Friday, July 20, 2012

Saint Wilgefortis: Bearded woman

St. Wilgefortis in the Chapel of Our Lady of Sorrows at the Loreta Sanctuary in Prague, Czech Republic. Photo by Curious Expeditions.

St. Wilgefortis prayed to avoid marriage to a pagan king -- and her prayers were answered when she grew a beard! Her feast day is today (July 20). This virgin martyr has natural appeal for LGBT, queer and transgender folk.

The name Wilgefortis may come from the Latin “virgo fortis” (strong virgin). Her English name Uncumber means escaper, while she was called Liberata in Italy and France, and Librada in Spain -- meaning “liberator” from hardship or husbands! Her veneration arose in 14th century Europe, and her story is often set in Portugal.

Friends of this blog have come up with many comments with various theories about Wilgefortis -- as the patron saint of intersex people, as an asexual person, as a person with Polycystic Ovary Syndrome, as a powerful lesbian virgin.

Here’s an account of her life by Terence Weldon, a gay Catholic who blogs on queer and religious matters at Queering the Church, where this summary first appeared.

A wonderful example of a sainted bearded lady?

Unfortunately, Saint Wilgefortis may also be an example of a ‘saint’ whose biography is more popular fiction than recorded history. Still, she is listed in the standard catholic reference works, and has had an official feast day, as well as bewildering array of aliases, among them Liberata, Kummernis, Uncumber, and Livrade, Of the biographical details, take them as you will. For what it is worth, the legend says that she was the daughter of a king, who had taken a vow of virginity. When her father wanted to marry her off to the King of Sicily, she prayed for deliverance from this evil fate. Whereupon she grew a beard. What self-respecting king would want to marry a bearded princess? Her father was said to be so enraged at this that he had her crucified. This may be the reason she became known as the patron saint of difficult marriages – but crucifixion seems an extreme way to end one.

Modern skeptical scholars suggest that the story of her beard and crucifixion are sheer invention. Spoilsports! Why let facts get in the way of a good story? Sadly, her “cult was suppressed and she was dropped from the calendar in 1969.”

Thanks to Yewtree for this link to a photo of Wilgefortis by contemporary French artists/romantic partners Pierre et Gilles. It’s at the bottom of this German-language page about Wilgefortis:

Another modern appearance of the saint occurs in Castle Waiting, a critically acclaimed graphic novel by Linda Medley. One of the main characters is a nun from the order of St. Wilgefortis, an entire convent full of bearded women!
This post is part of the GLBT Saints series by Kittredge Cherry at the Jesus in Love Blog. Saints, martyrs, mystics, prophets, witnesses, heroes, holy people, deities and religious figures of special interest to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) and queer people and our allies are covered on appropriate dates throughout the year.


Wednesday said...

Thank you for letting us know about this very interesting saint! It's too bad that hir historicity is questionable at best, but that doesn't make the story itself any less delightful.

(It can be a good thing for the Catholic Church to, ah, "officially retire" saints of dubious historicity. St. Catherine of Alexandria is a good example -- she's pretty clearly a co-option of the real historical person Hypatia of Alexandria. The story of Catherine is that she was a Christian murdered by an angry mob of pagans, while the real Hypatia was a pagan murdered by an angry mob of Christians. So retaining St. Catherine of Alexandria erases a real person and conveniently blames the evils committed by some Christians on The Other.)

Kittredge Cherry said...

Wednesday, your comparison to St. Catherine of Alexandria is interesting. I share your regret that Wilgefortis is probably not a real historical figure, but she certainly seems to be a popular archetype in the human heart.

I revised the text of this post by adding the possibility that Wilgefortis was asexual after reading a comment about that over at, where this post was highlighted. There are so many possible explanations for the mysterious bearded lady… all of them shedding light on different aspects of human sexuality and gender!

Br G-M said...

I am inclined to think St Wilgefortis was a real person, and most probably intersex. There are numerous encounters in history where the 'establishment' has hidden away queer and 'unhealthy' people - but countered by local communities who have accepted the outcast, and at times elevated them to honour and even sainthood. It should be remembered that in earlier Christianity the 'cult' of sainthood was invariably a very local affair.

Kittredge Cherry said...

I appreciate the reminder that saints originally rose from the grassroots and were recognized only on a local level. May Saint Wilgefortis bless your work on behalf of intersex people!

Vivienne said...

What an interesting figure.

I think it's quite likely that Wilgefortis was an intersex person. She might have been a genetic boy affected with severe hypospadias or other ambiguous genitalia. I speculate that she was assigned to the female sex at birth. She would have been raised as a girl, but gone on to develop male pubertal characteristics in her teenage years, which would coicide with her unwelcome marriage and prayers for deliverance. It's a theory which could fit the facts, though I have to say that the Wikipedia theory, that the earliest depictions of her were actually supposed to be Jesus, takes some beating.

There is no reason whatever why intersex people should be any less spiritual or devotional than "ordinary" people. What makes Wilgefortis so interesting is that there seems to be a relative paucity of such people in Christian hagiography.

I am interested in who might be the patron saint of male crossdressers. Why should it be considered highly laudable for Joan of Arc to dress and adopt the role of a man? Every French village has a cafe named after her. Why doesn't she have a male counterpart?

Personally, I can seriously identify with scholarly figures who would spend hours in quiet contemplation, illuminating manuscripts or translating scriptures. On the other hand, while that would satisfy the intellectual (and spiritual) sides of my brain (and my work is something like the modern equivalent), it would do nothing whatever for my emotional side.

Sorry for rambling.


Kittredge Cherry said...

Your theories on Saint Wilgefortis are scientifically believable, Vivienne. No, there’s no reason why intersex people should be less spiritual. In fact, there is a reason that they should be more spiritual -- because they don’t fit in easily so they are forced to reflect more on life.

As far as crossdressing saints, there are certainly more women who dressed as men than the reverse. Perhaps it’s because women had fewer rights and had a greater need to pass as men in order to escape gender constraints. I will say that some of the traditional attire for male priests and monks does have a distinctly feminine quality.

Here’s a link to info on crossdressing saints, although as I mentioned they are mostly FTMs.

Vivienne said...

Hi Kittredge. Thanks for your reply, and the link, which I followed. You're right, of course, that all the saints mentioned are women who adopted the male role. I wholly agree with you that the likeliest reason for this is the enormous social gap between women and men throughout much of human history (which still prevails in many parts of the modern world).

I also agree that vestments do indeed have a feminine element to them: one of the traditional fabrics in the attire of Cardinals is lace. But even to a lesser extent, "ordinary" church vestments often consist of rich, heavy, tactile fabrics. I heard a BBC radio interview with a vicar choosing new vestments where he seemed a tad more enthusiastic than I would have expected about his new acquisitions. I suppose they don't call them "men of the cloth" for nothing!!


Dr. James Wilk said...

My theory is that she was genetically male and had 5-alpha-reductase deficiency. Such affected individuals are phenotypically female at birth and then at puberty, the hormone surges cause rapid development into a male phenotype. The so-called guevedoces of the Dominican Republic are excellent examples of people affected by this syndrome.