A knight exchanges clothes with a virgin of Antioch to preserve her virtue

Pocket Bard’s notes: This story’s a really hard one to adapt for a modern audience, but I think it’s worth it. Obviously, there are a lot of difficult elements: the oddly flowery language and Biblical references, the strange narrative structure in which the author addresses both the virgin and the reader directly, the constantly shifting tenses. But even beyond the level of writing, there are a lot of story elements that are difficult to incorporate. The ending in particular, in which the virgin and the knight argue over which of them should be entitled to receive the crown of martyrdom, just would not fly with a modern audience.

But through it all, I keep coming back to the core of the story: “A cross-dressing knight in a brothel.” Really, how can you turn down a story with a nugget like that?

I am extremely grateful to Toki Redbeard and Emer Nic Aidan for their help in preparing this story for presentation. When I perform this story, here’s how I start it: “The knight stood before judge, his neck upon the chopping block. The judge asked him if he had any last words. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘First, I do not regret that I went to the brothel to see that woman. Second, I do not regret that I gave her my clothes. And third, I do not regret that you found me there naked!’ The ax came down, and the knight was crowned with martyrdom for his actions in the brothel. This is that story.”

I think this opening gives the audience something to look forward to, and leaves them thinking, “What the HECK?!” I go through the bare bones of the plot (leaving out a lot of the theological argument, naturally), and end it like this: “The men rushed into the maiden’s room. But where they expected to see a dainty chin, they saw a strong, firm jaw. Where they expected to find a well-formed figure, they found a flat chest. And where they expected to see the joys of womanhood that a man can use for his pleasure, they found… well, you know what they found. There he stood: strong, proud, erect. And that is how he will always be remembered!”

I think this does enough justice to the original story while updating it to modern tastes. Of all the stories in the Golden Legend, this is the one that’s taken the most work to get into a performable state. Hopefully it’s worth it.

A knight exchanges clothes with a virgin of Antioch to preserve her virtue
The Golden Legend, Volume I, trans. William Granger Ryan, p.250-254

There was a certain virgin in Antioch whose story Ambrose set forth in the second book of his De Virginibus, as follows.

In recent times there was a virgin in Antioch who shrank from being seen in public. But the more she avoided the eyes of the lustful, the more she enkindled their desire. Beauty that is heard about but not seen is the more desired, due to two stimuli, erotic love and knowledge, since nothing displeasing meets the eye, and beauty known about is imagined as all the more pleasing. The eye is not exploring in order to judge, but the lustful heart craves.

This holy virgin was determined to safeguard her virtue and shut herself off from the eyes of the libidinous so as to discourage their hopes, but she did this so thoroughly that they stopped longing for her and sought to betray her. Hence persecution. The girl had no means of fleeing and, being young, feared that she might fall into traps set by the impure, so she prepared herself to be strong. She was so religious that she did not fear death, so chase that she looked forward to it. The day of her crowning was at hand, and great was the expectation of all: a young girl is brought forward who professes herself ready to wage a twofold war, for her virginity and her religion. But when they recognized the constancy of her profession and her fear for her virtue, when they saw her blushing when looked at but prepared to suffer torture, they began to consider how to take away her religion and leave her the hope of saving her chastity, so that when she had been deprived of what mattered the most, they might then snatch away what was left. So the order is given: either the virgin sacrifices to the gods or is she prostituted in a brothel.

How can they think they are worshiping their gods when they vindicate them by such means? How do they live, those who judge this way? This girl has no doubts about her religion but fears for her purity and says to herself: “What do we do today – martyrdom or virginity? Either crown is denied us. But the very name of virgin is unknown to whoever denies the author of virginity. How can you be a virgin and worship a harlot? How can you be a virgin and love an adulterer? How can you be a virgin if you seek carnal love? It is more meritorious to keep the mind virginal than the flesh. Both are good if possible, but if not possible, let us at least be chaste in God’s sight if not in men’s. Rahab was a harlot, but after she believed in the Lord, she found salvation. Judith decked herself in silks and jewels in order to charm an adulterer, but, because she did this for religion’s sake and not for love, no one thought of her as an adulteress. The example is well found, because if Judith, who committed herself to religion, saved both her chastity and her country, perhaps we too, by keeping our religion, will preserve our chastity. But if Judith had thought more of her chastity than of her religion, having lost her country she would likewise have lost her purity.”

Strengthened by the thought of these examples, the virgin silently pondered in her mind the words of the Lord: “He that shall lose his life for me shall find it.” (Matt. 10:39) She wept, saying no words lest an adulterer should even hear her speak; nor did she choose injury to her chastity but recoiled from doing injury to Christ. Judge whether she, who would not commit adultery even by the sound of her voice, could commit it with her body.

This long time what I have been saying has made me feel shame, and now I shudder to bring up a series of ignominious deeds and dwell upon them. Virgins of God, shut your ears! The maiden of God is led to the bawdy house. But open your ears, virgins of God! A virgin may be exposed to prostitution, she cannot be made an adulteress. Wherever a virgin of God is, there is Christ’s temple. Brothels do not defile chastity, but chastity abolishes the shame even of such places.

Now comes a rush of the wanton to the house of ill fame. Holy virgins, learn here the miracles of the young martyr, learn the language of these places! The dove is caught within, the birds of prey clamor without, all fight to see who will be the first to pounce on the prey. But she raises her hands to heaven as if she had come to a house of prayer and not to an abode of lust, and says: “O Christ, for a virgin you made wild lions tame, you can also tame the fierce hearts of men. Fire rained down on the Chaldeans. By your mercy and not by its nature the sea divided to make way for the Jews. Susanna went to her knees on the way to execution and triumphed over the lecherous old men. The right hand that was desecrating the gifts of your temple shriveled. Now vile hands are reaching for the body that is your temple. Do not allow this incestuous sacrilege, you who would not allow the thief to steal. And blessed be your name, because I came here to be ravished of my virginity, I will leave here still a virgin.”

Hardly had she finished her prayer when a knight, formidable of aspect, broke through the crowd around her. How must the maiden have trembled, when the people made way for fear of him! But she did not forget what she had read. “Daniel,” she said to herself, “had come merely to see judgment done on Susanna, but he, single-handed, won freedom for her whom the crowd condemned. It may be that a sheep is hiding here under wolf’s clothing. Christ too has his soldiers, indeed his legions. Or it may be the headsman who has come, but fear not, my soul! Headsmen make martyrs!”

O virgin, your faith has saved you! The knight says to her: “Do not be afraid, my sister! I came here to save your soul, not to lose it. Save me, so that I may save you! I came in like an adulterer, but if you will it, I shall go out a martyr. Let us exchange our clothing. Mine will suit you and yours me, and both will suit Christ. Your garb will make me a true soldier and mine will keep you a virgin. You will be well clothed, and I will be better off unclothed, so that the executioner may recognize me. Take my clothing, which will hide the fact that you are a woman, and give me yours, which will consecrate me for martyrdom. Wrap this cloak around you to conceal your maidenly form and protect your chastity. Put on this bonnet, to cover your hair and hide your face: those who have been in a brothel usually hide their blushes. Be careful not to look back when you go out of here. Remember Lot’s wife, who lost her natural life because she looked at unchaste me, even though with chaste eyes. Have no fear, nothing will be missing in the sacrifice. In your place I will make myself an offering to my God, and in my place you will be a soldier of Christ, fighting the good fight of chastity, waged for eternal wages—the breastplate of righteousness to clothe the body with spiritual protection, the shield of faith to ward off wounds, and the helmet of salvation. As the husband is the head of the wife, so Christ is the head of virgins.”

As he said these words he took off the cloak that made him seem both a persecutor and an adulterer. The virgin offered her head to the executioner, the knight his mantle to the virgin. What a spectacle! What grace, when in a house of sin the actors, a knight and a virgin, vie with each other for martyrdom! By nature they are unlike, yet are similar by God’s mercy; and the oracle “The wolf and the lamb shall feed together” (Isa. 65:25) is fulfilled. Indeed they do not merely feed together, they are immolated together.

What more can I tell you? The cloak is exchanged, the girl flies out of the trap, yet not on her own wings, since she is borne up on spiritual wings; and—what had never before been seen down through the ages—a virgin of Christ walks out of a brothel. But those who saw with their eyes and did not see with their hearts—wolves they were!—roared at their prey like wolves in pursuit of a lamb. One of them, more shameless than the rest, went in, but when his eyes took in the situation, he exclaimed: “What’s this? A girl came in here, but I see a man! This is no fabulous doe in place of a maiden. This is real! A maiden is changed into a knight! I had heard and had not believed that Christ had changed water into wine, but here is a change of sex. Let us get out of here while we still are what we were! Could it be that I myself am changed—I who think I see one thing and see something different? I came to the brothel: what I see is a switch of persons. The change is made. I will leave, I will go out pure, I who came in an adulterer!” So the knight is judged guilty and the crown belongs to this great winner. He is condemned in place of the virgin because he was apprehended in place of the virgin. So not only virgins but martyrs came out of that house.

The story goes on that the girl ran to the place of torture, and that the two contended for the right to die. The knight said: “I’m the one who’s condemned to death. The sentence sets you free. I’m the one they arrested!” The maiden cried out: “I didn’t choose you to stand in for me! I wanted you as a protector of my virtue. If they’re after my chastity, I’m still a woman, but if blood is what they want, I don’t want anyone to bail me out. I have what I need to pay what I owe, and I’m the one for whom the sentence was intended. Certainly if I had given you as surety for a sum I owed, and when I stayed away and the judge made you pay my debt to the lender, you could get a court order compelling me to reimburse you out of my inheritance. If I refused, who would not deem me worthy of death? And how much more so when a capital sentence is involved! I will die innocent so as not to die guilty! There is no middle ground now; either I will be guilty of your blood or I will shed my own as a martyr! I came here in such haste: who will dare to shut me out? If I had stayed away, who would dare to absolve me? I would owe more to the laws as guilty not only of being a fugitive but of causing the death of another. My body is strong enough to bear death, but I could not bear to do such an injustice. There is room in this virgin for wounds, but none for dishonor. I have shrunk from shame, not from martyrdom. I changed my clothing, I have no changed what I professed to be. If you snatch my death away from me, you will not have redeemed me: you will have cheated me! So please don’t argue with me, don’t dare to contradict me. Don’t take away the good you have done me. When you deny this latest sentence against me, you revive the earlier one. The earlier sentence voids the later one; if the second does not hold me, the first one does. We can satisfy both sentences if you allow me to suffer first. They can inflict other punishments on you, but in a virgin the price will be her chastity; so you will win greater glory if you make a martyr out of a virgin than if you turn a martyr into an adulteress.”

What outcome do you expect? The two compete and the two win: the crown is not divided, a second crown is added. So the two holy martyrs did well for each other—she by giving him the opportunity for martyrdom, he by allowing her to profit by it.


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