This article accompanies Hannah Skoda’s article in History Workshop Journal 95: ‘St Wilgefortis and Her/Their Beard: The Devotions of Unhappy Wives and Non-Binary People’.
Many years ago – so the story goes – a young Christian princess was ordered by her father to marry the pagan king of Sicily. Horrified by the idea and disgusted by the man, the princess prayed to God for some form of protection. When she awoke in the morning, she had grown a beard. Her suitor was so repulsed that he immediately called off the wedding. Her father was so angry that he crucified her.
This is the story of Saint Wilgefortis. Her melodramatic story lacks any evidence as to its origins. Nonetheless, in the later Middle Ages, Wilgefortis became popular across northern Europe. Her/ their image appears in sculptures, frescoes, manuscript illuminations. These are images which can touch us with such immediacy that on some level we meet our medieval predecessors as they stood too in the presence of this wonderful figure. Wilgefortis also has rather a lot to teach us – both about the rich diversity of medieval society, and about the ways in which we think about oppression in modern society. Here is a saint who brought together the bullied, the abused and the marginalized: this was a saint who seemed to protect the miserable, and whose own loveliness celebrated a range of identities.
Rigid categories can be so dangerous. So often the Middle Ages are blamed for the imposition of intransigent and categorical thinking. But the figure of Wilgefortis suggests instead that this might have been a period in which people were willing to think far more expansively about something like gender. Wilgefortis has attracted rather a lot of recent scholarly attention for precisely this reason: she/ they seem to engage non-binary identities with sensitivity.
And it is particularly inspiring that Wilgefortis’ many visualisations did not simply reify non-binary identities as a third category of gender – rather, depictions were richly variegated. Sometimes Wilgefortis is shown with a curvaceous female body and just a wispy hint of a beard (see the image by Hieronymus Bosch); sometimes in a robe which seems androgynous in its refusal of any clear gender markers (for example, a wall fresco in the Protestant Church of Ravensburg in Germany); sometimes with prominent breasts and strikingly luxuriant facial hair (see the statue in Westminster Abbey); sometimes simply elegant and serene (see the wooden statue in the Storiel Museum in Gwynedd). Wilgefortis refused any label; put differently, those who painted or sculpted or approached Wilgefortis did not try to reduce them to a category. And, crucially, every image of Wilgefortis is strikingly lovely. These are images which make no play on the monstrous or dissonant: rather the viewer is simply struck in each case by the gentle beauty of the saint. We can imagine then, that this saint presented a sense of protection for, and celebration of, non-binary identities broadly speaking.
The surviving written evidence for the cult is sparse, but we do know from bequests in wills and from the frequency of these images that Wilgefortis was popular amongst a wide range of people. And amongst these groups were unhappily married women. The sixteenth-century Sir Thomas More tells us that women would approach the saint with ‘a peck of oats’, in the hope of being ‘unencumbered’ of their unpleasant husbands. The comment is not frivolous – it is a powerful reminder of the level of suffering endured by many women in marriage. But it also reminds us that victimhood does not mean silence. Many medieval wives were bullied and abused, but they did not necessarily put up and shut up. Very few wives would have been able to seek a separation (full divorce was almost impossible), and whilst there are cases of ‘desertion’ or even husband-killing, most had to find a way to survive an unhappy marriage: Wilgefortis offered solace. Strikingly, More’s brief comment about Wilgefortis acknowledges that marital unhappiness was not just about physical abuse, but recognized the crushing nature of more insidious bullying.
It is quite possible then that this saint brought together non-binary people and abused or bullied wives, amongst the rich diversity of medieval Christians. In her marvellous expansiveness, Wilgefortis reminds us that oppressions intersect, and that our interests might constructively converge. And as modern feminism grapples with the relationship between different forms of oppression, Wilgefortis’ kindly and lovely gaze might be instructive.
Medieval society was not as rigidly categorical as has been assumed. This is not to claim that this was a period of tolerance – but rather to throw critical doubt on our assumptions about how we got to where we are today.