Borderline Virginities: Sacred and Secular Virgins in Late Antiquity, 1st Edition (Hardback) book cover

Borderline Virginities

Sacred and Secular Virgins in Late Antiquity, 1st Edition

By Sissel Undheim


224 pages

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Hardback: 9781472480170
pub: 2017-07-27
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pub: 2017-07-28
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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.


"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”."

- Amy Brown Hughes, Gordon College, USA, Journal of Early Christian Studies 2019

Table of Contents



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

About the Author

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).

Subject Categories

BISAC Subject Codes/Headings:
HISTORY / Ancient / General