First Text by English Author for Women Readers Is a Slut-Shaming Manifesto About ‘Provocative’ Seventh Century Nuns

Illustration for article titled First Text by English Author for Women Readers Is a Slut-Shaming Manifesto About ‘Provocative’ Seventh Century Nuns

Four pages of a very old example of slut-shaming will go up for auction at Sotheby's next month, and it could be all yours if your Latin is up to par and you have about $900,000 in ancient manuscript fun-money lying around. De Laude Virginitatis (In Praise of Virginity) was written almost 1,300 years ago by an Anglo-Saxon cleric named Aldhelm who thought a congregation of nuns in the small village of Barking needed some pointers on how to dress more modestly. Other than the fact that Aldhelm's text offers perhaps one of the earliest English examples of slut-shaming, it's also the first example of a text intended exclusively for a female readership.


The Telegraph reports that Aldhelm, an early proponent of education for women, dedicated his sartorial musings to the abbess nuns of Barking Abbey. In the manuscript, Aldhelm explains that it isn't enough for the nuns of the abbey to abstain from sexual activity — they have to give up all of their jewel-studded, form fitting dress too, otherwise, how can they ever expect to tame the wild stallion of "bodily wantonness"? He writes,

If you dress yourself sumptuously and go out in public so as to attract notice, if you rivet the eyes of young men to you and draw the sighs of adolescents after you, and nourish the fires of sexual anticipation ... you cannot be excused as if you were of a chaste and modest mind.

Writing in the early seventh century, Aldhelm helped preserve the tradition of slut-shaming ecclesiastical female orders that Rome really took to the next level by burying Vestal Virgins alive. However, before we stamp on Aldhelm's ancient grave, we should note that he wasn't just criticizing the nuns at Barking — he also had strong words for members of the male clergy:

It shames me to speak of the bold impudence of conceit and the fine insolence of stupidity which are found both among nuns who abide under the rule of a settlement, and among the men of the Church … With many-coloured vestments and with elegant adornments, the body is set off and the external form decked out limb by limb.

See? Not even clergymen were demonstrating the appropriate level of modesty back in the wild days of seventh-century England. According to Timothy Bolton, Sotheby's resident specialist in western medieval manuscripts, "Aldhelm's work is remarkable because there simply aren't any texts by English authors addressed to women before this." Bolton reasons that, because Aldhelm expected nuns to understand his sophisticated wardrobe advice, he displayed a sense of educational equality between men and women, thus effectively becoming "the first English feminist author."

Calling Aldhelm a "feminist author" is definitely an overstatement, but De Laude Virginitatis does prove one thing — dudes in the Catholic Church have been giving nuns a hard time for way too long.


No sexy outfits, nuns told in 1,300 year-old ‘rule' book [Telegraph]



The medieval clergy were always in trouble for possessing too much wealth and being unchaste - therefore breaking their vows. In fact, the Anglo-Saxon law codes have clauses dealing with the "kidnapping" of nuns - this is probably in reference to nuns eloping with their beaus. It doesn't help that nunneries were essentially storage sheds for wealthy women, a place to keep them away from men and somewhat educate them until a husband could be found for the nun in question.