Of Woman Born: The Evolution of Pornography in Medieval Print Culture

Part II: St. Agatha and the Objectification of Female Bodies

One of the most popular printed texts of the Middle Ages was Jacobus de Voragine’s The Golden Legend (Legenda aurea). Voragine composed his work around 1260; William Caxton “Englished” the text, and printed his version in 1483 (https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/basis/goldenlegend/).

Of the approximately two hundred saints whose narratives are provided in the Golden Legend (GL), the life of St. Agatha is possibly the most gruesome.

Voragine begins with a detailed etymology for Agatha’s name–a standard feature for the template he employed when compiling the GL.

Agatha is said of agios, which is as much to say as holy, and theos, that is God, that is to say the saint of God: and, as Chrysostom saith, three things make a man holy, which three were perfectly in her; that is cleanness of heart, the presence of the Holy Ghost, and plenty of good manners. Or she is said of A, which is to say without, and of geos, earth, and of theos, God, as a goddess without earth, that is without earthly love. Or she is said of aga, that is to say speaking, and of thau, that is perfection, that is that she was speaking and accomplishing much perfectly, and that appeareth well in her answers. Or she is said of agath, that is service, and thaas, sovereign, which is as sovereign service, and because she said that servage is sovereign noblesse. Or she is said of aga, that is solemn, and of thau, that is perfection, for the perfection was right solemn, like as it appeareth by the angels that buried her.


I have provided the passage in its entirety to illustrate the extent to which Voragine went in order to make Agatha’s holiness obvious. The various meanings for her name work to reinforce her “perfection.” Agatha’s perfection is a foil for the lechery of Quintianus. Eventually, she is tortured for her refusal of his advances.

This is when matters turn ugly.

Quintianus said: Reny Christ thy God, by which thou mayest escape thy torments. S. Agatha answered: Nay, but reny thou thine idols which be of stones and of wood, and adore thy maker, that made heaven and earth, and if thou do not thou shalt be tormented in the perpetual fire in hell. Then in great ire Quintianus did her to be drawn and stretched on a tree and tormented, and said to her: Refuse thy vain opinion that thou hast, and thou shalt be eased of thy pain; and she answered: I have as great dilection in these pains as he that saw come to him that thing which he most coveteth to see, or as he that had found great treasure. And like as the wheat may not be put in the garner unto the time that the chaff be beaten off, in like wise my soul may not enter into the realm of heaven, but if thou wilt torment my body by thy ministers. Then Quintianus did her to be tormented in her breasts and paps, and commanded that her breasts and mammels should be drawn and cut off. When the ministers had accomplished his commandment, then said S. Agatha: Over felon and cruel tyrant, hast thou no shame to cut off that in a woman which thou didst suck in thy mother, and whereof thou wert nourished? But I have my paps whole in my soul, of which I nourish all my wits, the which I have ordained to serve our Lord Jesu Christ, sith the beginning of my youth.

Martyrdom of Saint Agatha in an Initial D ca. 1470–73
Sano di Pietro (Ansano di Pietro di Mencio) Italian, https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/461122

Let us compare the Voragine with an earlier version of Agatha’s torture. Aelfric, abbot of Benedictine abbey in Eynsham, Oxfordshire, composed this text at some point in the late Anglo-Saxon period (c. 950 – c. 1010).  Although some of the text is in Latin, most of the saint’s lives are recorded in Old English. Additionally, the hagiographies are presented in a style designed to be more readily accessible for the layperson. Aelfric employs alliteration throughout the text, which creates material that is both entertaining and prosodic. Skeat, the editor/translator for this volume, argues that St. Ambrose’s Agnes beatae virginis was the source for Aelfric’s Life of St. Agnes.

Aelfric’s life of Agnes contains fewer details of the forced mastectomy than the GL version, which begs the question, why?


In Saint Agatha and the Sanctification of Sexual Violence, Martha Easton argues that such differences provide a unique perspective on eroticism in the Medieval mind. While Easton’s focus in on visual depictions of St. Agatha’s torture, the perspective holds true for narratives, as well.

In a phallocentric art history, the female nude (or partial nude) is acceptable as a subject for depiction in “fine” art, be it secular or religious; in the latter, the unclothed female form is assumed to serve a function, such as the representation of a martyr or the personification of a vice. The viewer may be socialized to accept such scenes as religious and therefore somehow de-eroticized. Yet the violent eroticism inherent within these images of St. Agatha may seem antithetical to what the modern viewer would see as the purpose of the compositions. Although the viewer may assume that the image of a tortured female body must have theological significance to be presented as a religious image for contemplation, the manner of presentation can suggest something quite different. In visual effect, one can read medieval images of St. Agatha as sensual, sadistic, voyeuristic, and violent; in fact, it may be this combination of the religious and erotic that gave the images much of their power, and made St. Agatha such a popular iconographic subject, particularly for the later Middle Ages.

p. 85

The shift in focus from Aelfric’s less titillating rendition lies in understanding who made up the audience for the GL. Easton contends:

For some medieval male viewers respect and esteem for St. Agatha and her
suffering probably vied with an interest in her body and the sadistic, voyeuristic potential of her torture scene. Agatha becomes a conflation of sacrificial victim and sexual woman. Centuries after martyrdom essentially ended in the orthodox Christian West, texts and images such as those of the Golden Legend fulfilled the popular interest in women’s bodies with their graphic depictions of the semi-nude or fully nude bodies of female martyrs and the myriad ways in which they were tortured. Margaret
Miles terms this obsessive interest in female anatomy “religious pornography.”

P. 86

What group would have made up that audience of medieval male viewers (readers)? The most literate group during this time would usually be found in the Church. In monasteries and religious houses across Europe, the bodies of female saints, such as Agatha’s, provided fodder for the male gaze. Agatha is an acceptable figure for the voyeuristic male gaze to land because she is martyred. The viewer is permitted, in fact directed to look at her breasts, or to read about the rending of her flesh, in order to fully envisage her suffering. For the Medieval community, what is erotic or titillating is wrapped up religiosity and therefore sanctioned by the Church.

The Medieval Church recognized the obscene in both the visual and printed mediums. But, they served it clothed in martyrdom.

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