This entry considers different European concepts embodied in the word maiden, both in folklore tradition and in literature. In folklore tradition, especially in some folk tales such as The Banished Wife or Maiden and The Maiden without Hands, the heroine's hands are cut off because she refuses to marry her father. She is banished, but later on marries a king and recovers her hands. In these examples, the word maiden could be replaced by the phrase young girl, because the heroine is in a period of transition between childhood and adulthood, between being a daughter and becoming a wife. These maidens leave a father for a husband, and even though they undergo a series of ordeals and journeys, they always end up (re)united with the husband in the prescribed order of society.
The category of maiden also includes young women who are not directly attached to fathers or husbands. In the Arthurian romances, for example, maidens are the young women that heroes encounter during quests. In Chrétien de Troyes's (1991) Perceval (written in the twelfth century), the young knight meets a maiden who spends the night with him and is even ready to help him fight. In The Knight of the Cart, for example, Lancelot meets a maiden who offers lodging to him on the condition that he agrees to sleep with her. In these examples, the maiden, who should be chaste, is not, and thus virginity is not a requirement for her to be considered a maiden. All these maidens are young women who act as their own agents. Desired and desiring, they are in control of their relationships with men until they marry and leave maidenhood for wifehood.
A famous maiden in the tradition of the Valkyries and warrior maiden is Brynhild, the heroine of Icelandic and Old Norse literature. In the Volsunga Saga, Brynhild chose war over marriage but was condemned to marriage after killing Odin's (the most important god in the Norse pantheon) favorite warrior. She decided that she would only marry a man who proved to be fearless. In The Nibelungenlied, she agrees to marry a man who can defeat her in athletic games because she will lose all her powers once she gets married. In both stories, the man who marries her receives help from another warrior. In The Nibelungenlied, even on her wedding night, her husband cannot conquer her and ends up tied up to the bed. The second night he gets help again from the same warrior and wins her. In the Volsunga Saga, when Brynhild finds out her husband needed help to win her, she asks him to kill the warrior and later kills herself (Andersson 1980). Unlike other maidens who willingly accept becoming wives, Brynhild puts many barriers between herself and marriage to delay the loss of her independence and powers.
The story of Brynhild is similar to that of Atalanta—a virgin huntress and the daughter of Boeotian king Schoeneus—who would only marry a man who could win a race against her. Many suitors failed and died, but Hippomenes, with the help of the goddess Aphrodite, distracted Atalanta by throwing golden apples, and won the race. Brynhild and Atalanta are forced into marriage by trickery because both Gunther and Hippomenes need outside help to win their maiden.
Joan of Arc (1412–1431) also embodies the concept of the maiden. Named La Pucelle d'Orléans (The maid of Orléans), the young Joan took up arms to free France from the English. In addition she dressed as a man and had short hair, which, she argued, befitted a maiden and protected her from sexual advances. Although fully inscribed in a feminine body, she nevertheless pushed the boundaries of gender roles prescribed by society. During her trial for heresy, the prosecutors were most disturbed by the fact that Joan would not wear women's clothing.
Like Joan of Arc, the sworn virgins of Albania showed strength and independence. These women were usually chosen at birth, but could also elect to fulfill the role of the son when there was no heir in a family. They had to renounce marriage and dress and behave as men. Once they became sworn virgins their were changed and they were no longer referred to as women in the community. Thus what may first appear as an example of female independence can also be seen as a reinforcement of the patriarchal system and its values.
These examples, drawn from European sources and mostly from premodern literature, describe maidenhood as a state between childhood and woman/wifehood where the maiden has the virtues of "chastity, purity, delicacy and beauty of body, modesty, humility and lacks the 'feminine passions'" (Phillips 2003, p. 7). Whereas some maidens do fit this description, many do not but, because they are maidens, their excesses are tolerated, probably because they are going through a transient phase of their lives. However, despite such tolerance, maidens who resist their roles as wife and/or traditional woman may lose their lives.
Andersson, Theodore M. 1980. The Legend of Brynhild. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Chrétien de Troyes. 1991. Arthurian Romances, trans. William W. Kibler. New York: Penguin Classics.
Clover, Carol J. 1995. "Maiden Warrior and Other Sons." In Matrons and Marginal Women in Medieval Society, ed. Robert R. Edwards and Vickie Zigler. Rochester, NY: Boydell Press.
Foulet-Uitti, ed. Le Chevalier de La Charette (Lancelot). Le Projet Charette. Available from http://www.mshs.univ-poitiers.fr/cescm/lancelot/.
Hotchkiss, Valerie. 1996. Clothes Make the Man: Female Cross Dressing in Medieval Europe. New York: Garland.
Marie de France. Lanval. L'université du Manitoba. Available from http://www.umanitoba.ca/faculties/arts/french_spanish_and_italian/m05.htm.
Morford, Mark P.O., and Robert J. Lenardon. 1995. Classical Mythology, 5th edition. White Plains, NY: Longman.
Phillips, Kim M. 2003. Medieval Maidens Young Women and Gender in England, 1270–1540. New York: Manchester University Press.
Young, Antonia. 2000. Women Who Become Men: Albanian Sworn Virgins. Oxford: Berg Publishing.
maid·en / ˈmādn/ • n. 1. archaic or poetic/lit. a girl or young woman, esp. an unmarried one. ∎ a virgin. 2. (also maiden over) Cricket an over in which no runs are scored. • adj. 1. (of a woman, esp. an older one) unmarried: a maiden aunt. ∎ (of a female animal) unmated. 2. being or involving the first attempt or act of its kind: the ship's maiden voyage. ∎ denoting a horse that has never won a race, or a race intended for such horses. ∎ (of a tree or other fruiting plant) in its first year of growth. DERIVATIVES: maid·en·hood / -ˌhoŏd/ n. maid·en·ish adj. maid·en·like / -ˌlīk/ adj. maid·en·ly adj.
The maiden is also the name given to a form of the guillotine used in 16th and 17th century Scotland for beheading criminals of rank. According to tradition, it was introduced by James Douglas, Earl of Morton (d. 1581), Regent of Scotland, who was himself beheaded with it.
the answer to a maiden's prayer an eligible bachelor.
Maiden Castle a prehistoric site in Dorset, consisting of an enormous Iron Age earthwork surrounded by a series of ramparts; excavations in 1934–7 show that settlement there dated back to the Neolithic period.
maiden speech the first speech delivered in the House of Commons or House of Lords by a Member, an expression dating from the early 18th century.
See also Rhine maidens, swan maiden.