Flesh, sex, and gender in early modern times— examples from history

Neither sexuality nor gender has much prominence in Foulkes' writings and when they figure, he appears satisfied by a traditional, psychoanalytic model of their formation. He gives no suggestions as to how either might be seen in terms of social unconsciousness and history. Sexuality is an interesting topic in so far as, as soon as one starts to think about the personal and social meanings of human sexuality, "bodily nature" becomes hard, if not impossible, to describe outside of a discursive universe. The "body", which could include many aspects, such as comportment, preparations, decorations, visibility, and so on, has its own history (Foucault, 1978b), and indeed, what are considered "human attributes" vary enormously across cultures and times (Hirst & Woolley, 1981). Norms, training, and cultivation enter deep "into" the body, and whilst "flesh" is undeniable—all bodies bleed—notions such as "sins of the flesh", "crime against nature", or "unblemished", open up ethical-symbolic worlds that might inscribe human beings as "fallen bodies", inheritors of "original sin", "virginally pure", and so on (Elliot, 1999). In the medieval period, there was no equivalent to our word "sexuality", itself something of a nineteenth-century invention; indeed, it can be said that "sexual identity" had altogether different connotations and that, rather than "sex" being something that two people did, it was regarded as something that one person did to another (Dinshaw, 1999; Karras, 2005). The modern, free "western body" is no less than the product of complex significations, premised on our valuations of presentability, ideals of beauty, categories of "sexual liberation", technologised intervention and enhancement, norms of pleasure and gratification, significations that would utterly baffle those of another era, and indeed those of many another countries nowadays.

The two historical case examples to follow, concern representations of female nature in early modern Europe and are associated with the abject and the ideal; they are, respectively, (a) witchcraft beliefs and (b) Lutheran marriage ideals. These examples are of interest because they illuminate aspects of a social unconsciousness and imaginary radically different and, in most ways (but not every?), incommensurable with how we nowadays think about sexual and desirable, gendered relations.

Dangerous bodies, lustful women, witches

Femina comes from Fe and Minus, since she is ever weaker to hold and preserve the faith. (Kramer & Sprengler, 1486, p. 44)

Early European witchcraft belief and persecution has generated a vast scholarship. Quite how and why the Devil "burst forth" into human affairs, particularly from the thirteenth century onwards (witchcraft persecution belongs to a much later period), will never be fully understood (Boureuau, 2006). The Devil's physical presence in the world and ability to occupy and influence frail human bodies is of particular relevance, but the more that is known about witchcraft, the fewer the generalisations one can make. No singular mode of explanation of witchcraft will suffice and, in the understated terms of one distinguished historian of the field, "there are many reasons why" (Biggs, 1996, for a detailed survey of witchcraft; for social theories of witchcraft, see Scarre & Callow, 2001). Amongst the many complexities is the relationship of witchcraft to gender and/or sexuality. Despite stereotypes, not all witches were female (Levack, 1987, estimates seventy-five per cent female victims in most of Europe, with male victims in the majority in four more peripheral areas, and equally represented in Finland) or old or spinsters, although in some contexts the victims were overwhelming female and single (in England, up to ninety per cent were female), with part of the problem of interpretation being that there were very different waves, patterns (over a 300 year span), beliefs, countries, and regions involved. One formula, although not without its critics, is Larner's (1981, 1984) sober judgment that witchcraft (Larner was an expert on the Scottish witch context) was sex-related rather than sex-specific. As for the Devil, in spite of possessing chameleon form, there was no disputing the fact that he was male.

A famous and influential account, in Central Europe, was Malleus Maleficarum (literally "The Hammer of the [Female] Witches") by the German Dominicans, Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprengler, published in 1486. A guidebook for the educated, Malleus helped to consolidate a powerful, if learned, stereotype of the witch as subspecies of female, its ancient and theological surveys and didactic questions establishing the "reality" of feminine weakness and primary sinfulness. The book did not arise from nowhere and, in terms of its conditions of emergence and intertextuality ("authorisation"), it can be related to, say, concern in Germany about the non-implementation of Papal bulls and mounting pressures on the secular courts (Innocent VIII's 1484 frequently reprinted bull against witchcraft in particular; Middelfort, 1972). In some ways a derivative text, Malleus portrays women as excessive, backbiting, "over-tongued", superstitious, and treacherous—"evil of nature, painted with fair colours" (Kramer & Sprengler, 1486, p. 43). Kramer and Sprengler also quote good female models from the Bible, but these do not detract from an underlying vulnerability located in "female nature". Relating such characteristics to a defect in the "first woman", Kramer and Sprengler build to their conclusion that, "All witchcraft comes from carnal lust, which is in women insatiable" (p. 47).

Broedel (2003) notes the "founding", if tragic, value of Malleus in providing a model of the witch, even though it had contemporary critics who cited other sources or dismissed its morbid preoccupation with female sexuality; Biggs (1996) cautions against generalisation and the mixing up of rhetoric and justification with actual practice, in the case of this and other demonological guides. Yet the image of a disordered sexuality was resonant in many contexts and while medieval heresy may have been gender-neutral, witchcraft was an altogether different crime, a crimen exceptum. The emergent figure of the malevolent female witch differed markedly from medieval notions of the sorceress or wise women (Brauner, 1995). In Broedel's (2003) reading, Malleus sought to demonstrate that, "witchcraft, femininity and sexual sin form a tight constellation of interrelated ideas" (p. 178).

Constructions of the witch were born and disseminated in many forms, of which the scholarly text was just one. Others forms were woodcuts (Hans Baldung Grien's series are notable examples), sermon, teaching, the legal machinery of interrogation, and trial itself (again, with considerable variations throughout Europe), popular idiom, and linguistic convention. As Monter (1977) eloquently puts it, "The ingredients of the witch-maker's cauldron came from many different places" (p. 128). In an interesting analysis of gender hierarchies in the Renaissance, Classen (2005) considers belief about the "diabolic sensorium" of the witch, associated with nature's weakest member, woman. Amongst these are touch (the notion of the "evil eye"), slipperiness (e.g., the image of the spider), influencing from a distance (e.g., piercing of wax effigies), gluttony (the notion of an insatiable nature), evil odours (often associated with menstrual fluids), as well as (excessive) speech. Classen suggests that the latter was of two kinds—seductive or nagging—with nagging frequently linked to the wife, the subject of popular lore and many plays; "where men might use knives, women used words ." (Larner, 1981, p. 86). Thomas (2009) notes the role of the early modern polarities of male/female and associated qualities of, say, "strong and weak", "rational and emotional", and so on. Let us briefly relate notions like these—the witch as personification of "bad" female sexuality—to the German and English contexts.

Roper's (1994, 2004) study of the German trials, uses a rich blend of sociological, psychoanalytic, and narrative formulations. Parts of the continent, such as Germany, entertained elaborate demonology and belief about the nature of the "pact" between witches and women; these beliefs included nocturnal meetings, flying objects and figures, and intercourse with the Devil, who appeared in endless disguise. Barbara Hohenberger (Roper, 2004), interrogated in 1590, confessed to having met a stranger who, preying on her status as a widow, courted her. He is an ordinary looking man, always wearing a feathered hat. Intercourse occurs and on the final occasion there is foul odour in the air. Intercourse effectively seals the devilish bargain, the pact. Roper notes how similar these German confession stories began to sound, with the Devil appearing in different, everyday guises, sometimes with charm, sometimes with force, and how typically he presents some kind of "solution" to a given woman's situation—for example, the wish to remarry in the case of Barbara, to overcome melancholy (often regarded as a sinful emotion), escape poverty, etc. In the narratives of the accused or condemned, it is easy to see how women used the language world of witchcraft to explain their everyday misfortune or dilemmas and how witchcraft could be fuelled by tensions between women (such as inter-generational), as well as from other sources.

In a particular emphasis on the maternal and post-partum period, Roper (1994) observes the role of wicked women who envy and target such a state, women such as lying-in maids, who "take over" an infant, or older, childless women who similarly harm mothers and infants. Tensions between women could be expressed in such fantasies, as well as those between men and women. Relating this partially to poverty and preoccupations around fertility, she contends that the ground was prepared for the powerful image of the "... death-dealing witch, attacking mothers, children and babies ..." (p. 131). Fertility was over-determined by all manner of fears and symbolism—barrenness, like crop failure, being a curse on the community as much as the individual person, older women or spiteful, younger ones, being associated with motives of vengeance. It is important to note that the other, major capital offence for women during this period was infanticide (stimulated mostly by poverty). Witches turned motherhood upside down, perverting its course and Roper emphasises the countervailing, demanding ideals to which women were held, ideals embodied, for Catholics, in the figure of Mary and, perhaps for Protestants, in women's destiny as obedient wife, etc. (more on this below). Motherhood is represented as ideal, but, "Idealisations of this strength and tenacity are likely to breed their own monsters" (Roper, 1994, p. 140).

If parts of the continent developed particularly sexualised, demonological accounts of seduction, intercourse, and enlistment by the Devil, England did not, apparently basing its witchcraft beliefs and persecutions more simply upon the notion of inflicting harm, maleficia—killings, harming others, destroying crops, spoiling food, etc. There seems to be more emphasis in England on the role of "imps" and the keeping of "familiars", though, as Sharpe (1996) says, from the East Anglian trials there was evidence of an increasing sexualisation of the relationship between humans, "witch marks", and such "animals". Sharpe (1996) refers to the use of an army of "women of credit" or "honest matrons", skilled in the detection of witches' marks (mostly a teat-like growth in the pudenda), from which "familiars" sucked. With the vast majority of victims being women, different connections to femaleness or sexuality operated. Purkiss (1996) offers a brilliant elucidation of this connection, to the realm of the domestic (the female domain)—house, hearth, body, and child. In considering the Essex trials, for which many documents have survived, Purkiss notes the connection of women to food and exchange in the rural economy, their responsibility for dairying and keeping house. In this regard, women's roles had a strongly symbolic dimension, as transformers of natural products, operating at those very boundaries where "nature and culture meet and are mediated" (Purkiss, 1996, p. 97). Acts of cultivation have a dark side, of which witchcraft is the ultimate perversion—the witch destroys order, meddles with, and pollutes, the community. Based on the amount of domestic detail quoted in these trials, Purkiss formulates the witch as the prime anti-mother, the figure who crosses the threshold of the ordinary household and community. The bodies of women are more "leaky", permeable, and therefore more problematic; "Just as the boundaries of the mother's body blend with her child, so the witch breaches the protective space around the body with a look, a gift, a touch, a word or a visit" (p. 125). A similar point is made by Elliot (1999, p. 56), in her account of women as perfect partners for the Devil, "ripe for uncanny insemination", symbolically, if not literally.

Anna Moats was judged guilty of witchcraft in 1645 in Suffolk, having confessed to courting evil spirits (imps) and encountering the Devil when cursing her husband and children. Reviewing this material, Jackson (1995) concentrates on the grain of domestic life—the rural, the intimacies of economy, with potential accusations around the bewitching of cattle, disputes over butter and milk, etc. She makes a convincing argument that those traditional feminine spaces and activities contain an abjected alternative, such as "feeding (poisoning), child-rearing (infanticide), healing (harming), birth (death)" (p. 71). In terms of the social figure of women more generally, Sharpe (1996) distinguishes references to grave, sober women—"a widdow of good reputation", as one tract puts it—standing in contrast to those women suspected of doing the "Divells work".

The witch symbolises danger, a danger above all others. She, when it is a she, like the heretics of earlier times, subverts the canopy that covers, and to some extent protects, normal human space. The covenant between God and humans, if one puts it in such terms, is undermined by the prospect of a malignant, alternative covenant between witch and Devil. Fertility, and all it encapsulates, is one, seemingly regular link. Is was not just a question of femaleness—equally, in peasant economies, the witch was also the prime antineighbour, who wrecks the peace, normal exchange, and wellbeing of the village or community; indeed, MacFarlane's (1972) classic study analyses witchcraft belief at the level of village anxiety and transactions in fascinating detail, emphasising the gradual decline in traditional (Catholic) attitudes of charity, borrowing, and communality.

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