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.


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


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