I don’t habitually go to buzzfeed for profound and scholarly historical discussion (I keep wikipedia for that), so when someone sent me a link, I wasn’t expecting much, and I wasn’t disappointed. This link is a load of guff about how powerful prostitutes were back in History, back before the nasty feminists spoiled everything (note, their definition of ‘prostitute’ is probably loose enough to come close to some people’s definition of ‘libel’). It’s easy to take issue with the ‘woman is powerful because she got to sleep with powerful men’ theory, of course. But, despite its manifest limitations, the link got me thinking about the nature of power and how it affects how we write history.
Power is one of those things that is defined relatively, and therefore, any change in an individual’s circumstances sets off a recalibration of the whole system, however minute and imperceptible it may be. If I become relatively more powerful, someone else becomes relatively less so. And that’s how the balance can tip until whole sectors of society are wildly less powerful than others. Problem is, when we come to discuss history, it’s always tempting to take individuals out of context, to make every ambiguity point the same way until we’ve reconstructed actual power from the range of possibilities.
The best way I can think to illustrate this is with the figure of the medieval witch, a figure whose power I’ve seen described with awe and respect over and over, put forward earnestly by people who truly want to believe in a past where women had power.
A few months ago, when I’d just started tweeting with an avatar showing Jeanne and Richard de Montbaston’s image of a nun picking penises, Victoria Brownworth commented how much this image reminded her of an episode in the famous Malleus Maleficarum. The Malleus (‘Hammer of the Witches’) was written in 1486, and became quite popular, with several reprintings over the next couple of centuries. The story she was thinking of is one of my favourites, so I’m going to quote a bit of it.
“And what, then, is to be thought of those witches who in this way sometimes collect male organs in great numbers, as many as twenty or thirty members together, and put them in a bird’s nest, or shut them up in a box, where they move themselves like living members, and eat oats and corn, as has been seen by many and is a matter of common report?”
You have to love the casual attribution of this story to ‘common report’. The author of the Malleus, with admirable confidence in his audience’s sangfroid in the face of this narrative, goes on to describe one poor emasculated man’s experience:
“For a certain man tells that, when he had lost his member, he approached a known witch to ask her to restore it to him. She told the afflicted man to climb a certain tree, and that he might take which he liked out of the nest in which there were several members. And when he tried to take a big one, the witch said: You must not take that one; adding, because it belongs to a parish priest.”
You might find it hard to believe, given the jokey tone of these passages, but the Malleus was pretty highly misogynistic and sincere in its conviction that witches were prompted by evil, female sexual desire. For a lot of readers ever since, the witches of the Malleus have become symbolic of resistance to this persecutory misogyny, growing in stature from strangely arboreal penis-farmers to wise, dignified, strong women drawing on mysterious feminine power. I’ve sometimes got into arguments about this with women who say, well, maybe they had power. It’s possible, isn’t it?
It’s possible. But it’s not very likely.
You can see that the Malleus story has obviously similarities to the much older story fourteenth-century author Robert Mannyng relates in his book Handlyng Synne, which I retold in a previous blog post. In that story, it is a bishop and not a priest who is bested by a clever witch. She enchants a disturbingly phallic, bulging sack to steal milk for her, and when the he demands and repeats the words of the spell, he’s caught in (metaphorical … ish …) impotence, unable to emulate her power. The Malleus story has also been linked to the image at the top of this blog post, which is a detail from a thirteenth-century mural depicting women plucking penises from a penis tree.
It’s pretty easy to be reductive about these stories, especially as a feminist. Setting aside the Freudian, we can argue these women are represented as clever and powerful, getting the better of the representatives of organised religion and controlling fertility. Add in dramatic references to ‘witchhunts’ in Puritan American or Inquisition-era Europe and these stories take on a darker flavour, as preludes to a male-dominated violence focussed on expressions of powerful female activity. It’s easy to refashion the witch protagonists of these stories as sister women, proto-feminists rejecting male authority (in a delightfully heterocentric way). Maybe they just liked the penises because they were empowered, comfortable with their sexuality? Do stop me, I think I’ve heard this one before.
These witches are beginning to sound like modern women as imagined by the most patronizing of ‘pro-sex’ ‘feminist ally’ types. It’s tempting, of course, to believe that medieval witches were powerful, before an early Modern repression of their power. But I’m not convinced this power is more than an illusion. In order to take these stories as reflections of a strong female power centred in witchcraft, we’d have to believe that the women in them represented something out of the ordinary, some challenge to the status quo, to the dignity of the male-dominated Church or to normal heterosexual power relations.
Instead, when I looked for other medieval stories like these, I found the most similar plots were not to be found in the angry rants of threatened priests or bishops, or in official propaganda on finding and killing witches. Instead, these stories were dead ringers for the contents of the medieval smutty verses known as fabliau, which feature ordinary men and women and which are obsessed with heterosex.
My current favourite amongst these is called Li Prestre Ki Perdi Les Colles (it sounds so elegant in French, right?): “The Priest Who Lost His Balls”. As you can kinda imagine from the title, it’s another very similar story. Here, the priest is having a little casual fornication, as you do, with a carpenter’s wife. When the carpenter suddenly arrives home, the priest dashes stark naked into the carpenter’s workshop and tries to hide. Seeing nowhere else, he hastily climbs onto a large wooden crucifix and arranges himself in the posture of Jesus, in the hope that the carpenter is stupid enough to imagine he’s already carved the central figure.
Naturally enough, the carpenter isn’t fooled. Being a smart man, he sees a clever revenge, and, pretending to be horrified at his own oversight in carving highly visible genitals on the body of Christ, he whips out his chisel, and –
This story is obviously drawing on pretty similar tropes to the witch stories. And I might as well just say that there are dozens of medieval fabliaux describing priests caught in undignified penis-related contexts. The women of the fabliaux are the direct ancestors of these witches: not emblems of female power, but accessories in endless ‘look, I’m talking about a penis’ stories.
Reading these late-medieval witch stories in this context, what I really noticed was that the women described in the Malleus story, or in Mannyng’s Handlyng Synne (or even pictured on the mural) were just very … ordinary. They are not universally terrifying figures, channelling unique power from the Mother Goddess.
When we buy into the idea that witches were universally recognised, in all medieval or early Modern societies, as powerful and awe-inspiring, we buy into a myth. For one thing, few societies are that homogeneous in their views, and for another, to do this is to ignore the fact that the writers, and probably the artists, who created these stories were not feminist documentary-makers, but men with agendas. Buying into MRA myths by attributing spurious power to women in the past is tempting, because we want to imagine how women might have been powerful, and why women were perspecuted. But that’s to miss the point: misogyny doesn’t need reasons. The whole power structure of the societies in which these stories were written were justification enough, without us needing to imagine the threat of specially powerful women.
You may think this doesn’t matter too much – it’s only history. It’s in the past. But the same process of ‘positive’, ’empowering’ rewriting of circumstances is happening all over the world today. Imagine a historian looking back at misogynistic rants against 21st century feminists. That historian would see claims that women are ‘more powerful than men anyway’ or ‘really derive power from sex work’. They’d see claims that men were threatened by powerful women and that women had a real power, a power strangely invisible to the naked eye but nevertheless much-cited. Would they believe those rants? I hope not. But in the same way, we have a duty to try to be sceptical too. We cannot give someone oppressed more power by pointing out that, in the most positive parallel universe imaginable, a person in that situation might have power. We have to acknowledge the real context of that oppression.
The titular quotation is, of course, from the King Missile song Detachable Penis. One suspects that, in these transhistorical narratives of phallic loss, there might be a feminist anti-Freudian theory waiting to be written, but I leave that to your imagination.