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).

How James Joyce used the Middle Ages to have a Good Laugh at History

Umberto Eco famously described James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake as “a node where the Middle Ages and the avante-garde meet” (xi). For Eco, Joyce’s obsession with order and architectonics had a medieval character, and the Wake frequently refers to the Book of Kells as a kind of emblem of Irish modernism. A whole host of iconic medieval texts is put on display in the “museyroom” (8.09), or the museum that Joyce builds in order to warehouse all of human history. The surahs of the Koran echo in Joyce’s female protagonist, Anna Livia Plurabelle, who is described as “Annah the allmaziful” (104.01), and we move from here to the Annals of the Four Masters towards universal theories of history like Giambattista Vico’s Scienza Nuova.

The Book of Kells, [Codex Cenannensis] Dublin, Trinity College Library, MS A. I.,  folio 292r.

However, the extent of Joyce’s research into the Scandinavian influences on Irish and British culture has been underappreciated until somewhat recently. Thanks to the work of genetic scholars like Daniel Ferrer, and others involved with the Genetic Joyce Studies project, we now have a fuller picture of the depth of the Irish author’s appreciation of the history of Dano-Norwegian conquest. The Wake creates a speculative cartography, drawing on the ways in which the Scandinavian incursions into the western European peninsula—“the penisolate war” (FW 3.06)—impacted the cultural geography of Ireland. Ireland becomes a microcosmic composite of diverse global histories of migration in the Wake, and the historiographical adage that the Vikings became ‘more Irish than the Irish themselves’ plays out in Joyce’s mosaic of native-settler miscegenation: a process of “Noirse made Earsy” (314.27), or Norse made Irish/Erse

The imaginative topography traced by the Wake ‘spatchcocks’ the totality of global history onto the local map of Dublin and its environs. As Joyce uses the course of the river Liffey to delimit the world-historical synecdoche that is Dublin, he draws on writers like the nineteenth century historian Charles Halliday. Halliday’s work, The Scandinavian Kingdom of Dublin, identified the Norwegian settlement of Dyfflinarsky with the inland route that the Liffey takes from Dublin Bay to the ‘Salmon Leap’ in Leixlip. This archaic territorial map has several notable features of Scandinavian origin, and even as early on as Joyce’s A Portrait, we see the influence of Halliday in references to the existence of a thingmote—a primitive structure that survives at the centre of Joyce’s imaginary Dublin as a vestigial icon of lost ages of Scandinavian sovereignty.  

Indeed, the structure of the thingmote has profound symbolic significance in the Wake, as its hump-like shape resonates within the moniker of the Wake’s quasi-Nordic protagonist: Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker (the ubiquitous HCE). An entire retinue of Scandinavian sovereigns populates the pages of Earwicker’s story, or his “Eyrawyggla saga” [48.16] (the comparison with the Icelandic Eyrbyggia Saga with Ireland was likely derived form A. Walsh’s 1922 history, Scandinavian Relations with Ireland during the Viking Period). The more familiar characters and incidents form the Poetic Edda crop up intermittently in Joyce’s novel (HCE assumes various forms of Odin’s name, and Yggdrasill and the hanged god theme lie behind the book’s recurrent theme of the scapegoat who is sacrificed). Indeed, from Thórodd, to Harald Bluetooth, to Sitric Silkenbeard—the Wake is heavily invested in bringing the expansionist networks of Norse hegemony into close proximity with more ‘Celtic’ accounts of the roots of Irish culture (indeed, the Tripartite Life of St. Patrick is a recurring nativist source, and the Wake returns frequently to St. “Peatrick” [3.10] as a satirical symbol of earthy, native identity). 

While much of this historiographical overlaying of chronicles and pseudo-histories is designed to critique the ethno-purism of the Gaelic Revival’s celticization of history, it also speaks to the universal tendency of national cultures to ‘invent’ their own traditions—especially as this invention involves appropriating the histories of minority cultures. Norse references often displace the homely founder-narrative of Gaelic authenticity and rootedness in the Wake, and in Book Two, Chapter Three, for instance, HCE becomes a Norwegian sea-captain, who is naturalized as an Irish citizen through his marriage to Anna Livia. This episode recalls various incarnations of the invader/betrayer narrative that has defined Irish history, and the way in which he is domesticated and hybridized by the Celtic influence (becoming a “Scowegian” [16.06] and an “Eirewhigg” [175.17]), puts into question any assumptions about the uninterrupted purity of the Celtic lineage.

Finnegans Wake by James Joyce, Illustrated by John Vernon Lord (The Folio Society, 2014).

While Joyce introduces a Nordic element in order to desacralize Irish mono-culturalism, the Wake draws on a unique tendency within early twentieth-century historiography to complicate ethnic narratives by emphasizing the influence of peripheral, colonized cultures. Indeed, we can see how Joyce was actively searching for what could be called a counter-hegemonic chronicle of Norse-Irish history by looking at the complex array of notebooks and draft sheets for this chapter. These sources are often used by Joyce scholars to support their genetic claims about the gestation and composition of Finnegans Wake. As Ian MacArthur and Viviana Braslasu point out, in his notebooks of 1926 (V.B.17) and 1936 (VI.B.37), Joyce was reading and annotating a book by the Norwegian historian Alexander Bugge. Here we find references to the “Danelagh” (or Danelaw), to Magnus Barefoot, and to a variety of other tid-bits of Dano-Norwegian provenance. Bugge’s A Contribution to the History of the Norsemen in Ireland would have been attractive to Joyce—the counter-hegemonic writer, who wished to challenge monolithic histories. The Norwegian historian’s work contains chapter titles like “The Royal Race of Dublin”—a study of the elite Scandinavian inflections of medieval Irish culture. While this Nordicization of Irish history might appear to smack of Norwegian chauvinism, it is also deeply invested in complicating the Norwegian narrative of cultural purity, as a micro Irish note is introduced into the macro-schema of Viking supremacy (Bugge had also won a Nansen Foundation in 1903 award for an essay on “How or to which extend have the Norse, and particularly the Norwegians, culture, way of living and society been influenced from the Western Countries [ie. Ireland and the British Isles]”.  

On the negative side, we can also see how the “becoming-minor” of national historiography could enable more domineering cultures to include minority cultures within their assimilationist narratives of national superiority. The politics of Nordic historiography in the early twentieth century was fertile ground for exploring the ways in which historical revisionism was used to articulate a clearer national identity in times of crisis (Norway and Sweden were in an identity crisis after the dissolution of their union in 1905). However, Joyce’s habit is to ridicule every nation’s proclivity to co-opt the history of minority political subjects. While Ireland becomes a positive source of talkback to national chauvinism in the Norwegian context—complexifying the tapestry of Viking history—Great Britain had been more resistant to Irish charges of cultural appropriation. 

As British Anglo-Saxonists articulated their own version of national history throughout the nineteenth century, Ireland often features in their revisionist schema as a minority partner only. Attempts to archive an autonomous Gaelic literature had many pitfalls during the period of British colonization, as incidents like the Ossian controversy demonstrated. In this way, the ‘Celtic note’ (as critics like David Lloyd have made clear), was always expressed within a clear hierarchy of colonizer/colonized, modern/primitive—primary history versus secondary account; the authentic ‘Angle’ versus the imitative ‘Celt’. The self-fashioning of British identity (which accelerates during the Victorian era) was thus tied up with an emergent field of medieval scholarship. This field provided an intellectual justification for jingoism, and Anglo-Saxonists would play a key role in subordinating problematic minority cultures to a master narrative of national (namely, ‘Anglo-‘) culture.

The problem of Scandinavian identity upsets this kind of national chauvinism in the Wake. It functions in a multivalent fashion—less as a distinct culture, or a clear form of geopolitical identity, so much as a repertoire of possible colonial subject-positions. Joyce dramatizes the reversibility of dyads like colonizer/colonized and settler/native, and identity becomes a negotiable and heterogeneous phenomenon, as it is written and rewritten in the cyclical drama of conquests and colonisations in the Wake

Cover of Penguin Books edition of Finnegans Wake by James Joyce (1999).

The Wake cultivates a pervasive aura of Norse-ness in-order-to articulate the impure nature of Irish identity—which was defined by successive waves of conquest and occupation (from the Vikings, to the Normans, to the modern British state). As we encounter the bellicose reparteé of two Neanderthal men—Mutt and Jute—in the first chapter of the novel, Joyce challenges us to develop an ethno-critical kind of thought. As Mutt encounters Jute, the hybrid native meets the ambiguous colonizer/Jutlander, and here Joyce plays with and inverts the roles of native and invader, moving beyond Manichaean constructions of history. In so-doing, Joyce radicalizes and repurposes the hackneyed trope of the  Vikings’ assimilation to native Gaelic culture, and while the latter become “more Irish than the Irish themselves”, we are left with the sense that the Irish ‘mutts’ become less like themselves by virtue of the same process. 

To further this deconstruction of historical roles, the Battle of Clontarf becomes a teachable moment in the Wake, as it works to complicate the received Manichaean narrative that the foreign invader was somehow expelled by the resilient natives in 1014. As Joyce himself remarks:

Finally, the bloody victory of the usurper Brian Boru over the nordic hordes on the sand dunes outside the walls of Dublin put an end to the Scandinavian raids. The Scandinavians, however, did not leave the country, but were gradually assimilated into the community, a fact that we must keep in mind if we want to understand the curious character of the modern Irishman (CW 159-60).

Photo of James Joyce by Berenice Abbott (1928).

This is taken from a lecture that Joyce gave in Trieste on the topic of Irish identity in 1907, ironically entitled “Ireland, Island of Saints and Sages”. Here, the Wake’s vision of “miscegenations on miscegenations” (18.20) comes to the fore, as Ireland functions as what Thomas Hofheinz calls a “transparency”: a historiographical overlay of a diverse array of settler cultures. Joyce’s aim is to critique the homogenizing of identity that he saw at work in certain strands of Irish culture—from the church’s promulgation of a pan-Catholic, confessional culture, to what would seem like (from a modern vantage), rather chauvinistic references to a Gaelic “race” (we find this kind of language in Douglas Hyde’s The Necessity for De-Anglicizing Ireland, a talk given to the Irish National Literary Society, in 1892).

Rather than monumentalizing a supposedly stable monoculture, the Wake dwells on how history inevitably becomes a document of errors. We see an example of such “intermisunderstanding” (118.25), in the dialogue between Mutt and Jute in chapter One. The text that accompanies this bizarre piece of dialogue speaks of how the historian Tacitus has related a deceptive narrative of Hiberno-Germanic cultures: “as Taciturn pretells, our wrongstory shortener” (17.03). Here, the chronicle of history becomes a “taciturn” document—one that is unforthcoming; less of a clear and concise history, and more of a faulty chronicle, which is full of erroneous assumptions about foreign cultures. The inherent cultural relativism of a text like the Wake thus complexifies history, to the extent that it advances a hard historical relativism—challenging any attempt to devise a faithful account of the national past. 

This lack of a definitive historical perspective is matched by the subversive interplay of Mutt and Jute, and they develop a sort of grudging complicity as they dialogue with each another (a sort of settler-colonial folie à deux, that upsets the rigid demarcation between settler and native). In their tenuous acts of civility towards one another, Mutt and Jute overturn any notion of a “pure” ethnic identity, as they come to represent the multifarious cultural exchanges that were involved in different phases of immigration and conquest. As they “swop hats and excheck a few strong verbs weak oach eather” (16.08), Mutt and Jute illuminate a history of linguistic cross-pollination, and the pair become a clownish, vaudeville duo, who deflate the grandiose pretensions of cultural chauvinisms that were becoming more prevalent during the composition of the Wake in the fascist 1930s. The latent violence of such exchanges is palpable, and Joyce effectively transplants the grander theatre of European tensions onto his own insular, Irish setting. The Wake constantly excavates and re-visits the histories of European violence. By domesticating and ironically reducing the gravity of this martial story of cultures (localizing it within in a remote enclave of the western European peninsula, like Ireland), he performs both a critique of epic jingoisms, and a desacrilization of the Hibernian insula sacra.

Finnegans Wake by James Joyce, Illustrated by John Vernon Lord (The Folio Society, 2014).

The specific mechanics of the interplay between Old Norse and Old English references that we find in Mutt and Jute will be detailed in our next blog. For now, it is worth noting how the political resonance of this cultural-linguistic patchwork begins to emerge. As Hofheinz has argued, Joyce’s engagement with historiography on Ireland’s Scandinavian roots is drawn from a scholarly tradition that was intimately bound up with both colonial antiquarianism, and the official outlets of English cultural production. Halliday, for example (whose Scandinavian Kingdom was clearly an influence on Joyce), was a historian commissioned by the Dublin Ballast Board—a municipal maritime body that had a quasi-governmental remit. As a member of the Royal Irish Academy in the mid-nineteenth century, Halliday joined the ranks of an academic organization whose history was inflected by a culture of colonial curatorship. The Academy was disproportionately patronized by the educated, Protestant elites of Ireland (one thinks of the Anglo-Irish novelist Maria Edgeworth and the statesman, Edmund Burke as notable members—critics of colonialism and slavery who could also be extremely paternalist in their attitude).  It is thus impossible to separate the source-texts of Joyce’s Scandinavian fascination from the long history of official chronicles, and what was oftentimes an intense competition (between Irish and more ‘Anglo’-oriented intellectuals) for cultural legitimacy. The bellicose nature of historiographical debate—a veritable patchwork of cultural appropriations and revisionisms—is consequently encoded in the confrontational patois of Mutt and Jute. Here, also, Joyce uses the comic strip template of Mutt and Jeff to conjure a comic duo of primitive cavemen who are trying to muster the most rudimentary form of language competency. As they are excavated from some palaeolithic era like the Heidelberg Man (“our old Heidenburgh” [18.23]), these original hominids represent the historical extremes that founder-narratives of cultural legitimation will go to, and in the end they become little more than bungling diplomatic negotiators, engrossed in an awkward telephone conversation. Stay tuned for more on the archaeology and language archaism of this anti-colonial satire in our next blog post on the subject!

John Conlon, Ph.D.
University of Notre Dame


Selected Bibliography:

Braslasu, Viviana-Mirela and Ian MacArthur. “Norsemen in Ireland in Spree, Notebook VI.B.37”. Genetic Joyce Studies: 20.1 (2020).

Eco, Umberto. The Middle Ages of James Joyce: The Aesthetics of Chaosmos. MA: Harvard UP (1989).

Hofheinz, Thomas. Joyce and the Invention of Irish History: Finnegans Wake in Context. Cambridge: Cambridge UP (1995).

Joyce, James. The Critical Writings of James Joyce. NY: Cornell UP (1989). 

Finnegans Wake. London: Penguin (1999). Lloyd, David. Nationalism and Minor Literature: James Clarence Mangan and the emergence of Irish Cultural Nationalism. CA: University of California Press (1987).