St. Margaret, cross-dressing as a monk, is accused of rape

Pocket Bard’s notes: I wouldn’t normally include this story, because it’s one of the weaker versions of the tale of a woman cross-dressing as a monk who’s accused of rape. But the fact that there is actually a “woman cross-dresses as a monk and is accused of rape” genre in the Golden Legend just boggles my mind. This is the fourth woman we’ve seen so far to fit the trope. (The other three being St. Marina, St. Theodora, and St. Eugenia.) The fact that I can say, “Eh, this woman cross-dressing as a monk and being accused of rape story is not all that interesting” just goes to show how inured I’ve become to the whole thing.


St. Margaret, cross-dressing as a monk, is accused of rape
The Golden Legend, Volume II, trans. William Granger Ryan, p.232-233

Margaret, also called Pelagius, was a very beautiful woman, a virgin, rich and of noble birth. She was raised by her parents and taught to live virtuously with such solicitous care, and such were her integrity and modesty that she took every means to avoid being seen by men. The time came when a young man of the nobility sought her hand in marriage, and both her parents consented. Everything was prepared for the wedding with lavish expenditure for elegance and pleasure. The wedding day arrived, and the young gallants and winsome maidens, and the whole nobility of the city, gathered for the celebration around the elaborately garlanded wedding chamber. God, however, put it in the virgin Margaret’s mind to ponder how the loss of virginity was preluded by such abandoned revels. She threw herself weeping on the ground, weighing in her heart the glory of the virgin state compared with the cares of wedlock, until she repudiated the joys of that kind of life as so much dung. That night she abstained from consorting with her husband, and in the middle of the night, recommending herself to God, she cut off her hair, put on man’s clothes, and secretly got away.

After a long journey she came to a monastery and, calling herself Brother Pelagius, was welcomed by the abbot and instructed in the ways of the community. There she lived a holy and deeply religious life. When the director of a convent of nuns died, Pelagius, by the consent of the elders and the abbot’s order, and despite her own reluctance, was placed as director of this monastery of consecrated virgins, for whom she continuously and blamelessly provided both bodily and spiritual nourishment.

Meanwhile the devil, envious of her prosperous course, sought to impede it by placing the appearance of wrongdoing in her way. He lured one of the nuns, who worked outside the convent, into a sin of adultery, and in time the roundness of her belly could no longer be hidden. Great were the shame and grief felt by all the nuns and monks of both monasteries; and, since Pelagius was in charge of the convent and the only man on familiar terms with its people, all the monks and nuns condemned him without trial or judgment, forced him out ignominiously, and confined him in a rocky cave. They also appointed the strictest of the monks to supply the prisoner with a minimum amount of barley bread and water. Pelagius bore all this patiently and allowed nothing to disturb her, but thanked God at all times and found comfort in the examples of the saints.

Time passed, and she knew that her end was near. She therefore wrote the following letter to the abbot and the monks: “I am of noble birth. In the world I was called Margaret but took the name Pelagius to help me across the sea of temptation. It was not for purposes of deception that I allowed myself to be taken for a man, as I have shown by my deeds. From the crime of which I was accused I have gained virtue; though innocent I have done penance. Now I ask that the holy sisters bury the one who men did not know was a woman. These women will recognize that I am a virgin, and what they learn from my dead body will be the vindication of my life, though slanderers judged me to be an adulterer.”

When the monks and the nuns heard all of this, they ran to the cave, and Pelagius was acknowledged by women to be a woman and a virgin undefiled. Then all did penance, and Pelagius was buried with honor in the nuns’ monastery.

2 Comments

  1. August 9, 2015 at 12:09 pm

    […] Marina is a Latin name that corresponds to the Greek name Pelagia. Saint Pelagia, however, has a different life from Saint Marina. In western Europe, Saint Marina’s life has in some texts become confused with Saint Margaret’s life. […]

  2. June 23, 2017 at 7:47 pm

    […] Marina is a Latin name that corresponds to the Greek name Pelagia. Saint Pelagia, however, has a different life from Saint Marina. In western Europe, Saint Marina’s life has in some texts become confused with Saint Margaret’s life. […]


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