January 21st is the Feast Day of St Agnes.
Agnes is one of few female saints celebrated by name in the Roman Catholic Canon of the Mass. Although very likely an apocryphal historical figure, her influence on real medieval women is indisputable and she is still remembered today as the patron saint of young girls, rape survivors, engaged couples and chastity.
She is often depicted in art with a lamb, as her name resembles ‘agnus’, the latin word for lamb, and, as Jacobus de Vorgaine wrote “Agnes was as meek and humble as a lamb”.
Agnes was killed for her faith at only thirteen years old.
Her story runs that a Roman prefect’s son lusted after her but she refuses to marry him as she is promised to Jesus and her Christian faith. The man has Agnes thrown into a brothel but her hair miraculously grows long to cover her modesty. The common theme of female martyrs having long, unkempt hair is an interesting symbol to use considering that for a medieval woman to have her hair uncovered was a hugely immodest thing to do, showing the subversive nature of these purportedly meek women.
Although most of the accounts of the virgins are written by men, women commissioned and treasured vitae of female saints and it is impossible to do more than speculate on what they might have gained from them.
Agnes has long been associated with chastity and the moral of her story can easily read as the unfortunate idea that her virginity was more important than her life.
Yet there is much about these blessed virgins that can be inspirational, even if only within the rigid confines of patriarchal medieval society. Agnes is described as meek and humble but she is far from silent. Her speeches are all in praise of her Lord but she does not shrink from verbally abusing her attacker, calling him a “wretch” and using language unexpected from a gentle thirteen year old.
Ultimately Agnes is killed by a soldier stabbing a dagger into her throat, literally silencing her.
She is one of a small but vocal minority of subversive female saints who can give us a glimpse of the complex history of female religious oppression and expression.
If you would like to read more about her, I recommend Jacobus de Voragine, The Golden Legend: Readings on the Saints, trans. William Granger Ryan (Oxford: Princeton University Press, 1993) or Karen Winstead, Chaste Passions: Medieval English Virgin Martyr Legends (London: Cornell University Press, 2000)