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The Terrifying Coldness of St. Agnes

The Beheading of Saint Agnes


In early modern literature, the powerful, dominating female is frequently depicted as a temptress, an agent of evil, enticing her victims to ruination, but torment and destruction can come at the hands of the virtuous as easily as at those of the wicked. A man loses his head to the righteous Judith just as surely as to the capricious Salome, and the chasteness of the virginal saint can mask a sexual coldness that is just as capable of cruelty as Jerome’s hot and lustful prostitute or Gracián’s cool and nonchalant Volusia.

The Life of the Blessed St. Agnes (London, 1677), attributed to Daniel Pratt, is the story of a child, ‘not yet fully arriv’d to the Thirteenth Year of her Age’ (p. 121) – though she consistently speaks and behaves as an adult – who has vowed to be a bride of Christ and hence rejects her earthly suitor.  Although probably not actually a Catholic work, Pratt’s text has elements of catholicity in its style and content. Some clues to its cultural context are to be found in the dedicatory epistle to Robert Stafford of Bradfield, a noted beau (David Loggan, ‘Robertus Stafford, de Bradfield’, line engraving, 1676. National Portrait Gallery, London, NPG D29992, carries a Latin inscription eulogizing his beauty). Granger notes that ‘a gentleman of this name’ was mentioned by Sir William Musgrave as ‘a great friend of Col. Sackville and of Mr. Dryden’ (A Biographical History of England , London, 1824, p. 181), whom Pratt mentions in the epistle dedicatory. Although there is no evidence that Stafford was actually a Catholic, it is fairly safe to assume, given his friends and family background, that he had Jacobite leanings and, perhaps, Catholic sympathies, and these were, in all likelihood, shared by the author who so admired him.

In the epistle dedicatory Pratt bemoans the fact that Stafford has remained unmarried, and presents Agnes as

a Lady…whom not to Love; would not only be ignoble but impious, and I doubt not (if you shall do me the honour to peruse this life,) but that the noble Agnes will revenge all those fair Females; whose charms you have hitherto so stoutlie resisted. I do not therby intend to make the Chast Saint a Bawd to any impure Love … but only to animate you to the search of some Heroine …

This deconstructs in all sorts of uncomfortable ways. The main narrative interest of the story is that a young man, ‘the son of one Symphronius, the Governour of the Citie’, falls unrequitedly in love with the chaste Agnes and, in consequence, suffers terribly. Is this what Pratt wants for Stafford? Or, having lamented Stafford’s lack of a wife, does he want him to deflect a bride of Christ from her devout purpose and bed her? Is he urging him to find a woman (or girl) and idolize her? Or is the author, by drawing the parallel between Stafford’s resistance to the female sex and Agnes’ imperviousness to the male sex, merely indulging in a bit of bantering with a confirmed homosexual, knowing that he will just shrug it off?

Different – but equally perplexing – difficulties arise when Pratt attempts to invoke God’s grace on the final page, ‘that we may imitate the Holy Life and Constant Death of his Blessed Martyr Saint Agnes’. Should we be set alight and not burn? Or be beheaded? Should women coldly spurn their suitors, or contrive to be led naked to a brothel and, when their suitors follow them there, watch on while ‘the Devil by the Permission of the Almighty’ strangles them to death?

There is really very little performativity in Pratt’s text, either for Stafford or for the general reader. That in itself places it outside the tradition of Catholic hagiography and, at that level, Pratt’s book is a failure, but that is beside the point. What makes this narrative remarkable is the protagonist’s switches, from caring to cold-heartedness, from imperiousness to vulnerability, from child to woman – ‘the most beautiful Lady in Rome’ – and from woman to transcendent being, in ‘her Heavenly Vestment, and her surrounding Glory’.

These features form a disturbing subtext to the book’s overt purpose. In Pratt’s Life of St. Agnes religious sentiment is reduced – whether consciously on the author’s part or not – to a vehicle for a narrative of sustained but implicit eroticism. Even when Agnes is at her most vulnerable – ‘commanded…to be stript of all her Cloths, and then to be led Naked to the common Bordelli, and there to be exposed to the lust of all comers’ – modesty is preserved, ‘for [miraculously] her hair fell down so long, so thick, and shady, that not the least part of her Body could be seen’. Her domination over her suitor is equally chaste; despite inflicting such suffering on him that at one point he pines nearly to death, it is inconceivable that she would sully her hands by physically harming him and when he dies by strangulation she simply stands before him, as remote and unattainable as ever, andwatches on as he dies.

Most of these details are culled from various accounts of Agnes’s life; her martyrdom comes within a late classical hagiographical tradition of portraying the deaths of women (and girls) with ‘an almost unabashed eroticism’ (David Frankfurter, ‘Martyrology and the Prurient Gaze’, Journal of Early Christian Studies, 17.2, 2009, pp. 215-245; p. 225), but Pratt adds to his source material, investing Agnes with a systematically cruel capriciousness and a terrifying coldness. His narrative moves at a brisk pace, and he wastes little time in preamble before introducing his chaste protagonist. He prepares the stage for one who will triumph over ‘vain assaults of lust and cruelty’, young, but old beyond her years and ‘allready ripe for heaven’, and launches into an account of the first time her handsome suitor, ‘that might have enslaved any Soul but St. Agnes’s, unfortunately chanc’d to see her’, falling in love with the beautiful maiden at first sight. After ascertaining that she is of noble birth, he arranges, with ‘hopes and fears’ to meet her and declare his love, whereupon,

looking upon him with an eye that at once pitied and condemned his passion, she thus answer’d him.

… I think more Charitably of all Men, then to think any one can be so much mistaken … as to Love her, who may justly be contem’d of all the World … for that very Love’s sake, you say you have for me, forgo it utterly, banish it, and with it all the train of Jealousies, Fears, Hopes, and other Distractions, that will undoubtedly pursue it …

She then reveals that she has already promised herself to another – ‘my Soul is prepossess’d, and being engaged elsewhere cannot comply with your desires’ – but when the young man, having assured her that he will continue to love and adore and serve her, takes his disconsolate leave,

St. Agnes pitying his misfortunes … pul’d him back and sweetning all that Rigour she had put on not long before; Stay dear Sir, said she, And pardon me that seeming cruelty, which you think me guilty of … I esteem you, Sir; and will love you too, but as a Sister … my choice cannot, must not be alter’d; He must have my whole Affection, that’s only worthy of it … and you must no longer pretend to her, that will acknowledge no other Lord and Master, but him that Heaven hath already assing’d her.

The narrative thus far contains numerous switches, mainly hinging on the notion that the one who is beloved has power over the one who loves. The young man might enslave almost any woman with his looks, but he chooses instead to love Agnes, and so she comes to have power over him. When he, being rejected, is at his most crestfallen, she calls him back, supposedly out of pity, and begs pardon for her ‘seeming cruelty’, only to deliver the same cruel message – that she is betrothed to another, who alone is worthy of her affections – even more sternly than before. So far from being assaulted by ‘lust and cruelty’, she has been approached with love and responded with cruelty, for, of course her words provoke the ‘train of Jealousies’ of which she speaks, and the young man departs, ‘rowling in his Breast revenge on his unknown Rival’, while she ‘bestow’d a Shower of Tears on his Misfortunes, which though unwillingly, she was the cause of’, and for the next five pages reaffirms her pledges to Christ and soliloquizes in verse on the suffering she so unwillingly inflicts on her suitor.

‘Whilst the blessed Saint does thus entertain her Pious Soul, let us see how our passionate Gentleman spends his hours’. Locking himself in his room, he reflects,

I am doom’d to my misfortunes, by a person notwithstanding all her cruelty; so dear and agreeable to me, that even Death it self would not be unwelcome when it proceeded from her: I will however have some Companion in my unhappiness, and involve my envied Rival … in that Calamity, she hath damn’d me to.

Decrying Agnes as a ‘Base and Ungrateful Woman’ (he, too, switches frequently, alternately idolising her and despising – or attempting to despise – her), he sets out to discover the identity of his rival. At the same time, he ‘made her several Presents, and spoke to her very often too’, but his gifts do not move her; ‘She despised them all, and continually told him what Noble Presents her Spouse would make her’.  After these visits, she ‘pour’d all her sorrows into the Bosome of her Blessed Saviour, for whose sake she was thus Cruel in appearance; She prai’d for her Loving Enemy; She pitied him’.

Whether or not the author intended it, it is hard not to perceive an irony in that expression, ‘entertain her pious soul’. How empowering it must be to hold the young man in thrall; how poignant that she has no choice but to torment him for the sake of her Lord. ‘In what strange labyrinths I am’, she exclaims, in one of her poetic soliloquies, and indeed this is strange entertainment – receiving an admirer only to spurn him, pitying him while she torments him – for one supposedly so devout.

When all the young man’s efforts to find his rival prove vain, he starts to think that there is no such rival, and entertains ‘some hopes, that only out of Design, and Artifice she had told him so, when really it was otherwise’. This prompts him to pay Agnes another visit. On receiving him, ‘she trembled, she changed her Colour, but still for the better, and her very amazement and surprisal, did very much increase her Beauty, and renderd her more Lovely in the eies of our Young Amorist, that alas was but too too Lovely to him before’. He puts it to her that there is no such rival as she pretends, but she assures him otherwise:

… did you know what sinceritie I always make use of you would not have doubted the truth of that, which I assur’d you of. Oh! Madam, answer’d the Lover hastely, why should you so soon … disbuse me of an oppinion so advantagious to my repose? I am not acquainted with those Arts, reply’d the Lady very sharply, that abuse Men into happiness. Know fond Man, thou hast a Rival; Know I Love him, and prefer him to all the World; and when thou know’st this, if thou wilt still pursue a fruitless passion, never expect anything from me but scorn and contempt.

Agnes has power over the young man because he loves her; he loves her for her beauty; her beauty increases as he enters her presence; he loves her all the more and her power over him grows greater still. No wonder she trembles; he would die for her – will die for her. It must be a very heady feeling. She speaks of ‘sinceritie’, but this (like her use of ‘charitie’ before) seems a strange word to describe the complex pattern of cruelty and sentimentality she has brought to their relationship – hurting him and then pitying him, allowing him to bring her gifts, then despising them, spurning him, but continuing to meet with him – and, for all her sincerity, while she will not ‘abuse’ him into happiness with a lie, neither will she disabuse him with the truth. Pratt may be making use of a Christian motif – she cannot tell him his ‘rival’ is Christ because she will be persecuted (though this is never stated directly, and she is happy enough to avow her faith and die for it later on in the story) – but there is very little Christian kindness or charity here.

The rest of the story – the intervention of the young man’s father, distraught at the sight of his son pining to the point of death out of unrequited love, the discovery of the identity of his ‘rival’, Agnes’s trial and martyrdom – is of less relevance, though one or two details stand out. The role-switching, as she is led naked to a brothel and the young man, his love turned to lust, is sent to defile her, is just one more twist in the power game that goes on between them. She trumps him one last time, watching on as ‘the Devil by the permission of the Almighty, strangled him’, on the one hand ‘extreamly troubled’, but on the other admiring the ‘infinite Power and Goodness’ of her Lord. Strangulation here signifies the feminization of the man by rendering him powerless and depriving him of a voice, and hence of an identity.

In response to the pleas of his distraught father, Agnes prays for his life to be restored and he is resurrected as a Christian. He regains his voice in order to proclaim his faith and then – apart from the author’s speculations about what may have become of him after Agnes’s death – disappears from the narrative. Theologically, all the young man’s suffering is justified because, in the end, his spirit is made whole. In terms of the narrative of domination that runs through the text, though, his resurrection as a Christian is Agnes’s final triumph over him. Agnes asserts her power by abdicating it – turning her slave over to her master – and the young man, seemingly bereft of individual will or personal identity, exists purely as a servant of her Lord. The homo-eroticism of such a reading is reinforced by references to the imperviousness of the dedicatee to the charms of women in the epistle dedicatory.

Agnes, meanwhile, her heart burning ‘with a noble ardor’, is ‘brought to the Stake’, but such is her pulchritude that she emerges unscathed from the flames and submits meekly to lay ‘her fair Neck on the Block’ on which she is beheaded. In this case, beheading does not represent the woman being ‘silenced, discredited, transformed into body’ (Marketta Laurila, ‘Decapitation, Castration and Creativity in Elena Garro’s Andamos Huyendo Lola’, in Michael J. Meyer, ed., Rodopi Perspectives on Modern Literature, 31, Literature and the Writer, 2004, pp. 19–41; p. 41. ); on the contrary, she is transformed into spirit, ascends into glory and reappears, in corporeal form, to speak words of comfort to her grieving parents. Rather, her beheading carries connotations of castration, to which, as a woman, she can submit unconcernedly. For the young man, however – who, resurrected, is presumably among the crowd witnessing her death – the spectacle of the woman who has emasculated him having her head chopped off is tantamount to his own castration.

The eroticism in Pratt’s text lies hidden beneath its pious surface, and it is debatable whether he actually set out to subvert the genre of saintly biography or whether he thought he was writing a devout piece of work and his unconscious found expression through his pen, but without his control. Of the two, the latter seems more likely, but there is perhaps a third possibility, somewhere between them. Where Burrus speaks of a ‘countererotics’ (The Sex Lives of Saints, p. 3) – an eroticism that culminates, not in an endorsement of the sexual energy it generates (as pornographic or lascivious narratives do), but in forcing the reader to confront moral and theological imperatives while in the grip of that energy – perhaps what Pratt is doing here could be described as a ‘counterromance’, in which the themes and conventions of romance are woven into the narrative only to be thwarted, not in the way that Romeo’s love for Juliet is thwarted, or Don Quixote’s for Dulcinea, but by imposing the exigencies of a higher love onto the framework of an earthly one.

If the narrative is perceived in this way, its erotic subtext is neither fully conscious nor fully unconscious, but seeps, as it were, through the cracks between the two genres (romance and hagiography). Agnes’s inflexible purpose subverts the young man’s romantic love, turning it first into a jealous desire to take revenge on his ‘rival’, then into agonising grief, and finally into lust – at the height of which he is strangled to death. Several times during this narrative Pratt stresses the youth’s misfortune in ever crossing Agnes’s path. While he may not be Catholic himself, the greater exuberance and uninhibitedness of the Catholic tradition clearly lends itself to this kind of expression, especially when the narrative is set in the pre-Reformation past, and the constraints of realism are relaxed; by telling a tale of long-ago events the author is able to give rein to the imagination in a way that presages the Gothic novel of the following century, and expresses underlying sexual tensions and anxieties in much the same way.


Adapted from Pain, Pleasure and Perversity: Discourses of Suffering in Seventeenth-Century England (2013), Chapter 8, ‘The Emergence of the Dominatrix’.