1st Edition

Borderline Virginities Sacred and Secular Virgins in Late Antiquity

By Sissel Undheim Copyright 2018
    238 Pages
    by Routledge

    238 Pages
    by Routledge

    How and why did virginity come to play such a crucial part in the Christian Church in the formative and defining period of Late Antiquity? Sissel Undheim analyzes the negotiations over what constituted virginity and assesses its socio-religious value in fourth-century Rome by looking at those at the very margins of virginity and non-virginity. The Church Fathers’ efforts to demarcate an exclusively Christian virginity, in contrast to the ‘false virgins’ of their pagan adversaries, displays a tension that, it is argued, played a larger role in the construction of a specifically Christian sacred virginity than previous studies have acknowledged.

    Late fourth-century Christian theologians’ persistent appraisals of sacred virgins paved the way for a wide variety of virgins that often challenged the stereotype of the unmarried female virgin. The sources abound with seemingly paradoxical virgins, such as widow virgins, married virgins, virgin mothers, infant virgins, old virgins, heretical virgins, pagan virgins, male virgins, false virgins and fallen virgins. Through examining these kinds of ‘borderline virgins’ as they appear in a range of textual sources from varied genres, Undheim demonstrates how physical, cultural and cognitive boundaries of virginity were contested, drawn and redrawn in the fourth and early fifth centuries in the Latin West.



    1. Introduction. Sancta virginitate: limits and border zones

    2. Roman virginities. Between rhetorics, ideals and "reality"

    2.1. The social value of virginity

    2.2 The virgin effect

    2.3 Age of virgins

    2.4 Virginal insignia

    3. Ungendering virginity? Virginal paradoxes and paradoxical virginities

    3.1 Male virgins and genderless virginity

    3.2 Virginity, humility and male authority

    4 De lapsu virginum consecratarum. Crime and punishment of fallen virgins

    4.1 Crime and punishment

    4.2 Virginitatem approbare

    4.3 Losing what cannot ever be regained


    Primary sources: translations and editions

    Secondary sources


    Sissel Undheim is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Bergen, Norway. Her academic work focuses on sacred virginity in antiquity and Late Antiquity, and she has published various articles on this topic, as well as on New Age religion and the didactics of religion. She has edited a collection of translated texts on Roman religion for the Norwegian series Verdens Hellige Skrifter (Sacred Texts of the World).

    "Borderline Virginities convincingly demonstrates that examining Vestals and Christian virgins together is vital, and Undheim’s approach allows for the similarities and the distinctives of these “Roman virginities” to come into greater focus as constructions of a shared socio-cultural context of Romanitas. Undheim’s excellent book represents the fruit of the “cultural turn” in late antique studies, drawing upon a wide variety of theoretical approaches that attempt to cross the “ditch between representation and ‘reality,’ by focusing on ideology and social constructions as well as the importance of the textuality and literary character of the historians’ sources”."Journal of Early Christian Studies 2019


    "Undheim’s comparative approach, which questions the Christian authors’ teleological construction of their own superiority over pagan culture, is very welcome ... lucid and highly stimulating ... One of the great merits of this study is that it underlines the fact that today’s research must beware of making historical patterns of interpretation its own. The book will give many important impulses to those working in the field of late-antique religiosity, in particular because of its comparative perspective."The Classical Review 2019


    "Undheim... is to be lauded for having ventured out into the intersectional spaces between traditional polytheism and Christian positions in Late Antiquity, in order to gain further insights into the phenomenon of sacra virginitas in that period... [O]ne is offered a valuable contribution for further understanding the reciprocal relationship of Antike und Christentum and it is in the application of this twofold perspective where its indisputable merit lies." - Bryn Mawr Classical Review


    "The book covers a wide variety of topics and cultural trends, making the work as a whole useful to specialists in this field." - Review of Biblical Literature 2019


    "Undheim has read widely and situates her work within a broader conversation among scholars ... In the end, Undheim has accomplished much. Like other scholars in recent years, she has challenged us to reconsider the extent to which Christians abandoned old Roman traditions or whether we should think about them as merely adapting these old customs ... Undheim has explored the diverse meanings of late Roman virginity in skillful and innovative ways, and she has provided new insights and much food for thought." - Matthew Kuefler, San Diego State University, USA