Burley: New Forest Witchcraft

Over the October half-term, I visited Burley in the New Forest in order to gain some idea of the consumerist culture that witchcraft invites in modern society. Burley was home to the New Forest coven of the 20th century, home to notorious Wiccan, Gerald Gardner. The village is more typically known, however, for its association with Sybil Leek, an English witch and occult author who wrote more than 60 books on esoteric subjects. Dubbed “Britain’s most famous witch” by the BBC, she was a colourful character who walked through Burley village wearing her trademark cape, gown, and with her pet jackdaw named Mr. Hotfoot Jackson perched on her shoulders. The village was suspicious of her alternative lifestyle and experience, and she left England in the 1980s in order to make a living in America. When in Burley, I visited a shop called ‘A Coven of Witches’ that was owned by Sybil Leek and is still open today.

The shop staff were more than happy to help me, guiding me around the shop and informing me about the still active coven that met in the New Forest today. I was surprised to hear that that wasn’t the only tradition kept alive in Burley: many religious people and vicars still refuse to enter the shop due to its apparent connection with the devil and satanist acts, despite Satan being a Christian creation.

The shop stocked many traditional books and herbal remedies used for spells and meditation but also had Harry Potter memorabilia and Halloween gifts that would appease the many children in the shop. It was popular, brimming with people who were fascinated by witchcraft, no matter whether they thought it a Halloween craze or believed in the ideology.

I was lucky enough to speak to the shop owner about her experience with witchcraft, and I listened to her explain about witchcraft’s healing benefits that have been passed down from Pagan times. For her, it was all about connecting with and respecting the Earth that we live upon. I also collected postcards, leaflets and books that will undoubtedly help me with my research to come.

Folklore, Magic and Mysteries: Modern Witchcraft and Folk Culture in Britain

During the October half term, I visited Preston Manor in Brighton in order to see the temporary exhibition on Doreen Valiente, an English Witch who was responsible for writing much of the early religious liturgy within the tradition of Gardnerian Wicca. The exhibition showed a unique display of artifacts, manuscripts and documents from the Doreen Valiente Foundation, after the woman made posthumous history by being the first witch to be awarded a blue plaque on her home in Brighton in 2013 to commemorate her life and honour her achievements.

The exhibition featured possessions of Valiente and Gerald Gardner, another famous figure in Wicca, such as Books of Shadows, wands and other belongings that have been used and developed throughout the 20th century.

The Book of Shadows was especially interesting to see, as it was Valiente and Gardner who created a system for the practice of witchcraft by wring down their rites, rituals and teachings in a way that is still practiced today. This differed from the traditional Pagan teaching that traditions pass on their knowledge orally, but Gardner wrote many versions of the witchcraft rituals and maintained that these were not scripture, dogma or doctrine but were meant to be adapted and built upon by initiates of the mysteries who understood the meaning behind them. Modern practitioners often keep a ‘Book of Shadows’ which contains their written lore, very often adapted from the originals of Gardner and Valiente seen below:

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One of the main themes emphasised at the exhibition was the traditional and natural elements that are present in the world. A connection is shown between nature and humanity, and the religion looks back to the past to deem what is truly important: there are no deities as such, more archetypes and concepts of our world that are embodied for human understanding.

Witchcraft, like many pagan traditions, is called a ‘mystery religion.’ Unlike ‘revealed religions’, where the knowledge is made available to all and then interpreted by priests and leaders, mystery traditions initiate their followers individually into the secrets so that they experience a direct and personal spiritual journey and contact with the deities. Doreen Valiente was a pioneer of how witchcraft practices, beliefs and the symbology of the ‘working tools’ could be described to a wider public without breaking the oaths of secrecy that bind initiates of the Craft.

Many modern pagans celebrate significant points in the natural solar year- equinoxes and solstices and special days in between like May Day and Halloween. Witches also follow a lunar cycle holding rituals coinciding with the phases of the moon. Witchcraft rituals are held in a circle, a specially consecrated sacred space and an altar is used, much like the practices of other religions.

Salt, water, incense and candles represent the four elements of the ancient world: earth, water, air and fire. The five pointed star inside a circle (pentacle) can also represent these elements together with a fifth element (spirit). The ritual blade (called an ‘athame’) is a tool for directing and using energy as is the wand and the scourge. The other blade traditionally has white on the handle and has a more practical use, that of making the tools and equipment for rituals.

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These items held immense similarities with the tools and art of people from past civilizations. Early ancestors drew the natural world around them in art. They tried to symbolise the indivisible world of spirits, often showing the divine as a female, a great mother goddess. Her exaggerated hips and breaths emphasised her femininity and fertility:

Later they recognised the male role in natural fertility and began to show a male god as her companion with masculine features such as horns and a tail. Early cave art shows drawings of the animals that were hunted for food. Historians think this art was created in rituals, perhaps to connect with the animal spirits to make the men better hunters or to simply pay respect for the animal’s sacrifice.

Britain’s invaders and conquerors tried to impose their own beliefs, religion and culture on the population. The Romans called the people they conquered ‘pagans’, possibly from a Latin word meaning ‘country people’ and they renamed local Gods and Goddesses after their own deities. Britain became a rich mixture of different cultures and religions.

Early Christianity took its place in the mix for several hundred years before the Norman conquerors forced their own culture, including their religion, upon Britain often building churches on ancient sacred sites. As powerful leaders across Europe started wars and crusades ancient beliefs were suppressed and eventually outlawed, demonised and persecuted. For centuries people lived in fear and many were tortured and killed often on the mere suspicion of occult beliefs or practices.

But the ancient beliefs of our ancestors did not just die out under such oppression. Instead they went into hiding, becoming a living part of myth and legend, from the strange appearance of the ‘Green Man’ phenomenon in many Norman churches to the folklore and numerous customs surrounding the annual season celebrations like the coming of spring, the autumn harvest and the midwinter festivities. Many of our apparently strange customs have their roots in the simple concepts of ancient fertility religions and beliefs- examples include maypoles, wedding rings, birthday cakes and even our calendars.

Magic and witchcraft were not considered crimes in England until the first Witchcraft Act of 1542. By 1563 murder by witchcraft was punishable by execution. Growing social unease through plague, poverty and religious change along with over-zealous judges contributed to a rise in the number of witch trials. However, witchcraft and the number of witch-trails in England never reached the hysterical levels of the rest of Europe.

Later claims of millions being put to death across Europe were much confused and misunderstood, especially as they sometimes came respected historians of the day. Many (including Gerald Gardner) had no reason not to believe these numbers. Another common misconception is that witches were burned at the stake which, while true in Europe and even in Scotland, is incorrect in England where witches were most commonly hanged.

Under King James 1 and Elizabeth 1 new laws took witchcraft from the jurisdiction of the church to the courts. By the late 1600’s witch trials began to decline with increasing skepticism among both judges and clergy. The 1563 Witchcraft Act was finally repealed in 1735 when a new Act made it a crime to claim to have supernatural powers but with much reduced penalties. This act itself was not finally repealed until 1951 when it was replaced with the Fraudulent Mediums Act finally making supernatural powers only illegal if used for fraudulent means.

The exhibition didn’t just show relevance to the past, but also a relation with the physical world in the past, present and future. Magic in various forms is one of human beings’ oldest practices, from the cave painting of our ancestors through the conjuring of spirits in the middle ages to modern day spells and divination. On display at the museum, there were a few examples of what Valiente used to act out her religion. Methods include ‘scrying’ using a mirror, and Tarot cards are a popular modern tool as is the casting of stones and the use of Runes.

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A useful part of the exhibition was undoubtedly the visitors’ book, which demonstrated the length people go to to visit such attractions: people had come from Australia, Turkey and various states in the USA such as Texas, Louisiana and Arizona.

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Doreen Valiente was invited into the Craft in 1953 by Gardner, and re-wrote many of the rituals, rearranging his work more logically and setting it in context. She added her own knowledge and creativity to produce a system that made the Craft more accessible, more widely understood and allowed it to grow and spread, meaning that her ideas are still used and evolving in 21st century society.

I also manged to buy a few books that will serve as further reading into this topic.

 

20th Century Witchcraft: The religion of Wicca

When looking into the contemporary effects of the representations of witchcraft, it’s important to take into account the cultural and religious implications. Wicca, a neo-pagan religion, was debatably established in the 1940s, a surprisingly current development. Despite this, as an officially recognised religion in the UK, its got an interesting and complex history.

Margaret Murray’s 1921 landmark text, The Witch-Cult in Western Europe (1921), was largely and immediately disproved, but remains a cultural pillar for those interested in witchcraft. The book explained Murray’s hypothesis that until the 17th century there was a religion, much older than Christianity, which all over Western Europe had supporters both among ordinary people and the ruling classes. Central to the worship of this religion stood a horned god with two faces, known to the Romans as Janus or Dianus. The idea of a witch cult that until early modern times managed to survive, is now largely obsolete. Most but not all modern scholars of witchcraft generally dismiss it, agreeing that it is very unlikely that such a witch-cult really existed, or that this cult or religion came to an end because the Christian church wanted to eradicate the followers of a pagan tradition. However, it is a text which inspired a great amount of questioning in the information that had been provided about witches through history and across literature. It inspired a greater interest in the religion, which really took foundation in the 1940s, and the influence of her witch-cult theory in both religion and literature has resulted in her title of the “Grandmother of Wicca”.

The 1940s saw the foundation of Wicca by a man named Gerald Gardner. Shortly before the outbreak of war, he became acquainted with a group claiming to be witches and was initiated into the New Forest Coven at nearby Mill House. It proved to be a turning point for Gardner who, from that time, devoted himself to promoting his new-found religion. Biographer and Wiccan initiate Philip Heselton said: “He wasn’t a religious pioneer. What he did was to publicise it and write about it and he gradually became known through that and people made contact. He initiated quite a lot of people into the Wiccan culture. He felt it was important that it survived.” After the war Gardner returned with his wife to London where he wrote a number of books, the best known being Witchcraft Today. Published in 1954, it offered readers an insight into the history and practices of the witch-cult and offered the press a feeding frenzy. Heselton added: “There were headlines about lurid rites and evil black magic but, in actual fact, quite a lot of people saw through it. He got lots of letters as a result of that, which helped him enormously.”
Gardner’s theories were drawn from numerous sources, including Freemasonry, magical orders such as the Golden Dawn and fellow occultists, including Aleister Crowley.
He also formulated the Wicca calendar of eight festivals, bringing together existing festivals from different traditions. By the time of his death in 1964, Gardnerian Wicca, as it became known, had spread to the United States and beyond.

Doreen Valiente was one of the most respected English witches to have influenced the modern day Pagan movement. In her book, Where Witchcraft Lives (1962), she examines Witchcraft in Sussex, laying the foundations of the modern day Witchcraft movement. As Gerald Gardner is now commonly thought of as the ‘Father’ of contemporary Witchcraft, so Doreen is known affectionately as the ‘Mother of Modern Witchcraft’. As well as Gardnerian Wicca, the 1960s also saw the establishment of Alexandrian Wicca, the religion growing and evolving with varying denominations and covens.

The 1960s also coincided with the era of second wave feminism: Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell, shortened W.I.T.C.H., wasn’t associated with the witchcraft religion, but instead a political movement. It was the name of several related but independent feminist groups active in the United States as part of the women’s liberation movement during the late 1960s. The name W.I.T.C.H. was also sometimes expanded as “Women Inspired to Tell their Collective History,” “Women Interested in Toppling Consumer Holidays,” and many other variations to do with gender and social reform. Its members opposed the idea advocated by radical feminists that feminist women should campaign against patriarchy alone. Instead, W.I.T.C.H argued that feminists should ally with a range of left-wing causes to bring about wider social change in the United States. Various scholars have suggested that in embracing the iconography of the witch, W.I.T.C.H represented forerunners of various forms of feminist-oriented modern Paganism such as Dianic Wicca.

The 1970s also linked with second wave feminism, the denomination of Dianic Wicca becoming popular among women especially. The movement started with Zsuzsuanna Budapest in Los Angeles, witchcraft becoming popular in countries outside Great Britain. Dianic Wicca is a combination of witchcraft and feminism, Budapest considering witchcraft as every woman’s birth right. The movement took its name from Diana, the Roman goddess of the moon, the hunt and nature, and was also known to be the virgin goddess of childbirth and women. ‘Susan B Anthony Coven #1’ was the first feminist and women only Wiccan coven, linking to historical correlations between witchcraft and the independence of women through the association of a prominent social reformer and women’s suffrage movement.

This brand of Wicca attracted Starhawk, a famous Pagan writer. She took Dianic Wicca and mixed it with other elements to create the tradition of Reclaiming. It was still female centred, but included different elements i.e. Norse/ new age/ fairy tradition. Still empowering women without leaving out everyone else. Reclaiming is an organization of feminist modern witchcraft, aiming to combine the Goddess movement with political activism (in the peace and anti-nuclear movements). Reclaiming was founded in 1979, in the context of the Reclaiming Collective (1978–1997), by two Neopagan women of Jewish descent, Starhawk and Diane Baker, in order to explore and develop feminist Neopagan emancipatory rituals.

The 1970s saw the expansion of the religion and coinciding with other net-pagan beliefs: Raymond Buckland introduced Norse tradition into Wicca, bringing in Gods such as Odin and Freya into the prayer rituals. He later formed his own tradition dubbed Seax-Wica which focuses on the symbolism of Anglo-Saxon paganism.

The 1980s saw progression in the recognition of Wicca as a certified religion, 1985 being the foundation of the Lady Liberty League. This movement saw pagans working to protect the rights of witches and pagans over the US. Similarly, 1986 was the year that Wicca became an officially recognised religion in the United States, due to a practicing pagan prisoner protecting religious freedom.

The 1990s saw the impact of popular culture on the perspective of witches. Such films and television series were released as Practical Magic (1998), Charmed (1998), Sabrina the Teenage Witch (1996), Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997) and The Craft (1996). These films had huge cult followings, and they often featured the ‘girl power’ vibe of the third wave feminist movement, demonstrating the correlation between uprisings in female power and witchcraft. More on these topics will be explored in another blog post, focused on contemporary representations of witchcraft.

The 1990s also saw many technological advancements, such as the rise of the internet, where Wiccans could join online covens and social networking sites such as ‘Witchbox’. 1995 saw the first American Wiccan wedding, whilst the first wedding in the UK occurred in 2004.

In the United States, the American Religious Identification Survey has shown significant increases in the number of self-identified Wiccans, from 8,000 in 1990, to 134,000 in 2001, and 342,000 in 2008. Wiccans have also made up significant proportions of various groups within that country; for instance, Wicca is the largest non-Christian faith practised in the United States Air Force, with 1,434 airmen identifying themselves as such. However, Wiccans have encountered opposition from some politicians and Christian organisations including former president of the United States George W. Bush, who stated that he did not believe Wicca to be a religion.

The concept of witchcraft and the belief in its existence have existed throughout recorded history. They have been present or central at various times, and in many diverse forms, among cultures and religions worldwide, including both “primitive” and “highly advanced” cultures, and continue to have an important role in many cultures today. Whilst I, personally, am not a member of such a religion, it’s interesting to look at the recognition of witchcraft as a certified religion today; whilst some have distanced themselves from the idea of demonic and satanic correlations, others (both men and women) have found the idea of witches appealing, tens of thousands of people identifying as a witch in the UK alone.

Shakespearean Witchcraft

IN PROGRESS

Becoming king in 1603, James I Brought to England and Scotland continental explanations of witchcraft. His goal was to divert suspicion away from male homosociality among the elite, and focus fear on female communities and large gatherings of women. He thought they threatened his political power so he laid the foundation for witchcraft and occultism policies, especially in Scotland. The point was that a widespread belief in the conspiracy of witches and a witches’ Sabbath with the devil deprived women of political influence. Occult power was supposedly a womanly trait because women were weaker and more susceptible to the devil.

In Heidi Breuer’s book, Gendering Magic in Medieval and Early Modern England, she focuses on the 15th and 16th century works of Malory, Shakespeare and Spenser. She argues that wicked female magical practitioners are more numerous and more dangerous than before. The magic of both men and women is more explicitly associated with illusion, deception and demons, reflecting the increasing tendency in intellectual culture to see all magic as demonic. Nevertheless, the women are portrayed as more villainous than the men. Breuer suggests that this reflects a backlash against women’s increased economic opportunities from the mid-15th century onwards, which is plausible, although again unlikely to be the only explanation. The individual analyses of the literary works are interesting and persuasive, and in Malory’s case the results are particularly striking. Malory died in 1471, long before the new stereotype of the devil-worshipping witch was leading to trials in England, but still he emphasizes the demonic nature of both male and female magic. The implications of this for the way in which magic was perceived in 15th-century England are intriguing, suggesting that despite the absence of trials, attitudes were changing. I wondered, however, if more could be made of the demonization of all forms of magic in these stories: male magicians may be on average less villainous than female ones, but the anxiety that these literary works project about all forms of magic is significant. I was also less convinced by some of the contextualization here. It seems odd, although not impossible, that the reaction to a narrowing of women’s economic opportunities in the second half of the 15th century should be an intensified version of the reaction to their earlier expansion: yet more demonization of childless women. Other forces at work may include the way that magical practitioners were perceived more generally in the 15th and 16th centuries. Here the pattern is in some ways similar to what Breuer has found: the rise of the image of the devil-worshipping and usually female witch reflected anxieties about all forms of magic, but as in literature, learned male magical practitioners tended to receive less severe condemnation than women accused of magic.

Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe and The Canterbury Tales

In the early modern period, witchcraft was not merely viewed as a belief and religion, but as a central feature of societal life.

Witchcraft in Europe between 500-1750 was believed to be a combination of sorcery and heresy. While sorcery attempts to produce negative supernatural effects through formulas and rituals, heresy is the Christian contribution to witchcraft in which an individual makes a pact with the Devil. In addition, heresy denies witches the recognition of important Christian values such as baptism, salvation, Christ and sacraments.

In Early Modern European tradition, witches were stereotypically, though not exclusively, women. European pagan belief in witchcraft was associated with the goddess Diana and dismissed as “diabolical fantasies” by medieval Christian authors. The familiar witch of folklore and popular superstition is a combination of numerous influences. The characterization of the witch as an evil magic user developed over time. Most witchcraft historians now agree that popular and learned notions of witchcraft informed each other at various times and in different ways. Some notions of witchcraft that demonologists cited from classical Greek and Roman literature were themselves the product of learned commentaries on popular beliefs, such as the characteristics of the mythological witch figures Diana and Hecate, the metamorphoses of witches in the works of Ovid and Apuleius, and the description of bacchanalian orgies in ancient times that contributed to the origin of the idea of the witches’ Sabbath. The belief of some demonologists and judges that witches could fly provides one of the best examples of the interaction between popular beliefs, some of which had a history stretching back into ancient and medieval times, and demonological ideas anchored in scholastic theology regarding the power of the devil to move people and objects through the air. Early converts to Christianity looked to Christian clergy to work magic more effectively than the old methods under Roman paganism, and Christianity provided a methodology involving saints and relics, similar to the gods and amulets of the Pagan world. As Christianity became the dominant religion in Europe, its concern with magic lessened.

The Protestant Christian explanation for witchcraft, such as those typified in the confessions of the Pendle witches, commonly involves a diabolical pact or at least an appeal to the intervention of the spirits of evil. The witches or wizards engaged in such practices were alleged to reject Jesus and the sacraments; observe “the witches’ sabbath” (performing infernal rites that often parodied the Mass or other sacraments of the Church); pay Divine honour to the Prince of Darkness; and, in return, receive from him preternatural powers. It was a folkloric belief that a Devil’s Mark, like the brand on cattle, was placed upon a witch’s skin by the devil to signify that this pact had been made. Witches were most often characterized as women. Witches disrupted the societal institutions, and more specifically, marriage. It was believed that a witch often joined a pact with the devil to gain powers to deal with infertility, immense fear for her children’s well-being, or revenge against a lover. They were also depicted as lustful and perverted, and it was thought that they copulated with the devil at the Sabbath.
The Church and European society were not always so zealous in hunting witches or blaming them for misfortunes. Saint Boniface declared in the 8th century that belief in the existence of witches was un-Christian. The emperor Charlemagne decreed that the burning of supposed witches was a pagan custom that would be punished by the death penalty. In 820 the Bishop of Lyon and others repudiated the belief that witches could make bad weather, fly in the night, and change their shape. This denial was accepted into Canon law until it was reversed in later centuries as the witch-hunt gained force. Other rulers such as King Coloman of Hungary declared that witch-hunts should cease because witches (more specifically, strigas) do not exist.

The Church did not invent the idea of witchcraft as a potentially harmful force whose practitioners should be put to death. This idea is commonplace in pre-Christian religions. According to the scholar Max Dashu, the concept of medieval witchcraft contained many of its elements even before the emergence of Christianity. These can be found in Bacchanalias, especially in the time when they were led by priestess Paculla Annia (188BC–186BC).

Powers typically attributed to European witches include turning food poisonous or inedible, flying on broomsticks or pitchforks, casting spells, cursing people, making livestock ill and crops fail, and creating fear and local chaos.
However, even at a later date, not all witches were assumed to be harmful users of the craft. In England, the provision of this curative magic was the job of a witch doctor, also known as a cunning man, white witch, or wise man. The term “witch doctor” was in use in England before it came to be associated with Africa. Toad doctors were also credited with the ability to undo evil witchcraft. (Other folk magicians had their own purviews. Girdle-measurers specialised in diagnosing ailments caused by fairies, while magical cures for more mundane ailments, such as burns or toothache, could be had from charmers.)
In the north of England, the superstition lingers to an almost inconceivable extent.
Historians Keith Thomas and his student Alan Brock MacFarlane study witchcraft by combining historical research with concepts drawn from anthropology. They argued that English witchcraft, like African witchcraft, was endemic rather than epidemic. Older women were the favourite targets because they were marginal, dependent members of the community and therefore more likely to arouse feelings of both hostility and guilt, and less likely to have defenders of importance inside the community. Witchcraft accusations were the village’s reaction to the breakdown of its internal community, coupled with the emergence of a newer set of values that was generating psychic stress.

Although the Inquisition began in the late Medieval Period, it was during the Early Modern period that the witch hunt in Europe began in earnest, beginning with the early witch trials in the 15th Century. In England, for example, the first Act of Parliament directed specifically against witchcraft was the act “De hæretico comburendo”, passed at the instigation of Archbishop Thomas Arundel in 1401. It specifically named witchcraft or sorcery as a species of heresy, and provided that, unless the accused witches abjured these beliefs, they were to be burnt at the stake. Further and broader Witchcraft Acts were passed by Queen Elizabeth I in 1563 and by King James I in 1604, making witchcraft a felony, and removing the accused witches from the jurisdiction of the ecclesiastical courts to the courts of common law.

Looking at works written during the medieval period, Chaucer’s, ‘The Canterbury Tales’ remains one of the most iconic works of the period, perhaps due to its religious significance, wide variety of interpretation and comic value evidenced such tales as, The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale.

As Melanie Bussiere wrote in her essay, Angelic Demons: Witchcraft and Sorcery in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, “When Glinda the Witch of the North first encounters Dorothy Gale, she asks her, ‘Are you a good witch, or a bad witch?'” Bussiere suggests that the alignment of a character to good or evil could be determined by the type of sorcery or witchcraft they employed within the Middle Ages. As Christianity increased its foothold in the British Isles, the use of sorcery in order to find love, save crops, ensure stability or see the future was increasingly condemned as heresy and could be punished by harsher and harsher standards. A practicing witch or sorcerer who was caught could find him or herself burnt at the stake for heresy. Geoffrey Chaucer uses this concept while writing his Canterbury Tales. Characters qualified as “good magic users would more than likely be using different types of nature magic. Characters qualified as “evil” or dangerous would be using forms of magic requiring education or prior knowledge.
Chaucer’s England would see any acts of sorcery inherently linked to demonic allegiance. The necromancer, alchemist, witch or sorcerer would face dire consequences if convicted of heresy. As time progressed, all acts of magical influence were lumped under the definition of “witchcraft,” and all were seen as inherently evil, regardless of function or intention. In “From Sorcery to Witchcraft,” Michael D. Bailey says the “heightened clerical concern over harmful sorcery and changing understandings of how magic operated combined with other factors to push authorities slowly but inexorably into accepting, defining, and promulgating the full horrors of witchcraft”. The Church’s position on any use of magic made it heretical, as it was only through the supplication of the Devil that magic could be worked.

The Wife of Bath tells a tale of a young knight who rapes a beautiful young maiden. The people are repulsed by the knight’s behaviour, and demand justice. Although the law demands that the knight be beheaded, the queen begs the king to be allowed to determine the knight’s fate. The queen then gives the knight a year to discover what women most desire. The knight comes across some beautiful maidens dancing in a forest:

“In al this care, under a forest side,
Wher as he saugh upon a daunce go
Of lades foure and twenty, and yet mo;
Toward the whiche daubce he drow ful yerne,
In hope that som wisdom sholde he lerne.
But certainly, er he cam fully there,
Vanished was this duance, he niste where.
No creature saugh he that bar lyf,
Save on the grene he saugh sittinge a wyf;
A fouler wight ther no man devise.
Again the knight this olde wyf gan rise”

The knight explains his quest to an old woman, who transforms from a group of 24 young maidens as an emphasis of the idea that to be ugly is to be wise. He finds the magic woman in a forest which is a significant setting that demonstrates woman’s correlation with nature. Women are also simultaneously presented as transient, malleable and exploiters of male sexuality: the woman can appear beautiful, but the man will only listen to her when she contorts her appearance. Either way, she is in control of her body, a theme that is present throughout the Wife’s Prologue and Tale. This links to Keith Thomas’ ideology that older, lone women were the most favoured targets of witch representations, because they were marginal, dependent members of the community who hadn’t married; they either had something wrong with them, or they couldn’t be ‘controlled’ by a man. Likewise, The Wife of Bath contradicts the Medieval Church’s disproval of sex; she won’t apologise and try to suppress what she views as ‘natural’. Instead she takes this word as her defence. The text is full of references to her sexual nature (‘chambre of Venus from a good felawe), and the vagina is spoken of enthusiastically by the Wife. Female sexuality isn’t presented as sinful, the only sinful act presented in the text being the rape committed by the knight in the tale. This all-consuming ‘desire’ for sex is therefore found not in a woman, as the medieval texts suggested, but in a man.
Throughout the Wife’s tale, traditional values and headships such as leadership and supremacy, are reversed or overthrown. At the beginning of the tale, King Arthur submits to the rule of Guinevere (thus abandoning both his headship of the state and his headship of the family), the ladies of the court, instead of the men, serve as justices and the authority of books and scriptures gives way to experience. Furthermore, the knight, a rapist who has violated the sanctity of a young girl’s virginity, is redeemed by another woman. Finally, in the choice the old woman offers the knight, both choices are intolerable. Thus, when he lets her make the decision, he has abandoned the male’s sovereignty in favour of the woman’s rule, thus turning the medieval world-picture “up-so-doun.”

In the Wife’s Prologue, she offers readers a complex portrait of a medieval woman. On one hand, the Wife of Bath is shameless about her sexual exploits and the way she uses sexual power to obtain what she wishes. On the other hand, by doing exactly these things she is confirming negative stereotypes about women and proving that women are manipulative and deceitful. Even though her actions might at first seem to be rebellion against the male-dominated society in The Canterbury Tales, and more generally, the medieval period for women, there is very little that she does that is truly revolutionary or empowering for women of her time.

Medieval female transformation is represented by the ‘loathly lady’ stories (a woman cursed with ugliness is freed by a knight who agrees to marry her and to give her control over her own appearance) and male transformation by the ‘churlish knight’ (an ugly and unchivalrous knight is transformed by the hero’s unfailing courtesy). In both of these kinds of tale, magic can deceive the senses, resulting in an appearance that does not reflect reality. These gendered representations are rather different magical beings from those of 12th-century romance. In most, although not all, cases, they are the victims of magic rather than the users of it. Many of the romances blame the lady or knight’s transformation on a magic-wielding villain, often a woman. This, Heidi Breuer argues (in Gendering Magic in Medieval and Early Modern England), reflects the growing economic opportunities open to women in this period, especially before marriage or in widowhood. The wicked women of these romances are women who are not mothers themselves, and they reflect the anxiety generated by the new economic possibilities for single women and widows.

In my opinion, Chaucer presents the idea of the supernatural and femininity as something which is natural. While there is a definite argument for the author taking an anti-feminist stance on a feminist character, this only emphasises the character’s glorious contradictions, imperfections and societal internalization of misogynist thought. This type of character, as well as the magic woman who teaches the knight respect and kindness towards women, is strikingly similar to roles written in the 20th and 21st century, where feminism became a cultural and political movement. The witch therefore, while demonized by early modern society, has still remained an icon on independence, femininity and strength.

References:

Chaucer The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale

Michael Carosone Geoffrey Chaucer: Feminist Or Not?

Donald C. Baker Witchcraft in the Dispute between Chaucer’s Friar and Summoner

Wilma Karssen Witchcraft in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Friar’s Tale

Heidi Breuer Gendering Magic in Medieval and Early Modern England