Today we're pleased to welcome author Elizabeth Loupas, whose The Red Lily Crown is out this week! Elizabeth's book is set in 1574 Florence, when the Grand Duke de Medici was dying. So of course there are intrigues, and secrets, and romances, and all sorts of delicious things. Elizabeth is here to talk about the various tests for virginity women have had to endure, just to prove their purity. Thanks, Elizabeth!
Throughout most of history, men have been a little irrational on the subject of virgins. What with patrilineal succession and all, they seemed to think that marrying a virgin would assure them that their children would be their own. The trouble was—how to be sure a girl really was a virgin? Naturally they couldn’t just take her word for it.
Enter virginity tests.
There were four basic types. One was the blood-on-the-sheets-on-the-wedding-night sort of test, which was much beloved of European royalty. For as long as the test existed, of course, girls figured out ways to get around it (chicken’s blood, anyone?), and we’ve all read many scenes in novels in which shy or slightly-too-experienced brides have faked this supposedly infallible test. Sometimes even with the encouragement of their new husbands!
The second type of test was the examination by a group of older (and supposedly wiser) women. It was possible to cheat on this one as well—the shy virgin was allowed to veil her face, and so of course if necessary she could find a genuine virgin among her servants or friends to take her place. A coin or two slipped into the midwives’ hands could do the trick as well. Women were generally considered to be untrustworthy, anyway.
So what was a man to do?
He could employ the so-called physicians’ virginity tests, as laid out in the writings of Pliny the Elder, Albertus Magnus, and other great scholars through the centuries, that’s what he could do. It was to these sources that I turned when I was creating the initiation of my heroine Chiara Nerini as the virgin soror mystica of the alchemy-mad prince Francesco de’ Medici. The idea was that these tests measured some part of the girl’s body, or tested some reflexive physical response, which could not be falsified or influenced by trickery. The tests were used quite straightforwardly, and even had legal standing. One has to feel sorry for the girls whose lives were shattered by a diuretic potion or a piece of string.
First, then, the potion. I call it the “black water” in my story, because the black mineral jet in some form was often an ingredient. The girl was made to fast for some period of time, given the potion, and then made to wait. “If she be not a virgin,” Albertus Magnus writes in The Book of Secrets, “she will piss soon; if she be a virgin, she will not piss.” I suspect the empty stomach and the amount of liquid involved had a lot to do with whether the poor girl was able to hold her water or not. The jet’s influence was primarily magical, as the mineral itself isn’t known to have any diuretic effect.
If you don’t have any jet lying around, try this one: I glamorized it a bit by having my two alchemists perform it on Chiara with a blood-red ribbon, but an ordinary piece of string will do perfectly well. Use the string to measure from the bony protuberance at the back of your skull, over the top of your head, down your forehead to the point between your eyes, and from there to the tip of your nose. Cut the string, and then use it to measure the circumference of your neck. If you’re “a pure virgin,” supposedly the ends of the string will meet perfectly, its length exactly equal to the measurement of the neck. But if the ends don’t meet, woe to you—the expansion of your neck means the neck of your womb has expanded as well, and you, missy, are no virgin!
There were other tests I didn’t include in poor Chiara’s Initiation—if I’d used them all, I wouldn’t have had room for the rest of the book. I did include a sieve, because erring Vestal Virgins were supposedly tested by being required to carry water in a sieve, and sieves in general have been symbols of virginity down through the ages.
One last mind-boggling example, which you can also try if you’re very careful, is the fumigation test. Dress yourself in a long heavy skirt (or wrap up in a blanket) and stand straddling a brazier in which aromatic herbs are burning. If you’re not a virgin, the men judging you will be able to smell the fumes of the herbs on your breath, because the pathway through your body has been opened by sexual intercourse. The physicians who invented this one didn’t seem to grasp a) basic anatomy, or b) the fact that pretty much anybody in the room would probably be able to smell the burning herbs anyway.
We can laugh at these so-called virginity tests now, and try them for fun, and this is meant to be no more than an amusing post about some of the outrageous things I’ve learned in my research. But if I can be serious for just a moment, we should also remember that in some parts of the world, even today, virginity tests are alive and well and performed with deadly seriousness. And the truth of the matter is that there’s simply no reliable way to determine a woman’s virginity by any kind of physical testing, whether it’s measuring her neck with a string or submitting her to a doctor’s examination in a gleaming modern clinic. It will be a good thing for humanity at large when virginity tests are relegated to the medieval books of secrets where they belong, once and for all.
And, of course, to historical fiction and historical romance, where characters live in bygone worlds and do face sometimes unthinkable challenges. Part of the pleasure of reading is cheering on our heroines as they find clever ways around the tests—sometimes even with the connivance of our handsome heroes—and make satisfying lives for themselves in the midst of the passion, intrigue and swashbuckling adventure we love so much.
Learn more or order a copy of The Red Lily Crown by Elizabeth Loupas, out now:
Elizabeth Loupas is the author of three books of historical fiction set in the sixteenth century, including The Red Lily Crown: A Novel of Medici Florence, due out on April 1st.