In the wake of the numerous accusations of sexual predation against Harvey Weinstein, the endemic issue of the harassment and abuse of women is finally causing a stir.
It may seem like a new matter to some, but the coming forward of countless women has merely raised age-old questions about women’s voices. Women have long been ostracised and threatened for speaking out about discrimination and abuse.
In the first letter from St Paul to Timothy (1.11-14) in the Bible’s New Testament, St Paul makes a non-negotiable pronouncement: because of their inherent sinfulness and moral corruption, women cannot teach. That is, they cannot communicate their faith or sense of self on a public platform. The saint declares:
Let the woman learn in silence, with all subjection. But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to use authority over the man: but to be in silence. For Adam was first formed; then Eve.
In other words, silence is the essence of femininity: it is the condition of being a woman.
In early Christianity, St Jerome – one of the Church Fathers whose influence on medieval thinking was profound – reiterated this thinking and combined it with the policing of women’s clothing. He prescribed sobriety, restraint, and the eschewing of all vanity and embellishment that would make a woman stand out. This resonates powerfully with more contemporary ways of apportioning blame or shame – especially in the context of sexual assault. Not only must a woman remain silent, but what she wears still determines her purity and therefore her innocence.
Violence and power
The medieval lives of the female virgin martyrs – which were told in some of the most popular texts in circulation in the Middle Ages – portray in graphic detail the age-old practice of silencing women who object vociferously to harassment. In these narratives, most of these young virgins become the object of unwanted sexual predation; as they openly resist and speak up against harassment, they are subjected to even more physical violence. St Agnes, for instance, refuses to be seduced by the son of a Roman dignitary and she voices in firm and unequivocal terms that she wants to remain a virgin and serve God. As a punishment for her vociferous rejection, she is subjected to a series of cruel assaults: from attempted rape and violent threats to death by exsanguination.
The operations of abuse past and present are remarkably similar. Sexual predation was then, as it reportedly is now, dangerously interconnected with power. In the saints’ lives, abusers were aristocrats, Roman prefects, consuls – or their sons – for whom the right to a woman’s body was unquestioningly part and parcel of their masculinity and dominant position.
Whether anxious to acquire, preserve, or display power, their privileged social position blinded them to a woman’s dignity and right to self-determination. Women were reduced to disposable commodities, a mirror reflecting back the predator’s own sense of dominance and superiority.
These patterns of exploitation are difficult and painful to dismantle because they rely on women’s forced complicity, silence and internalisation of their role as usable commodities. And socialising women to accept that their value can only be determined by the extent to which their body is sexually desirable and usable bolsters the culture of abuse.
But women aren’t empty vessels – and they do break their silence to speak up against sexual assault. In medieval times this would see them being forced back into a position of utter disempowerment. In the lives of the women virgin martyrs, their resistance to violence was met with unspeakable tortures. They all said no. They all spoke up against powerful men’s lecherous desires and threats of assault.
St Agnes who refused to marry the son of a Roman official and thwarted his attempt to have her raped, was thrown into a roaring fire. St Petronilla, who also refused to wed the cruel Flaccus, was stretched on a rack and put to death. And St Agatha, who resisted the debauched advances of a Roman prefect, had her breasts brutally cut off. Sexual violence is the re-affirmation of the patriarchy’s right to control and use women’s bodies with impunity.
Ultimately, however, this brutality was done to silence them. Much like they are now, women’s voices were seen as troubling.
Eventually, St Agnes was stabbed in the throat as a punishment for her rejection of the lusty son of a Roman official and his death by divine intervention. Similarly, fellow virgin martyr St Lucy had a dagger plunged in her neck because of her vociferous resistance to an attempted assault orchestrated by a man of authority. It is no coincidence that this disempowering violence, which removes their voice and right to be heard, has such clear sexual connotations of domination through penetration. In the medieval past and now in the present, the affirmation of power is enacted through sexual violence.
However, compared to the majority of survivors of harassment in the present day, the virgin martyrs had an advantage. They were able to speak up because they had the authority of God behind them. And their voices continued to be articulated and heard after their death, as the Catholic Church had their lives immortalised in popular texts such as Jacobus de Voragine’s Golden Legend.
Women’s right to silence
That is not to say all women should feel pressured to speak up, however. It must be a safe, deliberate and free choice. And importantly, silence should not be confused with voiceleness.
The more we understand the operations of sexual abuse and its reliance on the violent silencing of women, the more we can make women’s silence heard. Medieval female mystics and visionaries, including Mechthild of Hackeborn and Gertrude of Helfta, saw silence as a form of self-reflection, contemplation, and time for spiritual and physical healing.
When it creates spaces for resilience, self-belief and self-care, silence speaks very loudly. We can hear it and, like all types of women’s voices, it as the right to be heard.