St Margaret of Antioch - a feminist legend

OUR neighbouring parish church - which includes the Anglican Chaplaincy to the Universities of Liverpool - is dedicated to St Margaret of Antioch, whose feast day is  20th July. Our Rector Miranda preached the sermon at their Patronal Festival, and gave a feminist, rape culture, privilege and entitlement reading of the hagiography of St Margaret:

If you belonged to the world, the world would love you as its own. Because you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world -therefore the world hates you.’
— John 15:19
 Saint Margaret by Joan Reixach

Saint Margaret by Joan Reixach

It’s a statement that has, over the centuries, attracted a certain amount of unhealthy obsession with trying to live in a way that’s uncontaminated by ‘the world’, as if that were possible. 

But it makes perfect and immediate sense if you translate world as worldview. Jesus was killed for his challenge to an imperialistic, hierarchical worldview - and the story of  St Margaret, shows her too being tortured and killed for articulating a very different worldview that a man who was a member of the ruling elite found too challenging.

There are a lot of people – or perhaps a few people and a lot of bots, on social media – who go out of their way to find and persecute those who challenge their worldview. 

Racists, who jumped all over the Black Lives Matter hashtag the other year, insisting that All Lives Matter and thus seeking to rewrite those protesting the disregard for black lives as selfish and limited in their concern. 

White Supremacists – and/or possibly Russian bots, who knows – who go out of their way to find anyone commenting critically on Donald Trump, and shower them with hate speech. Male Supremacists who go out of their way to find anyone tweeting feminist sentiments, or indeed any woman daring to speak out in public who seems to be getting attention, and attempt to shut them down by challenging their right to speak, questioning their credentials, and in the last resort telling them that they should be raped and murdered.

The technology might be new, but abuse, rape culture, male privilege, and the violent sense of entitlement of those with privilege is sadly nothing new at all. Both our readings today, for this feast of a martyr, show the Bible at its most realistic about the cost of speaking out into a violent and oppressive culture. It’s the right thing to do, but it is certainly costly.

The story of Margaret of Antioch speaks directly into the patriarchal culture of privileged entitlement and violence.

Margaret may or may not have even existed, but her story was one of the most popular told of the saints in medieval times. She was one of the three saints that Joan of Arc believed had spoken to her, and was considered the most powerful saint for women in childbirth to pray to.

Stories that circulate and take on a life of their own are always fascinating to a historian, and if Margaret didn’t exist then I find her story even more fascinating.

I think it was Terry Pratchett who said that some stories, if they don’t exist, just have to be written. The medieval stories of the saints – hagiographies - are perhaps best understood as in this category. Stories are important – they form and challenge worldviews, they show us possibilities. What matters in hagiography, as in fairy tales, isn’t that they tell us whether or not dragons exist – its that they tell us that dragons can be defeated.

So what is it about Margaret’s story that means  that it was worth making up, or worth retelling, and that made it so enduringly powerful for hundreds of years?

It seems to me that her story’s power is precisely that it speaks into rape culture, a culture of privileged male entitlement, a culture in which the male gaze is privileged and women are routinely dismissed as weak, feeble and unworthy of a public voice.

Margaret’s story starts by telling us that she was sent by her noble father, a pagan priest, to a Christian wetnurse. her mother died, perhaps in childbirth or perhaps sometime in her infancy, as Margaret remains with the wetnurse to be brought up, and is baptized. On hearing this her father disowns her, and she remains in the foster care of her nurse.

We then fast forward to her when she is 15 years old. Then, according to the legend, ‘On a certain day, when she was fifteen years of age, and kept the sheep of her nurse with other maidens, the provost Olybrius passed by the way whereas she was, and considered in her so great beauty and fairness, that anon he burned in her love, and sent his servants and bade them take her and bring her to him. For if she be free I shall take her to my wife, and if she be bond, I shall make her my concubine.’ (From the medieval 'Golden Legend')

This is where Margaret’s story begins to be clearly about the male gaze and privileged male entitlement. Olybrius is the provost. He is in a privileged position as a man and a member of the ruling elite. He sees this teenage girl, lusts after her, and assumes that he can therefore have her. The only question in his mind is on what terms he will have her, and this is framed simply as a question of class.

Here, Margaret’s story shines a light on what we now call intersectionality – the ways in which different types of privilege and oppression interact with each other. Margaret is vulnerable on grounds of gender, age and class. She is a woman, so this privileged man assumes he can possess her simply because he desires her. She is a relatively young woman, a girl on the cusp of womanhood. Would he have desired her if she had been older? Is his anger against her when she resists his advances the greater because he assumes her youth gives her no right to agency? 

And at this point in her story, the provost is unsure of her caste, her status. This has no bearing on his assumption of the right to possess where his gaze falls, but it does affect the social norms regarding the terms on which he will possess her. If she’s free, he’ll marry her, if a slave, he’ll make her his mistress. Both terms of course are socially sanctioned euphemisms for rape, as there is no question of consent or lack of consent in Olybrius’ mind. His privileged male gaze has fallen on her, he desires her, therefore he has sent his servants to get her and fully intends to rape her, either with or without the social label of marriage.

The story goes on to relate how he asks Margaret her social status, her name and her religion. When she tells him, he is disgusted that she is a Christian, and demands that she recant.  Instead she has a spirited theological discussion with him, which angers him so much that he has her tortured.

The story goes into great detail about the various tortures to which she is subject, and there are two particularly interesting details.

 First, those watching say how distressed they are that she has lost so much beauty for her unbelief in the pagan Gods. Even at this stage, her story is being constructed by the male gaze. To the onlookers, the main negative of her torture is that she is becoming less attractive to the male gaze. over perhaps they intend to add another, mental torture to the physical ones that she is undergoing. Margaret robustly rejects this,  instead linking her suffering with salvation. That is, the story explicitly rejects the construction of female identity and value as being based on our beauty in the eye of the male beholder. For the Christian, Margaret tells us, our identity and value is found in our baptismal identity, not in pleasing the male gaze.  

So one message of the story is that the male gaze is not the last word, and that it doesn’t always get what it wants. Privileged male entitlement is trumped by our ability to determine for ourselves to follow Christ – and even by the ability of young girls to do this. That must have been quite a powerful message for young girls to hear.

The second detail that I find particularly interesting in Margaret’s story comes when the provost turns his face away because he can’t stand the sight of so much blood, whilst Margaret is theologizing her sufferings. She is shown as much stronger than him, not simply spiritually but physically as well. Later in the story she suffers another round of torture, with a multi-staged execution scene, constructed explicitly to be as painful as possible, and we are told that people marvelled that so tender a maiden could endure so many torments. That is, they marvelled that she was so strong that she wasn’t dead yet, or hadn’t fainted away.

Margaret is presented as almost supernaturally strong, and yet throughout the story, despite other supernatural moments when she defeats the devil in the form of both a man and a dragon, there is no magical element described in her resilience to torture. She is simply presented as a very tough girl, able to cope with argue her faith in the face of such violence and such physical pain that the provost can’t look.

I suspect that this element of her story is why she was presented as someone to pray to in the pangs of childbirth. This is literally a story of how women can cope with pain that men shudder at the sight of and often can’t bear to watch. Margaret’s story,  in a way that seems culturally rather alien to us, is a story of female resilience to pain and inherent strength, and would have been very valuable as a reassurance to young girls enduring labour for the first time. Modern midwifery wisdom has rediscovered the truth that simply knowing that one can survive the pain of childbirth actually reduces the pain that is experienced.

But its also a story about how male domination,  patriarchy and rape culture is essentially violent. People like the classicist Professor Mary Beard in our own culture receive death threats and are on the receiving end of violent rape threats, for being a woman who speaks her knowledge, her wisdom and her espertise in the public square without conforming to the norms of the male gaze. Margaret’s story is similar. She does not conform to the expected norms of her gender and age. She is meant to be an attractive, weak, possession, and yet she argues back. When the provost jeers at her for having a God who was crucified, she interrogates the sources of his knowledge and then instructs him from her superior knowledge. Women weren’t meant to do that, and especially not young, attractive women. She is tortured not simply for being a Christian, not even for rejecting the provost ( the story never actually explicitly says that she does) – she is tortured, very clearly, for being a woman who has a mind of her own and dares to speak it.

And when we look at Margaret’s story, it is shockingly clear that the violence unleashed against her is not about desire per se but about sadism, the violent wish for domination at all costs. One minute the provost is claiming to love her, having seen her, the next he unleashes the most shockingly sadistic series of tortures, torture upon torture, all the while claiming, as abusers always do, that the violence is her own fault due to her obstinacy.

This is a story about how abusive men lash out in violence, about how the male language of love and desire can be used to mask a sadistic desire to hurt and possess and destroy.

We still need stories of women’s strength, wisdom, faith and resilience.

We need stories that remind us that  the treatment of people as possessions to be trafficked by force and seized at will by those with economic or military power is unacceptable. 

We need stories that challenge the idea that rape is about sex, and lay bare the fact that it is about violence, domination and oppression.

We need stories that reassure us that though we may not be privileged, though we may feel, look and indeed be on the wrong end of various isms – such as sexism, racism, or ageism – our identity and value is not constituted by those abusive worldviews, but by our baptismal identity in Christ.

So tell these stories to each other often. 

If the stories you need don’t exist, invent them.

Tell the stories that dream into being the world you want to be part of.

Amen.