Witches and Wicked Bodies: Imagining the ‘Other’

Agostino Veneziano (fl. 1509–1536), The Witches’ Rout (The Carcass). Engraving, c. 1520. Exhibition Poster for 'Witches and Wicked Bodies' at the British Museum

Agostino Veneziano (fl. 1509–1536), The Witches’ Rout (The Carcass). Engraving, c. 1520. Exhibition Poster for ‘Witches and Wicked Bodies’ at the British Museum

This weekend I went to the ‘Witches and Wicked Bodies‘ exhibition at the British Museum. It’s free, and open until January 11th, and I really enjoyed it.

It’s not a big exhibition, and it’s all moody and wintery with very little colour (mostly black-and-white prints and drawings and so on). There are a few ‘flashbacks’ to the earlier sources that influenced later artists, including a really gorgeous Boeotian Greek vase with an image of the witch Odysseus meets, Circe, pictured as an African woman.

This made me think about race, and I noticed was that a lot of the post-medieval imagery attached to witches is similar to the anti-semitic imagery of medieval England and Europe. Medieval attitudes to Jews and witches were at the front of my mind anyway, because on Friday I taught the passage in Langland’s late fourteenth-century poem Piers Plowman where Christ is condemned to death in front of a baying crowd of spiteful Jewish accusers, and one of the accusations they throw at him (twice) is that of witchcraft:

‘”Crucifige!” quod a cachepol, “I warante hym a wicche!”‘
(‘”Crucify him!” said a tax officer, “I bet that he is a witch!”‘)
Piers Plowman B, XVIII 46

Now, this comment is actually pretty odd, in its context. A lot of people assume that medieval accusations of witchcraft were all over the place, because there’s a very popular misconception that, well, medieval people were all barbaric and woman-hating, so obviously they must have been burning witches left, right and centre? Right? Well, wrong. That’s the early Moderns, and they preferred to hang them, anyway.

It’s not that medieval people never mention witches. As I’ve said in a previous post, Robert Mannying (writing in the early fourteenth century) has a brilliant story dripping with innuendo, about a witch who gets the better of the local bishop. But, by and large, medieval England doesn’t have the witch-mania that came later, accompanied by hangings and inquisitions and the generation of all the stereotypes we associate with witches today.

What’s they do have – and the scene in Piers Plowman that mentions witchcraft is full of it – is anti-semitism. And as I went around the exhibition, I realized that, actually, the imagery of these two kinds of ‘evil Other’ were echoing each other.

Crusaders slaughter Jewish men. French Bible Illumination, taken from this site.

Crusaders slaughter Jewish men. French Bible Illumination, taken from this site.

Medieval anti-semitic images and texts typically represent Jews, one of the arch-enemies of Christianity, as male. Saracens (ie., Muslims) are often women who fall into the enduringly racist ‘dusky-skinned princess destined to be saved by handsome white man’ trope. But most Jewish figures are men. As you can see in the image above, like witches, medieval Jews as represented by non-Jewish people have distinctive attributes. Here, in addition to their pointed Jewish hats, the Jewish men kneeling in the bottom right-hand corner are leaning, twisting their bodies anti-clockwise, while their attackers lean and gesture in a clockwise motion.

This is a pretty common trope in iconography (I went to a cracking lecture on it by, if I remember rightly, Anthony Bale. Depressingly, the lecture was so good I was concentrating more on that than on who gave it!). Jewish figures are often pictured moving anticlockwise (‘widdershins’), or reaching out with their (sinister) left hands. And here, in the exhibition, the same visual point was being made in images culmination with Dürer’s Witch Riding backwards on a Goat: just as Jews lean anti-clockwise (‘widdershins’), so too the post-medieval witches dancing in that direction or ride facing backwards to indicate their unnatural position in the world.

Witches were imagined eating babies and poisoning wells; in medieval anti-semitic stories we find stories of Jewish communities murdering children (like the revoltingly pious little song-school scholar in Chaucer’s Prioress’s Tale, who continues to sing hymns to the Virgin Mary even after evil Jews have cut up his body and hidden it in a privy). The medieval story that Jews used the blood of murdered Christians to bake their matzos translates nicely into the giant’s ‘I’ll grind your bones to make my bread,’ but it’s also picked up in images of cannibalistic witches.

The parallels extended to accessories. There was one amazing seventeenth-century German picture of a witches’ sabbath, which included a ring of women dancing to the accompaniment of a giant black hare. The longer you looked, the more pairs of Cheshire-cat eyes and hunched catty backs you noticed hiding in the corners of the image. And I knew that Black cats seem to have had a dubious reputation in a lot of contexts, before becoming our preferred image of the witch’s familiar. Alan of Lille claimed that Cathers – twelfth-century heretics – were in the habit of kissing black cats on the arse, which was obviously a sign of devil-worship.

Bibliothèque cantonale et universitaire de Lausanne, U 964, fol. 376r

Bibliothèque cantonale et universitaire de Lausanne, U 964, fol. 376r. Image from Discarding Images.

A few medievalists I know have been wondering why on earth this intrepid archer is shooting such a vulnerably-positioned cat – now do we know why? Cat arses: dangerous business.

Sure enough, in her book on the emergence of anti-semitic medieval imagery, Sara Lipton finds thirteenth-century images of Jews kissing black cats, too. She also finds that toads – as images of greed – became part of the same iconography, as did ravens. You can see where this is going.

Now, naturally, as my friend observed while we were going round the exhibition, the rumours and images and anecdotes are easily adapted to fit new bogeymen (women?) in every generation. But for me, it’s particularly interesting when a set of images that were centred around one gender shift across to the other gender. What was it that changed? 

The paraphernalia we’ve become accustomed to associating with witches – with cackling, evil caricatures of the real people who were executed for their Otherness, like the early-Modern witches hanged in England and abroad, and like the Jewish communities murdered or expelled from twelfth-century England – is a meme used to instil fear. Once, this imagery stirred up, and simultaneously justified, medieval anti-semitism to people whose country had got rid of its Jewish population. Then, it became the imagery of the women society wanted to stare at, shudder at, and use to frighten children. And it has endured.


Aside from the book linked to above, there’s an article by Lipton that’s worth reading (and the title alone is great): ‘Jews, Heretics and the Sign of the Cat in the Bible Moralisée,’ Word and Image 8 (1992): 362-77.

In the medieval illumination, I’ve just noticed God is looking leftwards too. What’s that about?

Irritatingly, when I came across Daily Fail article about this exhibition, they claimed that the exhibition poster (The Witches’ Rout, an engraving by Veneziano dated to c. 1520) was ‘typical of the terrifying witches of the fifteenth century’. Now, either someone writing doesn’t understand how century-naming works (it’s actually quite common, that), or they figured meh, what does it matter, it’s more or less medieval and who really cares that this exhibition seemed to be making some kind of point by starting with the Renaissance, eh?


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‘Bodies without Histories': Poems and Memories

Botticelli, 'Madonna of the Book,' 1480

Botticelli, ‘Madonna of the Book,’ 1480

I should have written a post for National Poetry Day yesterday, but life got in the way, so it’s here today instead.

It’s long, but a lot of the length comes from two pieces of poetry I wanted to post.  Apparently, today, it would be de rigueur for me to write an enthusiastic blog post, not about poetry, but about my first visit to Oxford’s new manuscript library. I have been, and it is lovely, and yes, you can look out over the Oxford skyline, and yes, the stairs are excitingly futuristic and look very Battlestar Galactica, and yes, I am (just!) old enough to have looked up my first manuscripts in the old five hundred year old library built by Duke Humfrey and I am sad that no one else will get to do that now. But, Sjoerd Levelt and David Rundle have both written lovely, eloquent pieces on the subject.

Their research places them in a chain of known and named readers in this library: Professor Rundle works partly on Duke Humfrey, the fifteenth-century aristocrat who had it built, and Dr Levelt works on John Selden, book collector and historian, for whom the ‘Selden end’ of the old manuscripts reading room is named. Both of them made interesting points about what it was like to handle manuscripts belonging to these men in the very same space where those manuscripts were kept and read hundreds of years ago. You could stand in the room and imagine the exact same physical experiences – the same manuscripts in your hands, the same light slanting through the same windows – that those men had in the past. 

Memory has a corporeal aspect in some of my favourite poems, and functions a bit the way that long-lived libraries do, to let dead voices come to life again through shared books.

Start with The Wasteland. Before I had the foggiest idea what Eliot was talking about, let alone where half of these archaic-sounding lines were stolen from, bits of the poem stuck out in a non-English rhythm.  “A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many, I had not thought death had undone so many.” Those lines are actually from Dante’s Inferno: “si lunga tratta/ di gente, ch’ i’ non averei creduto/ che morte tanta n’avesse disfatta” (‘such a long train of people, that I would not have believed that death had undone so many’). Before that, they look towards Virgil’s Aeneid, which Dante draws on to imagine his crowd of thronging dead, and from which he borrows his imagined guide through Hell, the poet Virgil. His crowd echoes that of Virgil, who describes how “omnis turba ad ripas effusa ruebat,/ matres atque viri, defunctaque corpora vita/ magnanimum heroum, pueri innuptaeque puellae …” (‘all of this crowd were rushing to the banks [of the river Styx]: mothers and men, bodies devoid of life, great-hearted heroes, boys and unmarried girls …”). In turn, Virgil’s Latin is taken from Homer’s Greek in the Odyssey, where, after Odysseus summons the dead up from Hades with a libation of blood, αἱ δ’ ἀγέροντο/ ψυχαὶ ὑπὲξ Ἐρέβευς νεκύων κατατεθνηώτων/ νύμφαι τ’ ἠίθεοί τε πολύτλητοί τε γέροντες” (‘then the spirits of the dead came, thronging, from Erebus: young wives and youths, old men who had suffered much …’)

The Greek takes us in a loop back to the modernist poets, for Pound – Eliot’s contemporary and friend – begins his Cantos with a loose translation of the same Greek lines with which this book of the Odyssey begins, which then echo forward into Latin, Italian and then Eliot’s English. Each subsequent re-use of an older text reanimates that text, just as Homer’s dead are brought back to speak to Odysseus in the first place.

I absoutely love the way these poems form a conversation. And I feel hugely lucky to have got to study all of them. It’s on my mind because I’m going back to teach some of the courses where I first met some of these writers (and places are evocative, even for feministy women). But, then, a little bit of me feels as if it’s not my conversation,  just as it’s not my library – I’m a visitor on the edge of a conversation carried out between men and in the male voice. Much as I love those male voices, I wondered how we could think about women immortalised in poems and memories.

The first medieval poem that sprang to mind when I thought about women, poetry, memory and loss was this one (anonymous, for what it’s worth, ok, I admit I think here anon was a man, despite writing about a woman). Here are the opening lines, with a facing translation:

Perle, plesaunte to prynces paye,
Pearl, pleasing to a prince’s taste,
To clanly clos in golde so clere
To enclose cleanly in bright gold
Oute of Oryent, I hardyly saye,
From the Orient, I dare swear
Ne proved I never her precios pere.
I never found her precious peer.
So rounde, so reken in uche araye,
So round, so beautiful in every setting
So smal, so smothe her sydes were,
So small, so smooth, her sides were
Queresoever I jugged gemmes gaye
Wheresoever I judged beautiful gems
I sette hyr sengeley in synglure.
I set her apart, unparalleled.
Allas, I leste hyr in on erbere;
Alas, I lost her in a garden
Thurgh gresse to grounde hit fro me yot.
Through the grass to the ground, it slipped from me.
I dewyne, fordolked of luf-daungere
I linger, wounded by love-frustration
Of that pryvy perle withouten spot.
For that special pearl, without a spot.II

Sythen in that spote hit fro me sprange,
Since it sprang from me in that spot,
Ofte haf I wayted, wyschande that wele
I have often waited, wishing for the joy
That wont was whyle devoyde my wrange
That once was wont to dispel my woe
And heven my happe and al my hele.
And raise my heart and happiness.
That dos bot thrych my herte thrange,
This only pierces my heart sorely,
My breste in bale bot bolne and bele.
My breast burns and swells in anguish.
Yet thoght me never so swete a sange
Yet, I never thought of so sweet a song
As stylle stounde let to me stele;
As that still moment let steal over me,
Forsothe, ther fleten to me fele
Indeed, many things flooded over me,
To thenke hir color so clad in clot.
To think of her colour, covered in earth.
O moul, thou marres a myry juele,
Oh mould, you mar a merry jewel,
My privy perle wythouten spotte.
My own pearl, without a spot.

The whole poem is much longer, and it has a gorgeously complicated, repetitive, architectural structure to it. As it unfolds, we realize that the reason the man speaking refers to this pearl as ‘she’ is because the precious stone represents a woman whom he loved and who is now dead and buried – ‘lost’ in a garden that is a graveyard, her ‘colour so clad in clot’, clothed in clods of earth.

I find this a poignant evocation of grief – especially the speaker’s contrast between the ornate beauty of the lost pearl and the gruesome glimpse of the woman’s burial, ‘clad in clot’. However, there’s no denying that even though the dead woman, the lost pearl, belongs to a poetic tradition as old as that which Eliot traces back to Homer, her precious, passive, untouchable body belongs to a wider tradition of representing chaste, beautiful women as perfect in their proximity to death. Jocelyn Wogan-Browne writes a brilliant (and disturbing) description of this kind of medieval attitude:

“Chaste female spirituality is … located in bodies without histories, locked away both from outer event and physiological change. … This writing-out of women is part of a thematic preoccupation with their death in the literature of chastity.”

[quoted from Wogan-Browne, ‘Chaste bodies: frames and experiences,’ in Framing Medieval Bodies, eds. Sarah Kay and Miri Rubin (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1994), 24-42 (p. 24)]

On the surface, all of this is true of Pearl, just as it is of the earlier text to which Wogan-Browne refers. The repeated line referring to a pearl ‘without a spot’ echoes the medieval scriptural interpretations of the perfect female beloved as one who, like the Virgin Mary has no ‘spot’ of sin. In death, she is enclosed in the grave, ‘clad in clot,’ yet this enclosure only continues that more beautiful enclosure imagined in the first lines, where she was ‘clos[ed] in gold’. 

Admittedly, this is a complex poem. It won’t let me construct some neat theory about the ways in which dead men are memorialised through poems that let them speak again, while women, in death, are passive and silent. And I’m glad I can’t.  However, I still read those lines and wish I had something later to look towards, the way you can look from Dante to Eliot or Homer to Pound. And so, that’s where the second poem I want to quote comes from. It’s by a modernist, contemporary with Pound and Eliot, and she deserves to be better known. This is a piece from her long epic poem, Trilogy.

Raphael, Madonna del cardellino ('Our Lady of the Goldfinch'). 1505-6

Raphael, Madonna del cardellino (‘Our Lady of the Goldfinch’). 1505-6

We have seen her
The world over,

Our Lady of the Goldfinch,
Our Lady of the Candelabra,

Our Lady of the Pomegranate,
Our Lady of the Chair;

we have seen her, an empress,
magnificent in pomp and grace,

and we have seen her
with a single flower

or a cluster of garden-pinks
in a glass beside her;

we have seen her snood
drawn over her hair

or her face set in profile
 with the blue hood and stars;

we have seen her head bowed down
with the weight of a domed crown,

or we have seen her, a wisp of a girl
trapped in a golden halo;

we have seen her with arrow, with doves
and a heart like a valentine;

we have seen her in fine silks imported
from all over the Levant,

and hung with pearls brought
from the city of Constantine;

we have seen her sleeve
of every imaginable shade

of damask and figured brocade;
it is true,

the painters did very well by her;
it is true, they never missed a line

of the suave turn of the head
or subtle shade of lowered eye-lid

or eye-lids half-raised; you find
her everywhere (or did find),

in cathedral, museum, cloister,
at the turn of the palace stair.

da Vinci, study of the Madonna, c. 1484

da Vinci, study of the Madonna, c. 1484

We see her hand in her lap,
smoothing the apple-green

or the apple-russet silk;
we see her hand at her throat,

fingering a talisman
brought by a crusader from Jerualem;

we see her hand unknot a Syrian veil
or lay down a Venetian shawl

on a polished table that reflects
half a miniature broken column

O yes – you understand, I say,
this is all most satisfactory,

but she wasn’t hieratic, she wasn’t frozen,
she wasn’t very tall;

she is the Vestal
from the days of Numa,

she carries over the cult
of the Bona Dea,

she carries a book but it is not
the tome of the ancient wisdom,

the pages, I imagine, are the blank pages
of the unwritten volume of the new;

all you say, is implicit,
all that and much more;

but she is not shut up in a cave
like a Sibyl; she is not

imprisoned in leaden bars
in a coloured window;

she is Psyche, the butterfly,
out of the cocoon.

H. D. shows how this woman, the Virgin Mary – central to Western Art History – is seen in the eyes of painters and viewers as a conflation of exchangeable images of femininity, now one woman, now another, now pictured like this, now like that. These Madonnas, with their precious stones and beautiful settings, their enclosure in picture frames or even ‘trapped in a golden halo’, patently share in the same iconographic tradition of the medieval pearl-maiden. A poet like Pound or Eliot might have made her literary and artistic predecessors speak, but instead, H. D. offers a corrective to their view. She strips away all of the rich, evocative tradition and insists on her own poetic authority to define her Madonna. This Madonna is not a (female) ‘body without history,’ nor a (male) speaking voice reanimated, but a move towards something new. 

I hope you like the poems. 


The titles H. D. gives to her Madonna are the titles of paintings, mostly by Raphael. I have to admit, I don’t really warm to Raphael. I always visualised this poem with vague images of da Vinci Madonnas. Sorry! I have absolutely no idea whether or not H. D. could have read the medieval poem Pearl. The imagery is drawn from many of the same sources, but Pearl wasn’t especially well known when H. D. was writing. 

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I Should Of Known: Julian of Norwich and the Venerable History of Dodgy Auxiliary Verbs

Teaching Medieval Students. London, BL MS Royal 19 C ii, f. 48v.

Teaching Medieval Students. London, BL MS Royal 19 C ii, f. 48v.

Thrilling title, I know.

And no, this post isn’t technically about feminism or medieval romance, so you’ll have to forgive me for a moment, because I’m going to bang on about bad grammar and dyslexia. I’m writing this because for about the ninth time this month, I’ve heard someone insist that it’s perfectly fair to judge people who make grammatical slips, because there’s no reason to do that except for ignorance or laziness.

Now, personally, I’m not wild about judging people for ignorance. It seems like educational privilege to me. But I’m even more fed up with people who assume grammar errors can only be made through ignorance of correct standard English. In my experience, the same people tend to have a wildly idealistic attitude towards the history of the English language, so it’s always fun when you notice something in a medieval text that is a dead ringer for one of the ‘modern’ mistakes that horrify the pearl-clutchers.

And I found a nice one of those today.

When I’m reading medieval texts, I sometimes record them as audio files, and doing that really makes you pay attention to each author’s habits of expression, in a way that I don’t remember to do so much if I’m just reading silently. At the moment, I’m recording Julian of Norwich’s Shewings, a text written in the late fourteenth century by a woman who’s often seen as one of the leading religious thinkers of her time, one of the few women whose writing survives.

I’ve been noticing how much easier Julian’s prose is to read than the previous text I recorded (Piers Plowman, which is written in verse, specifically, what’s called an alliterative long line). Langland, the author of Piers, is a book fetishist. The poem is crammed with references to this or that book, this legal document or that charter, these words in the margins or that bit of rubric. Someone or other is always opening up scrolls or reading out papers, and there’s even a character called ‘Book’. Essentially, this poem was written by someone who, in 2014, would be going around the British Library licking the display cases.

Not so Julian. Her style is theologically complex, but you don’t get the impression she writes (or dictates) her prose with an image of a finished written page in her mind’s eye. This isn’t because she writes grammatically simple English, but because she (or whoever wrote the text down for her) has a really good ear for which sounds are easy to pronounce next to one another.

Here’s the piece where she describes her horror, and pity, at her vision of Christ’s crucifixion. Be warned, it’s deliberately gruesome:

“And … I saw that the swete skyn and the tender flesh, with the heere and the blode, was al rasyd and losyd abov from the bone … And that was grete sorow and drede to me. For methowte I wold not for my life a sen it fallen.”

(“And … I saw that the sweet skin and the tender flesh, with the hair and the blood, was all raised, and loose out over the bone … And that was a great sorrow and terror to me. For I thought I would not for my life of seen it fall.”

It’s not actually that hard to understand in modern English, if you read it out loud (and if you know a couple of tricky words). But what you may notice is that Julian doesn’t use the standard modern English grammar ‘I would not for my life have seen it fall’. She uses ‘a’, which is a homophone for an elided ‘have’. Here, it creates a slow sighing sound at the end of the sentence, perfectly appropriate to the image she pictures. 

Elsewhere, she’s perfectly capable of writing ‘I would have’ and ‘I could have,’ so we can’t put this down either to pure incomprehensible medieval dialect: what we have is a situation where this was simply quite acceptable. It’s not because she, or her scribe, doesn’t understand grammar, or confuses an indefinite article with an auxiliary verb. It’s simply because they sound similar enough that, when the rhythm of the sentence demands it, she can blur ‘have’ into ‘a’ with no harm done.

Now, obviously, in formal, standard English, writing “I should of done that” or “I shoulda done that” is incorrect, and we know that.

To get technical, the reason people make this mistake (other than genuine ignorance, which is pretty simple to correct) is that “should’ve” and “should of” are homophones in some accents. You might think this would be a one-time mistake: you heard something incorrectly (aged six or so), and wrote it down phonetically once, before being corrected. But it’s not so, because of the way our brains process language as we write. As we write, we are aware of the sequence of familiar physical movements made to form letters (what we often call ‘muscle memory’). We’re also aware of the visual shapes made by familiar groups of letters on the page. And we’re aware of the sounds those letters should make. All of these three things are, for fluent readers, more or less on auto-pilot while we think about what we intend to type – or write – next.

If your auto-pilot is a bit faulty, you can find your fingers provided you with a word that’s not quite what you intended (as a medievalist who writes a lot about religion I can’t type the name Chris without adding a final ‘t,’ which is very flattering to any Christophers I know). And you can find you end up typing one homophone when you intended to pick up the other one, which was sitting neatly alongside it in the box your brain marks as ‘phonetically identical’. It’s thought that dyslexia results from some kind of fault in the way the brain processes aural and visual information, and so this is a characteristic dyslexic error – an auto-pilot error, rather than an error of grammatical knowledge.

So, why did I burden you all with this incredibly dull post on grammar? Well, it’s because I wanted to try to refute two really common misconceptions. One is that this sort of error is something it’s ok to judge people for making – or at least, it’s an error that ‘proves’ their ignorance, rather than their disability. The other is that this sort of error is one of the host of peculiarly modern mistakes, to be blamed on the (fictitious) decline of the English language in recent years.

When I started writing this blog, I decided that instead of spending hours painstakingly proof-reading each post, I’d give them a quick once-over and refer anyone who was bothered by the inevitably typos and errors to my disclaimer, which points out that I’m dyslexic and don’t proof-read well. This turned out to be a really good decision, because around a week after I wrote that disclaimer, I had my PhD viva and came away with a list of corrections only slightly shorter than the thesis itself.

Those corrections were appropriate: when I’m writing formal standard English, it needs to be spot on. But when I’m writing this blog, occasionally I’ll slip up. And that’s ok. And maybe, next time you see someone making an error like this, instead of judging, you’ll take a minute to consider they might be dyslexic, and to remember that, six hundred years ago, a medieval woman was writing shoulda woulda coulda all over the shop.

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John Wycliffe, Bible Translator, Dead for 600 Years, Still a Better Feminist Ally than Ally Fogg.

Marie de St Pol (c. 1303-1377). Foundress of Pembroke, Cambridge. Portrait at Pembroke College Cambridge.

Marie de St Pol (c. 1303-1377). Foundress of Pembroke, Cambridge. Portrait at Pembroke College Cambridge.

This morning, I read a lovely article in the GuardianHertford College, Oxford – which went mixed forty years ago – is celebrating by replacing its dusty old portraits of former male members with photographs of female alumnae.

I really like this. Especially because it doesn’t come across as a pompous policy decision, but something much more funny and, actually, suprisingly revealing of the history of the college. The article quotes Dr Emma Smith explaining that the college’s one-time reputation for being poor and academically undistinguished (back in the days when it formed the backdrop for Brideshead Revisited) made the decision easier to make:

“We have no glorious history, we’re not hidebound by ancient traditions, we have none. Taking down all the portraits was helped by the fact that nobody felt the slightest affection for any of them, with the exception of John Donne.”

I can well belive this. And I find it pretty funny that Smith and her colleagues discovered, on removing a row of portraits of male clergy, that no-one actually had the faintest idea who these men were. It’s usually women who suffer this fate: immortalized on canvas, but with no-one bothering to remember their names. Presumably, the idea of men being anonymised in plain sight was so unthinkable to generations of Hertford people that no-one quite realized everyone else was wondering who the portraits represented.

Anyway, all of this was, as I say, rather nice. Most Oxbridge colleges have an embarrassment of portraits of dusty, long-dead men glaring down from the walls, and, I’ll admit, it doesn’t tend to make you feel at home. You’re constantly reminded that the place was built from the minds and purses of powerful men, that it excluded women for centuries.

However, I did have a quibble, both with the Guardian (oh, Guardian!), and with this version of history. The Guardian notes that one of the portraits consigned to obscurity is that of William Tyndale, ‘first translator of the Bible into English’. Now, Hertford does have a historic grudge against John Wycliffe – the man whose name is usually associated with the first complete English translations of the Bible (Anglo-Saxonists can argue over that one). Hertford’s pleasantly named ‘Black Hall’ is where Wycliffe was imprisoned while the authorities took their first and only known debate over whether or not this new fangled ‘change’ was a good thing.

Dear readers, I struggled with that Guardian article. Oh, who am I kidding? I rolled my eyes and then gleefully took recourse to academic snarking. Tyndale’s translation gets the credit over that carried out by John Wycliffe and his colleagues over a century earlier, because Tyndale belongs to the post-medieval, post-print sixteenth century. People don’t generally like to believe that English Bibles belonged to the medieval period – let alone that they were the English book that survive in (by far) the greatest numbers – because it doesn’t fit well with our nice image of the medieval Catholic Church as a sinister organization carrying out its operations in impenetrable Latin. It’s true the medieval Church wasn’t wild keen on Wycliffe’s Bible falling into uneducated hands, and after a certain point, you’d (technically) need special clearance to own a copy. But this didn’t stop kings, aristocrats and monasteries from buying copies. And in fact, one of the only copies to include a record that official permission for ownership was sought, belonged to a woman.

I’ve written before about the aftermath of John Wycliffe’s English Bible translation, and about how a heretical movement called Lollardy sprung up, demanding (amongst other things) that women be given the freedom to read the Bible, preach, and teach. And I’ve noted that, generally, we’re not taught about this minor attempt to give women more visibility in a historically male-dominated academic and religious culture.

Why does this matter? What does it mean to omit Wycliffe from the historical version of events – and therefore to omit the tantalizing possibility of women priests, and the factual existence of female Bible readers, from the record also?

Well, it matters because those portraits of dead white men at Hertford, and other Oxbridge colleges, are just occasionally varied with portraits of their female counterparts. At Pembroke College, Cambridge, we have Marie de St Pol. The Bodleian holds the portrait of Dervorguilla of Galloway, who part-funded Balliol. Queen’s College, Oxford, owns a rather dodgy post-medieval picture of its medieval patron, Queen Philippa of Hainault. Clare College, Cambridge, has a picture of its second founder, Elizabeth de Clare. Both Margaret of Anjou and Elizabeth Woodville are credited with the founding of Queens’ Cambridge (hence the position of its apostrophe).

And so it goes on. For wealthy medieval women, donating money to an Oxbridge college was a perfectly normal act of piety, something for which they fully expected to be remembered. After Wycliffie, such activities would not have been incompatible with paying for a beautifully hand-copied manuscript of the English Bible. Some women even translated portions of the Bible for themselves, or read in Latin or French.

There is a continuity to women’s involvement in academia, even in Oxbridge. And sure, founding a college (or having a foundation named after you) isn’t remotely the same thing as being allowed to study there. So, I love Hertford’s new portraits, and I love the idea behind them. But I hope that, when they face the inevitable backlash of male voices shouting about the sanctity of tradition, they’ll keep in mind that there is also a long-forgotten history of women who deserve to be remembered.


On the subject of the title of this post – well, no, not really. I doubt Wycliffe had a feminist idea in his life. But the idea tickles me.

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‘Why, Margaret, they told me you were a scholar': Renaissance Humanism and the Invention of the Irrational Woman

Wendy 1

Wendy Hiller and Paul Schofield as Alice More and her husband Thomas, in A Man for All Seasons (1966)

The quotation in my title, and the image above, both come from the 1966 film A Man for All Seasons, a film centred around Thomas More, one-time right-hand man of Henry VIII. More objected to the idea Henry should become head of the Church of England, resigned his post, and was beheaded on charges of treason in 1535. The play represents More as a man who thinks deeply, yet logically, a man gripped by the dilemma of how to choose between conscience and political necessity, who makes an honourable and fatal decision.

When I studied this period, as part of my A Level history course, we learned that More was a Humanist – that is, a proponent of the new style of learning sweeping across Europe during the Renaissance. In Humanism (so we were told) educated men sought to rediscover Latin and Greek texts, to think in newly rational ways, and to put the superstitions of the medieval Catholic Church behind them.

This new Age of Reason – the Renaissance, the English Reformation – is, not coincidentally, the period during which Intelligent Women suddenly break out into popular history. The very word ‘medieval’ is associated with primitive, brutal attitudes, and often – in the case Nick Clegg’s comments, for example – with restrictions of women’s rights. We’re primed to believe that medieval women weren’t educated, that Renaissance women were. Despite the best efforts of Alison Weir et al., few educated medieval women seem to be part of popular consciousness. But ask for names from just a century later and most of us can name (and probably even picture, via Holbein) women like Elizabeth I and Jane Grey, Anne Boleyn and Catherine Parr.

A Man for All Seasons exemplifies this trend with its portrayal of Thomas More’s daughter, Margaret. I’m going to quote a whole passage, because it’s just so good. The speakers are Margaret and King Henry VIII, as More and his wife welcome the king to their home and as the king meets their daughter for the first time.

HENRY (Looking her over) Why, Margaret, they told me you were a scholar.

(MARGARET is confused)

MORE Answer, Margaret.

MARGARET Among women I pass for one, Your Grace.

(NORFOLK and ALICE exchange approving glances)

HENRY Antiquone modo Latine loqueris, an Oxoniensi? [Do you speak old-fashioned Latin, or Oxford Latin?]

MARGARET Quem me docuit pater, Domine. [I speak my father's Latin - it's he who taught me it, sir]

HENRY Bene. Optimus est. Graecamne linguam quoque to docuit?

[Good - that's great! And has he taught you Greek as well?]

MARGARET Graecam me docuit non pater meus sed mei patris amicus, Johannes Coletus, Sancti Pauli Decanus. In litteris Graecis tamen, note minus quam Latinis, ars magistri minuitur discipuli stultitia.

[My father didn't teach me Greek, sir, my father's friend did: John Colet, Dean of St. Paul's. But it's the same with Greek and Latin: the teacher's skill is wasted by the student's stupidity.]

(Her Latin is better than his; he is not altogether pleased)

HENRY Ho! (He walks away from her, talking; she begins to rise from her curtsy; MORE gently presses her down again before KING HENRY turns) Take care, Thomas: ‘too much learning is a weariness of the flesh, and there is no end to the making of books.’


I love this scene. Margaret tries so damn hard to be polite and self-effacing and to point out how inferior she is to all the men who’ve taught her … and she’s let down because she just can’t believe a man’s Latin can be so much worse than her own. This exchange sets up the tensions that run thrugh the play: we see immediately Henry’s arrogance and his insecurity, and we recognise that More, the optimist who taught his daughter Latin, is also a realist enough to know the dangers of offending the king.

Until Hilary Mantel started writing her Wolf Hall trilogy, this film (together with the play it’s based on) must have been one of the most influential representations of More. While in Mantel’s version More is a pretty unloveable character, here he’s portrayed as a gentle scholar, a man of his convictions, and an exemplary father. More’s daughter, Margaret, was (in real life as in the film) known for her erudition. She was phenomenally educated by any standards. The film works hard to persuade us that, by the standards of sixteenth-century Europe, women were not expected to be educated in the new, modern Humanist manner More educates his daughter.

This scene also represents, in microcosm, the possibilities of Humanism as the play imagines them. Margaret’s innocent expectation of Henry’s learning, and her own fluent Latin, invite us to imagine that, if only men like More had the power to shape the world that Henry VIII has, women and men would be equally free to study and learn.

This is, in my experience, a surprisingly popular view of the difference between Renaissance England and the medieval period.

It’s perhaps telling that the wiki entry on Margaret includes the rather startling (to a medievalist) claim that she was the first non-royal woman to publish a book she had translated into English”. We could quibble charitably about what the wiki editor meant by ‘publish,’ but I don’t really think this is tenable at all (and as a side note, you can buy Dame Eleanor Hull’s fifteenth-century English translation of the Psalms on Amazon at the moment). Wiki isn’t scholarly, obviously, but that’s the point: the idea of Margaret, Renaissance woman and daughter of a Humanist father, as a groundbreaking translator is one we can accept easily. It’s an idea that doesn’t originate with A Man for All Seasons, but one that’s perpetuated by it.

However, there’s another important female character in the film, and one who represents a very different kind of historical femininity. Alice More, Thomas’s wife, represents not only a different generation of women, but an entirely different historical period. She is a medieval woman, a woman whose father was not a kindly, equal-opportunities Humanist educator. Later in the play, More (with misplaced optimism) believes he’ll get to retire from Henry VIII’s court to live out his life in obscurity, and we’re faced with this exchange:

ALICE So there’s an end of you. What will you do now-sit by the fire and make goslings in the ash?

MORE Not at all, Alice, I expect I’ll write a bit. (He woos them with unhappy cheerfulness) I’ll write, I’ll read, I’ll think. I think I’ll learn to fish! I’ll play with my grandchildren-when son Roper’s done his duty. (Eagerly) Alice, shall I teach you to read?

ALICE No, by God!

I admit, this irritates me more every time I look at it. We’re required to believe that More – eager supporter of his daughter’s education in Latin and Greek – didn’t bother to teach his wife English until now. We’re required to believe that Alice – wife of a learned scholar – would reject the suggestion out of hand, just to remind everyone that women collude in their educational oppression.

But mostly, it annoys me because – as a medievalist who works a lot on the period in which Alice More would have been educated – it is just so utterly, stupidly wrong. Women like Alice More did not grow up illiterate. No, really. They didn’t. Women like Alice More grew up in a society where it was an aphorism that women taught children to read. Women like Alice More grew up in a society where women owned prayer books, dictated and read letters, and understood the family finances.

But our popular conception of the difference between the medieval period and the Renaissance isn’t set up to help us recognize this. In fact – as you might guess, since neat period boundaries tend to turn out to be over-simplifications – Humanism in England isn’t a sixteenth-century invention that began with Thomas More. You can find fifteenth-century Humanists doing their Latin and Greek and swanning off to Italy and bringing it all back home. You also get women like Christine de Pizan, who is as rigorously logical as anyone could wish.

But, what interests me more is one of the many traditions of reading and thinking that was strongly associated with women (but also practised by men). It’s interesting, because it relies on a kind of intellectual activity that we’re conditioned not to recognize as properly intellectual at all. The big trend in fifteenth-century England was a kind of meditational, imaginative reading. You were supposed to read about Christ’s life and discipline yourself to imagine it, with as much sensory detail as possible, so that you could internalise every emotion you would have felt had you been present during that time. Readers learned to imagine Christ’s experiences so strongly and completely that they became able to grasp the truth of his divine-human nature through emotional identification.

This was a demanding mode of thought, and earlier in the medieval period, it had been largely restricted to those who were educated in monasteries – monks and nuns. But in the fifteenth century, literacy levels were rising, and, increasingly, texts written in Latin were being translated into English so that larger numbers of men and women could understand them. And because many of the most accessible Latin religious texts had been written for nuns, a huge proportion of these new English translations were explicitly addressed to women: this was not a mode of reading in which women were unwelcome.

Medieval ‘emotional’ and ‘imaginative’ reading requires phenomenal discipline – I’m stressing this, because in the modern world, we’re accustomed to see emotion and imagination as inferior to logic and rationality, even incompatible with reasoned argument. We are taught – not coincidentally – that women are ‘irrational‘. We are told that we are ‘unreasonable’. We are encouraged to believe that if, as feminists, we disagree with the status quo, we lack ‘analysis’.

I don’t really know how many Renissance women could read and understand Humanist texts, compared to the numbers of their medieval counterparts who were educated in a very different mode of thinking. I don’t believe (as I hope is obvious) that women are inherently better suited to ‘emotional’ than to ‘logical’ thinking. But I do find it telling that, in our popular perceptions of the transition from medieval to Renaissance England, we are only encouraged to recognize educated women when their education takes the masculine form associated with Humanism: the scholarly, deferential Latin of Margaret More.

Note, and a Disclaimer:

I admit, I have absolutely no idea whether or not historical Alice More could read, or not. But Alice More the character – the representative of Good Old Medieval Wifeliness – she could. 

I wrote this after reading David Rundle’s piece in History Today, titled ‘Before the Humanities, the Humanists’. I won’t dignify my piece by saying it’s a response to that, since I went off entirely on a tangent, but all the same, you should read it.

I haven’t space here to talk more about this medieval mode of reading – it is properly complicated – and I will acknowledge that it comes with a whole lot of baggage about what counts as ‘educated’ and what doesn’t. However, my sense is that there’s really not a whole lot of gendered inequality here: a medieval text urging readers to understand by imagining much more likely to call its readers uneducated because they’re not monks or nuns, than because some of them are women.

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Yes, I’m angry, but that doesn’t make me illogical: On victim-blaming


Illustration to Samuel Richardson’s Pamela (1745).

Today – when I should have been looking for a house to rent for my new job – I read an article in the Guardian by Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett on the subject of victim blaming. It was provocatively titled “Have accusations of rape victim blaming gone too far?”. As you can imagine, it didn’t put me in the best mood to read what followed, so what you’re getting here is a heavily re-written piece of blogging.

The kernel of this piece was Cosslett’s feeling that, when women internalise rape myths and victim-blame themselves, it is wrong to respond with anger, because anger at rape myths can read as anger at traumatized women who’ve bought into them. I was angry when I read this piece, and so – like the nice, well-brought-up feminist that I am – I tried to put myself in Cosslett’s shoes.

Why are rape myths so insidious, so attractive, that women like Cosslett cling to them even when (as she says of herself), they know they are myths? Is it more than their simple prevalence in our culture – is there some reason why they continue to appeal?

Immediately, I thought of one of the most ‘appealing’ narratives of victim-blaming ever written, a narrative that was one of the most popular novels of its day. In 1740, Samuel Richardson published the novel Pamela. This novel features a virtuous female servant who is the constant target of her wicked employer’s sexual advances. He imprisons her, tries to rape her, intercepts her mail and gaslights her. Eventually, propelled into true love by sheer sexual frustration, he marries her, and they live happily ever after. Ish.

It’s an unpleasant story, but there’s more to it than that. Richardson’s novel recounts Pamela’s experience of the attempted rape in her own voice, despite the fact that the character claims to be in a swoon. This is a bit of clunky writing on Richardson’s part: it requires the narrator to be both aware of her surroundings, and simultaneously, unconscious. Richardson’s contemporary, Henry Fielding, latched onto this unfortunate narrative style and made it central to his spoof, published a year later and titled Shamela. Fielding re-imagines the scene with Pamela/Shamela cynically pretending to swoon while enjoying the sensation of her employer groping her body. His reworking turns what was a male author’s artistic failure of plausibility into a female heroine’s active and deliberate duplicity. 

This spoof is extremely clever, because it exploits one of the most irritating features about Richardson’s original heroine: the fact that she has almost no agency of her own, almost no will to take charge of her own narrative. Fielding neatly sidesteps the fact that, if Pamela had screamed and shouted, it’s highly unlikely she could have prevented her employer from doing what he did. And so, he gives her the only agency she can possibly have in this scenario: the agency of welcoming (indeed orchestrating) the sexual assault she supposedly ‘suffers’.

This pattern is the same pattern that animates victim-blaming narratives, and both are kinds of fiction, modes of retelling a story over and over. Not all victim-blaming narratives require women to welcome sexual assault, but they all capitalise on the same possibility of narrative agency. If only you had done something differently, you would have changed your own story. Victim-blaming narratives hold their appeal because they offer the (fake) promise of control over the narrative.

This measured analysis of the appeal of victim-blaming narratives wasn’t my first response, and it’s not my whole response. My first response was pretty furious, and that’s because Cosselett doesn’t just buy into victim blaming stereotypes – she buys into, and exploits, a whole host of other anti-feminist stereotypes while she’s doing it.

Now, I reckon my reasons for objecting to rape myths and victim blaming are pretty coherent. To publish rape myths in a National newspaper (as Cosslett did) is to give them credibility, and to perpetuate the idea that rape is someone other than the rapist’s fault. We can see the very clear, disturbing and worsening implications of victim-blaming in the recent news that, as of now, your chances of getting a rape case to court are the lowest since records began.

In addition, there’s a backlash against women reporting rapes, which is reliant on the myth that men should not take full responsibility for their actions. We’ve seen it from the rapist Ched Evans, serving a jail sentence, is welcome back into his old job at Sheffield United. We’ve seen it from Julian Assange, who’s been hiding out so he doesn’t have to face rape charges (as you do when you’ve a mature and compassionate attitude to legal process, right?) and from Ma’lik Richmond, returned to his old position in the Steubenville football team. Gee, guess Paul Callan of CNN was totally right that Richmond’s life was ‘destroyed’ by being, er, convicted of a crime he committed.

None of this wider context about rape made it into Cosslett’s article, which was instead taken up with arguments against those women who’d originally objected to the perpetuation of rape myths. Cosslett appears to believe that the real issue here is that most feminists are, well, just a bit thick compared to her. Speaking of the Judge who suggested that drunk victims of rape are just too tricky for juries to believe, she asks:

When Rape Crisis Oxford called Judge Mowat’s comments “outrageous”, did they reflect how many of the victims who come to them may have expressed similar views, similar regrets?”

Well, I don’t know, but somehow, I’m guessing they did reflect, you know. It’s part of their job. So far as I know (and I’ve lived in Oxford since 2008 and do notice these things), they do quite a good one. 

She goes on to suggest that what’s really an issue is that some feminists use words:

Terminology is helpful (“rape culture” is much snappier, is it not?), but it can preclude nuance.” 

Rather vaguely, she claims that ‘some people’ are ‘irked’ by the term rape culture, and so it seems that ‘terminology’ is something that nice, polite ladies do not use – perhaps the equivalent of the wrong fork at dinner. What nuance Cosslett imagines is being missed was, sadly, not revealed.

Next, she objects that feminists failed respond to her own affirmation of rape myths either “sensitively” or “logically,” or with “insight and analysis”. By this point, I pretty much had my anti-feminist bingo card full, because this terminology buys into one of the oldest and most damaging stereotypes about women: that we’re all just irrational and illogical. Cosslett (like, I’m afraid, many an anti-feminist I’ve read) didn’t explain what was illogical about calling out rape myths, nor did she explain why she didn’t recognise the analysis behind the arguments of those who disagreed with her. She simply slapped on the customary label that’s used to silence women you disagree with.

While I was wondering how to respond to this article, I spoke to a friend who (like me), had recently read about how Mary Beard chooses to respond to internet trolls, using her considerable privilege (as a professor at Cambridge) to explain herself and elicit startlingly positive, apologetic responses from, for example, the man who photoshopped genitalia onto an image of her face. One of the revealing points Beard makes (and it’s discussed in more detail in the New Yorker) is that, while her approach works for her, she objects to people painting this response as uniquely feminine in its empathetic, caring (and time-consuming) qualities. She notes that people have interpreted her responses as ‘maternal’ and therefore praiseworthy, while sheer anger might have won her a very different set of responses even from those who agree she has cause to be angry.

This is an important point: very often, feminists are criticised for responding with anger, which buys into the old stereotype that women should be more caring, more patient, more keen to spend their time on educating those who disagree with them.

This made me think quite hard about how I wanted to respond to Cosslett, but also about why I was so angry about her piece. I object to being told (from the privileged position of someone writing for a national newspaper) that if I disagree, it’s because I’m unnuanced, illogical, insensitive and, well, a bit thick. And yet it’s easy for me put aside my anger, to refute those claims, to pull out the recently-published statistics on rape, and to dress the whole thing up with a nice literary-historical anecdote. It’s easy, and it implies that Cosslett is right to equate angry responses with a lack of logic, nuance and sensitivity. 

But what about those women who read Cosslett’s piece and responded from a position of feeling hurt, traumatized and upset? What about (god forbid) those of us who are not articulate writers in the Guardian or smart-arse junior academics who read too much eighteenth-century fiction? What about you and me on the days when we don’t feel calm and composed and inclined to spend a couple of hours pontificating about narrative structure (rather than, say, stating categorically that rape myths are misogynistic bullshit)? What about the days when we read about the rape of thirteen-year-old Ebony Williams? Shouldn’t we be able to respond without being told we’re ‘illogical’ and unnuanced? 

It is not inherently illogical, unnuanced or insensitive to state that rape myths are categorically harmful, incorrect and antifeminist. It is not evidence of superior intellect, or sharper debating skills, to demand that everyone should agree with you, simply because you genuinely feel upset. There is a worrying trend, I think, to equate perfectly rational anger with lack of nuance – and it’s not just Cosslett who does this.

Shouldn’t we let ourselves be angry? 

I know I am. 


Thanks to Hannah Bailey who discussed the article about Mary Beard with me, and pointed out some of the implications for this post.


This is a great, courteous but absolutely correct, follow-up to the media response to Beard’s interactions with her trolls. Worth a read.

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The Museum of Mansplaining Art

The Gherkin. Admittedly, feminists don't all agree with me how phallic it is, but in my mind it is always associated with Lord SurAlan and his Neanderthalism, so it's a happy image.

The Gherkin. Admittedly, feminists don’t all agree with me how phallic it is, but in my mind it is always associated with Lord SurAlan and his Neanderthalism, so it’s a happy image.

I’m a simple type, and simple things make me happy. Like the beauty of the sunset, the dew on the roses and the smiles of happy undergraduates. However, it has come to my attention that I may have neglected a source of art, sadly undervalued in these feminist times.

Allow me, therefore, to introduce to you The Museum of Mansplaining Art. In my mind, it shall be located in the Gherkin in London, and presided over by the (fictional) mansplainer Mervyn, from Barbara Trapido’s wonderful book Noah’s Arka man “to whom the very Post Office Tower sung triumphant hymns of phallic domination”.

I had one submission from earlier this year, the delightful and perfectly-formed comment of one Bob Evans, who produced a perfect surrealist ‘critique’ of the (now happily approved) project to get mothers’ names on marriage certificates. His vivid image of a giant government conspiracy, busily denying that its own documents were and had always been fair and equal, will surely go down in history.

Today is a happy day. We have another submission. This time, from a renowned feminist commentator, whose fame has escaped me only because of my own failures. In response to feminist commentators (and, y’know, women) Sarah Ditum and Caroline Criado Perez, this giant of the intellect noted his awe-inspiring credentials: Actually I took about 30 hours of women’s studies courses as it was one of my disciplines.”

That’s them told.

I know we all have stories of mansplaining that are egregious in many ways. But some (honestly, this time) strike me as so beautiful, so perfectly and richly illustrative of the underlying thought-process, that they truly do amuse me. I hope they do you. I plan to collect my favourites on this page, as a little Museum, bravely standing out against the tide of female-dominated art and rhetoric that sweeps across our shores.

New Exhibit No. 1

On the train back from Edinburgh to London King’s Cross, I overheard the following:

Man: I’m just going to put the armrest up. I’m typing and it keeps getting in my way. I’ve got something I need to finish before 5 and [self-important waffle I tuned out]. So can I move this so I stop hitting into you?

Woman: Well, you can move the armrest, but what you’re hitting is my arm, and it’s already on my side of the seat anyway.

Man: I do have a deadline!


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