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.
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.
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 a 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?