As part of my degree, I have voluntarily spent the past 6 months researching the virginity of French women in the late medieval and early modern periods. Despite its extremely satisfying effects, such as the fact that it allows me to say VIRGINITY in public in a manner which recently made a seminar tutor wince quite markedly, it's a topic that I'm finding really quite tricky to deal with. It's complicated, and maddeningly difficult, and involves reading lots of fifteenth century medical texts in middle French. But that's not the worst thing about it.
The real problem with it is that there are very few reliable female voices on virginity. Even Joan of Arc, that oft-cited figurehead for militarised chastity, did not leave memoirs or written testimonies about her life, so our major source for what she thought, did and believed is reported speech from the trial where she was condemned to death. Her illiteracy condemned her to an eternity of historical doubt. But Joan's uniqueness comes from her attempt to stop others from defining her voice. Her power allowed her to produce dictated letters, and however biased, her trial documents are an invaluable source which show her personality, sense of humour and faith with great clarity. She used her God-given powers to make her own mark, to interpret herself. And in the end, she died for it.
Throughout history, the things we know about women are often defined by what men said about them. Whether someone was a virgin or not was decided by doctors examining the way they urinated, or the position of their labia, or the expression on their face, or their complexion. Women were not allowed to define themselves. 'Woman' was a wild animal, watched and documented and studied from afar, and male voices tell us what they thought, and did. Of course, this is partly a simplification; some women were educated, and many produced interesting, literate insights into their own lives and those of others. But they represented a tiny minority against a clamour of monks and doctors and clerks and knights who all produced their own works, often while protesting that they knew better, and what's more, vocal, learned, powerful women were a sin against God.
This week, Hilary Mantel spoke at the London Review of Books, and her article, on royal women's bodies, was subsequently published on their website. It's an elegant testimony to her own uneasy relationship with royalty, and includes a far from ground-breaking, but well expressed comparison between Tudor queens, constantly inspected, questioned and tested, and modern princesses, condemned to be forever perfectly turned out in the face of powerful media scrutiny. In it, she argues that female royals, Tudor and Windsor, are valued, more than anything else, for their bodies. Kate Middleton, beautiful, inoffensive, polite, impeccably dressed and shod and blow-dried, is merely a vessel. In symbolic terms, she represents the nation's idealised, perfected image of womanhood. In practical terms, she represents a womb.
And, in a chorus that has chirruped on since the dawn of time, the world united to shut Mantel up. Some of the nastier comments on her facebook page were painful in their venom. Tweets called her rude, and admonished her with patronising clichés like 'If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all'. Inevitably, and wearyingly, they often focused on her appearance. 'You ugly fat cow. Could do with some plastic yourself!' said one. 'What a disgusting creature you are!' said another. 'Is it your place to be so critical, and have you looked in a mirror lately?' said a third.
That last one is telling. Is it your place, it asks. Is it your place, to be so noisy, and controversial, and to stamp all over the pretty, defenceless young duchess with your big intellectual bluestockinged feet? Some, presumably in ignorance of Mantel's married status, pointedly address her as 'Miss'. You're on the shelf, they suggest. You're ugly, and old, and a nuisance. Therefore your opinion is invalid.
It's ironic that in pointing out one of the most prominent exemplifiers of latent sexism in British society, Mantel has become subject to such a foul torrent of misogynistic, ageist, unintellectual abuse. Kate Middleton, like my medieval virgins, is there to be interpreted and observed by others. Hilary Mantel refuses to be interpreted, and unlike Joan of Arc, she won't burn for it. But the world will continue inexorably to condemn her, for the very modern crime of daring to speaking her mind.