The Witch and Her Cow-Sucking Bag

Witches in the margins. Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS. Fr. 12476 (Le Champion des Dames)

Witches in the margins. Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS. Fr. 12476 (Le Champion des Dames)

I thought I’d put up a Halloween post a couple of days in advance, so we can get in the mood. One of the issues I’ve noticed a lot of people dealing with is the way that spookiness and fancy dress are both increasingly prescriptively gendered, even (especially?) for children. Girls’ costumes tend to be sexy – though there are some excellent suggestions for more imaginative costumes here.

Added to this is what I call the ‘witch problem’. The image of the witch at Halloween is deeply reliant on misogynistic lore: she’s a crone, an ugly woman who lives alone – what could be worse? Witch hunts and stories about witch hunts ensure that we think we know what happens to a witch in the end: burning alive.*


These stereotypes combine to make Halloween a slightly difficult event for feminists. So I wanted to explore a little bit about witchcraft and gender, and perhaps to unsettle that cliched image of a toothless, cackling crone powerless to resist her tormenters.

One of my favourite medieval witches comes from the popular book ‘Handling Sins’, which was written by a monk in the early fourteenth century. This book if full of macabre and plain bizarre stories. In theory, they were supposed to make medieval readers feel shame for their sins, and to teach good and bad Christian behaviour by example. In reality, a certain flavour of trick-or-treat spooky humour creeps in to this particular narrative. I’m going to quote the Middle English (with a bit of regularized spelling), because it’s just so brilliant. The story begins:

“There was a witch, who made a bag,/ A belly of leather, a great swag./ She conjured so this bag-belly,/ That it went and sucked men’s ky [cattle].”

The tale goes on to describe how the capacious leather bag glides from cow to cow, becoming full and squashy with white liquid.


The witch rubs her hands in glee and the villagers lose their cows’ milk. Naturally, the villagers soon become suspicious, and when they see the scrotum-like skin sack bobbing up and down amongst their cows they are outraged. Summoning the witch as the likely guilty party, they drag her before the local bishop.

This is where the story becomes truly odd.

The bishop demands that the witch should tell him how she activates her special bag. Happily, she explains the special words one must say and instructs the bishop in the spell. Perhaps suffering from a little performance anxiety, the bishop clears his throat and recites the words, to no avail. Piteously, he exclaims:

“Alas! It will not rise!”

To which the witch replies, amused, that it is belief in the spell that makes all the difference.

The story is, so the author tells us, an demonstration of the fact that belief is crucial to everything. It’s actually told as an illustration of the first commandment: ‘I am the Lord your God, thou shalt believe in no other gods but me’, which medieval people understood to be not only about monotheism, but also about the importance of faith.

I’ve seen the story of the witch interpreted as a sort of crude joke on men, perhaps especially celibate clergymen, who need a little witchcraft to make their bags ‘rise’. In medieval England, the word for a moneybag, a purse, was a ‘male’, and Chaucer makes a pun on its other meaning – which is the modern one – inviting his readers to think of that other masculine container that hangs at a man’s waist.

 But just recently, a friend showed me an amazing witchy survival from Iceland, which changed all of that for me, and made me rethink witches and gender roles entirely. In Iceland, it was men who were witches, not women. And they had an even more gruesome tradition to do with skin containers, this time involving an actual scrotum.                                  
                                                                                                                                                          This link comes with a warning, because it is truly disgusting. Icelandic witch-men would first obtain a dying friend’s permission then, after death, would peel off the skin of his legs complete with penis and testicles, to wear them as ‘nabrok’: skin trousers. A coin and a magic symbol written on paper were inserted into the scrotum, and thought to attract money to the wearer. This story unsettles our more familiar image of The Witch, and yet it also echoes some of the wonderfully bizarre innuendos of the medieval English witch with her ‘cow-sucking bag’. Male or female, witches had a dark power over human sexuality, and their magic exploited that most potent symbol, the male body, transforming it into something gruesome or absurd, a joke or a moneybag.                                                                    
                                                                                                                                                            I’m really not sure what these witchy stories ultimately say about male or female potency. They’re not easy stories to interpret – not least because the Church, both in Iceland and in England, demonised witchcraft and was also fascinated by it, constructing ever-more grotesque, far-fetched or chilling stories to feed the imagination of the faithful. But what sticks in my mind is the ending of the story about my medieval witch, with her ‘cow-sucking bag’. The shame-faced bishop does command that she must stop practising witchcraft, but he doesn’t punish her, and the last picture we have is of her triumphant demonstration of her skill, and his failure to ‘make it rise’.


* There are a lot of myths about witches and witchhunts. These were not a particularly medieval phenomenon, but Early Modern, and witches were often hanged, not burnt, despite the popularity of that image. If you want to know more, there’s a brilliant academic study called The Witch In History, by Diane Purkiss. 

Women, Education, and the Whitewashing of History

St Anne teaching the Virgin to read. Stained glass window at All Saints' Church, North Gate, York.

St Anne teaching the Virgin to read. Stained glass window at All Saints’ Church, North Gate, York.

I’ve been silent for an unprecedented five days on this blog – the reason is, I’ve just taken my viva examination, the final stage in my PhD. Mine was actually a lovely experience – which was unexpected as you’re put in a room with two academics who’re experts in your subject, and they grill you on your thesis while you justify what you wrote. It was nerve-wracking, because my university has a policy of making you do interdisciplinary work, and so I couldn’t claim to be an expert on every single area I discussed. In fact, my external examiner was a Professor of palaeography, and this was the aspect of my thesis I had found most challenging (as well as exciting). But he and my internal examiner were so kind that it felt very friendly, and there was a lovely moment when one of my examiners told me how she’d been working at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge when they bought the beautiful and fascinating Macclesfield Psalter. Her face just lit up remembering it.

Anyway, that’s what I’ve been doing over the last few days. And seeing my examiners get so excited about medieval books reminded me of one of the early reasons I got so interested in what I’m researching now, about social perceptions of women in medieval England.

When I’d recently begun my PhD, I was trying to find out how medieval children learned to read. I came across this (to me, anyway) amazing statement in a book on medieval education, quoting a thirteenth-century writer who confidently stated:

“woman teacheth child on book”

This idea – that, by default, it was women who taught children to learn from their books – was a huge surprise. Since I began my research, I’ve come across countless people who said to me: ‘but weren’t medieval women illiterate?’ It’s come to make me really sad that this is an area of women’s history that is so completely hidden from us. We are often taught about medieval women as downtrodden, oppressed and suffering people leading fundamentally simpler and more brutal lives than ours. But the role of mothers in the phenomenally difficult task of teaching children to read was crucial.  

The image at the top of this post shows St. Anne – the mother of the Virgin Mary, imagined here as a medieval woman leaning over her young daughter – as she teaches the child to sound out her letters. The text in the book the young Virgin Mary holds open is written in a legible medieval script – it’s actually from one of the penitential psalms in the Book of Hours. Strange as it may seem to us, this is the book from which children usually learned to read. Of course, the prayers were difficult. They were written in Latin, which little children did not understand. So, instead of sounding out stories about Biff, Chip and Kipper, medieval children learned painstakingly to sound out ‘Pater noster, qui es in caelis …’ (Our father, which are in heaven). The image I’ve put below is very small, but if you follow this link, you will find a version you can expand.

Medieval Alphabet and 'Pater Noster'. Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Rawl. liturg. e. 40, f. 40r

Medieval Alphabet and ‘Pater Noster’. Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Rawl. liturg. e. 40, f. 40r

As you can imagine, teaching a small child to sound out the letters of a language he or she didn’t understand was a hard task. But women regularly did this. Women taught their children this hugely important skill – and may sometimes have been more literate than their husbands, since the task of praying for the family using a book was often seen as a woman’s job.

I was stunned, and pleased, to find that in medieval England, the beautiful illuminated books we see in exhibitions at the British Library or the Bodleian in Oxford often belonged to women – perhaps even more than to men. I realized that medieval women were often educated and intelligent, teachers to the next generation.

So why is it that this isn’t a a matter of general knowledge? Why do we picture medieval women as illiterate, or less educated than their husbands? Of course, one issue is class: the women my medieval author was talking about when he said ‘women teacheth child on book’ were aristocrats, or rich gentry. They weren’t ordinary women. And ordinary women, and men, seldom learned to read.

But I still think there’s a disturbing issue here. Often, we’re taught history that has been whitewashed. We know to expect that the nasty bits may be omitted, that there may not be much concentration on the slave trade in England. Michael Gove, in his infinite wisdom, would like schools to teach primarily British perspectives on history, as if Europe had never had much to do with anything. But where women’s history is concerned, this whitewashing is more insidious and more depressing. We’re not taught about women as teachers and readers in medieval England, because the image of a poor, oppressed medieval woman makes modern oppression seem like freedom.

Of course, in many ways, it is (comparative) freedom. I’m hugely glad I was born in the late twentieth and not the late thirteenth century. But it’s not perfect. When we forget about the educated women of the past – not just the exceptional names, but the educated women who were doing something utterly commonplace – we distort both history and modern misogyny. When we are not told that medieval women could be literate, educated, and solvent, we are more ready to believe the myth that huge advances have been made in women’s rights since their time, and that little more needs to be done.


At the moment, the topic of women – or girls – in education crops up in the papers pretty often. Glosswatch wrote a brilliant piece a while ago about the myths that are circulated on the subject of girls’ achievements in education. I recommend it.

Great British Bake-Off

This is only a quick opinion piece – but I’ve been biting my tongue, so I want to say it.

I love Great British Bake Off. I think it’s great. I enjoy how the show gives three brilliant women a platform, and how the one man on the panel is never put in a situation where he’s invited to comment on the ‘gender inequality’ (and a good thing too, since most gender inequality involves three men and one woman, and is never discussed).

But, even though I love Bake Off and the presenters, I had an issue with this series. I could not help feeling uncomfortable with the level of vitriol directed at three participants – Ruby, Frances and Kimberley. I should have known they were to be the finalists. In the last series, when James was tipped as a finalist, he was … well, no. Women were encouraged to swoon over his jumpers (they were very nice, James). He wasn’t perfect – but nor was he the subject of this vitriol. No-one – that I saw – spend much time explaining that all three male finalists were basically unpleasant, grasping, ignorant, smug, overly modest, machiavellian, naive, etc. etc. etc.

I’m sorry, but I find this really sad. In a moment I will go back to talking about feminism and medieval England interact, but for now, I am just so cross we’ve not moved on very far from 1468.

Codpieces and Demons: The Dangers of Female Gossip


The picture we have of female friendship in medieval England is pretty limited. In a culture where women were almost invariably seen, both legally and socially, in terms of their relationships to men, and where fewer women than men could write, first-hand records of female friendships are few. In a previous post, I discussed the ‘woman-only space’ of the medieval birth chamber, and I suggested that, in the eyes of many medieval writers, this was a focus of distrust and fear of what women might get upto in spaces men could not penetrate (pun intended).

Female friendships were strongly associated with the social customs surrounding childbirth, partly no doubt because women have always sought out other women for support at this time, and partly because the enforced ‘confinement’ of a woman after childbirth placed her in an all-female universe for forty days. Yet the intimate and supportive relationships women developed with one another were associated with a term that endures as a gendered insult. The medieval word ‘god-sib’ originally meant the person who sponsored a child at baptism. But by the late Middle Ages, ‘god-sib’ or ‘gossip’ had come to refer by default to women only. ‘Gossip’, originally denoting a close and solemn spiritual intimacy, came to mean casual, idle, feminine chit-chat.

The connotations of ‘gossip’ were shared with another medieval word: ‘jangler’, which meant a person (a woman) who talked too much and too loudly. Disapproving male writers queued up to criticise this fault. In a text written for would-be religious recluses, the author imagines how a young woman might be corrupted by gossip:

‘either an old woman or a new ‘Jangler’ and storyteller sits by the window, feeding her with tales  … from which arise laughing, mocking, and unclean thoughts through day and night, so that in the end the woman is filled full of lust and desire, talebearing, slander and hatred …’

(from Aelred of Rievaulx, De institutione inclusarum)

Still later, there’s a brilliant story in cleric Robert Mannyng’s Handbook of Sins, on the dangers of gossip, which reuses the same stereotype of women who gossip being distracted from their religious duties. Mannyng describes how women sit in church gossiping, and explains that, unseen, a demon sits nearby, pen and parchment in his hands, compiling a damning dossier of evidence for the devil to use at judgement day.

Tutivillus with two gossips, at Enville Church in Staffordshire.

Tutivillus with two gossips, at Enville Church in Staffordshire.

This image shows the demon in question – he’s called Tutivillus, which trips nicely off the tongue, and he moonlights as a pub inspector, carting off dishonest ale-wives to hell. His legend left women in no doubt: to gossip was to leave oneself open to every sin in the book.

Worse was to come: by the fifteenth century, a third writer recopied this story, and he claimed that he knew the shameful and immodest topic of women’s gossip:

“… these women, as I dare say, /Have been busy talking of ‘husbandry’./ They gaggle like the geese and jangle like the jay./ About how their husbands are full of jealousy./ On gallants, they make it their business to spy./ Seeing their clothes ride up so high./ And their codpieces stiffly standing out.”

(Peter Idley, Instructions to His Son)

The writer’s shock at women’s frank appraisal of men’s bodies takes his story one step further than the source he copied it from. Now what is horrifying about gossiping women is not merely their insatiable lust, or their sinfulness, but their bold and unwomanly appraisals of specific men’s bodies.

What’s amusing here (aside from the last writer’s monumental prudishness) is that the same stories – the gossiping women who talk in church, the ‘janglers’ whose chitchat stirs up unwomanly lust – are passed down from man to man. These stories are embroidered with each retelling in precisely the ‘gossipy’ manner men attribute to women’s talk.

The silencing aspect of this attitude to women’s conversations may explain why we have so few records of medieval women’s friendships.  It’s disturbing to see that the exact same stereotypes are thrown at women now. Women ‘gossip’; their voices are ‘shrill’ (or jangling?); their talk has no substance. The women-only space of the Bake-off Final has been subject to thousands of nasty comments. Still today, it’s possible to find men who are genuinely shocked – and disgusted – to find that women occasionally discuss men’s attractive bodies … even if those men would happily discuss women’s bodies. Even the medieval alewife, targeted by the demon Tutivillus alongside female gossips, has her parallel in the Daily-Mail-esque outcries against ‘ladette culture’ and the disgusting spectacle of women being less than demure when socializing. Update – not to mention, as someone has just emailed me (thank you!) to point out, in Joanne Baxter’s sniffy criticism of ‘explicit threads about sexual practices’ on parenting forum Mumsnet. 


The reason I wanted to write about women’s conversations with other women, and how the supportive networks that began with medieval mothering were dismissed by medieval men as ‘gossip’ because today I heard from a forum who might (I hope) not be too offended if I call them the modern ‘janglers’. The very kind people at Mumsnet have suggested they may be prepared to put this blog on their list of bloggers. Mumsnet is a huge forum, and the Guardian recently published an article about its influence on contemporary feminism. I’m honoured by their offer, and if you are reading this from a link on that forum, welcome!


Here’s a little medieval song about Tutivillus. I just love it. It doesn’t work so well in translation, so here you are in the original.

‘Tutivillus, the devil of hell,
He writeth har names, sothe to tell,
Ad missam garulantes.

Better wer be at home for ay
Than her to serve the Devil to pay,
Sic vana famulantes.

Thes women that sitteth the church about,
Thay beth all of the Develis rowte,
Divina impedientes…’

Christ’s Vulva: Women, Heresy, and the Myth of Male Solidarity

St Mary Magdalene obscured by lines from Cranmer's 1539 Bible. from the Rood Screen at Binham Priory, Norfolk.

St Mary Magdalene obscured by lines from Cranmer’s 1539 Bible. from the Rood Screen at Binham Priory, Norfolk.

I was thinking this morning about feminism’s political allegiances, and about how women become obscured even (or perhaps especially) within movements that claim to seek equality for all.

Most feminists I know are politically Left-leaning; I would argue feminism is necessarily a left-wing ideology. Yet a lot of us have had the same experiences with left-wing men, especially left-wing men who explain, like Dave, that we’re all ‘in this together’, we’re all fighting the same fight (oh, and can you please stop whinging about equal pay because if only you’d stayed in the kitchen we’d all be earning more). There’s a lovely take-down of this attitude here.

I was thinking about all of this because I’ve been reading about the small groups of women in medieval England who – for a heady few years in the early fifteenth century – really thought they might be able to take a position of authority within the Catholic Church: to preach, and teach, and stand alongside male clerics.

This movement – the Wycliffite or ‘Lollard’ heresy – spiralled out amongst medieval English people, bringing together blurred political, religious, and social demands. Some railed against the Church’s use of Latin, others against the lack of women priests, and others against the Church’s refusal to let male priests marry women. These strikingly modern-sounding objections – which would not begin to be recognized within the Catholic Church until Vatican II – attracted a large number of women, as well as men.

Within this movement, it’s easy to imagine that perhaps men and women had some semblance of shared goals, even of greater equality for women than they had elsewhere. But when we look at how men within this movement expressed their hopes and fears, we find a strikingly bitter tone to their references to women.

On April 18th, 1429, John Burrell of Norwich stood up in court and listed his heretical beliefs, for which he was in the process of pleading guilty.

Burrell described the usual catalogue of what we call ‘Lollard’ or Wycliffite heresies, beliefs the Catholic Church in England was keen to stamp out. Then he came to describe the famous pilgrimage shrine, the most popular in medieval England, which he declared was no place of miracles, but a fraud, a giant con perpetuated by the Church:

“Mary of Falsingham”

he called the shrine, punning on its name, Our Lady of Walsingham.

Burrell’s insult is not particularly hardcore for an accused heretic. Other more outspoken heretics would later declared that the Eucharistic bread could hardly be the Body of Christ, when:

“the priests did receive Him before noon [at Mass] and did piss and shit Him out at whores’ arses at afternoon.”

What I find interesting about Burrell’s testimony is his attitude towards women – or female figures of divinity. Burrell’s scorn of ‘Mary of Falsingham’ doesn’t just discredit what he saw as a superstitious religious practice: it focuses on female expressions of divine power.

This disgust at women runs all through the voices of men who challenged the established Church. The casually insulting reference to ‘whores’ visited by priests is part of the same scorn, and the frequent demand that priests should be able to marry – seemingly quite a woman-friendly idea – is usually couched in terms of (male) priests’ need to ‘use’ women; to behave like ‘natural’ men.

The women disciples of Lollardy and other heresies of the pre-Reformation Church had a difficult choice: the movement that might give them power and autonomy was also seamed with misogyny. Within the established Church, although there was constant misogyny and firm belief that women were not equal to men, there were also strong images of the female aspects of divinity itself.

New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, MS 69.86, fol. 331r. Psalter and prayer book of Bonne of Luxembourg In the Cloisters Collection.

New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, MS 69.86, fol. 331r.
Psalter and prayer book of Bonne of Luxembourg In the Cloisters Collection.

This image shows the wound in Christ’s side – bleeding, yet fertile with the promise of salvation and rebirth for the souls of humankind – which many artists pictured as if it were a woman’s vulva dilating during labour. To medieval artists, the idea was perfectly devout – the feminine significance of Christ’s wound was part of a rich tradition in which Christ was imagined as a motherly figure, ‘the mother pelican who feeds her young from the blood of her own breast’. Julian of Norwich, a famous and saintly mystic, eloquently praised God as her ‘dear mother’ as well as her spiritual father.

Finding female figures, or feminised images of God, is, of course, not automatic proof that a society’s religious culture was especially female-friendly. The misogyny of medieval Catholicism shows us how far this might be from the truth. But as the demands of heretics gained purchase and became subsumed into the later movement towards Protestantism in the sixteenth century, these expressions of female spirituality became threatened, and were not replaced with the fulfilled demands of Lollard women.

And when we look at which of the heretics’ demands actually came to pass, there’s a clear pattern. A century after John Burrell stood trial and denounced veneration of ‘Mary of Falsingham’, in 1529, Henry VIII called his Parliament together and demanded they obtain him an annullment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. This set in motion the chain of events that led to Henry’s break from Rome, and in the course of the sixteenth century, many of the hopes expressed a by medieval heretics were put into practice.

Priests were allowed to marry. Latin was abandoned, and the Bible was published in English. Statues and images of the Virgin and other saints were smashed; pilgrimage shrines were left to fall to ruins. The powerful Catholic devotion to the Virgin Mary come to be seen as superstitious in a Protestant country where representations of holiness were uncompromisingly masculine.

Women were not permitted to preach.

I chose the image at the top of this post because it offers a poignant visual parallel to the processes of erasure of older forms of female spirituality that I believe occurred during the Reformation. The image shows the Rood Screen at Binham priory in Norfolk, which was originally painted with the figures of Catholic saints, many of them female – St Mary Magdalene, St Barbara, St Zita, St Katharine, St Helena, St Apollonia. During the Reformation, the screen was whitewashed, and these women’s faces were painted over with the black lettering of Cranmer’s new translation of the Bible into English. But as the whitewash aged, the women’s faces began to show through again, so that now we see them beginning to emerge again.


Discrediting Women and Fiction: Eleanor Catton and Francesca da Rimini


Plenty of us will have seen, by now, Kate Saunders’ comments on Booker Prize winner Eleanor Catton. Saunders described Catton as ‘a new kind of role model’ for ‘bookish girls’, ‘a slight, pale (unassisted) blonde woman’, ‘quietly spoken’ and ‘dazed’ in front of her eminent judges, stepping into the limelight ‘nervously’.

“She’s an unashamed nerd … with a pretty, user-friendly Glee-like nerdiness; just the sort that’s fashionable among clever teenage girls who don’t aspire to be Katie Price.”

(Seriously, could Saunders cram any more allusions to genre fiction into that line? If she wrote her novels with such economy, Night Shall Overtake Us wouldn’t make such a popular doorstop in Oxfam shops.)

About Catton’s writing, Saunders has the supremely patronizing statement (and trust me, after the last sentence, I do know whereof I speak):

“She’s a chick, but nobody could mistake her work for any kind of chick-lit; this young woman has been recognised for being a genuine artist …”

Saunders also finds time to comment on Catton’s proposed researchs subjects for another novel. These are time travel and systematised magic, if you’re interested – subjects covered, respectively, in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and in Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum and de Bernières’ trilogy of South American novels. Saunders declared:

“These are not serious subjects outside fiction for children.”

I could get steamed up about these comments in about ten different ways, but fortunately, I don’t have to because all my social networks were buzzing with eloquently angry posts. So instead I will consider the history of how the stereotypes Saunders is drawing on came to have so much power within our culture.

This unpleasant mixture of undermining comments – from the focus on Catton’s looks to the implication of her childishness and lack of adult and/or masculine stature and attitude – is pretty much your standard woman-hating 101 recipe. The strategy – praising one woman by telling her you’ve written off all the rest – is probably familiar to most of us. Its association with fiction also has a very long history. My research project looks as medieval romances, the ancestors of the modern novel, and here we find the same old tangle of attitudes.

In Dante’s Divine Comedy, one of the earliest circles of hell imprisons the spirits of Paolo and his lover Francesca, a noblewoman who had lived in Dante’s own time. She tells Dante how she is punished in hell for the sin of adultery, falling in love with a man who was not her husband:

“We read one day for pastime of Lancelot, how love constrained him. We were alone and had no misgiving. Many times that reading drew our eyes together and changed the colour in our faces, but one point alone it was that mastered us; when we read that the longed-for smile was kissed by so great a lover, he who never shall be parted from me – all trembling – kissed my mouth. A Galeotto [the go-between in the story of Lancelot and Guinevere] was that book, and he that wrote it, and that day we read no farther.”

(from Inferno, Canto V).

The seductive power of romance fiction sets in motion the chain of events that lead to Francesca and her lover’s violent deaths at the hands of her jealous husband.

The similarities between Dante’s imagined version of Francesca, and the picture Saunders paints of Catton, are disconcerting.

Where Catton is ‘slight’, Dante’s Francesca moves ‘lightly’; where Catton is ‘pretty’, Francesca talks of the ‘fair form’ she had in life. Where Catton is ‘quietly spoken’, Francesca ‘sighs’. Where Catton’s proposed new novel topics are ‘not serious’, Francesca’s romances are part of a fictional world that leads her to forget the dangers of reality.

In the deeply misogynistic worlds of medieval England and Italy, we might not be surprised to find that women are particularly susceptible to criticisms that focus on their reading of fiction. It fits in with the obtrusive cultural associations of women with other forms of untruth, and with the presumptions of female deceit we saw at work in medieval rape law. What is more shocking is that we have inherited these conflated attitudes, tangled up together, to interpret the combination of female beauty and fiction – especially romantic, non-‘serious’ fiction and ‘chick-lit’ – as suggestive of low artistic merit. Kate Saunders’ comments perpetuate the negative connotations of writing marketed to women, and simultaneously, and slyly, perpetuate the idea that if a woman seems ‘feminine’ and ‘attractive’ – and young – it’s very surprising to find she’s a good writer.

Even though, technically, Saunders’ version of Catton gets off more lightly than Dante’s Francesca in that she is only metaphorically damned with faint praise, I find it really difficult not to dislike Saunders’ descriptions more than Dante’s. Dante the character, who travels to Hell, redeems himself by his pity for Francesca. We think of a society that venerated femininity, even while it was uneasy with real women. Dante the author is more subtle: after Francesca’s sighing narrative, he puts the surprisingly powerful and harsh conclusion in her mouth, referring to her husband and murderer:

“Caina [the lowest level of Hell] waits for him who quenched our life.”

It has the ring of vengeful prophecy.


While I was idly googling Kate Saunders, as you do, I was unfeasibly amused to find that she’s quoted amongst a long line of gushing reviewer quotations for a certain John the Revelator, by one Peter Murphy (no doubt a very nice bloke; I’ve never heard of him). Saunders praises the ‘unsentimental’ and ‘powerful’ quality of the writing, while a fellow journalist goes one step further down the macho line with ‘ballsy’.

I rest my case.

On a less gleefully righteous note, I came across this thought-provoking article last year. It’s written by author Meg Wolitzer, and discusses how ‘women’s fiction’ works (or doesn’t work) as a category. Well worth a read.


A friend of mine has just alerted me to this interview, which contains Catton’s own, very thoughtful and dignified response to gendered criticisms of female authors. As a medievalist, I am really excited by her explanation of her novel’s complex, astrological structure:

“The paradox is … the relationship between, on the one hand, the characters being the masters of their fates, and on the other hand that being predetermined. … One of the most baffling things is when people assume that when something is structurally ornate it is less human than something that is not structurally ornate … That puzzles me – I feel as a person the most alive and human and full of wonder when I am contemplating complexities. The ability of humans to read meaning into patterns is the most defining characteristic we have.”

Beautifully put, and I for one couldn’t help thinking of Troilus and Criseyde.

Just a quick note on spelling …

This isn’t a proper post, just a quickie. 

As you may have noticed, in some of these posts my spelling isn’t perfect. I’m dyslexic, and although I run everything through spellcheck, life is far, far, far too short to catch everything. At some point I will probably write a more in-depth post about dyslexia and being a medievalist, because it’s actually one of the things I find hugely helpful – dyslexia gives me a slightly off-beam perspective on everything to do with the written word, and makes sure I question my first assumptions about what I see. During my PhD, I worked on medieval manuscripts and palaeography – disciplines that really shouldn’t suit a dyslexic – precisely because I found it so fascinating to see how our modern scripts and habits of setting out words on the page were influenced by the books of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.

For now, though, I’m just going to end with a quick link. Today is the end of National Dyslexia Awareness week. Here’s a quick quotation from the British Dyslexia Association: 

The aim of the week is to debunk the myth that dyslexia is just a difficulty with reading and spelling. We want to highlight the other difficulties dyslexic people face such as poor short term memory, maths difficulties, poor organisational skills but also the strengths that it can bring!

Amen to that, I say. 

Kissing, Squirrels, and Arse-faced Men

Recently, the internalized mansplainer who lives in my head has been exuding pitiful sighs. ‘Why do we always focus on women objectified by the male gaze?’

It’s a tough life for a mansplainer trapped in a woman’s body, so, fortunately, I’ve just seen this article:

It’s men! In sterotypical female poses! Advertising bikes! Call the international feminist conspiracy hotline, it’s men’s bodies getting the same treatment as women’s.

The guys in these pictures have been getting a lot of kudos. And they should. But no one looking at these photos can kid themselves that we look at men’s bodies in the same way that we look at women’s bodies. We’re in a cultural context where simply flipping the gender of the participants doesn’t automatically undo all gendered connotations of bodies. We’re conditioned to realize that poses like these are ‘sexy’ and ‘feminine’ – and to know that men posing like women is either a joke, or camp. So we know these pictures are a parody.

This is something that interests me, because in certain parts of medieval culture, it’s not women’s bodies that are constantly the subject of pictures – it’s men’s.

Pictures like this one – of a hooded medieval peasant baring the ample hot cross buns of his behind – are found all over medieval manuscripts.

British Library, MS  Additional 49622, fol. 61r (The Gorleston Psalter)

British Library, MS Additional 49622, fol. 61r (The Gorleston Psalter)

If that’s not enough, an image like this is really not enough to raise medieval eyebrows:

rutland merman

Rutland Psalter

In fact, such was the popularity of images of nude bodies, that we find delightfully coy types like this:


These images seem to us pretty obviously obscene. It may be fine to show women’s arses in seductive poses on daytime TV, but pictures of men like this are beyond the pale. We really have very little context for ‘artistic’ images of nude male bodies depicted in anything but classical poses. The coy over-shoulder glances here aren’t what we see as masculine (and on that note, how often do you see a merman?)

While the above pictures obviously are rude, they also – I think – display the sort of casual attitude to men’s naked bodies and body-parts that you find in the art of Jeanne de Montbaston. These naked male bodies are not found, as we might expect, in the margins of sexy romances or rude poems – they are found in prayer books, right alongside the Latin psalms and hymns people recited in church. 

This, more than anything else, illustrates the general attitude towards men’s bodies – and private parts – which we don’t share in the 21st century. In medieval England, the slang term for for what – for the sake of my mother and to the sad detriment of my google hits – I shall primly call ‘male genitalia’ was delightfully cute and cuddly. People referred to a ‘squirrel’ – a furry little pet. Medieval artists were really quite fond of male bodies, especially when they could show those bodies doing something slightly rude, nude, or plain bizarre.

This image is from the Luttrell Psalter, made in the fourteenth century, and it visualizes that slang term, showing a woman crouching for a squirrel to jump into her lap.

British Library Add. MS 42130, f.33 (Luttrell Psalter)

British Library Add. MS 42130, f.33 (Luttrell Psalter)

Before we dismiss these images as simply rude and crude and nothing more, we need to look at the context in which they were made. Our own cultural understanding of male and female bodies gives us the context to interpret the motercycle pictures in the link. For medieval readers, the surrounding culture was very different. One example neatly illustrates this, challenging our preconceptions about how men relate to other men’s bodies.

In the romance Gawain and the Green Knight, our hero Gawain makes a pact with his newfound host to swap whatever they get during the day with each other. While his host Bertilak goes off hunting and being masculine, Gawain – who at this stage is exhausted – stays in for a long lie-in. However, his hostess turns up, confesses that she has the hots for him, and strongly suggests he hand in his car keys to the communal pot.

Gawain is, of course, a lovely and virtuous knight, so the idea of adultery doesn’t tempt, and though the narrator give us a tantalising image of his body barely covered in bedclothes, all he does is give the lady one kiss. And so it is that, at the end of the day, Gawain gets a lovely Abel&Cole-style present of fresh game from his host, and is forced to admit his own winnings.

“He hasppez his fayre hals his armez wythinne,/ And kysses hym as comlyly as he couthe awyse”

(‘He clasps his arms around that handsome neck,/ And kisses him, as pleasantly as he could’)

Now, as you might expect, reams have been written on the homoerotic connotations of this kiss. And reams have also been written from the Its Not Homoerotic But I’m Not A Homophobe perspective. But the majority vote amongst medievalists honestly is that these kisses probably weren’t interpreted by medieval audiences the way we’d think. Gawain kisses his host pleasantly and courteously, and everyone watching really sees nothing odd in it. Men just do sometimes kiss other men.

This isn’t so odd: in modern-day Russia and parts of the Middle East not particularly famed for enlightened attitudes to gay rights, it is – perhaps tellingly – far more culturally acceptable for men to hold hands or kiss each other than is the norm in the UK or the US.

So in Gawain, we’re seeing men’s bodies in situations we don’t usually associate with modern masculinity, and this is the context in which the naked male bodies of the illuminated manuscripts – and the cute pet names for male body parts – start to make sense.

So, do these images mean that we should forget Jerome’s comments on women’s revolting pregnant bodies, and contact Tim Lott to speak out on the shocking misandry that dogged medieval men’s every step? Or should we accept that, while pictures like the motercycle men above help us to recognise how objectified women’s bodies are in modern visual culture, they only do a small part of the work in undoing that objectification. Misogyny can coexist quite happily with a culture where men’s bodies are the objects of rude, crude, sexualised imagery, because these images do not undermine the fact that, in medieval England, men had the power.


In my pre-caffeine haze this morning, I forgot to add this little image. Granted, he’s neither naked nor flashing, but he is quite literally arse-headed.

Cambridge, Fitzwilliam Museum, MS 1-2005 (The Macclesfield Psalter)

Cambridge, Fitzwilliam Museum, MS 1-2005 (The Macclesfield Psalter)

Lady Truth and the Author: Female Networking in Medieval Manuscripts

I’ve spent a lot of time so far looking at medieval images and texts – and records – that show how medieval misogyny shaped women’s lives, and how modern attitudes towards women’s bodies and women’s testimonies are embedded in this long history. There are more positive stories. I’ve suggested that Jeanne de Montbaston, the artist who produced the subversive and witty pictorial responses to the misogyny of the Romance of the Rose as she illustrated it, is one example. So, to find more, I went to look at more medieval artists and their work.

In medieval literature, virtues such as truth, wisdom and reason are often personified, and when they are, they are almost invariably pictured as women: Lady Truth, Lady Reason, gracious figures who act as teachers and guides.


In this image, for example, the author Boethius is pictured kneeling humbly before the crowned figure of Lady Philosophy, who offers him wings.

This isn’t so strikingly woman-friendly as it first appears. Images like this give women the appearance of status, but only the appearance. In effect, despite the humble postures of the male authors, the message is that these men have personified virtues – Truth, Wisdom, Philosophy – dancing attendance on them as they busy themselves with the important work of creating literature. Typically, the conversation follows the conventions of a romance – the male author treating his lady as a lover and trying to please her.

Here’s an image of Jean de Meun, author of the Romance of the Rose, looking suitably engrossed in his writing as his lady stands by with books for inspiration.

Paris, Bibliothèque nationale, MS Fr. 1728

Paris, Bibliothèque nationale, MS Fr. 1728. I like to imagine Jean is thinking ‘darn, why can’t real women be more like the ones in my head?!’

When a male writer or artist gives us a female ‘Lady Truth’, she’s as much a product of his mind as Eve was the product of Adam’s rib. In both cases, we’re seeing an idealized female, and hearing her speak voiced by the male author of the text. This convention is a means for authors and artists to translate a man’s internal monologue into a dialogue charged with erotic connotations – and Dante’s beloved Beatrice is the supreme example.
 One woman writer set out to challenge this picture, and these stereotypes of male creativity and male-voiced female inspiration. Christine de Pizan’s energetic criticisms of sexist male writers – and of Jean de Meun (pictured above) in particular – are accompanied by cleverly polemical illustrations. In Christine’s manuscripts, these implicitly heteronormative dialogues are transformed into something else. The old image of the male author being guided by ‘Lady Truth’ is reversed. In the illustration below, Christine sits lecturing men – she’s actually represented as an academic, sitting in the typical high-backed chair that symbolised male lecturer’s authority over their students. The open book before her reminds us that she is a writer, too. She is both ‘Lady Truth’, the person dispensing advice, and she is the author.


However, although this image pictures Christine herself as dispenser of wisdom, the book also features an actual personification of Wisdom, like those in the books of her male peers.


This image shows Christine, sitting at her desk in the same blue dress, while Minerva (goddess of Wisdom) stands beside her, carrying her sword and shield of truth. In this, the image resembles those of male authors. But because Christine is female, her artists were able to draw on a whole new set of connotations that are not evoked by male author portraits. So here, Christine sitting at her desk with her books resembles none other than the Virgin Mary, who was always pictured sitting with her prayer books at the moment when the Angel Gabriel came to tell her she was to bear God’s son.


Christine’s book, then, takes the established iconography of the male author and enriches it with feminine imagery. In presenting two female figures – Minerva and Christine – the artist also moves away from the implicitly heteronormative, erotic imagery of creative genius. It is worth noting that both Minerva (born parthenogenetically from Zeus’s forehead) and the Virgin Mary are examples of non-sexual reproduction.

The imagery of female collaboration in Christine’s book is the product of real-life collaboration between women, and of Christine’s passionate advocacy of the credibility of women as more than the objects of male desire. Unlike Jean de Meun, whose female artist Jeanne de Montbaston is almost forgotten by history, Christine makes sure that her readers know who it was that created some of the most famous images of her. Christine stresses the skill and importance of women artists as serious professionals. Her preferred illustrator was a woman, whom she praises warmly.

“I know a woman today, named Anastasia, who is so learned and skilled in painting manuscript borders and miniature backgrounds that one cannot find an artisan in all the city of Paris – where the best in the world are found – who can surpass her, nor who can paint flowers and details as delicately as she does, nor whose work is more highly esteemed, no matter how rich or precious the book is. People cannot stop talking about her. And I know this from experience, for she has executed several things for me, which stand out among the ornamental borders of the great masters.”

(from The Book of The City of Ladies)

Christine’s praise is part of her case against contemporary misogyny, but it’s also concrete evidence of networks of female support and cooperation, even in the male-dominated context of bookmaking. The portraits of Christine gives her authority by picturing her as a compound of personified ‘Lady Wisdom’ and of the Virgin. Christine’s words returned the favour. In modern terms, Christine and Anastasia’s partnership – each promoting the other as a credible professional – is not dissimilar to our own networks of women supporting each other.

Did Christine and Anastasia know Jeanne de Montbaston, the often-overlooked fourth participant in this sprawling debate over male and female creativity? It’s possible. Although Jean de Meun died in 1305, his artist Jeanne and her husband were living and working in Paris at the end of the fourteenth century. Paris was a large city at the time, but guilds of artists were tightly controlled, and two female illuminators both living and working in the same place at around the same time may well have known each other, and each other’s work. Were Christine and Anastasia supportive of Jeanne? Amused by her part in shaping responses to the Romance of the Rose? Did she know of Christine’s work? We may never know.

I started writing this blog because a network of supportive women encouraged me. It was a baptism of fire, because I knew that if I didn’t push myself, I wouldn’t keep at it. So, for this past week, I’ve done seven posts in seven days. I couldn’t have done it without supportive networks, and I am very grateful to everyone who’s cheered me on or shown me how to make the blog better.

Thank you.

Update: I should stress that this post is partly speculative. We don’t know much about Anastasia, other than what Christine says, although we do know that Christine worked closely with her illuminators to produce her manuscripts.

I can’t help feeling there must be a novel about Anastasia, Jeanne, and late-medieval Paris for someone, though!

Jeanne de Montbaston – Penis Trees Against the Misogynists?

Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Français 25526, f. 160r (Roman de la Rose, France 14th century)

The above image – a sheepish-looking monk handing an unfeasibly large penis to a disconcerted nun – may look familiar to anyone who’s read my first post in this blog.

It’s one of a sequence of illuminations made in the margins of a manuscript by the medieval artist Jeanne de Montbaston. Jeanne worked with her husband, Richard, in Rue Neuve in fourteenth-century Paris. She did the illustrations for a fairly large number of manuscripts, including dozens of copies of the popular Romance of the Rose. This poem is an allegorical reflection on love, but it is also justifiably famous as one of the most misogynistic books around, the subject of medieval author Christine de Pizan’s brilliant attack on male writers who treat women only as sex objects.

A short passage can illustrate what Christine meant. In the poem, the allegorical figure of ‘Genius’ (who is male) argues that all men should take advantage of women as sexual objects, and he compares the (male) act of writing with the act of penetration, while picturing women as passive, blank like an unwritten page. In a vicious rant, he declares:

“those who do not write with their ‘tools’ … on those beautiful, precious tablets Nature has made for them … should suffer the loss of their penis and testicles.”

The word Genius uses for ‘tool’ literally means both ‘pen’ and ‘penis’ – the pun is in the original French. This rant is primarily homophobic – or more precisely, it’s an argument against sodomy, since medieval people didn’t have the same sense of sexual orientation, rather than sexual activities, that we do now. It’s also, obviously, the speech of someone who really doesn’t think a great deal of women, and who thinks the activity of writing and the fact of having a penis are intrinsically related (if you think this sounds familiar, you’ll be pleased to know that V. S. Naipaul and dear David Gilmour, of Dickhead Detox fame, feel the same way).

Now, the question is, why would a woman artist – and one who was obviously pretty good – spend her time working on a book that puts forward such an unpleasant view of women?

I’ve heard it suggested that Jeanne was probably illiterate and that – because of this – she didn’t really know what she was illuminating and so popped in a silly story about nuns and penis trees instead of choosing a more suitable image based on the story itself.

I have a bit of a problem with this, not least because shedloads of medieval illuminators go off-piste in their choices of subject-matter and no-one suggests they’re all illiterate (though some of them surely were). But, more to the point, I think Jeanne’s illumination has quite an amusing relationship to the text and its messages.

On one level, of course, it seems to confirm what Jean de Meun says about women in general: we’re all about the cock, even the nuns. And the little pictorial narrative from which the image above comes concludes – predictably – with the monk and nun sleeping together. Though, honestly, they don’t look much happier about it than they did in the first picture!

Bibliothèque nationale de France, Français 25526, f. 111v (Roman de la Rose, France 14th century).

However, I think there’s a bit more to Jeanne’s illuminations than that. In modern culture, as in medieval society, women are all too often viewed as a set of body parts, dissected by the male gaze and by popular media into legs, and breasts, nipped-in waists and airbrushed smiles. In modern culture it’s rare to see male anatomy treated that way. In fact, naked penises cause far more consternation than naked breasts.

This wasn’t the case in medieval England, where dozens of illuminators enjoyed drawing pictures of cocks merrily surging along the margins of pages. But Jeanne’s image of a nun who calmly gathers a crop of penises into her basket is more pointed that most. Standing in the margins of a romance full of mansplaining about female desire and the superior creative powers of men, it’s as if Jeanne’s nun is saying: ‘well, if you have to have a penis to tell a good story … look how many have!’

BnF MS Fr. 25526

BnF MS Fr. 25526