The image of the bloodied sheet after the wedding night is a cultural touchstone for the proof of virginity. But why is blood considered a natural consequence of the “taking” of female virginity? In our cultural imagination, loss of virginity tends to be characterized by images with undertones of violence. The hymen is broken, torn, or pierced—the inevitable result of this injury is bleeding. The bloodied sheet is the paradigmatic “proof” of virginity; the lack thereof, incriminating. But how did this come to be the case? Michael Rosenberg’s new book draws our attention to the fact that violence and blood are not inherent to paradigms of the loss of virginity and verification of a woman’s (previously) virginal state. In fact, he finds that the image of the bloodied sheet is almost entirely exclusive to cultures which descend from the legacy of the Hebrew Bible, specifically, Deuteronomy 22 16-17: “And the girl’s father shall say to the elders, “I gave this man my daughter to wife, but he has taken an aversion to her; so he has made up charges, saying, ‘I did not find your daughter a virgin.’ But here is the evidence of my daughter’s virginity!” And they shall spread out the cloth before the elders of the town.”
Rosenberg’s book sets out to examine rabbinic paradigms of how virgin women’s bodies work, how the loss of that virginity happens, and therefore, what evidence proves the existence of virginity. This book forms a new entry into the subfield of gender studies within rabbinics, as well as the new and growing interest in modern takes on the study of virginity in Late Antique Judaism and Christianity. In the present study, Rosenberg examines what has been considered proof of virginity in Jewish and later Christian cultures, and the ways male sexual behavior is incentivized to provide those proofs. However, this book is unusual among its peers in focusing, despite its titular emphasis on the verification of female virginity, not on the representation of virginity itself, but rather on how various paradigms of virginity shape masculinity and male sexual behavior.
Rosenberg carefully traces the textual legacy of Deuteronomy 22 on rabbinic and, later in the book, certain Christian texts. In each case, he attempts to identify the impact of the Biblical insistence on blood as proof of virginity, and assesses how each text takes on this legacy and reshapes it, responds to it, and sometimes, pushes back against it. In the course of doing so, he contextualizes these Jewish and Christian sources with (among others) Greek, Roman, and Zoroastrian texts which provide a broader perspective on views of virginity in the Late Antique world in general. What he finds is that around the fourth century in the Babylonian Talmud, a number of voices begin to shift from a paradigm of virginity as a closed, blocked, or occluded vagina, which must be forcibly opened, to a paradigm of vaginal narrowness. The image of narrowness shifts the focus of proofs of virginity away from blood, disincentivizing forceful sexual behavior and encouraging a gentler form of masculinity and sexual behavior.
Despite this shift, however, Rosenberg points out correctly that while a gentler paradigm may be preferable to the aggressive masculine ideals prevalent in Roman culture, the standard of narrowness does not automatically benefit women, and can in fact work against them: it shifts the locus of proof of virginity from the more “objective” blood on the sheet to the groom’s subjective experiences, placing even more power in his hands. One prominent feature of this book, in fact, is Rosenberg’s willingness to identify rabbinic texts as sometimes encouraging or referring to sexual violence, and calling these acts rape or sexual assault, rather than shying away from the reality of violence through the use of euphemisms.
The book is divided into three parts. The first explores virginity from a cross-cultural Late Antique perspective. Rosenberg compares the most common proofs of virginity found in contemporaneous non-Biblical texts, which mainly take the form of ordeals in which divine intervention permits the woman in question to perform an impossible task, for example. He then examines the Biblical roots of the bloodied sheet standard of virginity. Finally, he discusses the appearance, impact, and subtle changes to the perspective of those Biblical texts in Second Temple and early rabbinic sources.
The second part of the book examines other early, non-rabbinic texts which contain models of virginity that appear to diverge from the Deuteronomic image of “opening” a woman’s genitals and spilling blood on the sheets. In particular, Rosenberg focuses on texts that display trends that may be precursors to later Christian paradigms of displacing virginity from the body onto faith, or to the later rabbinic texts which display less certainty about the physical referent of virginity and the ability to interpret physical signs of non-virginity. However, in this section Rosenberg concludes that these early texts do not yet significantly diverge from the Deuteronomic source material.
The final part analyzes a body of texts from the Babylonian Talmud and Augustine of Hippo, where we do find significant divergence from the Deuteronomic paradigm. In particular, Rosenberg focuses on the fourth-century Babylonian rabbinic texts which describe virgin genitals as a narrow passage rather than a blocked one—de-emphasizing the importance of blood produced from “breaking through” the blockage and implying, Rosenberg argues, an emphasis on a less aggressive model of masculinity and male sexuality. Similarly, Augustine, Rosenberg writes, rejects physical inspections of women’s bodies to determine virginity, and focusing instead on virginity as a matter of will. He notes in the epilogue, however, that both these departures from Deuteronomy’s more violent framing of sex and the loss of virginity were not taken up in the centuries following their composition; the conversation instead reverted back to the Biblical framework of spilling blood as proof of virginity.
At the end of the book, Rosenberg makes explicit his hopes for how his work can participate in modern conversations about feminism and masculinity. In part, his analysis of the rise of a less-aggressive form of male sexuality in Sasanian Persian rabbinic texts is intended to be instructive to modern day thinking about how to defuse the most violent and toxic elements in modern masculinity. Rosenberg emphasizes that, while he is not arguing that the rabbinic authors of the Bavli or Augustine were “feminist” in any meaningful sense of the word, nevertheless the study of those texts can be feminist both in its lens and in its effects. Through its use of an explicitly feminist framing and its candid references to and reckoning with sexual violence in rabbinic and other Late Antique texts, this book makes a unique contribution to the field: it articulates one particular way forward for scholarly work which wishes to be both academically responsible and socially conscious.
Rebecca Kamholz is a Ph.D. Candidate in Ancient Judaism at Yale University.