Religion as an Inheritable Trait: Attitudes towards Miscegenation in Frankish Literature and Law during the Crusades

The Crusades reveal that medieval attitudes towards sexuality were not always rigid and repressed. In fact, medieval societies expressed varying levels of tolerance and fluidity depending on circumstances and necessity. Unlike what a simple understanding of the Crusades would imply, Christians and Muslims did not occupy such disparate spheres that sexual relations between them—even those as legitimate as matrimony—were inconceivable. At times, miscegenation was tolerated. Moreover, while attitudes towards sexual relations with the religious ‘other’ remained largely (though not always) negative, the factors that governed these attitudes varied.

Literary sources and medieval chronicles reveal a complexity of attitudes and concerns. Lynn Ramey, in her 2001 work Christian, Saracen and Genre in Medieval French Literature, has explored medieval attitudes towards miscegenation as expressed in Frankish literature.[i] A genre of romance literature, called Chansons de Geste, that became popular in the Frankish world between 1150 and 1250, reveal anxieties over interfaith marriage in Western Christendom. This genre of literature reveals racial biases against Muslims, but at the same time, present models of marriage between Muslims and Christians that accommodate these biases. A recurring component in these poems is the scene of baptism: a symbolic enactment of washing away the spiritual dirtiness of the previous faith to embrace the purity of Christianity. But the dirtiness is more than spiritual. These texts reveal the concern over biological inheritance from the Muslim spouse in interfaith marriages. In her article, “Medieval Miscegenation: Hybridity and the Anxiety of Inheritance,”Lynn Ramey explores reproductive anxieties that texts such as King of Tars reveal, and argues that there was serious apprehension over whether the offspring of an interfaith marriages would be healthy. She traces these fears to Aristotelean, Galenic, and Hippocratic models of reproduction that Christendom had inherited. Ramey suggests that religious traits were perceived as biological and inheritable, and most importantly, undesirable. In the King of Tars, for instance, a marriage alliance between a “Saracen” king and a Christian princess leads to the birth of a defective offspring. However, the conversion of the Muslim king to Christianity corrects the offspring’s birth defects. Christian features, therefore, were desirable while Muslim ones were not. Thus, religion determined biology. King of Tars, she argues, offers conversion as a suitable means of eliminating undesirable traits. Thus, the “dark” Saracen king turns “white” upon conversion and the “blob” of an offspring becomes a beautiful boy following his baptism.[ii]

15th-century Woodcut depicting “Saracens.”

In the poem, King of Tars, the desired inheritable physical traits are achieved upon conversion. However, in other poems, there is less certainty over the mutability of physical traits. In these poems, assimilation is permissible only when the Muslim fulfils two major criteria: he or she fits the Christian standard of beauty and he or she willingly converts to Christianity. The Capture of Orange, composed around 1150, for instance, narrates the tale of a Crusader knight, William of Toulouse who falls in love with the beautiful and noble-hearted, yet, religiously “misled” Saracen queen, Orable of Orange. In the poem, the Crusaders describe the physical beauty and sexual appeal of the ‘Saracen’ queen in the following terms:  

King Teebo’s wife, so fair of hair and head:
You’ll never find her peer for loveliness
In Christendom or any Pagan realm!
Such tenderness! Such slender hips and legs,
And falcon’s eyes, so bright and so intense!
Alas for youth and beauty so misled
In ignorance of God and His largesse!
How fine a place she’d make a Christian bed
For somebody who’d save her soul from hell![iii]

Orable, therefore, fulfils the Christian beauty standard by being ‘fair of hair and head’, and following the capture of Orange and the defeat of King Teebo, she converts willingly to Christianity in order to marry William. Similar to The Capture of Orange wherein the Muslim woman weds a Christian Knight, the Aye of Avignon, composed around 1190, features a noble-hearted Muslim King who is willing to leave his faith and his land behind in order to wed a Christian woman. Again, in this poem the Muslim man is honorable but, most importantly, handsome:

KING GANOR WAS as gracious and kind as he was bold.
In one hand he was holding a pilgrim-staff of oak,
But took off from the other a glove with stitches sewn.
The graceful hand beneath it was long, and pale as snow,
And, on its little finger, displayed a ring of gold.[iv]

Ramey points out that medieval romances read like legal treatises on marriage, recommending assimilation of those parts of Muslim culture that were perceived as non-threatening in Western Christendom and “othering” those aspects that were. The dark skin, for example, was alleged to be a physical sign of barbarism. However, the internal virtues of patience, tolerance and courage in a “Saracen were grudgingly admired.”[v]

These poems, thus, seek to balance the Christian penetration of Muslim culture by absorbing valuable traits of the latter while at the same time emphasizing the ultimate victory of the former. For instance, in King Ganor’s case, he is not required to change his name; while in the case of the queen in Capture of Orange, she is baptized as ‘Guibourc.’ The latter expresses the symbolic victory of Christianity over Islam through the male penetration of the female: the Christian knight acquires a Muslim wife by baptizing her. Moreover, since inheritance of name, title, and the honors associated thereof was paternal in Western Christendom, changing the woman’s name presented no problem. Further, there is little unease when a woman sheds her name upon marriage. On the other hand, all the desirable achievements associated with King Ganor’s name could not be inherited by his sons had his name changed. This would likely create cause for concern in the medieval imagination. Moreover, a man shedding his name stirs unease not quite on the same level as but somewhat similar to castration. The idea is that a man is cuckolded or less manly when he changes too much for his wife. So, the change has to be just enough to establish the superiority of Christianity, but not so much that it establishes the dominance of the woman over the man. Consequently, King Ganor’s name stays the same despite his baptism. Chansons de Geste, thus, present a fictional playing field where medieval anxieties over miscegenation are revealed and resolved.

Painting of William of Orange by Giovanni Francesco Barbieri (1591-1666).

Anxieties over biological inheritance is apparent not only in literature but also in the laws of the Fourth Lateran Council, 1215. Canon 50, for example, prohibits marriages to the fourth degree of kinship. The reason provided for this restriction is a biological one: “The number four agrees well with the prohibition concerning bodily union about which the Apostle says, that the husband does not rule over his body, but the wife does; and the wife does not rule over her body, but the husband does; for there are four humours in the body, which is composed of the four elements.”[vi] But, it is not merely biological inheritance that is addressed in the Fourth Lateran Council. Canon 68 discloses concerns about impurity incurred due to intermixing. This Canon mandates that Jews and Saracens should dress differently from Christians:

A difference of dress distinguishes Jews or Saracens from Christians in some provinces, but in others a certain confusion has developed so that they are indistinguishable. Whence it sometimes happens that by mistake Christians join with Jewish or Saracen women, and Jews or Saracens with Christian women. In order that the offence of such a damnable mixing may not spread further, under the excuse of a mistake of this kind, we decree that such persons of either sex, in every Christian province and at all times, are to be distinguished in public from other people by the character of their dress.[vii]

This decree suggests that it was difficult to distinguish between Christians and non-Christians which allows for free mixing between the two groups. While this Canon expresses the concern that uninhibited ‘mixings’ often led to sexual relations, it might also reveal apprehension about the exchange of ideas and practices between Christians and non-Christians. Hence the insistence that other religious communities dress differently so as to contain all types of mingling or at the very least make such interactions in plain view and, by extension, manageable.

The apprehension over exchange of ideas and practices is obvious in Canon 70, which prohibits new converts from retaining any remnants of their old faith: “Certain people who have come voluntarily to the waters of sacred baptism, as we learnt, do not wholly cast off the old person in order to put on the new more perfectly. For, in keeping remnants of their former rite, they upset the decorum of the Christian religion by such a mixing.”[viii] This canon points to a phenomenon that was probably occurring in Christendom, that is, of non-Christians converting to Christianity as a means to achieve goals other than a genuine acceptance of a new faith and, therefore, converts did not necessarily shed the customs and traditions of their previous faith. Moreover, even if there was genuine intent, a combination of factors such as habit, comfort, and social pressure may have caused them to revert to the practices of their former tradition. The problem that the Canon addresses is not a biological one, but that of maintaining religious decorum while receiving converts from other faiths and traditions.

Literature in Western Christendom reveals an anxiety about biological inheritance in a mixed marriage. These anxieties appear to stem from the idea that religion was inheritable. Along the same lines, these poems permit assimilation of only those Muslims who fulfil Christian standards of beauty. In other words, in order for the Muslim to be assimilated, he or she should either already have the physical attributes of a “Christian” or conform to those attributes upon baptism. Biological inheritance is a concern in the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 as well. However, the principal focus of these decrees is the maintenance of religious homogeneity and decorum.

The most fascinating feature about the study of medieval miscegenation is the extent to which these negative yet complex attitudes persist in the modern world. Clearly, even today there is unease and concern about marrying a person of a different race or culture. While the idea of having sexual relations outside racial categories may sound appealing, the extent of difference—physical or otherwise—that individuals are willing to tolerate may not be substantial enough to allow such relationships to succeed. Whether it is sexual purity or biological inheritance or religious decorum that was the concern during the Crusades or whether it is the extent of difference individuals tolerate in modern day culture, miscegenation stirred and continues to stir complex attitudes in ancient and medieval as well as modern societies.

Ambika Natarajan
Visiting Lecturer and Research Associate
UM-DAE Centre for Excellence in Basic Sciences

To learn more about her research, visit her website: https://ambikasana.com/


[i] Lynn Ramey, Christian, Saracen and Genre in Medieval French Literature (New York: Routledge, 2001).

[ii] Lynn Ramey, “Medieval Miscegenation: Hybridity and the Anxiety of Inheritance,” in Contextualizing the Muslim Other in Medieval Christian Discourse, ed. Jerold C. Frakes (New York: Palgrave Macmillan 2011), 1-20.

[iii] “The Capture of Orange,” in Heroines of the French Epic: A Second Selection of Chansons de Geste, trans. Michael Newth (Hungerford: D.S Brewer, 2014), 17.

[iv] “Aye of Avignon,” in Heroines, 188.

[v] Lynn Ramey, Christian, Saracen and Genre, 65.

[vi] Canon 50, J. Schroeder, “Fourth Lateran Council, 1215,” in Disciplinary Decrees of the General Councils: Text, Translation and Commentary (St. Louis: B. Herder, 1937), 236-296.

[vii] Canon 68, J. Schroeder, “Fourth Lateran Council, 1215,” in Disciplinary Decrees, 236-296.

[viii] Canon 70, J. Schroeder, “Fourth Lateran Council, 1215,” in Disciplinary Decrees, 236-296.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Emily McLemore
PhD Candidate in English
University of Notre Dame


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

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

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

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.