‘Al defouleden is holie bodi’: Castration, the Sexualisation of Torture and Anxieties of Identity in the South English Legendary[1]

in Castration and Culture in the Middle Ages, ed. Larissa Tracy, 87–107 (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2013).

By Larissa Tracy

Castration is a frequent feature of early Christian debates on the purity of the body, but it remained a difficult issue in the pursuit of sanctity, particularly in accounts of male saints and martyrs. As Jacqueline Murray writes, ‘the whole problem of the body was perceived to be located in the male genitals. Once they were removed, it was believed that the problem of lack of control of the flesh would simply disappear’.[2]  As a result of such (well-intentioned) logic, self-castration was practiced among some early Christian theologians, most notably Origen (ca. AD 185–254) and Ignatius of Constantinople (AD 799–877); however it was condemned by the First Council of Nicaea (AD 325) as an excessive misinterpretation of the biblical verse Matthew 19:12 which ends with the exhortation ‘there are eunuchs, who have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven, he that can take, let him take it’.[3] Peter Abelard, in the twelfth-century account of his own castration (Historia calamitatum), lauds Origen as a model (albeit excessive) for sexual restraint but constructs his own forced, punitive mutilation as a form of martyrdom, a necessary trial to achieve spiritual purity. Martin Irvine suggests that Abelard ‘will be able to imitate the exemplary self-castrator, Origen, and other saints and martyrs who rejoiced to be without genitals’.[4] However, there are relatively few instances of castration in hagiographical narratives; most occur as part of a miracle performed by the saint. Even in the thirteenth century South English Legendary (SEL), which contains some of the most graphic and most brutal depictions of torture in hagiography, that line is not crossed. Despite the gruesome nature of its narratives, the SEL condemns castration and sexual mutilation as taboo, especially when self-inflicted, because such wounding diminishes the sanctity of the inviolate body and contradicts the societal constructions of masculinity embedded in the resistance to torture. As a result, the SEL rejects castration—like that of Abelard—as an excessive brutality that endangers the holy masculine ideal and disrupts English notions of national identity.


[1] I touch on the relative lack of genital mutilation in hagiography in Chapter 1 of Torture and Brutality in Medieval Literature: Negotiations of National Identity (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2012); in my effort to flesh out that discussion I have synthesized some components from that chapter in this essay. My original material from that work is cited where used, and I have cited some of the same secondary sources.

[2] Jacqueline Murray, ‘“The law of sin that is in my members”: The problem of male embodiment’, in Gender and Holiness: Men, Women and Saints in Late Medieval Europe, ed. Samantha J.E. Riches and Sarah Salih, Routledge Studies in Medieval Religion and Culture (London and New York: Routledge, 2002) 9–22, p. 17

[3] Douay-Rheims version of the Holy Bible, with commentary by Bishop Richard Challoner (1749-52) (Rockford, IL: Tan Books and Publishers, 1971, photographic reproduction of 1899 edition). Bishop Challoner’s commentary clarifies that this sentiment is not to be taken literally. In this volume, Jack Collins fully addresses the implications of Origen’s action. See: ‘The Appropriation and Development of Castration Imagery in Early Christianity’, pp. XX-XX.

[4] Martin Irvine, ‘Abelard and (Re)writing the Male Body: Castration, Identity, and Remasculinization’, in Becoming Male in the Middle Ages, ed. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen and Bonnie Wheeler, The New Middle Ages, Vol. 4 (New York: Garland Publishing, 2000) 87–106, p. 93.