History, Department of


First Advisor

Jessica Coope

Date of this Version

Summer 7-29-2021

Document Type



Bolen, Angela. "The Virago Paradigm of Female Sanctity: Constructing the Masculine Woman in Medieval Christianity." PhD diss. University of Nebraska, 2021.


A DISSERTATION Presented to the Faculty of The Graduate College at the University of Nebraska In Partial Fulfillment of Requirements For the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy, Major: History, Under the Supervision of Professor Jessica Coope. Lincoln, Nebraska: July, 2021

Copyright © 2021 Angela R. Bolen


The Latin word virago, in its simplest definition, means “a man-like, warrior woman.” For Christian men and women in the Patristic era and the central Middle Ages, the virago represented a woman who denied all biological characteristics of her womanhood, fiercely protected her virginity, and fully embodied the virtues of Christian masculinity. The virago paradigm of female sanctity, a creation of male writers, reconciled a pervasive fear of the female sex with an obvious admiration for holy women. Additionally, the virago model maintained the supremacy of masculine virtues, upheld a patriarchal hierarchy, and created a metaphorical space that validated women’s spiritual authority and activity. This dissertation identifies and explores the significance of the medieval construction and implementation of the virago paradigm of female sanctity in the central Middle Ages. The virago model of female sanctity emerges in the medieval creation of the legends of virgin martyrs and in a small corpus of letters influential men wrote to religious women. The virago paradigm also appears in striking detail in two medieval texts associated with the twelfth-century holy woman, Christina of Markyate. In constructing the narrative of Christina’s life, commonly referred to as Life of Christina of Markyate, the anonymous male author describes Christina’s transformation from a young girl into a heroic, wise, and fearless virago. The second text associated with Christina of Markyate, St. Albans Psalter, serves as a medieval guidebook or manual for the virago. The three major components of the Psalter, the cycle of miniatures, the story of St. Alexis, and the commentary on spiritual warfare provided the female reader with visual, allegorical, and scriptural representations of the virago.

Advisor: Jessica Coope