Nádoby mdlé, hlavy nemající? Diskursy panenství a vdovství v české literatuře raného novověku

TitleNádoby mdlé, hlavy nemající? Diskursy panenství a vdovství v české literatuře raného novověku
Publication TypePublication review
AuthorsČapská, Veronika
Author(s) of reviewed materialand(eds.), Jana Ratajová Lucie Storchová

Book. Title translated:
Weak Vessels without Heads? The Discourses of Virginity and Widowhood in Early Modern Czech Literature

PublisherScriptorium, Prague
ISSNISBN: 978-80-86197-95-1
Full Text

This book represents the first volume of an ongoing editorial project Gender in Early Modern Czech Prescriptive Discourses. The aim of the intended four books is to make a specific type of early modern Czech literary production more accessible to researchers. The focus of the editors, Jana Ratajová and Lucie Storchová, is rather wide-ranging as they cover instructive literature about virginity and widowhood from the 16th and 17th centuries (1st volume), publications on marriage from the same period (2nd volume), the revised versions of all these texts in the second half of the 18th century and other short texts about women from the same time (3rd volume), and, last but not least, on early modern medical literature on the female body (4th volume).

Ratajová and Storchová´s recently published first volume includes six edited works with their original early modern iconographic accompaniments. The book is enriched by an editorial commentary, detailed endnotes, a glossary of archaic expressions and, above all, with two highly intriguing studies written by the editors, placing the edited sources within the context of contemporary analytical gender scholarship. In the prefatory remarks both editors emphasize that they understand gender as textual effect and intend to analyse the textual processes of gendering with the preferred focus on the sources included in the volume.

Storchová´s study provides the edition, and indeed the whole series, with a theoretically loaded introduction. The author polemically summarizes the previous dominant approaches of Czech historiography to what might be called “women´s history” and sets her aim at shifting research interest towards gender analysis. In a creative dialogue with recent foreign research currents she pays detailed attention in particular to German historical anthropology and to the influential concept of the marital couple as a working unit (Heide Wunder). Storchová emphasizes that historical anthropology of the working couple does not analyze prescriptive texts, however, it largely adopts their rhetoric.

Storchová also distinguishes her interest from the tradition of literary functionalism (Rüdiger Schnell) and the research into the genre of the querelles des femmes (Gisela Bock), into which, as she rightly remarks, the text of the Protestant writer Havel Žalanský To the Honesty and Delight of the Virtuous Female Sex (Ku poctivosti a k potěšení počestnému pohlaví ženskému, 1606), made available here, would in many ways fit.

Developing the ideas of Doreen Fischer´s research of German texts on widowhood (13th–16th century) Storchová draws attention to the various early modern conceptualizations of the state(s) of unmarried women, addressing the chief concern of the volume and correspondingly meeting the basic expectations of the reader. Although the ascetic ideal of virginity and widowhood as lasting states of sexual abstinence indebted to patristic writings retained its resonance, in the course of the 16th century the Protestant concept of three subsequent phases of female life – the virgin, the wife and the widow – was gaining ground, affecting non-Protestant writers as well (Juan Luis Vives e.g.). However, the marital state worked as an interpretational grid of the “order of sexes”: virginity and widowhood were chiefly characterised by the absence of a husband as the head of the household. Whereas this argument does not yet move far from the interests of historical anthropology with its avid curiosity in the marital state, the inquiry into the legitimization of the “order of sexes” clearly takes the discussion to the level of the discoursive analysis of relationships of power.

Not unexpectedly, the Bible, patristic and other theological texts, long with the order of nature/creation legitimized the “order of sexes” as part of social order, according to Storchová. This represents both the strengths and the weaknesses of the argument. However banal this point may seem, it allows the author to move towards the analysis of female inferiority as a ground for the functioning of the “order of sexes” in prescriptive texts. As other discourses of difference are taken into account and the limits of the fixed linkage of gender to biology are overcome, Storchová is able to identify a complex system of eight gender models (not necessarily definitive) in the corpus of the edited texts: two masculine gender models of good and bad husband and six feminine gender models of good/ bad virgin, good/ bad wife and true/ false widow.

The second accompanying study written by Jana Ratajová focuses preferentially on female and male virginity in early modern Czech literature. It ought to be noted that there is only one known early modern Czech language widowhood-centered text in the edition, and that is The Christian Widowhood (Vdovství křesťanské, 1619 by Jan Hertvicius). Ratajová´s reflection opens with an attempt at semantic systematization of early modern expressions for virginity in Czech, Latin and English. As both editors observe the close affinity of the edited material to German texts on virginity and widowhood, it is regrettable that there is no comparison with German language terms of the period. Their relevance seems obvious, since there were also parallel German prescriptive texts published in the Czech lands throughout the same period.


Ratajová carefully analyzes the individual texts on virginity. In the work Virginal Delight and Licence (Rozkoš a zvule panenská, 1613) the author, a Protestant minister named Adam Klemens, conceives virginity as a treasure that is constantly in danger and has to be defended even from its bearer. By “virginal delight and licence” Klemens understands the appropriate state of mind and heart that the reader should attain. Klemens adopts the virtues of medieval theological virginity for the temporal stage of virginal life appraised by Protestantism, whereas ascetical, permanent virginity becomes almost unthinkable. In this context Jana Ratajová poses an interesting question: whether Klemens could be regarded as an author who contributed to the process by which the ideal of permanent virginity was devalued, as well as to the emergence of the "spinster" stereotype? Looking at contemporary demographic data, it becomes obvious that marriage remained unattainable for a significant number of people. It would thus be stimulating to see whether there were any hint of positive appreciation or stigmatization of the state of this “remainder population” in early modern texts, though this would move us beyond the goals set by the editors.

Virginity as a special state of preparation for marriage is addressed in the well-known work The Wreath of Honesty of Christian Virgins (Křesťanských pobožných panen věnček poctivosti, 1581). This text was written by another Protestant clergyman, Lucas Martini, and it also appeared in German and Danish mutations. Jana Ratajová focuses on Martini´s elaborate metaphorical language that compares virginal virtues to various plants. The popular motive of the wreath as a symbol of the virginal state is the leading figure also in the anonymous work The Crown or the Wreath of Virgins (Korunka aneb vínek panenský (from the second half of the 16th c.). Jana Ratajová lists seven different Czech editions of this work and calls it the “virginal bestseller“.

A quite exceptional interest in both male and female virginity was shown by Catholic writer Daniel Hussonius in his hagiographical opus Virginal Garden (Zahrada panenská, 1630). According to him, highest respect should be given to permanent virginity associated especially with monastic life. Hussonius collected a series of legends concerning male and female virginal saints, however, the only known exemplar bears written notes from the milieu of female convents and does not comprise the lives of male virginal saints that were an integral part of the work. This circumstance has prevented a more in-depth analysis of the contemporary male ideal.

In sum, the two studies by the editors represent theoretically well-grounded and empirically rich pieces of scholarship. The edition itself brings to awareness texts that have so far received little attention and evaluates an interesting type of literary writing that is not part of the canon of high literature. The extended undertaking in publishing, of which this volume is the first part, also considerably improves the conditions for further discussions in the academic sphere, not only in the area of gender studies, but also in literary and historical studies as well as theology.