In preparation for the V International Congress of the John Gower Society in Scotland this summer, I’ve been exploring a twisted little tale from John Gower’s Confessio Amantis known as the “Tale of Albinus and Rosemund.” The story sees Albinus, the newly crowned king of Lombardy, married to Rosemund, daughter of the previous king whom Albinus has slain. Despite the couple’s love for each other, Albinus tricks his wife into drinking from a cup that has been fashioned from the skull of her late father.
Having been so elaborately adorned with precious stones atop a gold pedestal, the vessel no longer resembles a skull, and Albinus bids his bride, “Drink with thi father, Dame.” Rosemund drinks. Albinus then reveals his cruelty, and Rosemund proceeds to have him murdered.
The tale made me wonder about the extent to which skulls have been used as drinking cups and whether the practice existed in the medieval period, perhaps even in Britain. I wondered, too, whether any remnants remained, particularly any as dazzling as the one Albinus debuts to Rosemund’s horror.
Vikings might seem the likely culprits, but Vikings did not, it seems, drink from the skulls of their enemies despite how deeply ingrained the association has become in popular culture. That said, the Poetic Edda contains a reference to cups created from skulls in the story of Wayland the Smith, who seeks vengeance against the king for his violent imprisonment. In the Old Norse narrative, Wayland kills the king’s two young sons and gifts their silver-gilded skulls to him, their eyes gruesomely replaced with glittering jewels.
Early Britons, however, did use skulls as crockery.
In 1987, researchers discovered cups crafted from human skulls in a cave in Somerset, England. The three cups, made from the skulls of two adults and a three-year-old child, were re-examined in 2011 and dated to 14,700 BP. As reported in The Guardian, “Detailed examination of 37 skull fragments and four pieces of jaw using a 3D microscope revealed a common pattern of hard strikes followed by more finessed stone tool work that turned a freshly decapitated head into a functional cup or bowl.”
Markings on the bones suggest that the bodies were butchered for meat before the heads were severed, but there is no physical evidence to suggest that the skulls served as trophies for those who repurposed them. Rather than being enemies, they may have died of natural causes, and it’s possible those who survived them intentionally preserved their skulls as a way of honoring them in death. But it is also possible that the skulls belonged to enemies according to Dr. Bruno Boulestin, an archaeologist at the University of Bordeaux in France, who stated that “in ‘nine out of 10’ societies known from historical or ethnographic records, skulls were removed as trophies for the purpose of humiliating the enemy.”
Whatever the circumstances, the cups were by no means haphazardly made, and the physical evidence, including engraving on the bones, appears to be ritualistic, rather than simply cannibalistic. Based on research by scientist Dr. Silvia Bello, the Natural History Museum in London explains, “The painstaking preparation of the skull-cups suggests that they were prepared for a special purpose rather than just for nutrition. After all, it would have been much quicker and easier to just smash the skull the access the fatty brain inside.” The craftmanship, therefore, is deliberate and thorough, even if the goblets themselves are not as glamorous as the one depicted in Gower’s tale.
At nearly 15,000 years old, the cups found in Gough’s Cave obviously predate the medieval period, but Wales, in fact, retains a skull cup originating in the Middle Ages, as it was made from the remains of a 6th-century monk and bishop known as Saint Teilo. Set in silver atop a silver stand, the cup now sealed behind glass at Llandaf Cathedral was once used for healing purposes, apparently as recently as the 1940s. The water from Saint Teilo’s well, also located in Wales, was said to be most effective against chest ailments, especially when drunk from Saint Teilo’s skull and even more so if distributed to the sick by the hands of the skull’s keeper. Like other saintly relics, the cup is attributed with healing properties, largely separating it from the gore associated with dismemberment.
Returning to the skull cup from which Rosemund drinks, I have yet to render my verdict on the vessel’s meaning but see it as a vehicle signifying both consumption and catharsis not unlike these others from early Britain. After drinking from the body of her father, Rosemund releases her rage in retaliation against her husband’s tyranny, embodying the conqueror and effectively ending Albinus’s reign.
Emily McLemore, Ph.D. Department of English University of Notre Dame
Earlier this month, the corpse of a woman with a protruding front tooth and a sickle positioned across her throat was discovered in a 17th-century cemetery near the village of Pien in south-eastern Poland. The sickle was meant to keep the body contained: should the deceased woman have attempted to rise from her grave, the blade would have promptly beheaded her. Coupled with the woman’s prominent incisor, the placement of the sickle suggests that those who tended to her burial may have feared she was a vampire.
Professor Dariusz Poliński from Nicholas Copernicus University observed, “The sickle was not laid flat but placed on the neck in such a way that if the deceased had tried to get up most likely the head would have been cut off or injured.” Photo courtesy of Miroslaw Blicharski and Alexsander Poznan.
The woman was found with the remains of a silk head dressing, which indicates she was someone of high social status, as such a garment would have been an expensive commodity. Of course, this woman would be neither the first aristocrat nor the first woman to be suspected of vampirism.
In addition to the positioning of the sickle and her prominent incisor, a padlock was secured around the big toe of the woman’s left foot, which may be meant to symbolize “the closing of a stage and the impossibility of returning,” according to Poliński. Photo courtesy of Miroslaw Blicharski and Alexsander Poznan.
Elizabeth Báthory was a Hungarian noblewoman and history’s most prolific female serial killer, who tortured and murdered as many as 650 girls and women between 1590 and 1610. Her association with vampirism manifests in the folklore that describes the countess’s ritual of bathing in her virgin victims’ blood to retain her youthful beauty. Neither the number of victims nor her bathing activities are confirmed. Nevertheless, a servant girl testified that she saw the figure recorded in one of Báthory’s private books, and another witness stated that he had seen the countess covered in blood. Colloquially, she became known as the Bloody Countess and, more contemporarily, Lady Dracula.
A copy of the only known portrait of Elizabeth Báthory, depicting the countess at age 25. The original painting from 1585 has been lost.
Vlad Dracul, the late medieval ruler more commonly known as Vlad the Impaler, derived his namesake from his preferred method of murdering his enemies: impalement, a particularly gruesome form of death where a wood or metal pole is inserted through the body either front to back, such as a stake might be driven through a vampire’s chest, or vertically through the rectum or vagina. The prince purportedly enjoyed dining amongst his dying victims and dipping his bread into their blood.
Portrait of Vlad Dracul by an unknown artist, circa 1560. This painting, like the one of Elizabeth Báthory above, may be a copy.
As Dracul’s surname, which incidentally means dragon, and Transylvanian origins indicate, the intermittent ruler whose brutality spiraled into legend subsequently became a source of inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula character. Another source, Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla, not only preceded Dracula but also, conversely, rendered its vampire antagonist female. Moreover, the novella, set in Austria in the late 1800s, positions Carmilla as a clever seductress whose victims are predominantly male. Although Stoker’s iconic novel all but synonymized the vampire with maleness, Le Fanu’s character reflects the traditional association of vampiric tendencies with femaleness that preceded and pervaded the medieval period.
Depiction of Carmilla and her companion, Laura, whom the novella positions as both a friend and a romantic interest. The illustration, by D. H. Friston, accompanied Carmilla when it was first published as a serial in the literary magazine The Dark Blue between 1871 and 1872.
While sensational news specifically citing vampires did not appear in Britain or Europe until the 1700s, the veil of vampirism shrouded the female body during the medieval period and for centuries prior in many parts of the world. In ancient Mesopotamia, for example, the Assyrians feared a demon goddess known as Lamashtu, a name meaning “she who erases,” who was said to steal infants and suck their blood. Lilith, first wife of Adam turned primordial demon, has a similar reputation. Some stories describe her as a creature who steals babies under the cover of darkness, but she also has sex with men in their dreams and spawns demon offspring with their seed. Lilith’s legacy as a sexually wanton demon of the night seems fitting, as she was the woman who first cohabitated with man but refused subservience. More specifically, Lilith questioned why she should lie beneath her husband during sex, and her resistance reinscribed her as monstrous. She became a succubus, a demon in female form who, essentially, sucks the life from men.
Painting of Lilith produced by John Collier in 1887, which conveys her association with the devil and her sexual proclivity through the intimacy she shares with the snake that embraces her naked body.
In the late Middle Ages, the fear of women’s vampiric nature was embodied by the figure of the succubus and implied throughout the wildly popular treatise De secretis mulierum, or On the Secrets of Women. The misogynistic, pseudo-medical textposited women as polluted physiologically and prone to witchcraft; in turn, it laid the foundation for the 15th-century inquisitorial treatise Malleus maleficarum, or The Hammer of Witches. Witches were also believed to imbibe in blood, particularly when feasting on the bodies of infants.
Unlike depictions of the incubus, who adopts a male form and engages in sex with willing women, the succubus stalks unconsenting men, often in their sleep. As medieval historian Dyan Elliott explains, “Often a succubus is introduced into a tale so that the holy man can resist it.”[i] Involuntary nocturnal ejaculation served as evidence that a man had been preyed upon by a succubus whilst asleep. As the victim of a rapacious female entity who had extracted semen from his body without permission, the man was absolved of any sin stemming from sexual emission.
In her book Fallen Bodies, Dyan Elliott identifies the life of Saint Anthony as a quintessential depiction of a man who resists the succubus. Painting titled The Torment of Saint Anthony by Michaelango, circa 1487-88, depicts a demon with breasts and a perineal orifice that also functions as the mouth of a second face.
Semen was understood during the medieval period as a substance that was not only life-engendering through its role in conception but also life-sustaining in relation to the maintenance of men’s health. In short, the preservation of semen was vital to the preservation of the male body. Sex, therefore, posed a danger to men, who could become “dried out” if they engaged in sexual activity too frequently. Women, however, were believed to draw strength from the male body during sex by absorbing its heat, as described in the Secrets.[ii] Sapped of both his semen and his own bodily heat, the man was physically drained by intercourse, and the woman ingested his life force.
The Secrets heightens the vampiric qualities of the female body when it identifies a sign of conception as the feeling of the penis being “sucked into the closure of the vagina,”[iii] emphasizing how the woman’s sexual anatomy acts upon the male body to extract its fluids and does so, seemingly, of its own accord. One of the commentaries that frequently circulated with the text exacerbates this somewhat unsettling sentiment by ascribing desire directly to the female body when the writer states, “The womb sucks in the penis, for it is attracting the sperm because of the great desire it has.”[iv] This is not the only instance where the Secrets suggests that female bodies behave so deliberately. Another commentator explains how “it often happens that a woman conceives if she is in a bath where a man has ejaculated because the vulva strongly attracts the sperm,”[v] whereby the language alludes to the agency possessed by the female body that appears inherently poised to entice and consume the essence of its male counterpart if only for the purposes of reproduction.
Moreover, the Secrets infers that the vagina itself might bite the man during intercourse when the text warns its readers that women sometimes place iron inside their vaginas with the malicious intention of harming their sexual partner, who then “suffer[s] a large wound and serious infection of the penis.”[vi] The phrase vagina dentata was not coined until psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud connected it with his concept of castration anxiety circa 1900, but the idea of the “toothed vagina” effectively manifests much earlier in a medieval treatise that likens women to succubi who thirst for mortal men and threaten them with their monstrous appetite.
Written and directed by Mitchell Lichtenstein and produced by Joyce Pierpoline, Teethis a 2007 comedy-horror film that draws upon the concept of the vagina dentata. The film was positively received by critics when it debuted at the Sundance Film Festival and provides a sharp commentary on consent and sexual violence, despite its poor performance at the box office.
Although women’s relationship with the postmedieval vampire can only be implied in a document that predates the term, women’s correlation with monstrosity could not be clearer. The commentator takes pains to note at an odd point in the text that, “according to Aristotle in the 16th book On Animals, woman is a failed male, that is, the matter that forms a human being will not result in a girl except when nature is impeded in her actions,” so “[i]f a female results, this is because of certain factors hindering the disposition of matter, and thus is has been said that woman is not human, but a monster in nature.”[vii]
As for the female remains recently unearthed in Poland, the skeleton has been relocated to a university for further study. While this woman was not the first to be found buried in a way that suggests her contemporaries feared she might rise from the dead, the placement of the sickle across her throat was unique. She was also spared from mutilation intended to prevent a vampire’s resurrection, which has been observed at other sites. Perhaps those who orchestrated her burial were being politely precautious. After all, if stories had instilled in them that a woman naturally desires to feed on men while she lives, how terrifying that hunger might be once her body was released from restraint by her death.
[i] Dyan Elliott, Fallen Bodies, University of Pennsylvania Press (1999), 53.
[ii] Helen Rodnite Lemay, Women’s Secrets: A Translation of Pseudo-Albertus Magnus’ De Secretis Mulierum with Commentaries, State University of New York Press (1992), 127.
In this, the first of a multi-part series focused on women in modern medieval studies based upon an informal survey sent to the fellows of the Medieval Institute at the University of Notre Dame on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the university’s admission of undergraduate women, we will be briefly exploring both the extraordinary contributions thatIn this, the first of a multi-part series focused on women in modern medieval studies based upon an informal survey sent to the fellows of the Medieval Institute at the University of Notre Dame on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the university’s admission of undergraduate women, we will be briefly exploring both the extraordinary contributions that women scholars have made to the lives and scholarship of our own faculty members, as well as some of the continuing challenges faced by women medieval scholars in both their scholarship and careers. It is not intended to be an exhausted survey and still less the definitive statement on the matter. Rather, it is an anecdotal collage assembled from the helpful comments of Notre Dame’s own medievalists, to whom I am deeply indebted for their assistance and their candor.
Women Scholars as inspiration
The two most striking points of emphasis in the comments of all respondents were first, the personal inspiration and support offered by women scholars and mentors, and second, the considerable difficulties that continue to confront women within the academy. It is here that we will begin, with discussion of specific research contributions from modern scholars as well as the challenges and importance of studying medieval women to follow.
Many respondents mentioned not only the women scholars whose work has influenced and inspired their own, but also those who provided personal support and directly guided them.
Professor Deborah Tor, for instance, cites the extraordinary Patricia Crone, who, over the course of a career that saw her hold notable positions at the Universities of Oxford, Cambridge, and the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, was “the greatest scholar in medieval Islamic history of the past hundred years” and “a figure so towering that she simply could not be ignored”, despite the considerable obstacles laid in her path, but who was also a valued mentor and friend. Professor Tor writes, “I undoubtedly learned more from her about historical inquiry, historical imagination, and the use of evidence, as all these relate to medieval Islamic history, than from anyone else in my life.” Professor Katie Bugyis credits two women with directly shaping the course of her academic career, both of whom we are now proud to count as Fellows of the Medieval Institute here at Notre Dame. The first of these was Margot Fassler, then at Yale’s Institute of Sacred Music whose contribution to the collected volume Voice of the Living Light, edited by the equally remarkable Barbara Newman, left Bugyis convinced “I knew that I had to study with her as a graduate student at Yale’s Institute of Sacred Music. I wanted to keep working on medieval religious women and their liturgical practices, and she was the very best scholar in the field with whom to undertake this research.” Bugyis subsequently made good on her ambition and received her M.A.R. from the Yale Institute of Sacred Music, summa cum laude. When Bugyis was choosing a PhD program, it was another woman who proved the decisive influence:
…when I was deciding between pursuing my doctoral studies at Yale or at Notre Dame, it was meeting with Kathryn Kerby-Fulton that finally tipped the balance in favor of accepting Notre Dame’s offer. Kathryn had been hired by the university shortly after I had graduated from the university as an undergraduate. I was very familiar with her scholarship on Hildegard of Bingen, and during my on-campus visit, I was keen to meet with her to discuss her work on women writers in medieval England. We talked for over an hour, and after that meeting, I left feeling like I knew nothing about the very writers and texts that I wanted to know something about. I was convinced that, if I wanted to become the kind of medievalist that I wanted to become, then I needed to work with Kathryn. I called my partner, Eric, immediately to tell him that we needed to rethink the plans for my future studies. This, of course, was a bit challenging because he was finishing up his doctorate at Yale, but he wanted me to get the best training that I could get as a scholar, and so I ended up accepting Notre Dame’s offer. It was one of the best decisions of my life.
In my own experience as both a student and as a professional academic, it would be all but impossible to overestimate the impact that women scholars had upon me. As an undergraduate, Professor Anne Clark was an invaluable source of guidance and an inspiration in her scholarship on Elisabeth of Schönau, Hildegard von Bingen, and Gertrude von Helfta. While pursuing my M.St. at Oxford, it was Professor Almut Sauerbaum who introduced me to Wolfram’s Parzival and who reliably provided the highlights every meeting held by the University’s extraordinary collection of esteemed medieval Germanists. To this day, I work hard in each and every class I teach to follow the standard set by Professor Jennifer Harris at the University of Toronto, who supervised me over the course of multiple appointments as a TA. The kindness and mentorship provided to me by Professor Bettina Bildhauer at the University of St Andrews, both during my first experience at an academic conference and, later, during my first professional appointment saw me through some of the most difficult moments in my professional development, and neither my dissertation nor any of the scholarship work which has followed would have unthinkable without the work and support of innumerable women scholars, Ann Marie Rasmussen, Elke Koch, Katharina Philipowski, Christina Lechtermann… the list goes on. I consider myself extraordinarily privileged and honored today to count many amongst them as not only colleagues, but friends.
Challenges Facing Women Medievalists
Yet this long list of remarkable, influential women who have collectively shaped every aspect of my scholarly and academic development also masks some of the darker truths about modern academia. Despite the fact that many of the very foundations for the work that I was to pursue as a graduate student were laid down by women, and despite the enormous influence that the women listed above had upon me, throughout my undergraduate and graduate studies, I found myself shepherded from one male advisor to the next. It was not until the final years of my doctorate that I ever even found myself in a department headed by a woman (in this, case, the ever amazing Suzanne Conklin Akbari). Without in anyway wishing to diminish the accomplishments and contributions of these men, all of whom I account myself extraordinarily fortunate to have worked with, it seems to have been assumed, without ever being verbalized, that for me, a white, cis-male scholar, the path forward lay primarily through other men. Even my doctoral committee consisted of four men and one woman (the aforementioned and remarkable Ann Marie Rasmussen), who joined by special dispensation. All of the other women scholars who contributed did so either unknowingly, through their work, or while remaining essentially unacknowledged institutionally, simply by being decent people, willing to help out a young scholar – doing so, at times, at considerable cost to themselves: time is never free. Mentorship is draining. Especially for junior scholars on the tenure track or under pressure to deliver a book on time, even a weekly meeting for coffee can risk derailing important progress. They did it anyway and continue to do it today for many others.
Although the field of medieval studies is, thankfully, no longer as profoundly male-dominated as it once was, the difficulties faced by women medievalists remain substantial. As one fellow of the Medieval Institute writes of her own experience, “Right before I was scheduled to give a presentation on one of the chapters of my dissertation… a very senior male scholar in the field approached me and said, ‘I am prepared to be skeptical.’ Rightly or wrongly, I keep his words at the forefront of my mind every time I work on my research because the burden of proof still remains so much higher for scholars of medieval women than it is for scholars of medieval men.” Another comments on the “old boys” network that still predominates at many, perhaps most, institutions when it comes to hiring practices:
I know for a fact about the final round of hiring for a position at one of the world’s great universities, which took place about ten years ago. I was told by one of the people who sat on the committee and saw the files that one female scholar led in the written scholarship component, and another female scholar led in the mock–teaching component. Neither was hired– rather, an Old Boy, who had led in neither area, was. Moreover, his principal recommender was also the principal recommender of the female candidate whose written work had put her in the lead, and that recommender specifically ranked the female candidate above the male who got the job. This outcome is quite typical.
This “skepticism” and, at times, outright opposition to the inclusion of women within the academy may be less prevalent today, but it remains all too common. It also exists alongside other, no less formidable, barriers that many women face in pursuing an academic career. Unforgiving deadlines are hardwired into the academic system both in the US and abroad. Deviations from the standard progression are seldom tolerated, and monitoring begins during one’s undergraduate studies. For all academics, this often requires a dedication bordering on fanaticism, to the exclusion of all other interests, be they hobbies, personal relationships, or the interests of family. This last falls especially hard on women, whose graduate studies and early career, generally the highest-pressure phase for academics, coincides with the period of life in which most people so-disposed start families of their own. Such difficulties are only magnified for Women of Color and for those from less-privileged backgrounds. As one MI fellow comments:
Young scholars are all under increasing pressure to publish, with increasing precarity of the job market. But a particular added challenge for women scholars is the continued tension between the expectations of total dedication to career advancement during the pre-tenure phase, and the fact that this is often exactly a period of increasing family responsibilities. This tension has been addressed by many reforms, but remains very difficult to navigate for many; in the end, any progress is continuously undone by the arms race for the increasing number of publications that one is expected to produce, or grants that one is expected to manage, in order to distinguish oneself. In addition, praiseworthy efforts to diversify, e.g., volumes, panels, editorial boards, etc., can become overwhelming for the small number of women scholars who exist in the field.
The fact that, even beyond pregnancy, the burdens of childcare fall, unjustifiably, predominantly upon women, can present an insurmountable obstacle for women who desire or feel pressured to pursue both a career a family life, all but eliminating not only the opportunity to thrive, but even, for some, any entry at all.
To make matters still worse, as mentioned by a number of respondents, such pressures and hostility all too often have a poisonous effect within the community of women scholars. In some cases, competition for the relatively limited number of desirable positions unofficially allotted to women scholars, competition and hostility sometimes result: “[T]he biggest personal obstacle I have encountered in my career was the overt hostility, and even explicit threats… of certain more senior female scholars within my department when I was a junior scholar.”
Here it is worth noting that Medieval Studies, like academia as a whole, presents a diverse landscape. While some general trends may be observed and hold true across the board, there are certain areas in which notable deviations occur. In my own field, Medieval Here it is worth noting that Medieval Studies, like academia as a whole, presents a diverse landscape. While some general trends may be observed and hold true across the board, there are certain areas in which notable deviations occur. In my own field, Medieval Germanistik, for instance, it is striking to observe the dramatic increase in the number of women scholars active since the year 2000. While this evidence may be purely anecdotal, the vast majority of scholars that I find myself citing from the last two decades are women – as, increasingly, are the editors of the texts that I study. Yet when I cite historians who engage with the period in which these texts were created, I find that the number of women scholars publishing become more scarce. With reference to medieval Islamic history, Deborah Tor comments:
Unfortunately, not much has changed. Not only is the field of medieval Islamic history overwhelmingly male, but except in the case of the sui generis Patricia Crone… the work of women typically does tend to be ignored, no matter how fine; or, worse, her ideas appropriated with no acknowledgment. There are some excellent women scholars in the field – Carole Hillenbrand, Louise Marlow, and Beatrice Manz spring immediately to mind– and I have no doubt that were comparable work being produced by men, these women would be occupying endowed chairs at Oxbridge or in the top rung of the Ivy League. But that simply does not happen in the field.
Even where progress in gender equality has been made, the divisions and discrepancies highlighted above point towards a further point of tension: that between fields and subjects that have come to be coded as “women’s’ studies” and those which remain or have become the domain of male scholars. This tension, as well as the manner in which the work of women scholars both past and present has shaped and continues to shape the field of medieval studies will form the focus of our next blog post in this series, to follow in the near future.
Christopher Liebtag Miller, Ph.D. Assistant Teaching Professor Director of Undergraduate Studies and Engagement Medieval Institute University of Notre Dame