St. Agnes is sent to a brothel

Pocket Bard’s notes: Women being sent to brothels as punishment is actually a pretty common trope in the Golden Legend. Sometimes they’re forced to submit but their souls remain pure, but in St. Agnes’ case, God protects her and she dies a virgin. I think this is an excellent example of how medieval audiences and modern audiences had a very different taste in endings; I could not perform this piece as-is without people feeling extremely dissatisfied and possibly cheated at the end, while I think a medieval audience would have found it quite acceptable. That said, I like St. Agnes’ spunk in standing up to the prefect and that she still deigns to raise his son, who’s the main antagonist of the story.

St. Agnes is sent to a brothel
The Golden Legend, Volume I, trans. William Granger Ryan, p.102-103

[A prefect’s son wants to marry St. Agnes, but she refuses, saying that she is betrothed to another, who by her description the reader understands as Christ.]

When the young man heard all this, he was beside himself and threw himself on his bed, and his deep sighs made it clear to his physicians that lovesickness was his trouble. His father sought out the maiden and told her of his son’s condition, but she assured him that she could not violate her covenant with her betrothed. The prefect pressed her to say who this betrothed was, whose power over her she talked about. Someone else told him that it was Christ whom she called her spouse, and the prefect tried to win her over with soft words at first, and then with dire threats. Agnes met this mixture of cajolery and menace with derision, and said: “Do whatever you like, but you will not obtain what you want from me.” The prefect: “You have just two choices. Either you will sacrifice to the goddess Vesta with her virgins, since your virginity means so much to you, or you will be thrown in with harlots and handled as they are handled.” Because she was of the nobility, the prefect could not bring force to bear upon her, so he raised the charge of her Christianity. Agnes said: “I will not sacrifice to your gods, and no one can sully my virtue because I have with me a guardian of my body, an angel of the Lord.” Then the prefect had her stripped and taken nude to a brothel, but God made her hair grow so long that it covered her better than any clothing. When she entered the house of shame, she found an angel waiting for her. His radiance filled the place with light and formed a shining mantle about her. Thus the brothel became a place of prayer, and anyone who honored the light came out cleaner than he had gone in.

The prefect’s son now came with other young men, and invited them to go in and take their pleasure with her, but they were terrified by the miraculous light and hurried back to him. He scorned them as cowards and in a fury rushed in to force himself upon Agnes, but the same light engulfed him, and, since he had not honored God, the devil throttled him and he expired. When the prefect heard of this, he went to Agnes, weeping bitterly, and questioned her closely about the cause of his son’s death. “The one who whose will he wanted to carry out,” she said, “thus got power over him and killed him, whereas his companions, frightened by the miracle they saw, retreated unharmed.” The prefect persisted: “You can prove that you did not do this by some magical art, if you are able to bring him back to life by your prayer.” So Agnes prayed, and the youth came to life and began to preach Christ publicly. At this the priests of the temples stirred up a tumult in the populace, shouting: “Away with the witch, away with the sorceress who turns people’s heads and befuddles their wits!” On the other hand the prefect, impressed by the miracle, wished to set her free but, fearing that he would be outlawed, put a deputy in charge and went away sadly.

The deputy, Aspasius by name, had Agnes thrown into a roaring fire, but the flames divided and burned up the hostile crowd on either side, leaving the maiden unscathed. Aspasius finally had a soldier thrust a dagger into her throat, and thus her heavenly spouse consecrated her his bride and martyr. It is believed that she suffered in the reign of Constantine the Great, which began in A.D. 309. Her kinsmen and other Christians buried her joyfully and barely escaped the pagans who tried to stone them.


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