Mascot for #DevilDiss

Mascot for #DevilDiss
Mascot for #DevilDiss

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Women and the Devil in Medieval Literature: The Virgin/Whore Dichotomy

As I was outlining my dissertation, I realized that I had a gap in my coverage- a women's gap. There is little that is not witchcraft related, about how women interacted with the devil. So, in order to fill this gap, I took an Uppity Medieval Women course. Below, is my rough sketch for what will appear part of my chapter on how the devil was used in argument.
Last spring, one of the news stories that went viral was Rush Limbaugh calling Sandra Fluke a “slut” because she spoke to a Democratic hearing on the importance of birth control coverage. Reaction on both sides of the aisle was swift. Fluke’s response was:
“We are fortunate to live in a democracy where everyone is entitled to their own opinions regarding legitimate policy differences. Unfortunately, numerous commentators have gone far beyond the acceptable bounds of civil discourse,” Fluke wrote. ”No woman deserves to be disrespected in this manner. This language is an attack on all women, and has been used throughout history to silence our voices. The millions of American women who have and will continue to speak out in support of women’s health care and access to contraception prove that we will not be silenced.”
The tactic of characterizing women who speak out, or have the audacity to stand up for their rights, 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.
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. This paper will explore how the character of the devil was used to place women characters within this binary state, and examine how this “Othering” functioned. It will also explore 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 figures such as Mary, Hildegard, and Hrotsvit to postulate why they were placed in one role instead of another.

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