The cult of a bearded female saint called Wilgefortis once nearly rivaled that of the Virgin Mary.
Wilgefortis was often depicted as a Portuguese, sometimes septuplet, princess distinguished by a large beard. In the legend, the beard (and possibly body hair) grew overnight.
Wilgefortis, who had taken a vow of perpetual virginity, prayed God to disfigure her to repulse a potential husband. This indeed disinclined the groom to marry, but disposed her father to crucify her.
She is the patron saint of monsters, people who suffered from deformities, and women seeking refuge from abusive husbands. Not to mention the patron saint of facial hair.
The Catholic Encyclopedia describe her as “a fabulous female saint known also as UNCUMBER, KUMMERNIS, KOMINA, COMERA, CUMERANA, HULFE, ONTCOMMENE, ONTCOMMER, DIGNEFORTIS, EUTROPIA, REGINFLEDIS, LIVRADE, LIBERATA, etc.”
According to David Williams, author of Deformed Discourse, those chapels where her image was found sometimes had mysterious underground passages associated with them.
In darker versions of the Wilgefortis legend , it’s her own father who wishes to marry Wilgefortis. A Benedictine monk identified her as a maiden “whose father desired to marry her, intending to force her; but God heard her prayer and transformed her female figure into that of a man so that she developed, overnight, hair and beard, and looked like a man.”
Texts in 1651 and 1712 also mention incest in the Wilgefortis story.
Only recently have we learned to associate Hirsutism with either psychological (traumatic stress) or medical (hormonal imbalances) causes.
Yet legends of the past often linked Hirsutism with traumatizing incidents of rape, incest or torture.
How deep did Wilgefortis’s significance to other abused women go? In 1678, an Augsburg Jesuit Benigius Kybler says that her image could be found “in almost every church.”
A statue of her even stands in the Henry VII chapel in Westminster.
In Medieval times, miraculous beards like Wilgefortis were seen as divine gifts. Not only did they protect the female’s virginity, they made her look more like (the bearded) Christ. Wilgefortis was not the only female saint to be so lucky : St. Paula of Avila and St. Galla of Rome were described as being bearded. St. Agnes was apparently able to cloak her entire body in hair; St. Mary Magdalene and St. Mary of Egypt were said to have sprouted wooly body hair.
The Egyptian Queen Hatshepsut (ruled 1490 – 1470 BC) is often pictured as wearing a ceremonial beard attached to her chin. She also insisted on being called “His Majesty” and declared herself the “son” of the Sun God Ra.
In ancient times, a beard symbolized virility and power and was often included in depictions of certain androgynous, and even female, deities.
As late as the 19th century, women prayed to Wilgefortis for children and “as a source of fertility,” writes Williams. “As a sign of this, votives in the form of a toad were hung under her image.”
On the other hand, they appealed to her to be rid of old,abusive, or impotent husbands. Thus her French name “Debarras” was inspired by the prayer “Debarrase-moi de ca”, or across the channel “Uncumber me of this.”
By 1529 Sir Thomas More was accusing English women of changing Wilgefortis’s name to Uncumber “bycawse they teken that…she wyll not fayle to uncumber them of theyr husbondis.”
During the reformation, shrines to Wilgefortis were despoiled, including images of her in St. Pauls in 1538.
Before the Church removed her commemoration in ’69, July 20 was her feast day.
Who is this bearded woman?
One theory about Wilgefortis is that the Medieval carving of Volto Santo of Lucca puzzled Northern Christians. It shows a a tunic-wearing, androgynous, crucified Christ. They asked: “Just who is this bearded woman and why was she crucified?” Somehow, the Wilgefortis legend was born.
The legend’s certainly not forgotten.
The Bearded Lady Project started out as a joke between paleontologist Ellen Currano, film director and producer Lexi Jamieson Marsh. Wouldn’t working life be easier with a beard? Paleontology idolizes large, grizzled or bearded men wielding large pickaxes, and moving boulders. On reflection, the joke turned real.
They traveled across the US and UK interviewing female paleontologists and, of course, taking portraits of scientists in the wild – with wild beards.
Neil Gaiman’s and Terry Pratchett’s Good Omens mentions St. Wilgefortis:
“According to legend, Beryl was a young woman who was betrothed against her will to a pagan, Prince Casimir. On their wedding night she prayed to the Lord to intercede, vaguely expecting a miraculous beard to appear, and she had in fact already laid in a small ivory-handled razor, suitable for ladies, against this very eventuality; instead the Lord granted Beryl the miraculous ability to chatter continually about whatever was on her mind, however inconsequential, without pause for breath or food.”
You could also try the comic Castle Waiting. It’s mostly set in a Nunnery dedicated to St. Wigglefarts. All the Nuns have Beards.
Or just buy the t-shirt. You can get the Saint Wilgefortis Gender Equality and Protection T-shirt at Amazon.
However Wilgefortis came about, turns out she was the Saint women wanted and needed.
If you enjoyed this you might like the story of Saint Guinefort, who was both a Medieval Saint and a dog.
“Beards” – The Paris Review
“The Tale of the Toad and The Female Bearded Saint” – Atlas Obscura
“Deformed Discourse” by David Williams
Siobhan is a freelance writer, research addict and lover of twisted history. If you like horrible but amazing history, check out her website www.interesly.com or Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/interesly. Or you can reach her through www.siobhanoshea.com.