Wilgefortis: Movember isn’t just for Men

What a beard, what a beard, what a mighty fine beardObserve this beard. I think we can all agree that its a pretty fine beard. Well it may surprise you to hear that the martyr beneath the beard is a woman. Yes, a woman. Meet St Wilgefortis…

As a young girl Wilgefortis was engaged to be wed to a pagan king (of non-descript heritage, because all that really matters for our story is that he wasn’t a Christian). Being a devout Christian herself, Wilgeforits wished to remain pious and virginal, and she prayed to God to make her look displeasing so that the pagan king would not want to marry her. Naturally, God’s solution was to give her a beard. Well, her husband-to-be was so repulsed by this newly grown facial hair that he, of course, broke off the engagement. Now we’d all like the story to end here: Wilgelfortis a happy spinster, maidenhood and beard intact. Unfortunatly that would not make a terribly good ending for a hagiographical tale. Her father, who had arranged the marriage, was infuriated by the course of events, and, being the loving father that he was, had her crucified. And so she was martyred.

The origins of the tale of Wilgefortis are somewhat nebulous. She has gone by many different names in different regions (she was known as Uncumber in England, Ontkommer in the Netherlands, Kümmernis in parts of Germany, Liberate in Italy, Librada in Spain and Debarras in France). The name by which she most commonly goes these days, Wilgefortis, may have originated from German or possibly Latin. Although the story seems to take place earlier, in a time when pagan kings could still be found across continental Europe, her cult did not rise to popularity until the fourteenth century. However, in the end her origins do not much matter; this is hagiography not reality. The important message here is that Wilgefortis’ faith saved her from an undesirable fate.

There is much that could be discussed about why the feature of a beard on a woman was so repulsive (I mean she could just shave, right?). Perhaps such a obvious mark of manliness on a female was hideously unnatural, perhaps this truly was about the aestehtic of beauty, or perhaps the pagan’s own beard humiliatingly could not compete with the luxurious beard provided by God. I leave further ruminations and conclusions to the readers. This was merely intended to be a fun vinette about a medieval beard – especially for all those women (myself included) who have ever, at any point, wished they too could sport facial hair. This one goes out to you, Mo Sistas.

 

Alyxandra Mattison is a PhD student in the Department of Archaeology at the University of Sheffield

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