ABSTRACT

Ancrene Wisse, a thirteenth-century guide for anchoresses, seeks to outline the parameters within which an anchoress can successfully achieve her religious identity.1 Of central importance to this identity is the ideal of female virginity, which was seen to consist of both an ‘inner’ disposition and an ‘outer’ (in the sense of physical) state. While the text is concerned to subsume the state of holy virginity firmly within a male-female gender paradigm on the one hand, on the other it sets the virgin apart in its attempt to differentiate her from her sexually active counterparts, without, however, quite knowing where to place her.2 What ensues is the destabilisation of the trope of virginity. This is particularly evident in the text’s discussion of temptation and confession, in which the line between ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ (both of the virginal body itself and of the anchoress in relation to society) becomes increasingly blurred and displaced. Yet the text – and therefore language – is ultimately, as this chapter will argue, the site where virginity is primarily constructed and located.