Until the Church removed her from the calendar in 1969, July 20 long had the distinction of being the feast day of Saint Wilgefortis the Liberator, the protector and patroness of women suffering in relationships with abusive husbands.
As with many medieval saints, the origins of Wilgefortis are vague and contradictory. The simplest backstory makes her the young daughter of a Portuguese nobleman, promised by her father in marriage to a pagan barbarian. In her desperation to evade this trap, Wilgefortis took a sacred vow of virginity; when this by itself was not sufficient to dampen the ardor of the proposed bridegroom she then prayed for some sort of disfigurement that would make her unfit for marriage.
Her prayers were answered: the young lady grew a full beard, and her husband-to-be took his interest elsewhere.
Wilgefortis’ father was not amused. Deprived of what had promised to be a profitable and useful political alliance, he turned his anger and disappointment on his recalcitrant offspring. He had her dressed in her finest clothes, as if for a wedding, and then crucified her and left her to die.
In the social environment that prevailed in Europe during the late Middle Ages women had not fared well. Salic Law, introduced by the Franks during the sixth and seventh centuries and adopted widely throughout Europe, did not allow women to inherit property or titles, and in many places local customs prohibited women from owning businesses or land without male oversight. Marriage, especially among the nobility, was a matter of political expediency, and girls were used by their male kin as a form of currency to buy alliances with other factions and families.
The incomparable Lucrezia Borgia, daughter of Pope Alexander VI, was married off three times in schemes to benefit the political ambitions of her father and older brother. Her first marriage was annulled when her husband came to be of no further use to the Borgia plans; her second husband was murdered, most likely at the instigation of her brother Cesare, having likewise outlived his usefulness; her third marriage, while loveless, was a material success, and Lucrezia’s own wealth and power survived the death of both her brother and her father.
The rights and interests of the young women involved were irrelevant. Peasants could marry for love, because there was nothing else at stake, but the nobility had obligations to dynasty, to tradition, and to political position that trumped any other concerns. Predictably, such marriages were often little more than business arrangements; apart from the need to produce heirs, there was rarely any emotional contact between the partners. The girl was simply a means to an end, and her feelings were of no importance as long as she played her part.
Depictions of Saint Wilgefortis traditionally show a young woman with a beard, often wearing only one shoe, crucified on a wooden cross. Frequently there is a fiddler or a beggar at her feet: according to legend, when a starving man once came to the feet of the saint’s statue to pray, a silver shoe dropped off into his hands (a story that I would find a bit suspicious under the best of circumstances, but I guess sometimes you just have to accept things on trust.)
In different traditions Saint Wilgefortis is referred to as “The Escaper”, “The Strong Virgin”, “Grief”, “The Liberated” — in England she was called “Uncumber”, as in “unencumbered”. As is often the case with female saints in the Catholic hagiography, Wilgefortis represented defiance, personal integrity, freedom from oppression, but the message was a mixed one: a woman could exercise her freedom, yes, but she had to be prepared to pay the price.
Even now, in the second decade of the 21st century, women and girls frequently face terrible decisions and terrible consequences, decisions forced upon them by circumstances beyond their control: the victims of rape or incest dealing with the resulting pregnancy; five-year-olds dressed up like Vegas showgirls and trained to parade their bodies before adult audiences who judge their value as human beings on the basis of how effectively they mimic adult sexuality; victims of “honor killings”, genital mutilation, and acid attacks; abused wives and daughters urged by ministers or relatives to stay with their abusers — or simply unable to escape. The world today is a better place in many, many ways than that of five hundred years ago, but ancient evils persist.
I don’t know why the Church chose to remove Wilgefortis from the calendar. More than likely it was due to the confusion that surrounds her origins and the tendency to conflate her with another female saint whose feast day was also July 20. To add to the confusion, a representation of Jesus on the cross, the androgynous Volto Santo of Lucca, has sometimes been mistaken for a that of a woman due to the long dress-like tunic the figure wears.
In any event, in a church that has not always been known for its embrace of originality, the bearded lady on the cross exercises a certain side-show hilarity, while at the same time the tabloid story of her life and terrible death evokes modern echoes that are not nearly so amusing.
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