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?


17 thoughts on “Witches and Wicked Bodies: Imagining the ‘Other’

  1. Interesting post! It also made me think of a fabulous paper at the Gender and Medieval Studies conference in January by Tom Devaney (given in absentia) on gender and conversion in late medieval Castile. He skilfully drew together the ways in which marginal religious identities and “deviant” sexual behaviour became conflated in Castile, with Jewish men described in the unpleasantly memorable phrase of “the old faggot Jew”. Jealousy of Jewish success resulted in criticism and mocking of Jewish genitalia in ways that seemed to underscore a deep unease with masculinities not constrained by Christian social norms. There’s a lot of work on the gendering of witchcraft, but I think you’ve struck on something valuable here about the intersections of different kinds of prejudice and gendered representations.

    • Oh, I wish I’d heard that! It sounds fascinating.

      There were hints of sexual deviance in here too (other than cat-arse fetishes, that is), but I needed to see the exhibition again to make sense of what I think there. In terms of masculinities, it relates in to romances about Saracen/black giants, doesn’t it?

      I am fascinated by the intersections – and how transferrable all of these tropes are.

  2. Great post. This reminds me of the brief reference to a Jewish ‘witch’ in the Life of Christina of Markyate – a twelfth century saint’s life. It states there that the Jewish woman was ‘intent on harming Christina with particularly powerful magic’, but that Angels were able to protect Christina. It would be interesting to know if there are other early depictions like this. Something I’d like to look at in the future.

    • There are early malevolent witches, as well as the comedic ones like the one in Robert Mannyng, yes. Arthurian romance has a few, and I am wondering how whether I might find there are parallels to the iconography of Jewishness. But I don’t often work on saints’ lives and can’t immediately think of another witch parallel to Christina’s story, let alone a Jewish witch!

      I must look (and I look forward to your later work) … thank you so much for this comment.

      • No problem. This link between the religious other and magic that you’re exploring is always fascinating, and certainly appears to be a component in attempts to forge a Christian identity in opposition.

        I’ve also been looking recently at some twelfth and thirteenth-century representations of Muhammad in Christian saint’s lives and also a Mirror for Princes, and in a number of these he is described as a magician or working with a magician. I’d love to find out more (or read more literature) about how magic was gendered in the high middle ages, and how this intersected with ideas about race and religion.

        I must also go see this exhibition now!

      • Cheers! There has been quite a bit of work done on representations of Muhammad, but fortunately one of the texts I’ve been looking at, was classified one of the ‘least readable’ works of Gerald of Wales by earlier scholars, so very few have examined this particular text and compared his work to earlier (e.g William of Malmesbury) or later authors (e.g Matthew Paris) that look at Islam too.

  3. Oh, you really must, it’s a great exhibition.

    I went to a paper on the gendering of magic a while back – it argued that male magic-users are scholarly and can sometimes be involved in the learned/semi-acceptable stuff (like astrology), whereas female witches are rarely so learned or acceptable. And then, female learning when it happens is scary and tainted with all of that female vindictiveness, as with Morgan le Fay.

    But I must look earlier, as this paper was mostly later medieval, and your twelfth and thirteenth century stuff sounds as if it’s key.

    • That sounds very interesting and quite convincing! I remember from one Anglo-Norman chronicle that there was a bishop who was suspected of reading too much on necromancy; I need to check that reference out! But I suspect it was as you say somewhat acceptable because of his learned status.

      I wonder whether because of Muhammad’s race and religion, he is more often depicted as a charlatan, or someone who uses trickery/illusions to convince people. And this is then used as a nice analogy by Christian writers as to why he was able to proselytize so well.

      Thanks again – you’ve made me think again at some of these intriguing connections.

      • Oh, that sounds rather good (the bishop). 😀

        I think you must be right about Muhammad. Mannyng pairs his story about a witch with one about a man who converts to Islam to chat up a girl, and it’s interesting that the witchcraft is effective (but presumably with the minor downside of eternal damnation, though it’s not really flagged up), while Islam is merely unresponsive and powerless.

        You’ve got me thinking, too!

        Thank you for commenting – it’s been extremely helpful and interesting.

  4. Fascinating insights into human bigotry, under which one often finds a layer of some dominant/would be dominant group’s political agenda. Shame it keeps replicating with the haters and the hated down the centuries – well, even to our own dear England.

    • It is a shame. In fact, I’ve seen some of the anti-semitic imagery used again. But I do think that if we can recognize where imagery like this is coming from, we stand a better chance of being wise to it.

  5. As a researcher on medieval alchemy, I was struck by the mention of toads as a symbol of greed. Whilst some alchemists were surely using them as a symbol due to their association with poison and moisture, it makes me wonder if some others might have been a little tongue in cheek if not actively associating their search for the stone with greed.

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