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Sarah Salih, Versions of Virginity in Late Medieval England.

(Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2001), ix + 278 pp. ISBN 0-85991-622-7. 45.00 [pounds sterling]/$75.00.

In Versions of Virginity in Late Medieval England Sarah Salih focuses on what she designates as the `strategies of chastity', in the sense that she argues that virginity was conceived of as a performative condition or state within late-medieval culture. Employing theorists like Judith Butler to buttress what is primarily a historically oriented critical study, she argues for a `reading' of virgins as cultural signs. Her first two chapters, which introduce her subject and attempt to construct a theory of medieval virginity, contain some interesting points but lack the focus she achieves in her subsequent chapters on the Katherine Group, on conventual life, and on The Book of Margery Kempe. These three chapters explore hagiographic modes of virginity, the symbolic practices that define `nunnish virginity', and the dramatically conceived recuperative virginity described by Margery's actions.

In her study of the Katherine Group, Salih argues that these texts define their virgin martyrs as possessing an identity that is not female, that joins the bride to the virago, and is thus actively chosen and gloriously enjoyed. These virgins are figures `through which perfection is read' (p. 98), spectacles meant to be observed and used by anchoresses, the audience for these lives. In her chapter on conventual virginity, Salih is also interested in understanding the ways in which the profession ceremony, the clothing, and the enclosure of late-medieval nuns served to create a virgin identity she describes as feminized and communal. She argues that nuns performed a `sub-gender of virginity' (p. 164) that was contained within its own social structure. In her analysis of The Book of Margery Kempe, Salih characterizes Margery as both performing or displaying her virginity but also recovering her virginity as might a fallen but penitent nun. Salih argues that, by placing its enactment of virginity in the world, The Book changes and reworks the discourse of virginity.

Salih offers some good readings of the texts she addresses, but, too often, she veers off into a tangential argument that confuses the issues she is trying to pursue. She also needs a clearer sense of history and of the historical contexts for the texts she explores. Virginity in the early Middle Ages did not have the same social valency it had in fifteenth-century East Anglia. No category of woman--nun, anchorite, or lay--shared a common set of cultural assumptions and symbols across centuries. Salih displays a firm knowledge of the critical and theoretical literature in what is a burgeoning field of interest, but she needs a methodology that allows her to ask more searching questions about the relationship between cultural symbols and texts and their shifting historical contexts.
Hamilton, New York
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Author:Staley, Lynn
Publication:Medium Aevum
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 2002
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