By Martin Le France (1410-1461) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
In her essay in Listening to Heloise, edited by Bonnie Wheeler, Jane Chance argues that the people, objects and concepts from the Middle Ages which we study and feel we have come to know are, in fact, completely unknowable to us. We understand a concept through our own modern eyes and sometimes ears (sometimes even touch) but that modern perspective can never be fully removed. Even if we study something for many years and believe we fully know it, we cannot because we are living in our own time and the concept or figure we are studying is not.
Feminist scholars have examined every kind of female experience in the Middle Ages, from anchorites to nuns to beguines, from virgins to wives to widows, from working women to mothers to scholars to queens: we examine female experience and claim it as part of our own, at least as far as history will allow us to do that. The witch, however, is not as frequently examined by feminist medievalists. She is not forgotten. There have been many important works on the subject in recent years, and several women whose stories have received attention. An important example is Alice Kyteler (1280 –after 1325), who was accused of witchcraft alongside her maid Petronella de Meath. Alice was convicted but escaped but Petronella was burnt at the stake in 1324. This was one of the first witchcraft trials in Europe. And there are some excellent studies by feminist early modernists, such as Diane Purkiss’s The Witch in History. Yet feminist medievalists, on the whole, have not embraced the witch (or should I say, “the witch”) as they have other medieval women.
I struggle with this as a scholar and as a woman: the experience of women in the past must help to inform us of where we have been and where we are going. We should omit no one, and yet we do, somehow, turn our backs on the figure of “the witch.” We look at rape victims, torture victims, indeed brutalized murder victims (read medieval hagiography for all three), but where is the witch?
Part of what troubles me is indeed this idea of duality expressed by Chance—that the medieval witch (a figure of fear and cultural anxiety, blamed for society’s ills, murdered in large numbers across Europe for at least four hundred years) never existed, as such. The terrible, feared witch referred to, for example, in the Malleus Maleficarum (1486) or in James VI of Scotland’s Daemonologie (1597), described and produced on stage in Macbeth is a creature from the dark places in our deepest fears: there simply were no actual witches in Europe . . . ever.
But the figure of the witch persisted then as it does now, leading to the deaths of thousands, hundreds of thousands of people in the Middle Ages and Early Modern periods (an accurate account of the number of those killed is very difficult to determine—estimates range from 6,000 to 600,000 or more). It persisted throughout that time due to fears of heresy, unruly sexual behavior, and misogyny. It persisted into the seventeenth and eighteenth century, even in the American Colonies due to similar issues, as well as cultural and racial insecurities. It persists now in post-feminist pop culture with Charmed or Wicked where “the witch” can now be reclaimed as a sexy underdog who really only wants to do good in a very bad world.
We certainly like to reclaim the figure of “the witch,” either as a villain (such as Lewis’s Jadis or Baum’s witches of the East and West), a gentle, sexy magician (such as Sabrina or Samantha), or a misunderstood outcast (such as Bugs Bunny’s Witch Hazel or the unnamed Witch from Sondheim and Lapine’s Into the Woods). Each of these portrayals takes a piece of the truth and capitalizes on it, but what they have in common, from Shakespeare’s Scotland to Oz, is that they are both female and socially difficult.
Each one also represents the lie that witches ever actually existed, and as a feminist, it is impossible for me to find humor or entertainment in a figure whose construction is based on the brutal murders of thousands of innocent people, mostly women, who did nothing to deserve that treatment except, possibly (and only in some cases) that they resisted masculinist culture by choosing not to marry, choosing not to attend church, or choosing to help other women with unwanted pregnancies.
Those who died as “witches” in the Middle Ages were marginalized by their situations: some had been abandoned by the men in their lives; some were healers; some clung to the remnants of Celtic paganism in the face of the megalithic Christian world. Some simply made an enemy in a powerful neighbor. All were innocent of witchcraft.
While some scholars have written about this (it was a huge topic for feminists in the 1970s), most medieval scholars seem not to pay much attention to “the witch,” or even, more sadly, the witch. Recent scholarly volumes on rape have given us a great deal of insight into medieval attitudes towards sexual violence, but they lack a focus on women who, accused of witchcraft, were raped in prison or in their own homes. Other scholars have addressed sexual transgression, queer behavior, among men and women in the Middle Ages, but they have not mentioned victims of witch trials (and executions).
Why do feminists avert their eyes from the witch?
My belief, after studying witches (and feminism) is that there are three reasons. One is that those who study witchcraft tend to be perceived as less seriously scholarly than those who study other subjects. In the program for the 2016 International Medieval Congress at Western Michigan University there are five papers that mention witches or witchcraft: three refer to romance, one to “anti-magic,” and one to the aforementioned Alice Kyteler, the “witch of Kilkenny” to be presented by Maeve Brigid Callan, author of the recent book, The Templars, the Witch, and the Wild Irish. It shows that, at least currently, the witch exists on the margins of medieval scholarship (as it has throughout most of scholarly history).
The second reason is difficult for most medieval (female) scholars to admit, but it is the case that we live in a culture of youth, beauty, and fitness, and embracing a figure who is always (in the Middle Ages) depicted as an ugly, old, hag is not something most of us want to do. An unruly, outspoken woman in today’s world is often called a crone, a hag, or a witch: we don’t like the association, so we stay as far away from her as we can. Admit it, feminists, few of you would want to identify (in the physical sense) with the medieval concept of the smelly, warty hag described by Alisoun of Bath. Guinevere or is much more appealing. Even Criseyde (before Robert Henryson gave her leprosy in his Testament of Cresseid) is preferable.
The third reason is more insidious, and it is part of the problem of feminist studies and organizations across all the disciplines, one I have seen, even felt personally, and continue to struggle with in my own work. That is, we do not know what to do with the truly marginal, truly outcast, and so we look away. It is easier to talk about the goddess-like power of Morgan le Fay and claim that her power empowers the feminine; it is far easier to demonize a fictional “witch” and talk about the misogyny of her creator; it is even possible to reclaim Joan of Arc (also, not ever actually a witch), who used her accusers fear of her to stay alive (if briefly).
It is painful and difficult, however, to reach out to the brutalized, beaten, even burned remains of a medieval woman who found herself at the hands of an angry mob, misogynistic institutions, and a church that demonized her from birth (because women were always already bad in the Middle Ages, weren’t they?). We don’t want to look at them. We don’t want to be associated with “the crone.”
We would rather bask in the empowerment of Chaucer’s shape-shifting hag (who really just wants sovereignty, after all) than face what we do to those who are different, who don’t fit in, who are physically repellant or disfigured, who occupy the margins and cannot (or will not) move in closer to the fold.
And this is where the stakes change (pun intended): when feminists ignore, marginalize, or otherwise reject anyone or anything, they participate in the patriarchal oppression of those people or things. Feminists, or those who claim feminism, must include all female experience in their examination and empowerment of the feminine. Those who ignoring the accused witch, or choose not to see her, are as oppressive as those who imprisoned and tortured her in the Middle Ages: it is a re-enactment of their obliteration from women’s history by the patriarchy.
I am not calling for a generation of feminists to turn to the witch and embrace her. We can’t. We can only know “the witch,” after all, not the stories of the thousands of women accused and executed during the Middle Ages. The woman accused of witchcraft is mostly lost to us (either because their names were not recorded or because, like Alice Kyteler, they escaped torture and execution and chose to be lost). She is silenced and forgotten, and for the most part ignored by feminist scholarship; she cannot be reclaimed.
But it is instructive to consider her, to think about how unknowable she is, and to be reminded of her experience when we talk about femininity, maternity, female sexuality, even female empowerment in the Middle Ages.
She is there, in the background: don’t ignore her.