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.
* 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.