This past fall, Miley Cyrus appeared at the MTV Video Music Awards, and her promiscuous performance almost broke the Internet. The criticisms of her performance, and what it meant for women everywhere fell under the category of “slut shaming”. Her performance was called “lewd, grotesque and shameful” (Yates). Many critics bemoaned the example she was setting for young women, while others argued that she was the perfect example of adult (male) figures exploiting young women for their own ends. Meanwhile, Cyrus herself stated that she had made all of the decisions regarding her performance, and had specific goals, mainly causing a sensation, in doing so. The equally, if not more so, disturbing act of Robin Thicke that followed Cyrus’s performance, received almost no media attention.
The tactic of characterizing women who speak out, or do not perform as the majority wishes, as whores is not a new one. During the medieval period, women were often cast as either a virgin or a whore, if you weren’t one, you were the other. In this binary the character of the devil was often used to identify women as “Other” and as a signifier of a person’s morality, or character. His relationship to women in medieval writings is also shown as a binary- women who interacted with him were either virgins in the form of holy saints and the Virgin Mary who defeated him, or were possessed, heretics, or witches. This Virgin/Whore dichotomy represents not only a way in which women were reduced to roles, but also reveals how the devil was used in argument (Williams Boyarin).
While scholarship exists on the Cult of Mary during the medieval period, on hagiography, and on witchcraft in the late medieval period, the interaction of women and the devil and what it represents has not. I am interested in exploring how the character of the devil was used to place women characters within this binary state, and examine how this “othering” functioned, also how the devil, as a folkloric figure, known to a general populace, was used as in medieval writings as a didactic signpost. Current scholarship on mysticism, medieval demonology, holy martyrs, and the Marian plays will be examined, but my analysis will revisit this scholarship to focus on how the devil was used to place women in this binary. I will examine literary figures to determine why these women were placed in one role instead of another.
The distinction between a demonically possessed woman and a holy prophetess often depended on who was making the judgment. Ferber discusses the “significance of the role model of the medieval holy woman” (576) versus the women who suffered from possession/exorcism, and examines that this dichotomy reflected an “increasingly monochromatic view of the moral world” (576). She argues that the discourse of demonology expanded greatly from 1430-1750 (575) and that this expansion is reflected not only the increase in exorcisms and their dealings with possessions, but also with the increase of male magicians. These magicians occupied a liminal space in that they were believed to have made deals with the devil in order to gain their knowledge (578) but they were the only ones capable of freeing someone who was possessed. Later, religious orders such as Franciscan, Dominican, and Jesuits, placed themselves in opposition to these magicians, saying that they were the ones qualified to deal with possession, and without the taint of the devil. This created several issues, one being that Ferber notes several cases where the possessed accused priests of having “caused the possession through witchcraft” (581). She argues that these possession/witch trials often reflected struggles within the Church itself. It is worth noting that the majority of possession/witch trials do not include men, despite priests/magicians/exorcists behaving in the same ways as many of the women accused. One of the things that she argues appeared out of these trials was the resemblance between someone who was possessed and someone who was considered a saint. These holy saints are placed in opposition to the demoniac, but tsymptoms were often the same- fainting, hearing voices, having visions. Ferber states that “People who saw the possessed did not always differentiate in their reading of what the possessed or the local lay saint, for example, could offer them. They sought the same kind of clairvoyant advice that they would have from a holy woman, or indeed in some cases, from a witch” (583). This implies that the judgment on who was a demoniac or a saint lay in authority, and that this decision was capricious or had a polemic use. Considering that the line between possessed and saint was a thin one, it is easy to see how the judgment would seem arbitrary. Ferber lists several examples where these lines seemed blurred: a magician who offers his soul for knowledge, the exorcist who brings forth demons he believes that he controls, the “ecstatic consigns her virginity to the devil (rather than to Christ); the possessed woman seems holy because she is suffering at the hands of the devil; the witch receives from the devil the ability to go out at night and fly through the night” (588). Ferber’s analysis of the “discourse of demonology” (589) is valuable to my discussion of the devil as “othering” and the classification of women as either a witch (whore) or as a holy saint who fought against the devil (virgin).
If a woman is haunted, beaten, and tortured by the devil, does she suffer from possession, or is this evidence of a witch’s deal? As Ferber notes, the distinction is often left to authority figures to make. Campagne examines the experiences of Ermine de Reims in 1395-1396 who experiences visions of holy figures, the devil, as well as suffering from tricks pulled by the devil (471). Campagne’s interest is not so much in examining Reims' visions, but rather in what her descriptions of the devil meant as foreshadowing of the “great European witch-hunt” and how her narrative can reframe the discussion of the “origins of the natural science of demons” (475).
Campagne begins his analysis with examining the first descriptions of Satan in the first millennium with Augustine of Hippo, where the devil is a tempter and seducer. As Forsyth argues, the “devil of the first millennium expresses a particularly optimistic version of the ancient combat myth” (478) but a version where the Church fathers considered the battle done, and Satan defeated. Aquinas introduced “a series of innovations in the mythology of the Christian devil that qualify and, sometimes, alter the tone of first-millennium demonology” (480). These alterations become the basis of knowledge of demonology and Satan. Dubruck argues that Aquinas’s contribution to demonology is small (168) but I argue against this, Aquinas ties together angels and demons, argues that the Fall degrades the moral character of the angels, now demons, but their intellect remains intact. He also explained that demons, although Fallen, were still closest to God. Aquinas also states that demons “obey the same natural laws as the rest of creation” (Campagne 484). He also argues that demons serve two purposes- when they punish sinners they are acting according to God’s plan, but when they tempt humans, they are not. Aquinas also solidified the hierarchy and organization of evil, with Lucifer at the head, and his hosts of demons arranged beneath him. It is Aquinas’s work that served as a template for later authorities, both Church and legal, to make the distinction between holy prophetess (virgin) and witch (whore).
According to Campagne, these “corrections” of Aquinas are seen in Ermine’s biography. She experiences Satan as a physical body, and as a spirit. Ermine’s spirits are there to torture, and tempt her. The demons state that they are there because God said they “were allowed to cause you whatever harm” (491). Ermine’s devils also have the traits that “Aquinas attributed to the forces of evil” (491). Likewise, in many ways, Ermine’s biography foreshadows several tropes of devil stories such as the deal with the devil, flights through the night air, and demons taking human form. While Ermine’s narrative places her on the side of holy prophetess, neighbors suspected her of being allied with the devil. Part of Campagne’s argument is that there was a tension in Ermine’s narrative that reflects the Church of the time, as well as the repressed fears of the witch hunts that were on the horizon.
In many ways, Aquinas’s writings are considered responsible for the “inquisition, torture, and organized murder” that occurred during the European witch hunts (Dubruck 168). Despite the fact that she argues that Aquinas’ “opinion was by no means novel at the time” (176), he did write five articles on the subject, which then become considered doctrine, although I do agree with her argument that he is “by no means solely responsible” (181). It is how Aquinas work is forwarded that becomes important, the authors of Hammer of Witches, Formicarius, La Demonomanie des sorciers (182) all use his descriptions of the types of evil, and how it can be identified in their works that were later used as manuals for the persecution of witches. On a larger scale, Aquinas’ views on women, that they are subject to man, and susceptible to “illusions, hallucinations and dreaming” (181) are partially responsible for the witch-craze of later centuries, and for the characterization of women as either virgins or whores. Frugoni argues “that the feminization of the devil on earth was ubiquitous in medieval art and literature”. She goes onto state that “the correlation between women and the devil was ‘so commonplace at the time that the onlooker would have considered it perfectly natural for the devil to choose a member of the female sex as his favorite disguise’” (Butler 142).
Bekhterev examines several instances of possession, and analyzes the testimony and evidence given in these trials while making comparisons to characterizing women as “hysterical”. The women involved in these instances confessed to visitations by devils, dead men, and being given instructions by these figures. Bekhterev makes the connection between these instances and “nervous manifestations of great hysteria” (83). He also makes the argument that “possession changes in its manifestations depending on people’s views” (83). This psychological approach is invaluable to my research, as I argue that hysteria or possession was used to “Other” women if they were viewed as a threat, or if someone wished to discredit them and that possessed women, or women accused of witchcraft became a cultural production. As Denike argues, the figure of witch or witch-heretic was used to “sexualize, demonize, and criminalize” women (11). Possession narratives were often reshaped by the Church into morality tales, used as “didactic tool to encourage good Christians to avoid sin and despair” (Butler 142). Whether the woman in the narrative was a willing or unwilling participant in the events, by her association with the devil, she was characterized as “Other”, a whore, rather than a holy prophetess (virgin). However, it is important to note that this “Othering” almost always took place in relation to the Catholic Church. Protestants took a much different view of the devil, with an “emphasis on the intimacy of the individual’s relationship with Satan, and on temptation in particular, mitigated against easy notions of “otherness” and inversion” (Johnstone 177).
It is impossible to discuss this dichotomy without mentioning misogyny, but as Block argues, it is necessary to specifically define misogyny when we are examining medieval texts. Block begins his argument with an examination of Jean de Meun’s Roman de la rose, arguing that the term misogyny has to be carefully used, as in the example he gives from Roman de la rose is less “a true example of misogyny, a denunciation of the essential evil nature of woman, than a subgeneric topos known as the molestiar nuptiarum or anti marriage literature” (2). Block argues that woman as “riot” was a common topos in medieval literature, and was often closely connected to the genre of poetry. He goes on to structure his argument by giving examples from Old French literature that exemplifies the “riotness” of women. He then moves on to discussing how misogyny has to be read, stating that “where anti feminism is concerned the question of reception is crucial, and work like the Romen de la rose, for example, may be less important for what it might actually contain then for what surrounds it” (6). In discussing misogyny, it is vital to examine how it may be cultural production, and how the term is used to “Other”, in this case, not necessarily the women, but perhaps the authors of the time. Yes, misogyny existed in the medieval period and before, as Block points out with examples from Genesis, Tertullian, Philo, and Jerome. However, Block suggests that these examples show a “deep mistrust of the body and of the materiality of signs” (14), illustrating how women in these writings represents signs, and their symbolic nature. If women in these writings are used as symbols, then it is necessary to examine what they represent within the discourse.
Women did not have to stay within the same symbolic status however, it was possible for them to move along the spectrum, and one way in which they could move was under an accusation of heresy.
This can be seen in the case of Joan of Arc, but also to a lesser extent with Margery Kempe, who while not burned at the stake, was certainly often accused of being a heretic, and run out of towns because of it (McGinn 195). At a time where the boundaries of orthodoxy were fluid, it is easy to see why heresy would be a convenient reasoning for moving someone from one end of the scale to another. If the person in question became a threat- to the Church, or another authority, branding as a heretic was a way to “Other” them. McGinn uses examples of Molinos, Marguerite Porete, and Meister Eckhart to make this case, using them to clarify why tension existed between “institutional religion and mystical piety” (200). He suggests that the conflict existed in part because mysticism was seen as a threat to the authority of the Church, if people could claim a personal relationship with God, then there was less of a need for the Church as intermediary. However, he also argues that this solution, while popular with historians and theologians, is problematic, as many Church fathers were considered mystics. It becomes a problem of nuance, if the mystic communicated using the “language and symbols of the tradition” (201) then it was easier for the Church fathers to accept them, placing them on the virgin side of the scale. If however, the mystic countered the accepted language and symbols, or even the Church fathers themselves, it was easy for authority to identify the person as “Other” and heretic, arguing that they were protecting church authority. Denike argues that the church “was struggling for exclusive jurisdiction over the ‘heresy’ and ‘treason’ of witchcraft” (12). This further tension recalls the earlier conflict between magicians as exorcists and the Church. McGinn uses the examples of Gnostics, Messalianism, to support his case. However, he also states that the tension between the Church and mysticism were affected by the fact that the Church was undergoing great changes around 1300 (209), changes that led to the institutional pursuit of heresy, and without which, the tension would have resolved itself in potentially very different ways.
It was this institutional pursuit of heresy that solidified what Aquinas had begun, with the publication of Malleus maleficarum, it was possible for almost anyone to identify, and then persecuted witches. Witch hunting “was ecumenical: it united Catholics and Lutherans, Puritans and Anglicans, as no other purpose ever would” (Stephens 495). According to Stephens when he states: “The witches I will refer to are not the actual healers, midwives, and wise women of illiterate village culture, but rather an ideological interpretation of the village woman constructed by literate, exquisitely educated, often supremely erudite males” (496) the characterization of a witch, the judgment, was made purposefully by the men he describes. Therefore, the virgin/whore dichotomy is not just a binary, but it is also a construction, a cultural production of the time.
The categorization of whether a possessed woman, or a woman who saw visions was a holy prophetess, falling on the virgin side of the scale, or was a whore bewitched by the devil, was a distinction and judgment made by authority (often the Church) and was often a judgment made for reasons other than justice. If the woman was seen as a threat to Church authority, then she was often classified as a heretic, which could slide her from the virgin side of the scale towards the whore side. If the authority in question favored Aquinas’ writings, then it was more likely that she would be automatically put on the whore side, as they would have believed that women were naturally prone to unholy pacts with the devil. While possession could have placed women on either side, the women of possession narratives were often used as didactic tools by the church, regardless of whether they were a lesson of how not to behave, or role models of holy mystics. While misogyny is a necessary idea in considering where women were placed on this scale, it is far more important to consider the polemic uses of placing women on this scale, what discourse situation placed them on this scale, how characterizing women as virgin/whore is a cultural production, and how an institutional pursuit of heresy almost demanded that women be placed within this binary.
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