and Agnes exemplify this process. In each case, a young Christian woman is the object of a pagan ruler's desire. When she refuses to submit to him, she is tortured and eventually killed for her faith. In the process, the bodies of the virgins are consistently misread by the torturers, who focus single-mindedly on the saint's literal flesh. During St. Agatha’s martyrdom, for instance, her breasts are cut off in the torturer’s attempt to open her body and destroy her virtue. The virtues, however, are internalized and resist destruction. They become obvious only to the initiated eye.

Agatha’s martyrdom, for instance, consists in the mutilation of her body when her breast is cut off by her aggressors. She is therefore gender marked twice: when her breast is cut off, she becomes "manlike", masculinized, when it is restored through miraculous healing, she is "restored to womanhood." Although she cannot be fully masculinized (her femininity is restored by Providence), she symbolically transcends her gender. Therefore, she is usually represented in iconography with a breast on a platter. Interestingly, when a saint is martyred, her aggressors read her body literally, apparently being unable to attain the spiritual reading, unable to see strength of the virtues beyond the superficial level of the bodily appearance. They literally believe that by opening the saint’s body, they may destroy virtue and inflict vice. To their literal reading, the spiritual reading is offered as well, the reading which the saint supports and which the Christians, believers in Jesus, understand.

The sonnet lady during the Italian and English Renaissance also became a stereotypical image of femininity. She was similarly seen as a paragon of virtues, but was admired, not martyred, for failing to share her suitor’s fervent love. Stereotypical mistresses, mainly those of Petrarchan origin, are maidens and share similar physical traits: "gold hair, jet eyes, ruby lips, pearl teeth, rose cheeks, and lily brows."(4) According to Katherine Roberts, they come in two basic varieties: stone-hearted and cruel, or soft-hearted and pure.(5) Most of them are virtuous, guarding their chastity to such an extent that they can barely offer a sympathetic smile to their lover. In either case, the point of view offered is that of the lover, the poet, who focuses on his own emotional state rather than on the lady’s.

Sidney’s Stella, for example, is neither the cruel mistress nor the ethereal saint without feelings who inspires the lover with her untouchable virtue. She is a married lady, supposedly in her twenties, who, unlike the other stereotypical sonnet ladies, seems to develop a personality of her own mainly in the last part of the sonnet sequence. In the first part, however, she is more of an ideal than a woman, being overtly identified with ‘virtue’ in Sonnet 9 ("Queen Virtue’s court, which some call Stella’s face"). Stella is depicted as if she were a statue; her forehead is "alabaster pure," her hair is gold; her lips, "red porphyr," and her cheeks, "marble, mix'd red and white."

Queen Virtue’s court, which some call Stella’s face,
          Prepared by Nature’s chiefest furniture,
          Hath his front built of alabaster pure;
Gold is the covering of that stately place.
The door, by which sometimes comes forth her grace,
          Red porphyr is, which lock of pearl makes sure;
          Whose porches rich (which name of ‘cheeks’ endure)
Marble, mixed red and white, do interlace.
          The windows now through which this heavenly guest
Looks o’er the world, and can find nothing such
Which dare claim from those lights the name of ‘best’,
Of touch they are that without touch doth touch,
          Which Cupid’s self from Beauty’s mine did draw:
          Of touch they are, and poor I am their straw.

Like the virgin martyr’s body, which can be doubly read as a text, Stella’s body offers a similarly double reading. Literally, she is described as if she were a statue, symbolically, she reveals her virtuous soul through her eyes "of touch" and through her mouth "by which comes forth her grace." Yet, the literal and symbolical levels intermingle in the conceit "Queen Virtue’s court." Throughout the sonnet sequence, Stella reveals herself as more human than Petrarchan mistresses: she is neither the cruel temptress, nor the remote virtuous lady; she is actually a married woman who cannot accept Astrophil’s love because she is faithful to her husband. She is capable of moral reasoning and she has moral courage, which she demonstrates when she deliberately rejects her love for Astrophil.(6) In portraying her, Sidney seems to pay equal attention to all the virtues though he foregrounds her wisdom, courage and faith.

The stereotypical image of woman as young, in her late teens and early twenties, brave, faithful and virtuous seems to have emerged more forcefully in 20 th century America.(7) Although the stereotypical image of woman as the embodiment of the Christian virtues was still considered as an ideal attainable through education, the ethic of virtue acquired new dimensions as a result of the utilitarian philosophical theory at work in the 18 th and 19 th century England. According to this theory, young ladies were taught that welfare and tight conduct at the right moment were as desirable and recommended as wisdom, courage, perseverance, temperance, faith, hope, and charity. Utilitarians focused on action, considering that what makes an action right is its maximizing total or average utility for all people concerned. Yet, utilitarianism is connected to virtue ethics as, though what counts is mainly the effect, morality is not to be neglected.

During the Depression in America, there emerged a new type of virtuous woman, who challenged the physical and intellectual boundary between woman and man and practiced the virtues in their literal meaning, as ‘manliness.’ She developed from, or into, the popular heroines of magazine stories, represented in male imaginary as a mixture of female physique and male character. The following text, an excerpt from the popular story "She Eagle," written by an obscure male author, is an illustrative example in this respect:

A young woman opened the car door and got out, pulling off her heavy driving gloves. She was pretty nice, if you get it. Clean sweeping lines and a cool air of knowing what the score was. No tickling strands of hair loose under her tight little hat; stockings straight and tight, with the seams dead center; and a pair of shoes that looked as if she could walk a mile or two if she had to. But her eyes were the best pale china blue--with a straight keen light in them and no nonsense; and a mouth that looked as if it could say what it meant the first time and stick to it afterward. (James Warner Bellah, "She Eagle", 13 June 1931)

The type presented above is typical of the 1930s popular heroine in America. She looks as self-confident as the virgin martyr, but more assertive than the sonnet lady; she is "witty, athletic, self-possessed, urbane, appearing in the roles of competent secretary, aggressive businesswoman, ambitious college graduate, or adventurous aviator."(8) According to Maureen Honey’s study on American women in the 1930s and 1940s, these independent, autonomous heroines were caught up in the drama of achieving high goals and became the stars of one major category of stories featuring women: "work adventure romances." As the she claims,

Such dramas concerned young single women who had set their sights on a career filled with challenge, one which demanded quickwittedness, dedication, courage, and self-assertion. This might be a career in journalism, show business, undercover work, or aviation, and the heroine's drive for success was portrayed as a healthy desire to participate without prejudice in the world of men.(9)

The dramas of these ladies was no longer the cruel pursuit of unbelievers as in the case of virgin martyrs, nor the unfulfilled romance (unrequited love), but the desire to prove themselves as worthy as men in the social, economic, and political arenas. The virtues such ladies were supposed to possess were closer to those established by Plato and Aristotle (wisdom, courage temperance, justice). The Christian virtues, though still existing, seem to be back-grounded, while a rising interest in personal and general welfare as well as in the rightness or wrongness of actions in terms of the value of their consequences is seems to be maximized. Though initially misread by the male world, into which they are hardly trying to break, these ladies are eventually accepted and admired. Therefore, these ladies’ bodies may be seen as texts offering a double reading: a literal one (they are females, which supposes physical weakness) and a psychological one (through their actions they prove the ability to do non-traditional jobs such as flying planes and sailing ships.

During the World War II, however, the public images of women changed and the concept of virtue that supported them extended to encompass patriotism and voluntarism as the result of their temporary employment in the male job fields such as welding, riveting or ship-building. The 1930-heroine was replaced with the image of a woman with darker hair dressed in overalls, showing her muscles and doing men’s jobs. The change was due, this time, to propagandist texts regarding the role of women in the war period. According to them, women became "symbols of the besieged nation,"(10) meaning that they were responsible for replacing men in their jobs, thus showing their ability to do any non-traditional job. Therefore, propagandists developed a composite image of woman, a compound of opposite features such as vulnerability and competence, on the one hand, strength and dependence, on the other. This composite image found its illustration in a series of Rosie the Riveter figures that amply illustrate the newly acquired dimensions of virtuous conduct. The woman as symbol of besieged nation grew from the woman’s role as preserver of "peacetime virtues," meaning family values and welfare. That is why, the ‘new’ symbolic image of woman revealed the existence of ‘new’ virtues such as human decency, continuity and safety within a nation at war. Connected to the war through the presence of their husbands, boyfriends, and brothers as direct participants, the image of woman was charged with the previously missing ‘masculine’ feature, which enabled her to replace man in gender imaginary. This complex, extended image of woman was composed mainly in the magazines through women’s fiction, through advertising and illustrations to the stories about women’s coping with their family and with the war, while also contributing to the nation’s welfare. Still, the iconography concerning Rosies mixed male with female traits: slender, but very strong bodies, spirit of sacrifice, determination to prioritize national welfare over family prosperity. Among the Rosies of the 1940s, the one who has become the metaphorical image of virtue in women during the war, a disenchanted saint, opposed to the virgin martyr, is Norman Rockwell’s Rosie the Riveter.

In a disenchanted 20 th century, and mainly, under the pressure of a war, virtue acquired extended meanings related to utilitarianism(11) and act-consequentialism.(12) While utilitarianism maximizes wellbeing, envisaging right acts for the welfare of a person or state, consequentialism refers to making the world a better place for all. With both utilitarianism and act-consequentialism what counts is not the action, but the effect of the action. The propagandist texts of the 1940s meant to employ women in jobs that were to support the war effort for the state’s welfare in the future with a view to making the world a better place for all. Interestingly, what the propagandists texts of the 1940s managed to create was what Susan Wolf called the "moral saint."(13) As she claims,

a moral saint might be someone whose concern for others plays the role that is played in most of our lives by more selfish, or, at any rate, less morally worthy concerns. For the moral saint, the promotion of the welfare of others might play the role that is played for most of us by the enjoyment of material comforts, the opportunity to engage in the intellectual and physical activities of our choice, and the love, respect, and companionship of people whom we love, respect, and enjoy. The happiness of the moral saint, then, would truly lie in the happiness of others, and so he would devote himself to others gladly, and with a whole and open heart.(14)

The dedication of ‘Adel’ or ‘Molly Pitcher’ to the men’s jobs which they voluntarily accepted, according to the postwar advertisements, by sacrificing their own pre-determined family life, makes them virtual moral women-saints. They may be saints out of love (Susan Wolf calls them Loving saints) or saints out of duty (Rational saints). They are 20 th-century saints as Rockwell’s composite image of Rosie the Riveter so cleverly and so ironically embodies.

© Adina Ciugureanu (Ovidius University Constanta, Romania)


(1) See Kim M. Phillips, "Maidenhood as the Perfect Age of Woman’s Life" and Katherine J. Lewis, "Model Girls? Virgin-Martyrs and the Training of Young Women in Late Medieval England", in Young Medieval Women, eds Katherine Lewis, Noël James Menuge and Kim M. Phillips (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999), 1-24 and 25-46, respectively. Also see Wogan-Browne, "The Virgin’s Tale" in Feminist Readings in Middle English Literature: The Wife of Bath and All Her Sect, eds Ruth Evans and Lesley Johnson, (London: Routledge, 1994), 165-194.

(2) Anna Roberts (ed.), Violence against Women in Medieval Texts , Gainesville, FL : University Press of Florida , 1998, p. 33.

(3) Ibid., 23.

(4) Katherine J. Roberts, Fair Ladies: Sir Philip Sydney's Female Characters , New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 1993, p. 67.

(5) Id.

(6) Ibid., p. 85.

(7) Maureen Honey, Creating Rosie the Riveter: Class, Gender, and Propaganda during World War II, Amherst, MA.: University of Massachusetts Press, 1984, pp. 3-4.

(8) Ibid., p. 66.

(9) Id.

(10) Ibid., p. 6

(11) Utilitarianism is rooted in Plato’s philosophy, but developed in late 18 th and 19 th centuries (Hume, Bentham, and Mill).

(12) Act-consequentialism is a term coined by Margaret Anscombe in the 1950s.

(13) Roger Crisp, Michael Slote (eds), Virtue Ethics, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997, p. 80

(14) Id.

9.6. Spreading the Word: Texts and the Text

Sektionsgruppen | Section Groups | Groupes de sections

TRANS       Inhalt | Table of Contents | Contenu  16 Nr.

For quotation purposes:
Adina Ciugureanu (Ovidius University Constanta, Romania): "Queen Virtue’s court" - from Virgin Martyrs to Home-Front Propaganda. In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 16/2005. WWW: ../../../index.htmtrans/16Nr/09_6/ciugureanu16.htm

Webmeister: Peter R. Horn     last change: 8.6.2006     INST