Apr 3 2014 11:00am

Extra Virgin: Historical Virginity Tests

The Red Lily Crown by Elizabeth LoupasToday 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:

Buy at AmazonBuy at Barnes & NobleBuy at Indiebound



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.

Subscribe to this conversation (must be logged in):
1. Kareni
What an interesting (yet sobering) article. Thanks for sharing your research, Ms. Loupas.
EC Spurlock
2. EC Spurlock
In one of the first romances I ever read, Red Adam's Lady by Grace Ingram, the heroine is accused of being "impure" and forcibly married to the hero. Even though they actually do not share the marriage bed for various reasons, the hero gets up early the next morning, rolls around to dislodge the bed covers and cuts his arm to smear some blood on the sheets to vindicate her innocence and save her reputation.

I had not heard of some of these tests before. Kudos for your thorough research!
3. willaful
How interesting! Ever since I learned the true facts about the hymen from Romancelandia -- we are the disease and also the cure! -- I've wondered about how the presumably actual unlikeliness of blood might have caused problems for women. I'm pretty sure that hero bleeding fake thing was in the very first romance I ever read.

Aren't examinations still used? I remember that Princess Diana had one. By doctors, of course, because we're so modern and forward thinking now!
Jennifer Proffitt
4. JenniferProffitt
I love the title of this post, for starters, but I'm horrified at these tests!

It does bring to mind one book I read...I think it was a medieval by Lynsay Sands, in which the heroine has been raised in a convent and her groom passes out, or leads to the wedding act not being able to be performed...and so she cuts herself in the thigh to fake the blood on the sheets--only she doesn't realize that not THAT much blood would come out and so afterwards all of her family and his family are shocked and they think (and he thinks) that he was a total barbarian to her. It was a great comedy of errors romance, I remember it fondly, even if I can't remember the title.
Megan Frampton
5. MFrampton
I can't believe some of these tests. Maybe they should have tested the tests' inventors for any kind of brain?

Plus how many poor women WERE virgins, but just didn't bleed, for some reason or another?
Sandy Pochapin
6. Sandypo
In a related note, I just finished Madame Toussaud, by Michelle Moran. In the book she references a historical truth -- a young woman of 16 assasinated one of the leaders of the French Revolution while he was in his bath. She was later beheaded but afterwards a group of doctors were sent to the cementary to examine her body before she was buried to see if she was a virgin -- the reasoning being that if she was not a virgin then she must have a lover and the assasination would have been a conspiracy and the conspirators would still be at large. Alas (for them) she was a virgin so they couldn't pin the assasination on anyone else.
Post a comment