Missing the Maidenhead: Cultural Debates about the Hymen in Early Modern England


ACLS Fellowship Program




This study analyzes discourses about maidenheads and hymens in texts printed between 1530 and 1689. Mostly in English and including some illustrations of medical texts, the project archive illuminates an epistemological debate that was particularly acute during England’s emergence as a Protestant nation. The debate concerns how one can know whether the hymen exists or not, in specific cases and in general. A sign of the fraught border between virginity and marriage, the hymen with its sister-term “maidenhead” becomes a locus of skeptical thinking in literary and other discourses. Debates about the hymen converge with questions about the relation between material and immaterial realms, between male and female bodies, and between the inside and the outside of the body politic.