Common Female Imagery in the Later Middle Ages
In the medieval hierarchy, saints and witches could not have been farther apart. The saints, male and female, guided their fellow Christians down the path toward salvation while witches endangered the souls of everyone who associated with them. Yet, as Caroline Walker Bynum suggests in Holy Feast, Holy Fast, a very thin line divided the female saint from the witch. They shared a number of common powers such as levitation and the ability to read the thoughts and feelings of others, and both were thought to be possessed by a supernatural power. More importantly, many types of images common to witches–such as those involving food, marriage, sex, and pollution–were also common types of saintly images, although of course the details differed.
Moreover, these common images are feminine images, and so it should not be surprising to read Bynum’s work concerning the effect that gender had on the female saints. Holy Feast, Holy Fast shows that many of the images associated mostly or entirely with saintly women were directly influenced by the saints’ experiences as women. Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger, authors of The Malleus Maleficarum, do very much claim that women by nature are much more likely than men to resort to witchcraft, although they do not specifically study imagery. So witches and female saints, sharing a common gender and sharing very feminine imagery, were very much linked to and defined by their gender, and a change of perceptions regarding one category–witch, saint, or woman–could directly effect one or both of the other categories.
Of the common imagery, food provision is perhaps the most obvious image to be associated with women, for it was women who in medieval times prepared meals and who in nursing became food. Bynum gives considerable evidence for the theory that female saints demonstrated powers and visions relating to food much more frequently than their male counterparts did and that these images more often dealt with providing than with receiving. Examples of this include food and wine multiplying in the women’s presence and visions in which they took the Christ child to their breasts for suckling.
Yet witches too were known to perform food multiplication. Reginald Scot recorded that after celebrating witches had
eaten up a fat oxe, and emptied a butt of malmesie, and a binne of bread at some noble mans house, in the dead of the night, nothing is missed of all this in the morning. For the ladie Sibylla, Minerva or Diana with a golden rod striketh the vessell & the binne, and they are fullie replenished againe. Yea, she causeth the bullocks bones to be brought up and laid togither upon the hide, and lappeth the foure ends thereof together, laieing her golden rod thereon; and then riseth up the bullocks againe in his former estate and condition.
Witches also fed their animal familiars with their own bodies, growing unnatural teats from which the familiars could nurse.
Specifically, the food images of witch and saint were often connected with bodily fluids, and again this can easily be linked to their common gender. After all, it is women who lactate and menstruate. Milk from the breasts of even virgin saints and oil from their fingers and their relics healed the sick. Witches sometimes pricked their fingers to feed drops of their blood to the Devil or to a familiar. The Malleus Maleficarum specifically cites an incident in which a man (one of the few references to male witches) pulled May butter–a product of milk–from a flowing stream. It describes in detail how witches could steal cow milk through witchcraft and makes repeated mention of the fact that witchcraft could be employed to dry up a cow’s milk.
The lack of bodily fluids was likewise important in the cases of both witches and saints. Several saints failed to excrete, to bleed monthly, to sweat or to salivate, and this was considered a sign of divine grace. What the witch failed to exude were tears, and this could be important evidence during trial, especially when the witch refused to confess.
If [the judge] wishes to find out whether [the accused] is endowed with a witch’s power of preserving silence, let him take note whether she is able to shed tears when standing in his presence, or when being tortured. For. . . if she be a witch she will not be able to weep.
But to return to food: witches and saints were not always food providers, although when they did receive it was often blood that they ingested, referring again to bodily fluids. Saints experienced visions of Christ providing them with the Eucharist or allowing them to drink from the wound on his chest, most often after a temporal priest had refused to administer the cup or the wafer to them. The Eucharist frequently sent the saints into ecstasy. Some described the Eucharist’s taste as surpassing that of any other food, and others tasted blood when the wafer–sometimes said to become both body and blood–was placed on their tongues. Several saints were known to eat nothing but the Eucharist for long periods of time, sometimes for many years. For Catherine of Siena and others, the Eucharist not only sustained them but was the only food that they could digest.
Witches ingested the flesh and blood of murdered babies both in parody of the Eucharist at their Black Mass and at other times, evidently for sustenance. A man whose child was stolen from its cradle swore that he saw a group of women not only kill the child, but specifically that “he saw them kill his child and drink its blood and devour it. ”
While the saints sucked nourishment from the offered breast of Christ or Mary, witches sucked the life-blood from mortals.
There were tables heaped with food on which the witches would gorge themselves, but the food was somewhat foul and never seemed to quite satisfy one’s hunger. In fact, the witches were likely “to starve for hunger” after returning home, mirroring the craving that the saints developed for frequent communion.
Craving too was considered an aspect of women, although what they usually craved was sex (which numerous Christian writers have associated with food). The continued virginity of many of the saints was stressed by their admirers, and most married saints are recorded to have become continent through various means:they were widowed and refused to remarry, their husbands supported their wish to be continent, or their husbands let them be continent in exchange for some other concession. Continence was also often the first thing questioned by those who spoke ill of a supposed holy woman. Catherine of Siena was thought by her own sister tertiaries to make up for her unpleasant works “by seeking pleasure in shameful ways. ”
Moreover, the visions of female saints, especially those invoked by Eucharistic ecstasy, could possess very erotic qualities. Christ held the saints and embraced them, flooding them with tremendous feelings of joy that were described in distinctly sensual vocabulary. Margery Kempe went so far in her visions as to have “cuddled with Christ in bed. ”
Kramer and Sprenger too were especially interested in sex, for “all witchcraft comes from carnal lust, which is in women insatiable,’ and the topic is a frequent one in The Malleus Maleficarum. Numerous chapters deal with such topics as sexual intercourse between witches and devils, the possibility of children from such unions, obstruction of the venereal act and the power of generation, and glamors which cause the male organ to appear to be separated from the body. Women’s lustful nature is frequently mentioned. Incestual orgies were a common occurrence at sabbats. Slightly more subtle sexual imagery is evident in how witches clasped sticks or brooms between their legs when they flew and how they traveled backwards on animals, facing the buttocks.
With sex naturally comes marriage in the mind of any medieval Christian. Marriage, although obviously requiring both a man and a woman, was more of a women’s issue because it was considered a woman’s natural state once she was no longer a child. So uncomfortable was the notion of an unmarried adult woman that even nuns were considered brides of Christ, and they kept their virginity not because they were escaping marriage or sex, but because they were “destined for a higher consummation. ” Some, such as Catherine of Siena, had visions of actually marrying Christ and bore a red mark around one finger where a wedding ring invisible to all but themselves rested. Others were marked by stigmata, a painful gift born almost solely by women.
Witches did not go through a marriage, but they did seal their pact with the Devil through sexual intercourse just as holy matrimony would normally be consummated. But witches too were marked by the experience, bearing what was known as the Devil’s mark. It could appear anywhere on the body and might be invisible. However, this mark could be detected by pricking with a long pin because the witch was numb at the spot at which Satan had scarred her.
Finally, there is pollution. This is linked to women because of Eve, who was blamed for the ever-present stain on our souls. Furthermore, menstrual blood was considered so polluting that bleeding women did not take communion, and a woman having just gone through childbirth was not allowed to enter a church until she was cleansed through the ceremony of churching. People of the Mediterranean especially believed in the notion of the female body as being polluting, although the idea was certainly not restricted to that area. Bridget of Sweden “prohibited her nuns from touching altar cloths with their bare hands,” and Kramer and Sprenger described women as “contaminating to the touch. ”
Again, this image can be seen in reference to both witches and saints. Witches concocted poisons, and they frequently used their spells to sour beer and milk. Livestock was diseased. Meanwhile, the saint possessed the power to detect pollution. Either by vision or by vomiting several female saints identified unconsecrated–and therefore polluted–hosts. “Catherine of Sweden refused not only the breast of her sinful wet nurse but even the breast of her saintly mother, Bridget, whenever Bridget had had conjugal relations the night before,” suggesting that there was a certain impurity in Bridget’s milk that her baby could detect and reject.
It seems then that femininity itself was a major influence on the lives of women. More exactly, the images associated with women as a collective whole were far more strong than those images associated with any one possible aspect of their lives. Being a witch or a saint certainly changed the details surrounding a specific woman, but overall that woman was thought of first and foremost as a woman, not as a saint (in which case she would appear more like her male contemporaries) or as a witch (although the distinction is less clear due to the heavy association between women and witchcraft. Nevertheless, the fact that so many feminine images were adopted as witch images shows the potency of those images associated with medieval women).
Then it must be considered that views regarding women, or at least women mystics, must have changed around the fifteenth century as the number of female saints dropped and witch-trials skyrocketed. The simple fact is that with increasing frequency throughout the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries saints found themselves reviled instead of respected. Catherine of Siena was accused of being a witch, and it was questioned whether her fasts, along with the fasts of other female saints, were actually temptations of the devil. Margery Kempe was nearly burned as a heretic, a crime closely associated and sometimes confused with witchcraft. Joan of Arc too was accused of witchcraft, although her actual execution by burning was for heresy. Somewhere along the way people stopped believing that such miraculous women could be working for God and attributed their powers instead to the Devil, and indeed often the only thing that kept a saint from disgrace or even the flames was the power of the men who supported her.
Whether as a cause or an effect (although probably both), the simple fact is that women continued to lose considerable respectthroughout the Later Middle Ages. It can be seen in the evolution of medieval law codes. Over the centuries it became much harder for women to inherit and control property and to have a say in their own marriages and re-marriages. Women also found it increasingly difficult to establish new convents, and the number of powerful abbesses dwindled considerably. The Malleus Maleficarum, while in theory a work solely on witchcraft, gives considerable evidence of the evil of women such as in the following passage:
If we inquire, we find that nearly all the kingdoms of the world have been overthrown by women. Troy. . . was, for the rape of one woman, Helen, destroyed, and many thousands of Greeks slain. The kingdom of the Jews suffered much misfortune and destruction through the accursed Jezebel, and her daughter Athaliah, queen of Judah, who caused her son’s sons to be killed, that on their death she might reign herself. . . The kingdom of the Romans endured much evil through Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt, that worst of women. And so with others.
It then continues with a quote from Valerius to Rufinus in which Valerius describes the Chimaera and then The Malleus Maleficarum continues on in its own words, explaining:
. . . [Valerius] means that a woman in beautiful to look upon, contaminating to the touch, and deadly to keep. Let us consider another property of hers, the voice. For she is a liar by nature, so in her speech she stings while she delights us. Wherefore her voice is like the song of the Sirens, who with their sweet melody entice the passers-by and kill them. For theykill them by emptying their purses, consuming their strength, and causing them to forsake God.
The Malleus Maleficarum also frequently uses the word “women” when specifically discussing witches:”So there is not even the smallest farm where women do not injure each other’s cows, by drying up their milk, and very often killing them. “To its authors, women and witches were one in the same. That women could possibly be saints is admitted, for women “know no moderation in goodness or vice; and when they exceed the bounds of their condition they reach the greatest heights and the lowest depths of goodness and vice. “However, it is obvious that to Kramer and Sprenger, contemporary women as a general rule resided in those “lowest depths. ”
But why were women viewed in the Later Middle Ages with such disgust and abhorrence?The problem of association coupled with vague and shifting definitions may have played a role. It must be remembered that witchcraft had not always been seen as the unadulterated evil that it became during the Renaissance. For example, the twelfth century writer Gratian, along with some later popes and canonists, put the witch in the same category as fornicators and misers. His suggested punishment was simply “to eject them foully disgraced from their parishes. ” The Devil was rarely mentioned in association with such people; their crime was that of sorcery. And even sorcery was not always evil at least in the modern sense of the word. Church laws testify to the widespread practice of monks creating amulets bearing the names of angels, saints, Christ or Mary (which the Church attempted to stop, with only slow success). Furthermore, even in the midst of the witch-craze men and (more often) women called cunning-folk openly used magic for healing, exorcism, and other harmless objectives. Although the courts burned cunning-folk as witches such folk-magic remained popular with the peasantry and was not seen by them as diabolic or evil.
Demonic witchcraft first appeared in the Later Middle Ages in association with heresy. Heretics executed in Orleans in 1022, for example, supposedly paid homage to the Devil and desecrated the crucifix. They also participated in orgies and the murder and cannibalization of children conceived at these events. All of these were to become common occurrences at witch sabbats.
These heresies expressed many of the basic themes found in women’s religiosity in its orthodox forms:a concern for affective religious response, an extreme form of penitential asceticism, as emphasis on Christ’s humanity and on the inspiration of the spirit, and a bypassing of clerical authority.
Women flocked to these heresies, and it is not unreasonable to suppose that these heresies became intimately associated with femininity by the orthodox establishment because of the similarity of themes stressed and identified with by both orthodox women and heretics.
So if women were associated with heresy, and heresy was associated with witchcraft, it would not be a major leap to conclude that women were associated with witchcraft. Moreover, many women did practice the witchcraft of the cunning-folk, although some men did as well. Magic was seen by many as not always bad, and so at first the ramifications of the growing association may not have been evident. Rich women became nuns and then saints. Peasant women remained cunning-folk, and by and large no one complained.
By the fifteenth century, however, the major heresies had largely been eradicated, and heresy had become too useful to let die. As a political tool, accusations of heresy– and the associated accusation of witchcraft–were used to destroy and defame enemies, as in the case of Joan of Arc and Pope Boniface VIII, who was tried posthumously for apostasy, murder, sodomy, and making a pact with the Devil. Moreover, the war against heresy had united Christendom just as had the Crusades had and before that the conversion of the pagans.
And unity was sorely needed as the Church broke up into more and more denominations during the Reformation. There was no longer a general consensus as to what was the truth, leaving the populace drifting in a sea of contradictions. The witch-hunts were one religious action that everyone could agree on, and if the people were busy hunting witches then they were distracted from conflicting with each other. Therefore it is not at all surprising that the witch-hunts were conducted in their most intense form in those regions where the Catholic Church was weakest. In areas with a strong Church, such as Spain, Poland, and eastern Europe, the witchcraze phenomenon was negligible.
The Reformation was important in one other and probably more significant way:it attempted to sweep aside the saints altogether. According to Protestants, no mortal wielded power granted by God. Any miraculous event then could only be the work of the Devil, and any miracle worker could only be a witch. Scot characterizes witches as “women which be commonly old, lame. . . sullen, superstitious, and papists; or such as knowe no religion. “He also depicts the Eucharist as cruel cannibalism worked upon Jesus Christ.
But even Catholics were receiving the idea of female saints coolly by the fifteenth century, for such women made themselves scandals and nuisances. Catherine of Siena, for example, traveled alone far more often than was proper for a woman, and her unconscious and ecstatic body was often dragged from the church onto the street where “passersby, and those who thought that over-zealous Christians and exaggeratedly pious women were a public nuisance, would give her a kick or a slap as they went by. ” Christina the Astonishing and Ida of Louvain were both chained up by their families because of their excessive ecstasies and charities. Margery Kempe was finally allowed to live in continence upon promising her husband that she would stop embarrassing him by refusing food.
Furthermore, female saints had become a threat to the power structure. Their ability to identify unconsecrated hosts put them in a position from which they could pass judgment on the priest detailed to perform the consecration. Female saints, like their male counterparts, were constantly approached for spiritual advice and divine intervention, snubbing the Church’s insistence that women were by nature not qualified to be teachers or leaders or indeed much of anything other than the meek followers of their husbands. Nuns, beguines, and tertiaries were under neither husband nor father, and married saints often refused to engage in intercourse with their husbands. Small wonder then that widows–husbandless and independent–represented such a high percentage of suspects in the beginning of the witchcraze and in England.
As the witchcraze progressed on the Continent it became more and more frequent for large numbers of “suspects” to be arrested, tried, and executed on little or no evidence. However, at the beginning of the Continental craze and throughout the hunts in England, witches were tried individually with considerable evidence massed against them.
Now more than ever Europe needed a scapegoat. In the fourteenth century had come the Black Death, which remained in Europe for three centuries and killed at least a quarter of the population. France and England were locked in the devastating Hundred Year War in which gunpowder heralded in a new extreme of destruction and casualty numbers reached previously unknown heights.
Evil was infesting the world, and Late Medieval art indicates that Europeans had a very good sense of this. Earlier artwork depicted devils as small flittery things that might look almost comical, sort of a black, bat-winged cupid. As the end of the Middle Ages moved into the Renaissance, those devils became the Devil, Satan, who stood as tall as a man and appeared ferocious and fearsome. He was a tangible force that could be felt throughout Christendom. Meanwhile the neat, orderly early gothic cathedrals made way for unbalanced, chaotic, designs mirroring the state of the world. Christ figures became emaciated and pained. Images of the Crucifixion became common in which Christ’s wounds were ragged and bleeding.
In such uneasy times people wanted control, and there was none to be found so long as disease and famine–always a danger and so much more so in the middle of war–were seen as natural events. The idea of witchcraft offered the hope of changing circumstances through the killing of the guilty witches.
So the witch-hunts were a response to the horrors of Renaissance Europe, and it was no accident that those hunted were mostly women. Women were linked to heresy, and heresy was linked to witchcraft. Women had since ancient times been associated with wonder-working:the oracles of antiquity were usually women, and the goddess of magic, Hecate, was a woman, and female saints had many more visions than male saints, who tended to be canonized as leaders and theologians as opposed to mystics. But now the existence and validity of saints was called into question, leaving the witch as the sole worker of those wonders. If Satan had followers directly working on earth, it was almost natural to assume that those followers would be women.