Re-Locating the Voice of the Sad Shield in Exeter Book Riddle 5

Translation, like any cultural practice, entails the creative reproduction of values.

— Lawrence Venuti, The Scandals of Translation (1998), 1.

In the introduction to the provocative collection The Word Exchange (Norton, 2011), Michael Matto cites the anonymity of Old English poetry as a constraint on its perceived voice, a problem exacerbated by the likelihood that any anthologized group of Old English poems will have been rendered by the same translator (Broadview, I’m looking at you). Matto states that avoiding this singularity is a motivation for seeking the efforts of established American, English, and Irish poets to have a crack at the highlights of the extant corpus. And some of these versions are quite tasty. [Particularly fun is James Harpur’s version of the “Rune Poem” or the Metrical Charms section. Many of the riddles are good too].

However, the cast of characters is pretty uniform otherwise: mostly white [Yusef Komunyakaa is the only Black poet featured] and all intentionally non-specialists. There may be a desire to bring multiplicity to the corpus, to “frequently exchange/ kindred voices” there — to cite my current translation of Riddle 8’s nightingale [wrixle geneahhe / heafodwoþe, ll. 2–3] — but the tone is pretty level no matter what. Mostly serious, mostly stately, mostly the expected sorts of voices. This is unfortunate. A good opportunity lost to the basic assumptions of the field. Dan Remein makes a similar observation, noting how conservative impulses to translation inevitably “converts Old English to popular contemporary workshop verse,” and produces a “homogenizing operation of conversion” (“Auden, Translation, Betrayal: Radical Poetics and Translation from Old English,” Literature Compass 8 [2011], 813).

I’m no stranger to Old English translation. Like Leonard Cohen says, “I know this room and I’ve walked this floor.” I took on a massive translation project unasked in 2007 as a game, as training, as a challenge. It started with Andreas, a text I needed for my dissertation and eventual book (Political Appetites [The Ohio State University Press, 2017]) and it ballooned from there. I have to admit I started it in pique, after being assigned S. A. J. Bradley’s Anglo-Saxon Poetry (Everyman, 1982) back at Princeton. Those translations are so thoroughly non-apt, tamed and domesticated — yet so bloody canonical, ubiquitous like a cough. So, I went to work: rendering fifty lines a day for years, through change and transformation, learning a lot and making many, many mistakes along the way [many you can still find in my as-yet unedited versions online].

But after rendering about 27,000 lines of Old English poetry (which you can find here), I can only hear a dry wheeze in the “accepted voice” for its translation, the voice preferred even in The Word Exchange — the voice my work fell into as I went along, I am ashamed to admit. I stepped into the arena wanting to render poetry into poetic translations but failed at it largely. The conservatism of the field was a tide risen up to my thighs, and it was obstructing my steps.

Studies of Old English poetry have been resistant to change, slow to adapt, quick to distrust innovation, eager to exclude alternatives and erase competing arguments. It lags in time — and flirts with its own irrelevance. Part of the answer to this hesitancy, as far as I can survey in this valley of dry bones, rests in sepulchers of translation. In canons of respectability, as if Frederick Klaeber’s going to reach out from wherever and say, “Good job.”

But screw that, I no longer want to practice respectability.

I want my translation work to be scandalous. Queer. Deviant. Affronting. Extra extra. I want my translations to streak across the sky, their path both fyre gefysed and “scrawling red RSVPs in the sky” (Beowulf, 2309, tr. Headley, 2313).

Sure, I’m punk rock kid and I want to freak out the squares, but my desire is scholarly as well. These fusty translations do not invite interesting theories. They are largely “dog-trots,” to be truthful — guides to the language, and little more. Tightly controlled curations of a historical experience. They sacrifice poetry and music while chasing the dragon of “accuracy.” They often don’t even acknowledge that new arguments have been made and old ideas overshadowed or passed over, repeating the same old interpretation again and again. Largely this is because translation is not seen as productive scholarly work. It’s something thrown to a senior scholar, someone vested in the traditional ways of doing things. And any attempt to even gently question the party line is usually met with shuddering revulsion. How many Beowulves are out there that say exactly the same thing, that contain no fresh insights?

As Lawrence Venuti argues in The Scandals of Translation (1998), translation is fraught, difficult, and bound up in power differentials — these relations conscribe the translated text to the service of the translating culture (4). It is no different for translating Old English poetry: the theories and the needs of scholarship drive how the text is revealed. We clothe that figure. There is no objectivity possible in the act. There is no accurate translation. Even the reflex to claim authenticity is suspect — how often are the words themselves subject to emendation when they don’t accord with what an editor or dictionary-maker or metricist presumes should be there? Sculan does a lot of work in Old English studies, and the infinitive isn’t even extant.

Tl;dr — I am less interested these days in translating with propriety in mind and more about discovering new ways the poems might work through playing at their glitches. I am all about treating this archive less like a fetish in a glass box, and more like one of the items in my colleague James Brown Jr’s RCADE resource (the Rutgers-Camden Archive of Digital Ephemera), a place where one learns about the intersections of technology, culture, and code by “cracking” an archived device — breaking it in effect.

That is where hip hop comes into the “Shield” Riddle.

It is clear that this lyric does not operate in the same way as its comrades in either run of Riddles in the Exeter Book. It does not riff on anaphoric hwilum clauses. It does not demand answers to its identity. It does not even move that far afield in its figurative leaps: a matter of sad synecdoche rather than eager metaphor. Its solution is only half the picture, and not really the most interesting part. Far more daring and challenging is how the poem exploits riddlic technology to invest an everyday object with otherwise unrepresentable emotion. There usually is no room in heroic literature for the aftermath, for the wounds and losses, for the pain even in victory or survival. The shield speaks those remainders — the real guþ-laf —  through the glitches in its design.

I have long been an admirer of hip hop culture. At first, I was intrigued by its contrariety, its insistence on reinterpreting history beyond white exceptionalism. How it thwarts musical expectations by making “noise” into structure, lovely in its chaos. I loved how it reverses chains of the commodity through sampling and loops and breaks and beats. The artform reclaims products of dominant culture to serve the needs of those it marginalizes. The consumer determines a proper use for the commodity — a reversal of the idea of “productive consumption” (to use Marx’s term [“Introduction to the Critique of Political Philosophy” (1857), 92]). It’s what “poaching” might sound like in de Certeau’s scheme of strategies versus tactics as resistance (The Practice of Everyday Life [Berkeley, 1984, trans. Steven Rendall], I.xii).

Only later did I start to appreciate the poetic designs of its emcees. How traditional practices of “signifying” not only challenge dominant schemes of language but also unfolds their fullest potentials in chains of signification (see Gates, The Signifying Monkey (1988), see ch. 2, 44ff.) in exactly the same way as the samples, poaching the resources of a language many did not choose. Rap lyrics encode minoritarian resistance to linguistic structures of oppression (such as Deleuze and Guattari describe in A Thousand Plateaus, 106ff.) Tricia Rose, in her foundational 1994 study of hip hop history and aesthetics, Black Noise, invokes hip hop’s Legbean quality of rising from the intersections of US urban cultures:

“Situated at the ‘crossroads of lack and desire,’ hip hop emerges from the deindustrialization meltdown where social alienation, prophetic imagination, and yearning intersect. Hip-hop is a cultural form that attempts to negotiate the experiences of marginalization, brutally truncated opportunity, and oppression within the cultural imperatives of African-American and Caribbean history, identity, and community. It is the tension between the cultural fractures produced by postindustrial oppression and the binding tics of black cultural expressivity that sets the critical frame for the development of hip hop” (21).

Del tha Funkee Homosapien’s 2011 release, “Golden Era” (with one of his earlier rhymes superimposed), edited by Aaron Hostetter (2021).

Dr. Rose’s invocation of “Black noise” is appropriate here: hip hop thrives in the immense marches that Eurocentric poetics rely upon as exclusion, as outside to acceptability in order to create its own spaces of power. Hip hop poetry is a mearc-stapa (here, Ini Kamoze might chorus, “Word ‘em up!”], a voice from a culture many are conditioned not to accept as poetical at all. Jay-Z, in his book Decoded (2010), discusses the flush of language possible in the intersection of rhythmic spaces, low social expectations, and the desire to express oneself on multiple levels at once:

The words you use can be read a dozen different ways: They can be funny and serious. They can be symbolic and literal. They can be nakedly deceptive. It seems so straightforward and personal and real that people read it completely literally, as raw testimony or autobiography. (54)

Jay-Z hits at a common truth here: just like with hip hop emcees who could not possibly be creating elaborate metaphorical worlds of identity and expression, ancient poets are also denied fictionality and ambiguity by many modern readers. Scholars reduce their voices into stereotype. So, my goal is to locate and celebrate the moments of distortion, play, and contradiction in these lyrics.

Here, in Exeter Book Riddle 5, I though the best way to do so was to try my hand at writing bars.

Hip hop also features an expansive metrical form, embodied in the tension between rhythm and verbal stress, with unstressed syllables popping in to fill spaces between hard beats. The structure of a line is very similar to Old English meter, roughly built in groups of four strong stresses (to follow a rhythmic musical line in 4:4 time). The uneven distribution of unstressed syllables creates frequent opportunities for syncopation and off-stress sound effects (much like extant Old English poetry does, when performed properly).

Additionally, hip hop poets frequently glory in sound relations of every sort, including slant-rhyme, internal rhyme, off-beat rhyme, assonance, consonance, and of course alliteration. Most importantly, hip hop is explicitly a performed poetics, negotiating both sides of a supposed “Great Divide” between oral and written literatures, always already both and the same.

For my re-translation of this riddle, I chose to adopt a dense lyrical style similar to that used by the late MF DOOM (but is hardly exclusive to his rhymes). For example, see the intricate network of sound-play in this couplet:

Spot hot tracks like spot a pair of fat asses.
Shots of the scotch from out of square shot glasses (Madvillain, “All Caps” [2004]).

Also check out this couplet from Inspektah Deck:

My mind’s all-smart, it’s in the ballpark as Jean-Paul Sartre.
Yours is in the parking lot of Walmart bagging Duck Dynasty wall-art [Czarface, “Deviatin’ Septums” [2015]).

The translation cannot be just voiceless, so I thought I’d engineer an easy beat and arrangement for it (I’m only just learning how to do this). The backing track is an instrumental version of “Mind’s Playin’ Tricks on Me” by The Geto Boys (1991), a song about the psychological costs of violence and stress. The samples are eclectic, some Bringing Out the Dead (1999), some Space is the Place (1974), and a bit of Dead Presidents (1995), as well as Admiral Akbar, Del tha Funkee Homosapien, and Biggie Smalls. The idea is to link the experience of post-traumatic stress disorder possibly alluded to in the Shield Riddle, with expressions of reality made weird through warfare and violence, especially as that trauma has been unevenly distributed to African-American communities. To give the shield warrior’s space to heal: to be their læcce-cyn after all these centuries.

Aaron Hostetter
Associate Professor of Old and Middle English
Rutgers University-Camden

For Dr. Hostetter’s translation and recitation, see his Exeter Book Riddle 5.

For more translations by Dr. Hostetter, see his Old English Poetry Project.

White Wizard Male Privilege: Gendered Witchcraft and Racialized Magic

Growing up, I always loved wizards. All the most epic stories seemed to have them: mysterious wanderers dispensing arcane wisdom and providing just the right information at just the right time to just the right person. Wizards—in particular white male wizards—enjoy a distinct privilege in contemporary Fantasy literature. They are part of a larger trend identified by Helen Young as “habits of whiteness” within the genre. Wizards are often presented as mythic, almost godlike, figures who wield cosmic power and inevitably play a pivotal role in the narrative even if only from the periphery.

Severus Snape (Alan Rickman), Minerva McGonagall (Maggie Smith) and Albus Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005).

Witches, on the other hand, get the short end of the magic wand. From early medieval characterizations of Odin and Merlin to modern Fantasy figures such as Gandalf and Dumbledore, wizened male magic-users are repeatedly glorified, often leaving the more pejorative treatments for characterizations of magical women, especially witches. This wizard male privilege reinforces an ancient tradition of misogyny that likewise reaches back to the classical Greco-Roman myths of Medea and medieval tales of Morgan Le Fay, and which extends to include modern antagonists such as the Land of Oz’s infamous Wicked Witch of the West and Narnia’s White Witch, Jadis. This intersectional blog continues our recent series on magic which has recently explored issues of plague-related magical thinking, late medieval necromancy and sexist witch-stereotypes.

When you think of a wizard, what comes to mind? Probably some grandfatherly magician, a devout guardian of arcane knowledge and power—incorruptible and undaunted—who will face any foe and sacrifice everything for the greater good. These brilliant men are often benevolent and trustworthy advisors, stewarding from their ivory towers and steering the destinies of younger heroes. Someone like this:

Gandalf (Ian McKellen) in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Adventure (2012).

This image of Gandalf from Peter Jackson’s film adaptions of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit highlights the way in which wizards are visually represented: wizened, powerful and good. This positive treatment of wisemen can be trace in the Abrahamic tradition to figures such as Moses, with his staff, curses and divine knowledge, to the three Magi—zoroastrian priests from Persia—who come to visit Christ and recognize his divinity by astrology. In the medieval tradition, King Arthur’s trusty magician Merlin is credited for building Stonehenge in Geoffrey of Monmouth fanciful Historia regum Britanniae helping to cement Merlin thereafter as an almost archetypal wizard throughout Europe. The Old Norse-Icelandic god of war and occult knowledge, Odin, likewise provides a similar image of a wise man who knows the secret runes and can therefore harness its power and magic. Even in sagas recorded centuries after Christianization, Odin is often still portrayed as generally wise and powerful.

Left: The wizard, Merlin, the Nuremberg Chronicles (CXXXVIIIr), by Hartmann Schedel (1493). Right: The Norse god, Odin, with his two ravens Huginn and Muninn, from an Icelandic 18th century manuscript, Ólafur Brynjúlfsson 447 NKS 1867 4to, 94r (c. 1760).

The images of the noble wizard as a knowledgeable magician is later carried forward and adapted from characters such as the early modern Prospero in William Shakespeare’s The Tempest to iconic wizards from contemporary Fantasy literature such as J.R.R. Tolkien’s Gandalf and J.K. Rowling’s Albus Dumbledore. Wizards are principally characterized as knowledge-keepers and their power comes from their supreme intellect and years of devoted study—especially their command over magic words and occult language—emphasizing arcane wisdom and magical literacy above all. They are mentors. They are sages. Sometime they are prophets or even saviors (from Mallory’s Merlin saving an infant King Arthur to Rawling’s Dumbledore saving an infant Harry Potter).

Dumbledore (Richard Harris) saves an infant Harry Potter and delivers him to his aunt and uncle in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001).

Throughout literary history, wizards are most often of the alchemist and astronomer sort. Of course, there are also the characteristically evil sorcerers (who often take the title of “dark lord”), which include Fantasy archvillains—such as Tolkien’s Sauron or Rawling’s Voldemort. The evil sorcerer trope also encompasses complicated, conflicted or converted wizards, such as Saruman in the Lord of the Rings and Severus Snape in Harry Potter, in addition to lesser known mages such Ged from Earthsea and Raistlin Majere from Dragonlance. Most modern examples of evil sorcerers and “dark lords” are monsterized or racialized (often both), and depicted as inhuman in the fashion of a witch.

Above: the Dark Lord, Sauron (Sala Baker), in the Fellowship of the Ring (2001). Below: the Dark Lord, Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes), in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: 2 (2011).

The evil sorcerer caricature likewise overlaps with a medieval magical tradition known as necromancy, which often involves imitation and perversion of the Christian mass and church ritual, with the goal of summoning and controlling demons. For this reason, Richard Kieckhefer describes this form a of magic as “demonic” but it is no less learned than other arcane and magical arts, and probably for this reason, necromancers are likewise more often gendered male. Indeed, Gandalf’s mysterious archnemesis in the Hobbit is ambiguously referred to as simply “the Necromancer” who comes from the east and requires a team of elves and wizards to handle.

Now, when you think of a witch, what comes to mind? Probably a withered, old hag—a wicked crone—a gnarled and twisted monster. These terrifying women will enchant or deceive anyone who wanders into their woods, intent on bewitching men or cannibalizing children. Someone like this:

A witch from Jim Henson’s film adaptation (1990) based on Roald Dahl’s The Witches (1983).

This image above is from Nicolas Roeg’s film adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The Witches (1983), a telling example from modern literature which perpetuates the demonization and dehumanization of those women labeled witches. The gendered monsterization of certain women on the periphery of society—in particular midwives, spinster, healers and widows—had real world consequences. During the early modern witch-hunts throughout Europe, women were disproportionately the targets of witchcraft accusations and executions. Moreover, prophetic male mystics from the Middle Ages, such as Joachim of Fiore (1202 CE) and Nostradamus (1566 CE), were widely revered as wise men, whereas prophetic female mystics, such as Marguerite Porete (1310 CE) and Joan of Arc (1431 CE), are much more frequently burned at the stake under pretense of witchcraft and heresy. The early modern witch-hunts, which remain one of history’s largest scale gender-specific example of institutionalized misogyny and female persecution. Women were overwhelmingly the target of witchcraft accusations and trials in both Europe and New England, and historians such as Brian Levack estimate that there were over 100,000 trials and that “European communities executed about 60,000 witches during the early modern period,” making it the most significant and alarming historical instance of gendercide in Europe.

Witch-burning from German Broadsheet, Charles Walker Collection, Zentralbibliothek, Zürich (1555).

Ancient and medieval lore generally regards witches with suspicion and witchcraft with hostility. Indeed, in Old Norse-Icelandic sagas (c. 1100-1500 CE), witchcraft (known as seiðr) is almost always dangerous and frequently linked to heroes’ deaths. Much earlier, Medea is portrayed as sometimes helpful though oftentimes harmful, observable in Ovid’s Metamorphoses (8 CE). Similarly, Morgan Le Fay is an enigmatic character, who is primarily characterized as a great healer in early romances such as those by Chrétien de Troyes (1191 CE), though she is treated more pejoratively by the likes of later medieval authors such as Thomas Mallory in his Le Morte d’Arthur (1485 CE). Both Medea and Morgan contribute to the image of a glamorous witch, one which is balanced by the more regular image of the decrepit, wicked witch epitomized by Shakespeare’s Weird Sisters in Macbeth (1606 CE). Sometime witches are not one or the other, but rather both simultaneously hideous and enchanting, such as the witch in the “Wife of Bath’s Tale” from Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (1400 CE).

Left: Woodcut of witches flying, from Mathers’ Wonders of the Invisible World (1689) and used in an 18th-century pamphlet about the Lancashire witches. Right: Medea gives new life to an old ram through magic, ceramic pottery “red-figured hydria” (480-470BCE), produced in Greece (Attica) and discovered in Italy (Vulci).

Witch-stereotypes, discussed at length by Levack, emphasize how witches operated on the fringes of society. Their magic is generally regarded as primarily folkloric and herbal in nature, derived from specific ingredients and powerful concoctions, connecting them to what Kieckheifer refers to as “natural magic” that centers on unlocking the occult powers of nature. Indeed, witches may be beautiful or ugly—but whatever the case they are almost always conniving and treacherous—a far cry from presentations of wizards as kind embodiments of timeless wisdom.

Cannibalistic witch from Hansel and Gretel, a German folktale recorded by the Brothers Grimm, illustration by Arthur Rackham (1909).

Although witches never got a fair shake, things get exceptionally worse following Jacob Sprenger and Heinrich Kramer’s publication of the infamous Malleus maleficarum (1487), which codifies witch-stereotypes in an effort to provide an inquisitor’s guide to witch-hunting prior to the Protestant Reformation and the major outbreaks of witch-hunting hysteria in places like England and Germany. The Malleus characterizes witchcraft as a form of demonic magic and outlines specific behaviors and rituals in which witches allegedly engaged, in particular the dreaded witch’s sabbath, depicted as a massive gathering in the forest in which evil spells and orgies with demons were purportedly standard practice.

Witches at witches’ sabbath (Walpurgis Night) on the Blocksberg (Brocken mountain), woodcut, Leipzig, 1669.

Although thousands of women and men were accused and executed under pretense of witchcraft across Europe, in the United States, witch hunting and hysteria is often discussed in isolation as a brief phenomenon resulting from a combination of religious fundamentalism and political rivalry in New England. This horrific episode in early American history was further popularized by Arthur Miller’s Crucible, which recounts the Salem witch trials. Although the American witch trials pale in comparison to their European counterparts, the increased racialization of witchcraft in the “New World” can be observed from the treatment of Tituba, an African slave and the first woman accused of witchcraft in New England, to later myths surrounding figures such as Marie Laveau, the famous Louisiana Creole herbalist, midwife and practitioner of Voodoo.

Tituba, the first woman to be accused of witchcraft in Salem, Massachusetts; illustrated by Alfred Fredericks for W.C. Bryant’s A Popular History of the United States

The standard, monsterized, racialized and genderized image of a wicked witch—crafted from a culmination of ancient, medieval and modern stereotypes—has expanded in contemporary popular culture, and white wizard male privilege looms as large as ever. Modern literary examples further demonize witches and folktales, such as Russian stories of the conflict between the benevolent winter-wizard Morozko, a grandfather winter character, and the notorious Baba Yaga, who remains one of the most popular witches in modern Russia. Again, the patriarchal image of a white wizard is complemented by his adversary, the wicked, old witch-woman who lurks in the forest and preys on children.

The Three Witches, or the Weird Sisters‘ [‘Die drei Hexen’], Johann Heinrich Füssli, (1783).

This blog aims to illustrate the magical double standards embedded in respective idolization of wizards and demonization of witches throughout Western literary history which persists today and are continually displayed in the visual rhetoric of modern representations of magic-using women and men.

One way to demonstrate this tradition of misogyny with respect to gendered magic, which I am identifying as wizard male privilege, is to view some depictions of witches and wizards from popular literature juxtaposed against each other:

Prospero and Sycorax from William Shakespeare’s Tempest:

Left: Prospero in John White Abbott’s ‘Prospero commanding Ariel‘ (1829) in Folger Shakespeare Library. Right: Sycorax in Candice Lin’s Sycorax’s Collections (Happiness), Koenig & Clinton, New York (2011).

Perhaps as important as Moses, Merlin or Odin in establishing wizard-stereotypes and white male wizard privilege is the character of Prospero from William Shakespeare’s The Tempest. As his Weird Sisters epitomize literary witch-stereotypes, Prospero represents an archetypal wizard—a brilliant man of pure heart, who prizes learning and knowledge above all—and whose arcane knowledge allows him to control spirits of the island, like Ariel, and defeat the former ruler of the island—the evil and racialized witch Sycorax, who is mother to the monster Caliban. Like Salem’s Tituba, Sycorax represents an early modern racialization of witches, which served to uphold European colonialism, genocide and slavery during the early modern era.

The Wizard of Oz & the Wicked Witch of the West from Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz.

The Wizard of Oz (left) & Wicked Witch of the West from The Wizard of Oz film (1939).

This classic pair represent the first distinctly American wizard and witch, and they are dramatized in one of the first color films. Since the film played up the use of color, the prominent image of green-skinned witch—a racialization and monsterization of her—has become almost ubiquitous in visual depictions contributing to the development of witch-stereotypes in American popular culture. However, Baum’s The Wizard of Oz novel, which does not feature green-skinned wicked witches, also offers an alternative to witch-stereotypes by providing “good witches” to balance the wicked ones. These good witches are as beautiful and wonderful as wicked witches are hideous and horrific, and notably these good witches are white, while their wicked counterparts are non-white. While The Wizard of Oz includes the possibility of good witches, nevertheless to be regarded as other, weird or nonconformist is condemnable and “wicked” by definition of witch stereotypes and gendered beauty standards in the film, a point which invites further inquiry regarding the issue of gender normativity in images of “good” and “wicked” witches in the The Wizard of Oz.

Gandalf from J.R.R. Tolkien’s Hobbit & Jadis (the White Witch), from C.S. Lewis’ Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe:

Left: Gandalf from Rankin & Bass’ movie (1977) based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit (1937). Right The White Witch, Jadis, Queen of Narnia from CBS’ movie (1979) based on C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950).

Comparing Gandalf and Jadis is, of course, limited in so far as they are characters from different books by different authors. Nonetheless, Tolkien and Lewis—both members of the literary group known as the “Inklings”—in some ways share literary tastes and interests, being two of the most influential modern Fantasy authors and close friends. The Odinic Gandalf, perhaps even more than Merlin, serves as an archetypal wizard in modern literature and popular culture, while Jadis (better known as the “White Witch”) is the usurping “Queen of Narnia” who is simultaneously beauteous and hideous, but above all dangerous, like the Hans Christen Andersen’s Snow Queen upon whom she is based. Gandalf’s transformation from a “grey wanderer” to the “white wizard” marks the pinnacle of his divine power actualized by his Christlike death and resurrection. Both Gandalf and Jadis contribute significantly at an important time to the development of modern wizard and witch stereotypes in contemporary Fantasy literature.

Merlin & Mad Madam Mim from Disney’s Sword in the Stone:

Merlin and Mad Madam Mim have a wizard’s duel over young King Arthur, who has been transformed into a sparrow, in Disney’s The Sword in the Stone (1963).

Depictions of Merlin and Morgan Le Fay as magical adversaries have continued, and usually the standard wizard and witch stereotypes apply. However, in Disney’s adaption of T.S. White’s Once and Future King, Merlin’s rival sorceress, Mad Madam Mim, is even more stereotypical in her representation, following in line with a general trend in Disney films which repeatedly cast villainous women in these terms. The two nemeses engage in a “wizard’s duel” where they transform into various creatures and attack each other, and rather predictably, Mim cheats but Merlin nevertheless outsmarts her. Mim is by no means the only Disney witch, but rather just one iteration of many, and with very few—very recent—exceptions, in Disney films, witches are treacherous and evil.

Four Disney Wizards. Top left: Merlin from The Sword in the Stone (1963). Right left: King Triton from The Little Mermaid (1989). Bottom left: Jafar from Aladdin (1992). Bottom right: Dr. Facilier from Princess and the Frog (2009).

Disney has upheld white male wizard privilege at virtually every turn. Disney villains are often racialized sorcerers, such as the ambitious royal vizier Jafar and Dr. Facilier “Mr. Shadow” from the Princess and the Frog (2009). Both are characteristically evil, while older and whiter magic-users like Merlin and King Trident from the Little Mermaid (1989) are depicted as distinctly “good” in that they are patriarchal stewards of the status quo and established order. This is a blatantly observable instance of white supremacy in Disney films, which portrays specifically racialized wizards as villains.

Four Disney Witches. Top left: Wicked Queen from Snow White (1937). Right left: Maleficent from Sleeping Beauty (1959). Bottom left: Ursula from The Little Mermaid (1989). Bottom right: Mother Gothel from Tangled (2010).

What Disney films have done in terms of upholding witch-stereotypes is similarly horrendous. From the earliest witch stepmother, the wicked queen from Snow White, to subsequent witches such as Maleficent from Sleeping Beauty, Ursula from Little Mermaid and Mother Gothel from Tangled, the evil witch-antagonist has been a featured favorite. The metamorphic woman—simultaneously seductive and decrepit—is a stock villain appearing repeatedly in Disney’s films, which regularly present sexist and racist depictions of witches and wizards. The witch-antagonist often represents a challenge to the established order; she is powerful and independent, which of course makes her dangerous. To my mind, this is probably the most egregious example of latent misogyny embedded in Disney’s films and the visual rhetoric undoubtedly continues to impact generations of girls and boys.

Schmendrick & Mommy Fortuna from Peter Beagle’s Last Unicorn:

Schmendrick (left) and Mommy Fortuna (right) from Rankin & Bass’ movie (1982) based on Peter Beagle’s The Last Unicorn (1968).

This classic Fantasy story, brought to motion pictures by Rankin & Bass, centers on the journeys of a wandering unicorn in search of her kin. Along the way, an old witch—Mommy Fortuna—enchants the unicorn with a spell and captures her in order to use the creature in her “Midnight Carnival” as a spectacle. Mommy Fortuna is a classic crone, complete with an ominous raven and a brutish henchman. However, luckily for the unicorn, there is also a magician, the young and fumbling Schmendrick, who not only helps her escape from Mommy Fortuna (who is eaten by a harpy also freed during their escape), but is her trusted companion, advisor and friend throughout her travels. He serves her faithfully until at last they discover the truth about whether or not she is the last unicorn. Schmendrick is a bit of a fool but good, through and through, while Mommy Fortuna is greedy, fraudulent and opportunistic.

Albus Dumbledore and Bellatrix Lestrange from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter:

Left: Albus Dumbledore in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005). Right: Belletrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter), in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: 2 (2011).

J.K. Rowling more than any modern Fantasy author explores, adapts, and upholds wizard and witch-stereotypes in both the book and film versions of the Harry Potter series. In her second book, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, when describing the origins of Hogwarts, Rowling briefly contextualizes her magical school with a historical reference to the early modern witch-hunts, stating that “They [Godrich Gryffindor, Helga Hufflepuff, Rowena Raven Claw and Salazar Slytherin] built this castle together, far from prying Muggle eyes, for it was an age when magic was feared by common people, and witches and wizards suffered much persecution” (“Chapter 9: The Writing on the Wall”). While she may be emphasizing that women received the vast majority of the accusations and persecution, by listing “witches” before “wizards” in this passage, this point is never made explicitly. Nevertheless, Rowling elevates witches to their rightful place alongside their distinguished wizard counterparts in halls of Hogwarts and the broader wizarding world of Harry Potter.

Harry Potter arrives at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001).

However, it is worth noting that, although Rowling is a woman, both her main protagonist and the most powerful of her “good” wizards are male magic-users. In her characterization of the wise headmaster and superstar wizard, Albus Dumbledore, she reinforces every white wizard stereotype, following directly in Gandalf’s footsteps. On the other hand, Belletrix Lestrange—whose French-sounding name recalls the medieval Morgan Le Fay—represents a caricature of witch-stereotypes as she is one of the most murderous of Voldemort’s evil gang known as Death-eaters. Of course, it could be argued that Dumbledore and Lestrange represent as likely a pairing as professor Minerva McGonagall and Voldemort (though in reverse), which may be true, but even in the later comparison male privilege is maintained as the dark lord (though an equal match for Dumbledore) could easily outperform even the most powerful witch at Hogwarts.

The Greenseer (Three-Eyed Raven) & Melisandre from George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire:

Left: Greenseer rooted to the weirwood in Game of Thrones S4.E10 “The Children” (2014); Right: Melisandre revealing her true form in Game of Thrones S6.E1 “The Red Woman” (2016).

In George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire and HBO’s Game of Thrones television series based on the books, again usual tropes are employed with respect of wizards and witches. The mystical and mysterious Greenseer, who resides in the roots of a Weirwood tree far north of the Wall appears like Merlin in his cave, becoming one with the land itself. In the film adaptation, he is primarily known as the “Three-eyed Raven” because he appears frequently to Bran Stark as a raven with a foreseeing third eye. The Greenseer is a traditional wizard in many ways: he is an ancient, wise and thoroughly “good” mentor, who selflessly sacrifices himself to save mankind and pass on his position to Bran.

Melisandre dines with Stannis Baratheon at Dragonstone in Game of Thrones, S2E1 “The North Remembers” (2012).

Alternatively, the “Red Woman” Melisandre is a fire priestess of Rh’llor, the monotheistic God of Light, and she is a much more ethically complicated figure. Like her shape-shifty literary predecessors, Melisandre is sexualized and seductive, but she is also ancient, and her beauty is, in truth, nothing more than a glamor illusion as her true form is that of an old crone. Although she seems to have some regret by the end of the film series, Melisandre, nevertheless, burns many innocent people in the name of her religion—at times even immolating children—to gain power and favor with her god. For Melisandre, the ends always justify the means, as she is willing sacrificing whomever she believes benefits her cause most. Her final self-combustion marks her personal defeat but does not save or benefit anyone else.

Deckard Cain and the witch Adria from Blizzard’s Diablo:

The sage, Deckard Cain (left), and the witch, Adria (right) from Blizzard’s Diablo III (2012).

Wizard and witch stereotypes have unsurprisingly infiltrated the world of Fantasy gaming as well. In Blizzard’s Diablo game, there is a classic white wizard, Deckard Cain, who is introduced as an omniscient loremaster able to identify any magical item and weapon. Cain starts off seemingly rather old and feeble, if knowledgeable, but in each iteration of Diablo, he gets wiser and more powerful, counted as the “last Horadrim” and final member of this guild of arcane scholars. His character is a fixture of the Diablo games, where he repeatedly serves as a steadfast white wizard figure.

Deckard Cain reads arcane tome with staff in hand, embodying the white wizard modern Fantasy literary trope, in Blizzard’s Diablo III (2012).

After raising Adria’s orphaned daughter, Leah, “Uncle Deckard” is rescued by the player in Diablo III and once more offers his sagely wisdom. Cain’s noble death at the end of Act I is the direct result of his refusal to conceded to the witch Magda’s demand that he “use his Horadric powers” to reforge a heavenly sword of the angel, Tyrael. Magda is represented as a Maleficent-like fairy-witch, and she ultimately kills Cain and kidnaps the wounded angel. She reappears later as a game boss for the player to battle. After Leah unleashes a magical blast causing Magda to retreat, Cain uses his final ounce of strength to save the world by remaking the angel’s sword, a feat only a Horadrim could accomplish, and the player is then charged with the task of uniting the celestial weapon with its wielder.

Scene of Cain’s death by the witch, Magda in Act I of Blizzard’s Diablo III (2012).

Adria, the witch who lives in her hut at the edge of the village, Tristram, experiences a very different characterization. She starts off as essentially a potion merchant, who seems altogether neutral and thereby helpful to the player. Adria later returns to the storyline in Diablo III, where her character takes a grim turn for the worse into misogynistic witch-stereotypes. Adria is reportedly impregnated by the player character from the original Diablo (assumed to be male, despite a female rouge character option in the first game), and is thereby sexualized as often occurs with representations of witches. After pretending to support the player’s efforts, Adria unveils that she copulated with Diablo himself and that Leah is therefore demonic offspring.

This aligns Adria’s character with prescriptions of witches’ behavior in the Malleus, especially the section of the treatise that purports to answer a blatantly misogynistic—fantastical and grotesque—theological question: Quo ad maleficas cum daemonibus concurrentes: Cur mulieres amplius inueniantur hac haeresi infectae quam viri “With respect to witches copulating with demons: Why is it that women are more susceptible to be infected by this heresy than men?” (Part I, Question VI). After Leah’s big paternity reveal, Adria uses a black soulstone and sacrifices her own daughter to bring Diablo back into the moral world. Although the witch escapes, in the subsequent expansion pack, Reaper of Souls, she meets her end after transforming into a demon and fighting against the player as a game boss.

Scene of Adria’s betrayal and murder of Leah in order to summon Diablo in Act III of Blizzard’s Diablo III (2012).

Also, in Diablo III, there is the inclusion of a peripheral character Zoltun Kulle, who is a mad wizard striving to become a dark lord. Kulle comes from the kingdom of Caldeum, represented as a stereotypical Middle Eastern realm and named “the jewel of the East.” From the onset, Kulle is depicted as an evil, Jafar-like sorcerer. Although Kulle was a formidable wizard in life and one of the founders of the Horadrim, he is corrupted by the power of the black soulstone and becomes a monster, who continues to haunt and terrorize from beyond the grave. Like with Adria, after working for a while together, the orientalized wizard betrays the player and becomes a game boss. Indeed, Diablo III upholds—with the characters of Deckard Cain, Adria and Zoltun Kulle—virtually every gender and racial stereotype with respect to competing characterizations of magic-users in Fantasy literature and popular medievalism.

Zoltun Kulle, who ultimately deceives and betrays the player character in Blizzard’s Diablo III (2012).

These selected examples are but a few, and there are abundant others that could be added to further demonstrate the sexist and racist rhetoric embedded in depictions of wicked witches, dark sorcerers, and white wizards. From just this brief and incomplete review of literary representations of witches and wizards, it is clear that sexist and racist stereotypes have not only endured but have deepened since ancient and medieval times. White wizard male privilege continues to thrive in contemporary Fantasy literature, film and games. This cannot be ignored because these stock characterizations reinforce problematic gender and racial stereotypes. They misrepresent, and in a sense seem even to validate, the historical tragedy of early modern witch-hunting in Europe—one of the most widespread and gendered-specific persecution of women in history. Like the “dark lord” and evil sorcerer exceptions, the modern “good witch” exception relies largely on visual rhetoric, primarily drawn from the character of Glinda, who is coded white and defined in contrast to the green Wicked Witch of the West in the Wizard of Oz film (1937).

Glinda the Good Witch (left) & Wicked Witch of the West from The Wizard of Oz film (1939).

In modern times, the new age religion known as Wicca offers a feminist reclaiming and rebuke of conventional characterization of witches by understanding witchcraft instead as a symbol of female autonomy and empowerment. This theme is popularized in contemporary revisionist literary reimaginations such as Gregory Maguire’s revisionist novel Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West which casts Glinda as the villain and the once wicked witch is given the name Elphaba, transformed into an underdog protagonist—the misunderstood victim of systemic prejudices and unfortunate circumstances. Of course, even very recent films featuring witches that in some ways seem to fall into this recent literary trend, such as Robert Egger’s The VVitch: A New England Folktale (2015) and Aguirre-Sacasa’s Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (2018), perpetuate many problematic witch-stereotypes,

While reparative portraits of wizards and witches do exist—such interpretations mark the exceptions that prove the rule. The internalized rule remains one of white wizard male privilege, a sexist and racist double-standard demonstrated by the uneven and repeatedly monsterized treatment of witches and female magic-users.

The Witches’ Sabbath’ by Francisco Goya (1797-1798).

While Wicca and other modern practices of witchcraft seek to redefine witches a symbol of woman power, on the other hand, the way in which “wizard” has become appropriated by certain groups, who seem to recognize the implicit sexist and racist rhetoric conveyed by images of white male wizards in modern medievalism, is much more troubling. As has been widely discussed, especially by medievalists of color, white supremacists and alt-right groups readily appropriate medieval images and symbols in their efforts to perpetuate the erroneous narrative that the Middle Ages was a homogeneous historical period. This myth has been repeatedly debunked by scholars but nonetheless persists especially in groups who identify as white nationalist. Indeed, the most infamous American white supremacist group—the nefarious Klu Klux Klan—has long been leveraging this fallacious rhetorical presentation of the Middle Ages as uniformly white since the end of slavery in the United States, and among their most exalted titles include the designations of Grand Wizard and Imperial Wizard.

KKK Grand Wizard, photo by Martin (ARETE13) on Flickr via Creative Commons (2009).

Wizard will likely remain a fixture in Fantasy literature and popular medievalism. And, until there is more room for wizards of every color in the genre, and witches that can be both good and powerful without prescribing to heteronormative gender stereotypes, white wizard male privilege—a literary example of both misogyny and white supremacy—will no doubt persist.

Richard Fahey
PhD in English
University of Notre Dame

Selected Sources

Baum, Frank. The Wizard of Oz (1900).

—, & Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. The Wizard of Oz [film] (1939).

Beagle, Peter. The Last Unicorn (1968).

—, & Rankin & Bass. The Last Unicorn (1982).

Blizzard Entertainment. Diablo (1997).

—. Diablo II (2000).

—. Diablo III (2012).

—. Diablo III: Reaper of Souls (2014).

Dahl, Roald. The Witches (1983).

Disney [The Walt Disney Company]. Snow White (1937).

—. Sleeping Beauty (1959).

—. The Sword in the Stone (1963).

—. Little Mermaid (1989).

—. Aladdin (1992).

—. The Princess & the Frog (2009).

—. Tangled (2010).

Lewis, C.S. The Chronicle of Narnia (1950-1956).

—, & CBS. The Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe (1979).

—, & Disney [The Walt Disney Company] The Chronicle of Narnia [film series] (2005-2008). 

Martin, George R.R. Song of Ice and Fire (1996-2011).

—, & HBO. Game of Thrones (2011-2019).

Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter (1997-2007).

—, & Warner Brothers. Harry Potter [film series] (2001-2011).

Miller, Arthur. The Crucible (1953).

Shakespeare, William. The Tempest (1611).

—. Macbeth (1606).

Tolkien, J.R.R. The Hobbit (1937).

—. The Lord of the Rings (1954).

—, & Rankin & Bass. The Hobbit (1977).

—, Peter Jackson, & Warner Brothers. The Lord of the Rings [film series] (2001-2003).

—, Peter Jackson, & Warner Brothers. The Hobbit [film series] (2012-2014).

Further Reading

Heng, Geraldine. The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018. 

Kickhefer, Richard. European Witch Trials: Their Foundations in Popular and Learned Culture, 1300-1500. Routledge, 1976.

—. Magic in the Middle Ages. Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Kim, Dorothy. “Teaching Medieval Studies in a Time of White Supremacy.” In the Middle (2017).

Levack, Brian. The Witch Hunt in Early Modern Europe. Routledge, 2016.

Lomuto, Sierra.  “White Nationalism and the Ethics of Medieval Studies.” In the Middle (2016).

Young, Helen. Race and Popular Fantasy Literature: Habits of Whiteness. New York: Routledge, 2016.  

Thinking Sex, Teaching Violence, and The Book of Margery Kempe

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about Margery Kempe. In fact, I’ve thought about little else the last few months, since her Book was the focus of my most recent chapter in a dissertation that examines women’s desire in Medieval English texts – and The Book of Margery Kempe has a lot to say on the subject. Mostly, I’ve been thinking about how Margery thinks about sex and why she thinks about sex the way she does.[1]

I’ve also been thinking a lot about teaching – lately, about teaching The Book of Margery Kempe. I love teaching, and I love thinking about literature courses I’d love to teach. As a scholar whose research focuses on representations of women, I look forward to teaching a course devoted to medieval women one day. The reading list would obviously include works written by women during the Middle Ages, and we have few examples, especially in English. I will be teaching The Book of Margery Kempe, and when I do, I want to do it well, so I was wary of the weariness I’ve experienced while reading it.  

The opening page of the manuscript containing The Book of Margery Kempe where the work is described as “a short treatise and a comfortable for sinful wretches” in the first line (London, British Library MS Add. 61823, f. 1r).

Much like Margery, I have a confession to make: I have never been especially fond of her Book. But I have also never failed to recognize its value. As one of the only known Medieval English works written by a woman and often considered the first autobiography written in English, her Book is extremely precious, in part, because it provides us insight into a medieval woman’s life that is dictated in her own voice if not written by her own hand. It survives in a single manuscript, discovered in 1934 and dated to approximately 1440. When I had the opportunity to see the manuscript on display at the British Library, I revered the object behind the glass because I understand the worth of its words. When I re-read the narrative recently, I felt exhausted, often frustrated that so many pages remained until its end.

The Book is long; it is neither chronological nor linear. Sometimes it seems repetitive to the point of redundancy. But it is salacious, tender, even occasionally funny. It is also profoundly sad.

Excerpt in which Margery describes how “she went out of her mind and was wonderfully vexed and labored with spirits” for the better part of a year following the birth of her first child, during which time she was tormented by visions of “devils” (London, British Library MS Add. 61823, f. 4r).

Best known for her spectacular physio-emotional displays that so often occurred in public and provoked concern, Margery Kempe has always been a controversial figure as a woman mystic. Her Book is, in many ways, a memoir that recounts her spiritual journey, tracing the origin of her mystical experiences to the birth of her first child at age twenty and the self-described madness that ensued. It is only when Christ appears to her, seated next to her on her bed, that Margery’s sanity returns. In many of her visions, Margery’s interactions with Christ exhibit sexual undertones; indeed, some visions are overtly sexual. While erotic language and metaphors were not uncommon in medieval mystical writing, especially those involving women mystics, Margery’s visions are unusual in that they imply sexual activity with Christ himself.

A characteristic episode of Margery Kempe describing a visit to “the church yard of Saint Stephen” where “she cried, she roared, she wept, she fell down to the ground, so fervently the fire of love burnt in her heart” (London, British Library MS Add. 61823, f. 71v).

Margery describes herself as illiterate in her preface, but this does not mean that she was unlearned. It does, however, mean that she required a scribe. Her narrative was mediated by two male scribes, which complicates her status as an author, an already fraught term in the Middle Ages on par with autobiography, since the genre did not yet technically exist. She was a wife, the mother of fourteen children, and inordinately mobile, traveling for extended periods of time on pilgrimage to holy sites, which took her away from her husband and children. Unlike other religious women, Margery was neither virginal nor cloistered. She preferred to be on the move, and traveling was one of the ways she was able to avoid unwanted sex.  

Bishop blessing an anchoress, a woman who lived a life of enclosure dedicated to prayer and contemplation (Cambridge, Corpus Christi College MS 079: Pontifical, dated 1400-10).

Here, I pause to provide a content warning and meditate for a few moments on what that means. The discussion that follows involves sexual violence, a topic tied to gender and power, which are, in turn, topics pertinent to any discussion of literature. Because I am constantly working at the intersections of gender, sex, and violence, I think a lot about how to prepare my students to successfully navigate discussions of sexual violence, knowing very well that it may be personally relevant for them. After all, sexual assault is rampant in the United States, with one in three women experiencing sexual violence in their lifetime. One in five women experiences sexual assault while in college, and they are most vulnerable during their first year. While men experience sexual violence at a significantly lower rate than women, those who do are likely to have those experiences prior to or during college. Sexual violence remains an omnipresent part of our cultural conversation, even when we’re not talking about it explicitly and we should be.

A content warning is a standard feature of my syllabus. I believe that my students should be aware that they are likely to encounter sexual violence in our reading. It does not encourage them to opt out of reading assignments or evade challenging discussions; instead, the contextualization enables them to wrestle meaningfully with the material in the way that best fits their needs and fulfills our learning goals. If they are prepared for the content, they may be able to avoid unnecessary triggering, a term that gets tossed around far too frequently by folks who are far too flippant about rape culture and has been distorted through stigmatization. A “trigger” warning suggests an inevitable, uncontrollable reaction, whereas a “content” warning cues students to prepare accordingly. Semantics aside, we need to be proactive when teaching The Book of Margery Kempe.

Following the spiritual revelation that sparks her mysticism, Margery renounces sexual activity. She commits herself to chastity and begs her husband to live chastely with her – that is, to allow her to abstain from sex, to not force her to have sex with him. He refuses. For years, Margery endures marital rape.

I realized recently that my ability to properly empathize with her situation had been impaired by my own biases about the narrative’s style.

I was reading Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain Things to Me, which unravels the relationship between speech and gendered violence. There is a point at which Solnit refers to the 1940s and 1950s, which I always think of as the decades from which Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique emerged and exposed the tragic irony of America’s failure to understand how women could possibly be so miserable as housewives when they couldn’t get a credit card without a husband and couldn’t get birth control, period. While contraception was legalized in 1965, women could be legally raped by their husbands in the United States until 1993.

Publicity Director of Planned Parenthood Marcia Goldstein with signage prepared for display on New York buses in 1967 (photo by H. William Tetlow, Getty Images).

Solnit simply refers to the dates for the purposes of prefacing an anecdote about a man she knew who, during that time, “took a job on the other side of the country without informing his wife that she was moving or inviting her to participate in the decision.” She writes, “Her life was not hers to determine. It was his.”[2] Margery immediately came to mind.

During the medieval period and well beyond, women ceased to occupy a separate existence from their husbands when they married. A wife did not retain a will of her own; her will was legally subsumed by her husband’s. On this subject, I am well versed. But for some reason, Solnit’s exemplar resonated with me more acutely than Margery’s experience previously had. Certainly, the rather arduous experience of reading her Book had engendered more impatience than sympathy, but I had failed to really feel the extent of her suffering, and for that I felt deeply guilty.

I returned to the passage where Margery describes her sexual loathing and her subjection to repeated rape:

“And aftyr this tyme sche had nevyr desyr to komown fleschly wyth hyre husbonde, for the dette of matrimony was so abhominabyl to hir that sche had levar, hir thowt, etyn or drynkyn the wose, the mukke in the chanel, than to consentyn to any fleschly comownyng saf only for obedyens. And so sche seyd to hir husbond, ‘I may not deny yow my body, but the lofe of myn hert and myn affeccyon is drawyn fro alle erdly creaturys and sett only in God.’ He wold have hys wylle, and sche obeyd wyth greet wepyng and sorwyng for that sche mygth not levyn chast.”[3]

“And after this time, she never had the desire to have sex with her husband, for the debt of matrimony was so abominable to her that she would rather, she thought, eat or drink the ooze, the muck in the channel, than to consent to any fleshly commoning, except in obedience. And so she said to her husband, ‘I may not deny you my body, but the love of my heart and my affection is drawn from all earthly creatures and set only in God.’ He would have his will, and she obeyed with great weeping and sorrowing because she could not live chastely.”

I haven’t stopped thinking about those particular tears. Or my misgivings about her memoir.

Carving of a medieval woman on the end of a pew in King’s Lynn Minster, formerly known as St. Margaret’s Church, the parish church of Margery Kempe (photo courtesy of Laura Kalas, author of Margery Kempe’s Spiritual Medicine: Suffering, Transformation, and the Life-Course, published by D. S. Brewer, 2000).

With more than 500 years between us, it can be challenging at times to make tangible how extraordinarily different and difficult medieval women’s lives must have been – and yet, sexual violence remains so prominent a presence in our daily lives that content warnings appear in my syllabi.

I see Margery Kempe so much more clearly now, the medieval woman writer who is a singular survivor just like her Book. And I want my students to be prepared to see her as I do: individual and immortal.

Emily McLemore
PhD Candidate in English
University of Notre Dame


[1] While it is obviously standard practice to refer to an individual by their surname, this practice also presumes that one’s surname represents the individual to whom it refers. Perhaps less obvious are the problems with identifying medieval women by their surnames when those very names are indicative of the subsuming of their identities by their husbands in conjunction with coverture, the legal doctrine that removed a woman’s rights and separate existence in marriage. Margery Kempe’s surname, for all intents and purposes, is tied to her erasure as a woman. I have chosen to refer to her as Margery to center her as an individual and retroactively counteract the masculine authority that governed her existence. 

[2] Rebecca Solnit, Men Explain Things to Me (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2015), 59-60.

[3] The Book of Margery Kempe, ed. Lynn Staley (Kalamazoo: The Medieval Institute, 1996), 26.