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.

Game of Thrones: The Overthrow of the Patriarchy in Westeros? (An Opinion Piece)

George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones is currently one of the most popular fantasy series, both on television and in print, and some have begun to describe the work alongside J. R. R. Tolkien‘s Lord of the Rings and J. K. Rowling‘s Harry Potter. As with Tolkien and Rowling, Martin borrows readily from medieval history and literature, but somewhat differently; Martin seems at times to invert certain fantasy genre expectations and stereotypes. His fantasy series centers on themes generally associated with modern medievalism, especially issues of rightful rulership, noble lineage, courtly politics, codes of chivalry, medieval warfare, ancient prophecy, arcane magic, mysterious monsters and spiritual mysticism. However, Martin’s somewhat more innovative characterizations and reimagining of traditions are what I have personally found most enjoyable about reading Song of Ice and Fire and viewing Game of Thrones.

Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) with her sword, Needle

In particular, I appreciate how Martin highlights the failure of the patriarchy. At the beginning of Game of Thrones (both the book and the film), most of the powerful houses and many of the kingdoms are ruled by strong men—the seven kingdoms and the stormlands under Robert Baratheon, the north under Eddard Stark, the westerlands under Tywin Lannister, the iron islands under Balon Greyjoy, and the Dothraki khalasar under Khal Drogo. Even the exiled Viserys Targaryen held his family’s claim to the iron throne, though he could hardly be considered strong in any sense.

Robert Baratheon (Mark Addy), Eddard Stark (Sean Bean), Tywin Lannister (Charles Dance), Balon Greyjoy (Patrick Malahide), Khal Drogo (Jason Momoa), and Viserys Targaryen (Harry Llyod)

The one possible exception is the queen of thorns, Olenna Tyrell, who is ultimately poisoned by Jamie Lannister after allying with Daenerys Targaryen in season seven, episode three [“The Queen’s Justice”]. Like her grandmother, the thrice-made queen, Margaery Tyrell, also demonstrates her social prowess by navigating courtly politics and leveraging marriage to her advantage, working the system from within. However, Margaery underestimates her enemies and becomes a victim of the wildfire arson of the Sept of Balor, which all but destroys her family, sparing only Olenna who was then safe at Highgarden and beyond Cersei’s reach.

Olenna Tyrell (Diana Rigg) and Margaery Tyrell (Natalie Dormer)

By the end of the series, things look quite different. The final contest for the iron throne is staged between two rival queens, Daenerys Targaryen and Cersei Lannister. The once exiled Daenerys, having been fostered by the Dothraki, holds perhaps the strongest claim to the iron throne, though Jon Snow’s recently discovered identity certainly complicates the matter of succession as determined by the patriarchal legal traditions of Westeros. Nevertheless, Daenerys has emerged as a conqueror in Essos and returns to Westeros with both armies  and dragons.

Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clark) with her dragon, Drogon.

The Baratheon family is mostly wiped out in the war of five kings (although Daenerys names Gendry Baratheon the new lord of Storm’s End), and the north and riverlands seem to be led by Sansa Stark, despite Jon Snow’s recent title as king in the north. Cersei Lannister retains the iron throne as queen, and she commands her family’s forces as well as the Iron Fleet of Euron Greyjoy and the mercenary guild known as the Golden Company. Asha Greyjoy (or Yara in the films) is also named queen of the iron islands, and she has acted as a leader throughout the series, as has the Dornish matriarch, Ellaria Sand (a character loosely associated with princess Arianne Martell, absent from the films entirely). And, after Ned Stark’s death, Catelyn Stark took command of the north and riverlands alongside her son Robb Stark until the terrible red wedding claims both their lives.

Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clark), Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner), Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey), Yara Greyjoy (Gemma Whelan), Ellaria Sand (Indira Varma) and Catelyn Stark (Michelle Fairley)

Other prominent female characters have likewise developed into formidable figures, especially the fearless assassin Arya Stark, who crucially slays the Night King, the mighty knight Brienne of Tarth, and the mystical red priestess Melisandre. The young and fierce Lyanna Mormont also shows her unfailing fortitude, even as she dies heroically during the battle for Winterfell in a David and Goliath allusive scene, in which she destroys an undead giant.

Ary Stark (Maisie Williams), Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie), Melisandre (Carice van Houten), and Lyanna Mormont (Bella Ramsey)

I am by no means attempting to exonerate Game of Thrones or Song of Ice and Fire from warranted allegations of sexism, and there is surely still much to reflect on and criticize in this regard. More blatantly, it seems that Game of Thrones is distinctly less concerned with issues of race. The films in particular consistently portray the Dothraki as exceptionally savage in a manner that upholds extremely harmful and problematic stereotypes. This characterization is especially troubling considering how in season eight, episode three [“The Long Night”], the Dothraki are essentially sacrificed. The much discussed Dothraki charge into the approaching forces of the Night King was the first and only assault by the living against the army of the dead, and the Dothraki were all but annihilated as a result. Rather miraculously, the one Westerosi knight who rides out with the Dothraki manages to make it back alive.

Jorah Mormont (Iain Glen) and the Dothraki screamers about to charge

Martin consistently focuses on the gritty human experience, and most of his cultures seem barbaric in one form or another. However, especially in the film, the Dothraki are presented at times in ways that reinforce a stubborn racial bias within the modern fantasy genre. It seemed to me as a reader that in the book series, Song of Ice and Fire, Martin is able to better demonstrate that savagery and the horrors which humans inflict on each other are ubiquitous and extend to every culture—perpetrated by the free folk wildlings north of the Wall, the feudal Westerosi and the pillaging iron islanders, as often as by the Dothraki horde or the ruling class in Slaver’s Bay. Of course, I fully concede that my interpretations of the books and films are necessarily limited and affected by my white male privilege, as it is for the books’ author [George R. R. Martin] and films’ creators [David Benioff and D. B. Weiss]. It nevertheless seems apparent that the various patriarchal systems are the universal root of atrocities in both Westeros and Essos.

Lord of Bones (Edward Dogliani) with wildlings and slaves in Slaver’s Bay

It must be emphasized, as many critics have pointed out, that the film series repeatedly underrepresents persons of color. The only two major non-white characters that make it to season eight are Grey Worm, who leads the Unsullied, and Missandei, who dies at Cersei’s hand this past weekend, after being captured by Euron Greyjoy during season eight, episode four [“The Last of the Starks”]. Both are former slaves from Essos who have become loyal friends and advisors to Daenerys. Missandei’s devotion to the “mother of dragons” costs her life, and I would be rather disappointed, if not surprised, should the same prove true for Grey Worm before the war for Westeros is done.

Missandei (Nathalie Emmanuel) and Grey Worm (Jacob Anderson)

Perhaps as unfortunate as Game of Thrones’ mistreatment of Missandei and Grey Worm is the book series’ numerous characters of color who simply do not feature in the show, including central figures from the Dornish royal family and Moqorro, a powerful red priest from Volantis, who is searching for Daenerys in Martin’s book five, A Dance with Dragons. The film also misses a number of opportunities to cast major protagonists from Essos as persons of color, including Varys, Thoros of Myr and Melisandre, all of whom are played by white actors.

Varys (Conleth Hill), Thoros of Myr (Paul Kaye) and Melisandre (Carice van Houten)

While Game of Thrones falls woefully short when it comes to fantasy representations of diverse and non-white cultures, and above all underrepresents women of color, it does seems to me that the toppling of the patriarchy by powerful (generally white) women is part of its narrative design. In virtually every case, with the notable exception of Cersei, female rulership is a marked improvement upon the patriarchy that existed prior to women’s rise to power in Westeros. In my opinion, even Cersei seems objectively preferable to her son Joffrey Baratheon, the adolescent-king poisoned by Littlefinger [Petyr Baelish] and Olenna Tyrell at his own wedding.

Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clark), Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) and Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey)

Indeed, as the show nears its end, three formidable women—Daenerys Targaryen, Sansa Stark and Cersei Lannister—are best positioned to win the game of thrones. I hope that the fact that an anti-patriarchal message, however clumsily handled, features so prominently in a mainstream fantasy series may at the very least represent an evolution in contemporary audiences’ expectations and sensibilities. In addition to the series’ function as a literary bridge between the modern and medieval for many readers and students, the bifurcating successes and failures with regard to expressions of feminist and racial attitudes in Game of Thrones make the film a potentially useful teaching tool for illustrating conscious and unconscious misogyny and racism in medievalism and fantasy literature.

Hopefully, they do not blow it and put Jon Snow on the iron throne.

Richard Fahey
PhD Candidate in English
University of Notre Dame


Related Online Reading:

Adair, Jamie. “Is Chivalry Death?History Behind Game of Thrones (November 10, 2013).

Ahmed, Tufayel. “Why Women Will Rule Westeros When the Show Ends.” Newsweek (June 22, 2016).

Ashurst, Sam. “Game of Thrones: Who’s Got Magical Powers, and What Can They Actually Do?Digital Spy (July 20, 2017).

Baer, Drake. “Game of Thrones‘ Creator George R. R. Martin Shares His Creative Process.” Business Insider (April 29, 2014).

Blaise, Guilia. Games of Thrones Has a Woman Problem (And It’s Not What You Think).” The Huffington Post (May 6, 2017).

Blumsom, Amy. “Arya Stark’s Kill List: Who’s Still Left for Needle in Game of Thrones Season 8?The Telegraph (May 5, 2019).

Bogart, Laura. “Margaery Tyrell is Westeros’ Biggest Badass—and the Show Can’t Handle Her.” AV Club (May 23, 2016).

Bundel, Ani. “What Happened to Yara Greyjoy in Game of Thrones‘ Season 7? Here’s Your Official Refresher.” Elite Daily (April 5, 2019).

Chaney, Jen. “Has Game of Thrones Solved Its Woman Problem?Vulture (June 6, 2016).

Chang, David. “Game of Thrones Continues Feminist Tone.” The Observer (April 26, 2019)

Chen, Heather, and Grace Tsiao. “Game of Thrones: Who is the True Heir?BBC News (August 29, 2017).

Corless, Bridget. “The Romans, the Walls and the Wildlings.” History Behind Game of Thrones (August 9, 2019).

E., Marjorie. Game of Thrones and the Struggle with Liking Sexist Television.” Femestella (February 18, 2019).

Engelstein, Stefani. “Is Game of Thrones Racist?” Medium. Duke University (April 10, 2019).

Dessem, Mathew. “Here’s Why the Dothraki Attack in Game of Thrones Was So Devastating.” Slate (April 30, 2019).

Dikov, Ivan. “Game of Thrones is Terrific But Why Are Humans So Enchanted With Feudalism?Archaeology in Bulgaria (October 19, 2017.)

Fahey, Richard. “Zombie of the Frozen North: White Walkers and Old Norse Revenants.” Medieval Studies Research Blog. University of Notre Dame (March 5, 2018).

Flood, Rebecca. “George R. R. Martin Revolutionised How People Think About Fantasy.” The Guardian (April 10, 2015).

Gay, Verne. “Game of Thrones: 14 Great Supernatural Moments and Creatures.” Newsday (April 7, 2016).

Guillaume, Jenna. “People Are Calling Game of Thrones‘ Season Eight, Episode 4 the Worst Episode Ever.” Buzzfeed News (May 6, 2019).

Harp, Justin. “Nathalie Emmanuel Says Early Game of Thrones Was ‘So Brutal to the Women.'” Digital Spy (December 4, 2019).

Hawkes, Rebecca. “Melisandre: Everything You Need to Know About the Red Woman’s Shock Return to Save Winterfell in Game of Thrones.” The Telegraph (April 30, 2019).

—. “Game of Thrones and Race: Who Are the Non-White Characters and Where Are They from in the Books and Show?The Telegraph (April 29, 2019).

Heifetz, Danny. “The Dothraki Deserved Better From Daenerys.” The Ringer (April 30, 2019).

Izadi, Elahe. “Sansa Stark Should Sit on the Iron Throne in Game of Thrones— and it Looks Like She Might.” The Washington Post (May 1, 2019).

Khan, Razib. “Is Game of Thrones Racist? Not Even Wrong…Discover (April 21, 2011).

Kim, Dorothy. “Teaching Medieval Studies in a Time of White Supremacy.” In the Middle (August 28, 2017).

Lash, Jolie. “Game of Thrones: Is Daenerys Targaryen a Good Ruler?Collider (April 16, 2019).

Liao, Shannon. “Game of Thrones Has Spent Three Years Foreshadowing the Long Night’s Ending.” The Verge (May 1, 2019).

—. “Daenerys vs. Cersei: Who Has the Resources to Win the Final Game of Thrones?The Verge ( April 29, 2019).

—. “Game of Thrones’ Greatest Hero is Still Olenna Tyrell.” The Verge (July 24, 2017).

Lomuto, Sierra. “Public Medievalism and the Rigor of Anti-Racist Critique.” In the Middle (April 4, 2019).

London, Lela. “What Are the Seven Houses in Game of Thrones and Who Rules Westeros?The Telegraph (May 6, 2019).

Majka, Katie. “Fight Like a Lady: The Promotion of Feminism in Game of Thrones.” Fansided: Winter is Coming (May 7, 2018).

Michallon, Clémence. “Game of Thrones: George R. R. Martin Explains How Arya Stark’s Character Was Inspired by Feminism and the Sexual Revolution.” Independent (April 22, 2019).

Miller, Julie. “Which Historical Event Inspired Game of Thrones‘ Shocking Death Last Night?Vanity Fair (April 14, 2014).

Nelson, Isis. “White Saviorism in HBO’s Game of Thrones.” Medium (August 1, 2016).

Nkadi, Ashley. “Why Is Society Intent on Erasing Black People in Fantasy and Sci-Fi’s Imaginary Worlds?The Root (November 9, 2017).

Pavlac, Brian A. Game of Thrones Versus History: Written in Blood. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley and Sons, 2017.

Philippe, Ben. “Missandei, Grey Worm, and Game of Thrones‘ Racial Blind Spot.” Vanity Fair (April 22, 2019).

Pitts, Kathryn. “Women of Color in Game of Thrones: A Show of Underrepresentation.” Sayfty (April 7, 2017).

Plante, Corey. “Why Grey Worm Will Probably Die in Game of Thrones Season 8, Episode 4.” Inverse (May 4, 2019).

Reisner, Mathew. “Game of Thrones Meets International Relations: A Match Made in Heaven?The National Interest (April 3, 2019).

Renfro, Kim. “Fans are Furious Over This Game of Thrones Plotline, and It’s Not Hard to See Why.” Business Insider (April 25, 2016).

—, and Skye Gould. “Why John Snow Has Always Been the ‘Rightful Heir’ to the Iron Throne.” Insider (August 29, 2017).

Robinson, Garrett. “Fantasy Genre Hates Women.” Medium (February 4, 2016).

Robinson, Joana. “Game of Thrones: Why the Latest Death Stings So Much.” Vanity Fair (May 5, 2019).

Romano, Aja. “Game of Thrones‘ Missandei Controversy, Explained.” Vox (May 6, 2019.)

Romero, Ariana. “Your Guide to Game of Thrones‘ Most Pressing Prophecies.” Refinery29 (April 3, 2019).

Rossenberg, Alyssa. “The Arguments about Women and Power in Game of Thrones Have Never Been More Unsettling.” The Washington Post (August 9, 2017).

Ruddy, Matthew. “10 Reasons Why Cersei Lannister is the Strongest Character on Game of Thrones.” Screenrant (April 29, 2019).

Rumsby, John H. “Otherworldly Others : Racial Representation in Fantasy Literature.” Masters Thesis: Université de Montréal (2017).

Ryan, Lisa. “Brienne of Tarth Finally Gets What She Deserves.” The Cut (April 22, 2019).

Schuessler, Jennifer. “Medieval Scholars Joust with White Nationalists. And On Another.” New York Times (May 5, 2019).

Sturtevant, Paul B. “You Know Nothing About Medieval Warfare John Snow.” The Public Medievalist (May 2, 2019).

Thomas, Ben. “The Real History Behind Game of Thrones, Part 3: Slaver’s Bay.” The Strange Continent (May 4, 2019).

Thomas, Rhiannon. “In Defense of Catelyn Stark.” Feminist Fiction (August 9, 2012).

Thompson, Eliza. “A Guide to the Many Religions on Game of Thrones.” Cosmopolitan (July 13, 2013).

Tucker, Christina. “Last Night’s Episode of Game of Thrones Was a Failure to Women.” Elle (May 6, 2019).

Vineyard, Jennifer. “Lyanna Mormot, Giant Slayer, Never Expected to Last This Long.” The New York Times (April 30, 2019).

—. “Game of Thrones: Grey Worm’s Fate Surprised Everyone But the Man Who Plays Him.” The New York Times (April 29, 2019).

—. “Game of Thrones: Why Do the Wildlings and the Night’s Watch Hate Each Other So Much?” Explainers (June 8, 2014).

Waxman, Olivia B. “Game of Thrones is Even Changing How Scholars Study the Real Middle Ages.” Time (July 14, 2017).

—. “An Exclusive Look Inside Harvard’s New Game of Thrones-Themed Class.” Time (May 30, 2017).

Weeks, Princess.”Game of Thrones Delivers Its Worst Episode of the Season While Screwing Over Its Female Characters.” The Mary Sue. (March 6, 2019).

—. “We Need to Talk About How Game of Thrones Treats the Dothraki.” The Mary Sue. (April 29, 2019).

Yadav, Vikash. “A Dothraki Complaint.” Duck of Minerva (April 27, 2012).

Yglesias, Matthew. “Game of Thrones‘ Dany/Dothraki Storyline Doesn’t Make Any Sense.” Vox (June 3, 2016).

Young, Helen. “Game of Thrones‘ Racism Problem.” The Public Medievalist (July 21, 2017).

The Dothraki and the Scythians: A Game of Clones?The British Museum Blog (July 12, 2017).

Game of Thrones‘ Red Wedding Based on Real Historical Events: The Black Dinner and Glencoe Massacre.” Huffington Post. (June 5, 2013).

Huns, Mongols and Dothraki.” Tower of the Hawk (April 7, 2015).

The Iron Islands and the Viking Age: Gods, Wives, and Reavers.” Tower of the Hawk (April 7, 2015).

Love, Fear and Humanity and the Ballad of Grey Worm and Missandei.” Watchers on the Wall (February 15, 2018).

Undergrad Wednesdays – Two Shrews: “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” as an Inversion of The Taming of the Shrew

[This post was written in the spring 2018 semester for Karrie Fuller's course on Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. It responds to the prompt posted here.]

The Wife of Bath, a proto-feminist who argues for feminine power and agency, appears to undermine the patriarchy at every turn, yet the way that this ideology plays out in her tale is incomplete and problematic. In Chaucer’s “Wife of Bath’s Tale” from The Canterbury Tales, a Knight is sent on a quest to find out what women truly desire above all else. On his long journey, after questioning each woman he meets, he discovers the answer: “Wommen desiren have sovereynetee / As wel over hir husband as hir love / And for to be in maistrie hym above” (Chaucer 165). The Knight is applauded for his thoughtful answer, and every woman in the court agrees with him. Thus, the Knight’s life is spared.

But it is often forgotten why the Knight was sent on this life-or-death mission in the first place. He is given this impossible task as a punishment for a crime, and if he fails to come up with the correct answer, he will pay with his life. This crime occurs as follows:

And happed that allone as he was born,
He saugh a mayde walkynge hym biforn,
Of which mayde anon, maugree hir heed,
By verray force birafte hire maydenhed. (Chaucer 163)

He rapes a woman, and yet Queen Guinevere and the ladies of the court beg King Arthur to spare the Knight’s life. Why do the women want to spare a man who poses such a threat? Perhaps they would rather pursue rehabilitation than revenge and meaningless violence, but the success of this rehabilitation remains ambiguous.

The Knight asks every woman what they desire the most, and an extremely ugly old hag claims that she has the answer. In return for the correct answer, the disgusted Knight promises to marry her. On his wedding night, the old lady asks the Knight to make a choice: should she remain old and ugly in appearance, but be a faithful wife to him, or should she be young and beautiful, but unfaithful? He responds: “As yow liketh, it suffiseth me” (Chaucer 168). Although the Knight allows his wife to choose, granting her bodily sovereignty, his response does not necessarily spring from his newfound respect for women and knowledge of what they desire.

The Knight meets the “Loothly and oold” lady. 

The Knight was so distressed by his wife’s “so loothly and so oold” appearance at the time of their engagement that there is little question that if the choice were between his wife being constantly beautiful or constantly ugly, he would not hesitate to decide for her (Chaucer 166). It is possible that he does not give her sovereignty out of respect, but out of despair. Thus, a rapist is rewarded with a beautiful and obedient wife without having paid for his wrongdoing or learning from it, and a tale that seems set out to propound a female-first agenda undermines itself by expounding male entitlement, which raises interesting questions about whether or not this tale was intended to be proto-feminist at all. Many feminists today might blindly applaud this tale for promoting a feminist vision of the world without realizing the male entitlement and endorsement of rape culture latent throughout the story. Megan Valley elaborates on this theme of how the Wife of Bath is pseudo-feminist rather than proto-feminist in her post entitled: “How the Wife of Bath Gone Girl’d Us.”

Unlike “The Wife of Bath’s Tale,” Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew appears to be intended as a kind of wife-beating romp which undermines any idea of female sovereignty. Many feminists today would reject this play as blatantly unfeminist, which is understandable if one considers the clip of the “Punch” scene below, which is from Sam Taylor’s film adaptation of the play, as a summary of the play as a whole:

If this is how we are to read The Taming of the Shrew, surely this play offers nothing to modern audiences, who often view it “barbarous, offensive, and misogynistic” (Costa). And yet, it continues to draw audiences, who must be either “secret sadists,” or else the production must offer a deeper reading of gender relations than readily appears (Costa).

Katherine’s final speech usually punctuates the arguments of those who would see Taming as the ultimate how-to guide for misogyny. Katherine, once headstrong and bold, now appears meek and docile, blathering on and on with lines such as:

But now I see our [women’s] lances are but straws,
Our strength as weak, our weakness past compare…
Then vail your stomachs, for it is no boot,
And place your hands below your husband’s foot:

In token of which duty, if he please,
My hand is ready; may it do him ease. (Shakespeare ln 189-195)

Katherine literally and figuratively places herself below her husband, almost as his servant. Though it may seem that Petruchio has tamed this shrew completely, in many ways, the taming can be subverted.

If we examine the word “shrew” in this context, the Oxford English Dictionary would define it as “a person, esp.(now only) a woman given to railing or scolding or other perverse or malignant behaviour; frequently a scolding or turbulent wife” (OED). At the conclusion of the play, Katherine lectures and scolds the two other wives in a speech over 40 lines long. In this light, it seems like she remains “a woman given to railing or scolding” rather than being tamed (OED). Additionally, the final speech can be given ironically or sarcastically, with the power dynamics shifting, as occurs in Mary Pickford’s portrayal of Katherine, whose famous wink indicates that her flowery speech is mere lip-service (Wink at 1:18):

Thus, the play can actively work against its appearance of misogyny, and even when it is portrayed as misogynistic, this appearance is so very repugnant that it undermines its own rhetoric. (For no audience can bear to watch Katherine be utterly battered and abused for 2 hours!) A middle ground is also possible, in which Petruchio does not stomp all over Katherine, but both of them undergo a pedagogical journey which ends somewhere in the middle: not with Katherine worshiping at her husband’s foot, but with them taking hands as equals, partners in the next chapter of their life (Speech begins at 23:40; Meeting in the middle begins at 27:00):

In the pedagogical journey in The Taming of the Shrew, either Petruchio or Katherine could be the shrew, because both are undergoing an education, which ultimately brings them closer together. The Wife of Bath’s Tale also includes a pedagogical journey, that of the Knight, who is supposed to learn to respect women. Though the education of Petruchio and Katherine unveils surprising lessons for them, subverting the misogynistic expectation laid out by the surface-level structure of the play, the Knight’s education reveals that the feminist lessons he was supposed to learn never take root. Thus, the Knight is never tamed, and the “Wife of Bath’s Tale” refuses to conform entirely to the proto-feminist message of sovereignty which it appears to promote. Both stories subvert the expectations that feminist readers bring to them, refusing to conform entirely to a misogynistic or proto-feminist message.

Mary Elsa Henrichs
University of Notre Dame

Works Cited

Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales. Edited by Robert Boenig and Andrew Taylor, 2nd ed., Broadview Press, 2012.

Costa, Maddy. “The Taming of the Shrew: ‘This Is Not a Woman Being Crushed’.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 17 Jan. 2012, www.theguardian.com/stage/2012/jan/17/taming-of-the-shrew-rsc.

“Kiss Me, Petruchio, Part 2.” Youtube, uploaded by Ken Thorton, 30 December 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KI9ogFdHWQQ.

Shakespeare, William. The Taming of the Shrew, from Folger Digital Texts. Ed. Barbara Mowat, Paul Werstine, Michael Poston, and Rebecca Niles. Folger Shakespeare Library, 2 April, 2018.

“Punch & Judy Shrew.” Youtube, uploaded by GoodmanDull, 2 September 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N7vIQB60GjQ.

“The Taming of the Shrew Film Clip.” Youtube, uploaded by CSTONEUK, 25 September 2012, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jz9MfjuBB70.