Medieval Sexuality, Medical Misogyny, and the Makings of the Modern Witch

With Witch ranked the most popular costume nationwide, Frightgeist reports, “There’s a frighteningly high chance you will see a Witch costume on Halloween this year” – and these costumes will likely share some similarities. Asked to describe the physical features of a witch, we tend to list tropic characteristics like those returned through a Google search: she is old and ugly with a hooked nose and green or otherwise sallow skin. First and foremost, however, the witch is a woman.    

The iconic Wicked Witch of the West, played by Margaret Hamilton in The Wizard of Oz (1939).

The last known execution for witchcraft was recorded in 1782, at which time some 110,000 people had been tried and up to 60,000 had been executed – most of them women.[1] Not quite as well-known as the witch trials themselves, the Malleus maleficarum, or the Hammer of Witches, served not only as an extensive manual for the identification of witches but also advocated for their extermination.

But even before the publication of the Malleus in 1487, there was De secretis mulierum, or On the Secrets of Women, an immensely popular treatise composed in the late-thirteenth or early-fourteenth century that still survives in more than 80 manuscripts. Drawing from medieval medical philosophy, the Secrets branded women as evil based on their biological composition and helped lay the foundation for the figure of the witch, which resulted in the deaths of so many women.  

Specifically, the ideas about sexuality solidified through the intersections of medicine and religion situated women not merely as inferior to men but as polluted both physiologically and psychologically, via which they were eventually posited as predisposed to evil. The anatomical traits that distinguished women and men situated the sexes as binary opposites: they were a heterogenous, hierarchical pair. In conjunction with humoral theory, female softness and weakness were attributed to the body’s cool composition, while male strength and hardness were generated by their hot and dry climates.

Diagram illustrating the relationship of the four humors, depicted as radiating diagonally from the center, to the temperaments, planets, and seasons (c. 1450-1475), The Morgan Library & Museum MS B.27.

Menstrual blood and semen, according to medieval physicians, were the defining essences of woman and man and were starkly contrasted in terms of their character. Menstrual blood was seen as an excess and, therefore, as physical evidence of the defectiveness of the female body because “it marked the inability of the body to become warm enough to refine blood.”[2] The blood itself was considered toxic because it was comprised of “unrefined impurities.”[3]

Schematic diagram of a uterus, one of the earliest surviving anatomical drawings from Western Europe (c. 1250-1310), Bodleian MS Ashmole 399, f. 13v.

Although semen was thought to be a form of blood, it was blood that had been transformed into a precious substance within the testicles after traveling down the spinal cord from the brain.[4] Through its direct connection with the brain, male sexuality was associated with cognitive activity and rational, measured behavior. Women’s sexuality was posited as opposite: their bodies were considered passive, but women themselves were considered “profoundly sexual.”[5] The womb was central to the understanding of female anatomy and determined women’s passivity in contrast to men’s activity, as well as her association with the physical body. Moreover, women were characterized as open in relation to their genitalia, which subsequently indicated their openness to sexual activity and informed the idea that women were inherently lustful.[6]

In an image accompanying the first of the seduction scenes in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (c. 1400), the Lady stands over Gawain while he lies asleep, apparently naked, British Library MS Cotton Nero A.x., f. 125/129r.

Attitudes toward women’s sexuality were also influenced by Christian beliefs, which associated sex with original sin. As the descendants of Eve, women were deeply connected with desire and consistently constructed as temptresses. In effect, they disproportionately bore responsibility where temptations of the flesh were concerned. Church fathers considered men “strong, rational, and spiritual by nature,” while women were “not only soft, but carnal,” in short, they “embodied sexuality” and continuously reproduced Eve’s initial temptation of Adam.[7]

Illuminated image of The Fall of Man, depicting Adam and Eve holding fruit from the Tree of Knowledge to their mouths and a female-headed serpent entwined around the trunk between them, Ramsey Psalter leaves (c. 1300-1310), The Morgan Library & Museum MS M.302, f. 1r.

Drawing upon both biology and theology, medieval medicine synthesized the phallocentric understandings of women’s bodies and their perceived proclivity for sex and sin. While intercourse was believed to negatively alter men’s bodily composition, it was considered necessary for women, who were more likely to suffer from a lack of sexual activity. Menstrual blood was considered superfluous and conflated with pollution: its retention harmed the woman whose body failed to purge its humoral excess, and its expulsion threatened to poison others, causing illness and even death. Because their bodies were viewed as toxic, women were considered largely responsible for the transmission of diseases, especially those associated with sexual activity.

Marginal image of a leprous beggar ringing a bell from The Evesham Pontifical (c. 1400), British Library MS Lansdowne 451, f. 127r.

The Secrets then transmuted medical philosophy into overt misogyny and deemed women dangerous explicitly in relation to their sexuality. A particularly poignant passage describes the process by which women, essentially, drained and absorbed men’s life force through sex:

“The more women have sexual intercourse, the stronger they become, because they are made hot from the motion that the man makes during coitus. Further, male sperm is hot because it is of the same nature as air and when it is received by the woman it warms her entire body, so women are strengthened by this heat.”[8]

Describing menstruation as a time during which “many evils” arise, the Secrets cautions against intercourse, warning men that women are prone and prepared to deliberately cause them harm: “For when men have intercourse with these women it sometimes happens that they suffer a large wound and a serious infection of the penis because of iron that has been placed in the vagina.”[9] According to a commentary that often circulated with the manuscript, the man may not even notice that he has been wounded by the iron vindictively concealed within the vagina “because of the exceeding pleasure and sweetness of the vulva,”[10] an ominous addendum that vividly draws together desire, danger, and disease at the site of the female body.

Desire and danger similarly coalesce in Sarah Stephens’ role in The VVitch (2015). Set in Puritan New England in 1630, the film portrays the destruction of a pious family whose fear of witchcraft spreads among them like a disease.

Even body parts not in direct contact with menstrual blood could become infected during menstruation. The Secrets describes the process by which a serpent is generated following the planting of hairs from a menstruating woman,[11] a proposition that viscerally evokes women’s connection with Eve and, more pointedly, with the devil. 

A witch attempts to entice the young protagonist with a snake she removes from her handbag in The Witches (1990), based on the novel by Roald Dahl. Moments later, she places its body around her neck and then begins whispering to the creature. The 2020 remake emphasizes the connection between witches and snakes at several points in its revised plot, including the snake-like resemblance of the witches themselves.

Older women were considered especially dangerous when their periods became intermittent, even more so following menopause when they failed to discharge superfluous fluid from their bodies and became increasingly noxious as a result. A passage from the Secrets explains as follows:

“If old women who still have their periods, and certain others who do not have them regularly, look at children lying in the cradle, they transmit to them venom through their glance … One may wonder why old women, who no longer have periods, infect children in this way. It is because the retention of the menses engenders many evil humours, and these women, being old, have almost no natural heat left to consume and control this matter, especially poor women, who live off nothing but coarse meat, which greatly contributes to this phenomenon. These women are more venomous than the others.”[12]

As the passage indicates, women who ceased to menstruate and subsisted on meager means were additionally threatening, a claim that further ostracized those already existing at outer margins of class society.

Located deep in the woods but eschewing its candy coating for far scarier fare, the witch’s house in Gretel and Hansel (2020) distances her from society, a feature that pervades both folkloric and popular culture representations of the witch.  

The innate malice of women’s bodies, illustrated so poignantly in the Secrets, was a disparaging ideological assemblage disseminated throughout the late Middle Ages, which became ingrained and interpreted in a way that unequivocally connected women’s sexuality with evil. The treatise emphasizes the wickedness of women’s physiological composition and psychological character and elevates their social stigma to its medieval pinnacle, perfectly epitomized in the text’s avowal that “woman has a greater desire for coitus than a man, for something foul is drawn to the good.”[13] And of course, men were not the only ones at risk; the innocent victims often included children.

The Sanderson sisters, from Disney’s ‘Hocus Pocus’ (1993), who despite their humorous depiction draw their strength by sapping the life from children.

It is these misogynistic ideas about women’s sexuality that seeded their demonization in the years that followed, as the Secrets served as a direct source for the Malleus maleficarum. Indeed, the most famous statement from the Malleus explicitly connects witchery with ideas about women’s sexuality rooted in the medieval period: “All witchcraft comes from carnal lust, which is in women insatiable.”[14]

Women giving wax dolls to the devil, The History of Witches and Wizards, 1720, Wellcome Collection, London, U.K.

Emily McLemore
PhD Candidate in English
University of Notre Dame


[1] Britannica.com, “Salem witch trials,” 25 Oct. 2020.

[2] Joyce Salisbury, “Gendered Sexuality,” Handbook of Medieval Sexuality, edited by Vern L. Bullough and James A. Brundage, New York and London: Garland Publishing, Inc. (1996): 81-102, at 89.

[3] Salisbury, “Gendered Sexuality,” at 89.

[4] Danielle Jacquart and Claude Thomasset, Sexuality and Medicine in the Middle Ages, translated by Matthew Adamson, Cambridge: Polity Press (1988), at 13.

[5] Salisbury, “Gendered Sexuality,” at 84.

[6] Salisbury, “Gendered Sexuality,” at 87.

[7] Salisbury, “Gendered Sexuality,” at 86.

[8] Helen Rodnite Lemay, Women’s Secrets: A Translation of Pseudo-Albertus Magnus’ De Secretis Mulierum with Commentaries, Albany: State University of New York Press (1992), at 127.

[9] Lemay, Women’s Secrets, at 88.

[10] Lemay, Women’s Secrets, at 88.

[11] Lemay, Women’s Secrets, at 96.

[12] Les Admirables secrets de magie du Grand Albert et du petit Albert, MS Paris, Bibliothéque nationale, Latin 7148, fol. 2 r. 9 v., translated by Jacquart and Thomasset, Sexuality and Medicine in the Middle Ages, at 75.

[13] Lemay, Women’s Secrets, at 51.

[14] Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger, Malleus maleficarum, translated by Montague Summers, New York: Dover (1971), at 47.

The Necromancer, the Inquisitor, and the Hunt for Buried Treasure in the Late Middle Ages

This is the story of an inquisitor in the Middle Ages, buried treasure in early modern Germany, and the fine art of necromancy.

The concept of magic maps uneasily onto premodern Christian Europe, where recipes for curing illness could consist of wearing an amulet as readily as drinking an herbal potion, or a person might perform magic spells calling on angels, not forces of darkness. Medieval and modern scholars, however, agree that some particular acts were inherently magical. Chief among these ritual types was nigromancia: the conjuration and command of demons.

Image of necromancer controlling demons, from British Library, Royal 6 e.vi f.396v.

Dominican inquisitor Nicholas Eymerich of Aragon (c.1320-1399) had ample experience reading and condemning necromantic texts. [1] Thus, he had plenty of material to reference in his multiple books condemning necromancy. In Directorium inquisitorum, he laid out an example ritual that invoked demons to demonstrate how sorcerers show “honor or veneration or worship” [2] to demons by:

drawing a circle in the earth, by placing a boy in the circle, by fixing a mirror, a sword, an amphora, or other small body before the boy, and with the necromancer himself holding a book, and reading, and invoking the demon.[3]

The reference to a necromancer and his reading aloud suggest this spell comes from the “underworld” of learned magic, transmitted among the daring elite through texts in Latin, Hebrew, Arabic, and Greek. The rest of the ritual, however, seems to involve little beyond mechanical skill. Eymerich gives no information on the spell’s origin or purpose. His intent is to argue that necromantic rituals inherently involve venerating demons, even if there is no overt act of veneration.

Eymerich should have chosen a different example.

Necromancer character from “World of Warcraft (WoW)” (Blizzard Entertainment Inc., 2013).

Nearly two centuries after Eymerich composed Directorium in 1376, a group of women went treasure-hunting in Augsburg. [4] As Regina Koch admitted to her interrogators, in May 1544 two women from Nuremberg had definitely not convinced her that there was a pot of money buried in her backyard, but she had allowed them to dig there anyway. One of the two women, along with at least two strange men, was outside during the digging.

Her interrogator’s unanswered questions to her, as reported by a scribe, suggest why they were so interested in these events:

10. Who called for this priest for this business, and where did he come from? 11. Did she not have burning wax or candles there? 12. Were these candles blessed, or were they just simple candles? And who provided them? 13. Did the priest and one of the women read out of a book in the hole, and make a cross, as well as say a blessing or a magic spell? 14. What was in the little pitcher that the woman had in the hole, and then gave back to the maid? [5]

The interrogator is clearly working from a base of earlier information. One of their other questions concerned which men had taken a bath with which women inside Koch’s house, so town gossip seems a likely source. Even so, the unanswered questions almost all involve activities that, taken alone, amount to standard Christian practice.

With the aid of other witnesses’ overlapping and conflicting testimony, however, a full story of the events in Koch’s backyard was constructed:

Sophia Voit and Otilia Wolkenstainer of Nuremberg brought a village priest, a young girl, and several men to Regina Koch Mauerin’s house, and Sophia Voit made a circle or ring, went around it with candles, then took a naked sword from a young man and marked a spot with it where they should dig. Afterward, she sat in the circle, stuck a cross or crucifix in the grass and lay a little cloth over it, and read out of a little book. The above-noted village priest also sat there and read from a little book, and both made crosses and magic signs. In sum, they were digging for treasure. [6]

Necromancers from “Diablo 3: The Rise of the Necromancer” (Blizzard Entertainment Inc. , 2017).

This 1544 legal record recounts a previously unnoticed elaborate (and sometimes slightly confused) version of the spell Eymerich referenced in 1376. Furthermore, even if the clerk writing the summation had some familiarity with a text of learned magic and polished up witnesses’ testimony a bit, town gossip—street knowledge—played a major role in the compilation of events. The scribe was not merely substituting something he had once read in a book for the results of the interrogation.

The discovery of the near-mirror image of these two rituals across time, space, and environment raises questions about the transmission of magic that must remain frustratingly unanswered for now. It is worth, however, considering one last point from the legal record concerning Koch and the others:

In perpetrating this superstitious act, they seriously abused the name and word of God. [7]

The inquisitor had cared enough about this case to torture Koch for more information (she revealed nothing further!). But not a word was spoken about invoking or venerating demons—even in the full flame of witch hysteria. Nicholas Eymerich would not have been happy to hear about this conclusion—nor about Koch’s punishment of “a good talking to.”

In conclusion: Klaatu verata niktu, and happy All Hallows’ Eve! [8]

Cait Stevenson
PhD in History
University of Notre Dame

[1] Michael Bailey, “From Sorcery to Witchcraft: Clerical Conceptions of Magic in the Later Middle Ages,” Speculum 76, no. 4 (2001): 971. This article drew my attention to Eymerich and the sample spell recounted below.

[2] Nicholas Eymerich, Directorium inquisitorum R. P. F. Nicolai Eymerici… (Rome, 1578), 836.

[3] Translated in Bailey, 972.

[4] The records concerning Regina Koch and buried treasure are translated by B. Ann Tlusty in Tlusty, ed. and trans., Augsburg during the Reformation Era: An Anthology of Sources (Hackett Publishing: 2012), 242-46, which introduced me to this case.

[5] Trans. Tlusty, 243.

[6] Trans. Tlusty, 245.

[7] Trans. Tlusty, 245.

[8] Army of Darkness, directed by Sam Raimi (1990; Universal Pictures).

Frazetta’s “Death Dealer” and the Question of White Nationalist Iconography at Fort Hood

In 2009, the military base at Fort Hood installed what can only be described as a bizarre sculpture. Sitting outside the headquarters building is a monumental equestrian statue of medieval European fantasy complete with all the expected trappings—chain mail, axe, helmet and a shield here emblazoned with the caltrop of the III Corps United States. As this imposing character looks down with red eyes from his muscled horse, one cannot help but wonder about the figure’s appropriateness within this space. Surely, the statue would better suit an event at Comic-Con than an Army Base.

  “Phantom Rider” Statue outside III Corp Headquarters, Fort Hood Texas, 2009.

  The sculpture renders Frank Frazetta’s “Death Dealer” a character originally painted in 1973. During his career Frazetta would become famous for creating the cover art for re-printings and pastiches of Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Cimmieran. The infamous, Western barbarian, who spends his time battling Oriental sorcerers and slaughtering black cannibals, played some role in inspiring the “Death Dealer” as suggested by this cover of “Conan the Conqueror” from 1967.

“The Death Dealer,” Frank Frazetta, 1973.
Conan the Conqueror Cover, Frank Frazetta, 1967.

While the original painting obscures the phantom figure’s physical qualities, his weaponry and costume code him as white. The bearded axe and horned helmet recall popular iconography denoting “Viking”[ness], though as some scholars have demonstrated such helmets were largely products of the nineteenth century. Furthermore, his shield bears the reichsadler, the black heraldic eagle employed by the Holy Roman Emperor which has also been used for more contemporary and horrifying purposes. 

Imperial Black Eagle associated with Henry VI from Codex Manesse (c. 1304).
Nazi appropriation of the Imperial Black Eagle in their Reichsadler Symbol (1935-1945).

Admittedly, the visual elements alone do not convey the more problematic elements found in the Conan narratives. As the “Death Dealer” grew in popularity, even becoming adopted as the III Corp mascot in 1986, Frazetta joined author George Silke to create a backstory for his creation in 1987. The novel “Prisoner of the Horned Helmet” begins in a proto-European forest defended by “Gath of Baal” (our Death Dealer). The text, perhaps unsurprisingly, describes “Gath” as a “barbarian” who must defend his homeland from the invading Kitzaaks, a pseudo-Mongol Empire, and their collection of Eastern allies, including the naked and bloodthirsty “Feyan Dervishes.” The cover art here depicts a scene where our hero encounters desert-dwelling “nomads” who have been mutated into dog-faced beings by their continued use of drugs. Such tropes have connections to medieval Latin Christian polemical narrative of Muslims, frequently described as a “race of dogs” or in the case of the Nizari State at Alamut, engaged in the consumption of hashish as part of a perverted “Saracen” practice. Finally, as the “Death Dealer” raises the axe, the artist reveals those corded arms, his previously indeterminable epidermal whiteness is now made manifest. 

Cover of “Prisoner of the Horned Helmet” (The Death Dealer II), Frank Frazetta, 1987.

Evidently, the “Death Dealer” suffers from what Helen Young has previously termed the “Habits of Whiteness” that pervade fantasy literature. As with Tolkien’s and Howard’s work, white bodies and imagined culture is central to this genre. While I do not presume intent on the commissioning of the Fort Hood statue, given the textual narrative, how do we approach this installation of white violence? In fairness, when the III Corps adopted the character they decided to utilize the more politically correct “Phantom Warrior,” perhaps not wishing to glorify “death.” Still, we cannot divorce this sculpture from its racial overtones because of the larger context of artistic and authorial intent. The Army’s own literature manages to perpetuate some of the problems with this imagery, stating that it “represents the heritage and symbol of America’s Armed Corps” and even connects the “Phantom Warrior’s” horse to those employed by William the Conqueror in 1066. Even when devoid of the textual contribution of Frazetta/Silke, the official narrative insists upon a European past.  

By highlighting these issues, I do not mean to attack the Army’s history, though the question of “historical preservation” remains interesting to this conversation. In recent years some discourse has begun to question the public display of Confederate statuary and the naming of military bases for Confederate generals. Opponents of this movement have cried foul, stating that to do so would be to remove American “history.” Of course, these claims are groundless as many of the monuments and bases were erected or named during the early-twentieth century. Yet even if this was not true, and the icons of Confederacy somehow held an indelible historical value, in what way does an 1980s sword & sorcery construction constitute the pith of American military memory? 

“Hood’s Texas Brigade” Monument, Austin TX, 1910.

As we continue to move beyond more obvious examples of racist imagery, perhaps new attention needs to be paid to seemingly neutral renderings which bear all the hallmarks of a white fantasy. Indeed, it is the subtle appellations which allows such narratives to endure. With the escalating number of white nationalist affiliations among military personnel, the public should consider “who does this Warrior speak to and what mythologies does he seek to reinforce?”  

“Phantom Warrior” Statue, Fort Hood, 2009.

Tirumular (Drew) Narayanan
PhD Student in Art History
University of Wisconsin, Madison

Works Cited 

III Corps Centennial Book. September, 13 2018. https://hood.armymwr.com/application/files/8015/4395/7625/III-Corps-Centennial-Book.pdf.

Frank, Roberta. “The Invention of the Viking Horned Helmet.” International Scandinavian and Medieval Studies in memory of Gerd Wolfgang Weber (2000): 199-208.

Higgs Strickland, Debra. “Monstrosity and Race in the Late Middle Ages.” In The Ashgate Research Companion to Monsters and The Monstrous. Edited by Asa Simon Mittman with Peter J. Dendle, 365-386. New York: Routledge, 2016.

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

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

Brooks, Lecia. “SPLC Testifies Before Congress on Alarming Incidents of White Supremacy in the Military.” Last modified February 11, 2016. https://www.splcenter.org/news/2020/02/11/splc-testifies-congress-alarming-incidents-white-supremacy-military.

Risen, James. “Why is the Army Still Honoring Confederate Generals?” The Intercept. Last Modified October 6,2019. https://theintercept.com/2019/10/06/army-bases-confederate-names/.