Witches and the Devil in Early Modern Visual Cultures: Constructions of the Demonic Other

Abstract

Throughout the early modern period, many Europeans believed in the reality of witchcraft. Those accused of being diabolic witches were thought to have signed a pact with Satan, to worship him, attend Sabbaths, and devise ways to harm humans through maleficia. Witches functioned as an inversion of Christian society, whereby they and their actions were emphasized as being ‘other’, while simultaneously reinforcing the societal norms they revoked. This article investigates representations of devils and witches, and the visual renderings of witchcraft belief, all of which helped construct their otherness. The paper will explore depictions of witches in early modern visual cultures by examining sixteenth- and seventeenth-century fine art, engravings, and woodcuts.

Keywords: Early Modern, witchcraft, supernatural, art, visual cultures, print, gender

Author Biography

Scott Eaton is an independent scholar who is currently researching the history of tea for the social heritage project You, Me and Tea. His research interests include early modern witchcraft, religion, gender, art, and print cultures. Scott’s monograph on a seventeenth-century witch-finder John Stearne’s Confirmation and Discovery of Witchcraft: text, context and afterlife was published by Routledge last year. 

 

Witches and the Devil in Early Modern Visual Cultures: Constructions of the Demonic Other

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Throughout the Early Modern period, an estimated 90,000 people were prosecuted for witchcraft in Europe, about 50,000 of whom were executed.[1] In many witchcraft narratives and confessions, the Devil played a major role as he was believed to form a pact with witches, giving them powers in return for their soul. At the witches’ sabbath, the Devil was purported to be the figurehead, where witches allegedly gathered to have sex with and to worship him. The intrinsic connection between belief in the Devil, heresy, magic and witches led to the construction of the diabolic witch.[2] By absorbing and developing witch-theory in Europe, art became a way of engaging with these ideas and circulating them more widely.

This article explores the depictions of witches and devils in Early Modern European visual cultures, which helped to construct an image of witches as the ‘other’, as the enemy within.

It discusses art concerning witches’ sabbaths, milk and weather magic, maleficia, the sexual threat of witches and English woodcuts which conveyed the otherness of the witch’s body and familiar spirits. The commonality of the visuals chosen are their depictions of the demonic as an inversion of society and pervasive threat to Christendom.

 

 Visuals of the dairy-witch and Tempestarii

A fear concerning witchcraft was the impact that magic could have on the economy and targeted individuals. Early modern Europe was mostly comprised of agrarian communities where crops, livestock and dairy were very valuable commodities – disruption to these could spell disaster for the owner. Illustrations of dairy-stealing witches emerged in woodcuts such as those accompanying the 1486 edition of Hans Vintler’s Buch der Tugend (originally written in 1411 and modelled on an early fourteenth-century tract, Tommaso’s Fiori di Virtù) and Johann Geiler’s Die Emeis (1517) (Fig. 1). These images were also depicted on wall paintings, such as those by Albertus Pictor (c.1490) in Söderby-Karl, Uppland, Sweden, or the murals in Vejlby kirke, Århus (1492), and Tuse kirke in Holbæk (c.1460), Denmark.[3] Below, the image of dairy-stealing (Fig. 1) shows the witch using axe magic to pilfer milk from the cow, into her pail – hence the emaciated cow in the background. The witch is syphoning the milk to profit, while the victim and their livestock suffer directly from the effects of the magic, and indirectly from its economic impact. Demonic elements are also visible in the image’s iconography, from the gathering storm of destruction, the smoking cauldron and the group of three female witches gathered to help enact the magic. In a fairly benign looking village scene, the image depicts fears surrounding dairy produce – namely that it can inexplicably spoil or disappear because of demonic witches’ direct meddling.

Figure 1: Witch Stealing Milk from a Neighbour’s Cow. Wellcome Collection, CC BY.

A more sinister ‘cumulative concept of witchcraft’ and demonology began to form in the 1400s, culminating at the end of the century. To many of the elite, demons were no longer considered to be external enemies that could be easily be defeated through trickery, magic or piety, but were extremely powerful supernatural agents that invaded every part of daily life.[4] Some medieval scholars believed that demons and Satan could take human and animal form, make pacts with humans, influence thoughts and emotions, have sexual intercourse with humans and even produce offspring.[5] These beliefs helped inform and create early modern art depicting the demonic and the witch as the enemy.

Part of the vast repertoire of magic attributed to witches was weather magic. In visual cultures Tempestarii were portrayed as the enemy of society by causing terrible weather which could cause damage to or devastate crops, destroy buildings and ships. Ulrich Molitor’s popular text, De Lamiis et Pythonicis Mulieribus (1489), the first illustrated witchcraft treatise, showed witches creating weather magic. In a woodcut two witches stand beside a flaming cauldron into which they cast a serpent and a rooster as sacrifices to enact the weather magic, as depicted by the clouds overhead (Fig. 4). The image was simplistic but influential in forming the iconography of witchcraft, especially for Tempestarii. Pieter Bruegel the Elder imitated these concepts and deployed them in a much more intricate manner. His engraving, St James and the Magician Hermogenes (1565) (Fig. 2) depicts a cognate scene, while including evidence of ritualistic sorcery, and crafting his demons and strange hybrids in the style of Hieronymus Bosch.[6] Bruegel’s engraving, loosely based off ‘The Golden Legend’, is loaded with demonic iconography. In the underground chamber of the image, demons are about to dismember a man, overseen by the Devil, and in the middle of the image we can see a witch reading a grimoire and shaking a sieve to divine or enact weather magic. She is aided by the other boiling cauldrons and flying witches scattered throughout the picture. Following the line of clouds, in the top right a witch riding a goat is amidst of the storm which has caused ships to sink and a church steeple to collapse, and, to the left, we see the outline of livestock being killed by the weather. The visuals clearly show demons and witches using weather magic to target and destroy individuals, even to level church buildings, representing witches as an enemy of Christendom.

Figure 2: After Pieter Bruegel the Elder, St. James and the Magician Hermogenes (1565). Public domain.

Jacques de Gheyn II’s Preparation for the Witches’ Sabbath (c.1610) (Fig. 3) also uses the motif of the witch with a cauldron to produce huge plumes of smoke which texture the engraving’s background. Demons and witches abound in the engraving: at the bottom of the image three witches are gathered around a vase with a grimoire to create a potion, while the witches to the right open a cauldron, unleashing the clouds and smoke which envelope the sky. The square topped volcano that is violently erupting serves to remind viewers of the natural, destructive powers that witches command, such as their purported ability to control weather – as evidenced by the witches preparing to hurl thunderbolts from the storm clouds.[7] In the background we can see a further indication of this, as a man and his livestock are crossing a river on a raft and an outline of a city is depicted – both of these are likely to be the target of the diabolic witchery presented in the foreground. The Witches’ Sabbath is thus showing demonic forces preparing to lay siege to the Christian settlement, again locating witches as an enemy.

Figure 3: Designed by Jacques de Gheyn II, Preparation for the Witches’ Sabbath (c.1610). Public domain.

In a similar vein, Jan van de Velde II’s Heks/Sorceress (1626) positions witchcraft on the outskirts of the mundane, taking place under the cover of night. The engraving shows the witch throwing a powder into the cauldron for a magic ritual (signified by the circle, grimoire and skull), the smoke and fire belching out from the force of the wind produced and melding with the rest of the engraving. In front of the sorceress are an array of strange demons, perhaps signifying sins and vices.[8] Crucially, in the bottom right of the image we can see a house either belonging to the witch or a villager, locating witchcraft in the domestic sphere and emphasising the threat on daily life that demonic witchcraft posed.[9]

Witches, demons, nudity, death, and weather magic are the familiar themes depicted in the art explored. The civilians in the background of the visuals remind viewers of the close proximity and the imminent threat of witchcraft to ordinary Christians.

 

Witches, power and sexuality

The concept of diabolic witchcraft gave impetus to its artistic depictions in woodcuts, engravings and paintings, visually showing the sexual threat of witchcraft, which evolved with other themes such as Tempestarii. Simplistic woodcuts in Ulrich Molitor’s De Lamiis (1489) (Fig. 4) showed key witchcraft iconography, representing it as a threat, and including themes like weather magic, witches flying on pitchforks, and a woman embracing a bestial devil. The latter positioned devils as hybrid creatures, depicting their bestiality and immorality, and as a threat to monogamy since the woman’s head covering in the image indicates that she has married.[10] Civilisation is again represented in the background, at the very top of the woodcut.

Figure 4: Ulrich Molitor, De lamiis et pythonicis mulieribus (1489). Public domain.

In early modern intellectual thought, women were considered ‘the weaker vessel’ and men were believed to have a divinely sanctioned rule over them. Men were to fulfil this commandment by governing women through marriage and by ruling their households, as advised in conduct books such as William Gouge’s popular Of Domesticall Duties (1622).[11] As illustrated through Molitor, Devils could prey on women luring them to adultery, disorder and witchcraft, therefore threatening to destabilise the very nucleus of social order – the household.

But women were not helpless: witches could tempt men through magic and the sexuality of their bodies, as witches were thought to be lustful and woman to have sexual capital. For example, Hans Baldung Grien’s painting The Weather Witches (1523) (Fig. 5) combines the sexual element of witches with Tempestarii to identify the naked female bodies as a source of disorder. The swelling clouds indicate the witches’ power and destruction and their windswept hair signifies the lust of the women, as does the witch’s crossed-legged stance – a visual sign of immorality. In the lower tier of the image we see a shrouded goat symbolising the Devil and sexuality, and a small demon is trapped in the flask (stopped by the fruit of original sin) held by the woman on the right.[12] As Charles Zika noted, the iconography, the strong assertive poses of these women and the eroticism of their bodies, convey the centrality of sexual desire and seduction to this image of witchcraft.[13] It shows that witchcraft was demonic in origin but also had power from the sexuality of women, which gave the ‘weaker sex’ power over men.

Figure 5: Hans Baldung Grien, The Weather Witches (1523). Public domain.

Albrecht Dürer was another artist who encoded these concepts of demonic witchcraft in art, helping solidify the sexualised witch-figure. His engraving The Four Witches (1497) (Fig. 6) makes witches more inconspicuous, locating them within society and thus more threatening. The image shows four young, naked women standing together in a room, possibly a bathhouse. At first glance it may seem unassuming but Dürer included cues for his audience to render its diabolic meaning unmistakable: a sinister aspect is added by the inclusion of the Devil emerging from the flames of hell in the bottom left of the image, and the skull and bones on the floor. The rather cryptic letters ‘O.G.H’ written in a sphere above the witches’ heads could mean ‘O Gotte hüte’(Oh God protect us [from the witches]). Additionally, the nudity of the women functioned as a contemporary cultural cipher of witchcraft as a sexual transgression. The positioning of their hands indicates sexual intimacy with each other, while the witches’ beauty, body and desirability represent a threat to the viewer, to men, and the moral and social order. In the image, the women are empowered as witches, giving them magical influence over men and nature, but the image reasserts male authority, by constructing an invisible prison positioning the witches between the demon’s gaze from behind and the male viewer’s gaze from the front. Dürer places male viewers on the precipice of discovering the clandestine witches, just as the demon appears and male authority is challenged.[14] Dürer’s chiaroscuro woodcut, Witches’ Sabbath (1510) conveys similar messages, showing the motif of a young woman astride a goat at the top of the woodcut, symbolising lust, and also parodying the male pastime of horse riding. The bottom half of the image portrays hag-like witches literally cooking up devilry, including weather magic and a demonic ritual. The sexual element so common in witchcraft iconography is primarily evidenced here through the witches’ nudity and the phallic imagery on the left of the woodcut – witches have reclaimed gender power by stealing penises and dangling them over a wooden stick – thus showing how witches threatened Christianity, gender and established order.[15]

Figure 6: Albrecht Dürer, Four Witches (1497). Public domain.

In early modernity, it was believed that diabolic witchcraft was a complete inversion of established social norms. Women would eschew God, attend Sabbaths to worship the Devil, take part in infanticide and orgies and plan direct acts of maleficia, weather magic or the bewitching of men. The actions, sexual capital and demonic allegiance of witches illustrated the debilitating effects diabolism could have on Christian society.[16] Some images in this paper showed the witches brewing malefic magic just outside of normal society, on the peripheries, while some show that the witches were the ‘other’, infiltrating society and therefore a serious threat operating from within.

 

Enemy Within: English Witchcraft Pamphlets

The close proximity, and threat, of witches can be shown through the visual cultures of English witchcraft pamphlets, as they described actors in localised trials. These witches were also thought to have created a pact with the devil, carried out maleficia and had familiars, all while living amongst ordinary people and subverting norms. Visually, in woodcuts this ‘enemy within’ was often portrayed as an old dishevelled woman, an evil hag with wrinkled skin, a long nose, a facial protrusion, and a cat for a pet – much like our witch stereotype. In early modern print cultures, image and text suggested that the deformed exterior of the witch’s body was a mirror for the twisted interior of the mind. In this sense, the body was rendered as a readable text that betrayed the inner thoughts and behaviours of the individual, painting her as the enemy.[17] This practice of evaluating an individual’s inner condition based on their outer appearance, stemmed from a long tradition of physiognomy, ‘the study of the features of the face, or of the form of the body generally, as being supposedly indicative of character; the art of judging character from such study’.[18] This is more tangible if we examine some witches portrayed in English witchcraft pamphlets. In 1645 Elizabeth Clarke was depicted as a one-legged elderly widow and Joan Flower, in 1619, was portrayed as an old spinster, partially disabled and ‘full of wrath’.[19] A Northampton witch was labelled as ‘monstrous and hideous’ in her appearance and, likewise, in 1613, Elizabeth Device was described as an ‘odious witch…her left eye, standing lower than the other…so strangely deformed’, who outrageously cursed ‘according to her accustomed manner’. Thomas Potts commented that for women with these attributes, their fates were often sealed in court for ‘the wrinkles of an old wives face is good evidence to a jurie against a witch’.[20]  The descriptions match the visual depictions of the alleged witches, and this may have had basis in reality, affecting the lived experience of the women: Elizabeth Clarke’s appearance and lameness were symptomatic of her dealings with devils and witchcraft, while Joan Flower’s and Elizabeth Device’s aesthetics and demeanour signified the sinfulness of their souls (Fig. 7). Their exterior appearance could be corroborative evidence of their sins and demonic pact with the Devil. Indeed, Egeon Askew questioned in 1605 that if their ‘outward face is so deformed…How much more within the breast lies there a more terrible countenance, a more cruell aspect, a more ugly spirit, and a more deformed face?’.[21] The connection between the aesthetics of a person and their mental or spiritual condition was not idiosyncratic in early modern England, but was an element of popular culture which upheld the stereotypical witch-figure as a conceptually potent enemy.

Figure 7: Anon., Wonderful Discoverie of the Witchcrafts of Margaret and Phillip Flower (London, 1619). Public domain.

Additional visual indications of witches’ otherness in woodcuts were their close relationships with their familiars (Fig. 8). These were personal demons who lived with the witch and enacted her harmful magic and were commonly deformed. References to these creatures were prevalent in English witchcraft literature. Taking Clarke again as an example, she confessed to having a sexual relationship with the Devil and of having familiars, which assumed the role of surrogate children. Indeed, some alleged witches specifically called their familiars their children and they took child-like forms: Elizabeth Hubbard said ‘three things came to her in the likeness of Children, which asked her whispering to deny God, Christ, and all his workes’, and Alice Wright confessed to having two familiars in the shape of boys, one of which ‘spoke to her with a great whorce voyce, as if he had been griev’d’.[22] It was believed that familiars suckled blood from supernumerary teats on the witch’s body (resembling a nipple, mole, pimple, wart or keloid) in order to renew the diabolic pact, the body thus marred by a demonic protuberance. Charlotte-Rose Millar has argued that these women conceptualised familiars as surrogate children because they wanted dependent children yet could not have any.[23] As a result, feeding demonic child-like familiars blood, rather than milk, styled the witch as an anti-mother: the dynamic was an inversion of breast feeding and a parody of English society’s ideal of the ‘good mother’ figure –  a pious woman who was a good wife, mother and manager of her nuclear family within a patriarchy-based household.[24] The witch-figure symbolised the harmful, selfish anti-mother in league with the Devil, a neighbour who was sustaining and nurturing demons within the household and local parish – a dangerous enemy within.[25]

Another conceptual layer within the demonic witch-familiar dynamic was the deformity of the animal familiar akin to the ugliness and crookedness of the stereotypical witch, both aesthetics visually signifying evil. It was posited that demonic spirits could not mirror God’s perfect creation hence their deformity, as seen through the hybridity of the animal familiars in the woodcuts of printed pamphlets. Despite this, by interacting with and attacking humans, animal-familiars were able to subvert God’s natural order. Early modernity inherited the medieval concept of the Great Chain of Being, which stated that God’s law, as recorded in Genesis 1.28, gave humans control over the animal kingdom and placed animals on a lower level of creation.[26] By using animal familiars to harm humans, witches helped to directly breach God’s natural order and destabilise society. The dynamic between witches and animal familiars also signified the corruption of the witch’s soul, much like the witch’s body. Familiars fed from witches and were the conduits through which magic was enacted at the witch’s behest: these deformed creatures were therefore an extension of the witch and represented her sinful thoughts and desires, to kill and harm.[27] With the stereotypical English witch-figure, her outward appearance corresponded to the twisted interior of her mind, which was mirrored and reflected by the deformed animal familiars enacting the witch’s own thoughts and desires.

The stereotypical depiction of an aged widow or spinster who sustained familiar spirits was construed as an anti-mother figure, which sustained demons with blood outside of wedlock, instead of breastfeeding and caring for a child within a nuclear family and patriarchy-based household. A lustful woman living independently was seen as inherently disorderly; moreover, the witch was nourishing demons and causing harm to locals though magic, all while operating outside of male supervision. The witch and familiars symbolised an inverted family and natural order, and her appearance confirmed the demonic nature of the witch. The idea of witchcraft made the authorities anxious as witches operated outside of the systems which maintained social order, namely patriarchy, the household, marriage, and the Church.[28] This visual construction of the archetypical witch positioned her in opposition to traditional societal norms and ideas of aesthetics, rendering the witch as a localised icon of evil and as a cipher for numerous cultural concerns in the early modern period.

Figure 8: Matthew Hopkins, The discovery of witches (London, 1647). Public domain.

 

Conclusion

Throughout the early modern period, European visual cultures echoed contemporary concerns about witches and devils, whether in fine art or print. Witches’ relationship with the demonic, their harmful magic, and sexuality endangered established social norms. Witches’ actions and aesthetics portrayed in the selected European visuals construed them as an inversion of conventional social, moral, gender and natural order, and as a dangerous enemy threatening society. Visual constructions of witch- and devil-figures were fluid and reflected contemporary cultural concerns, and highlighted the witch’s ability to subvert and challenge various aspects of order. Above all, the threat demonic forces posed to Christendom was emphasised, witches being visually portrayed as a dangerous enemy within and as the demonic other.

 

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Notes

[1] This article is based on a paper given at the conference Enemies in the Early Modern World 1453-1789: Conflict, Culture and Control, University of Edinburgh, March 2021.

[2] B. Levack, The Witch-Hunt in Early Modern Europe (3rd edn, Harlow, 2006), pp. 8-10; J. Sharpe, Instruments of Darkness: Witchcraft in Early Modern England (Philadelphia, 1997).

[3] C. Zika, The Appearance of Witchcraft: Print and Visual Culture in Sixteenth-Century Europe (London, 2007), pp. 42-51, 242; National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen, “Vejlby Kirke, Risskov, Århus Amt” (1976), 1466, 1490, accessed April 10, 2021, http://danmarkskirker.natmus.dk/aarhus/vejlby-kirke/; S. Mitchell, Witchcraft and Magic in the Nordic Middle Ages (Philadelphia, 2011), pp. 138-40, 182-3. Remarkably, Mitchell notes that there are approximately sixty churches with extant murals depicting the dairy stealing witch in northern Europe: forty in Sweden, four in Finland, sixteen in Denmark and three in northern Germany (p. 140).

[4] Levack, The Witch-Hunt, pp. 30-73; N. Cohn, Europe’s Inner Demons: the Demonization of Christians in Medieval Christendom (2nd edn, London, 1993), pp. 17-34; R. Muchembled, A History of the Devil From the Middle Ages to the Present (Cornwall, 2003), pp. 9-34; also see, C. Saunders, Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romances (Cambridge, 2010), pp. 59-86.

[5] Muchembled, A History of the Devil, pp. 9-34, 108-11; V. Carr, ‘The Witch’s Animal Familiar in Early Modern Southern England’ (PhD diss, University of Bristol, 2017), p. 79; J. Russell, Witchcraft in the Middle Ages (London,1972), pp. 187-8.

[6] D. Petherbridge, Witches & Wicked Bodies (Edinburgh, 2018), p. 43; Zika, The Appearance of Witchcraft, pp. 162-73.

[7] Petherbridge, Witches & Wicked Bodies, pp. 58-9; C. Swan, ‘The “Preparation for the Sabbath” by Jacques De Gheyn II: The Issue of Inversion’, Print Quarterly, 16, no. 4 (1999), pp. 327-339. Linda Hults noted that de Gheyn was a Dutch ‘scientist’ and artist, and that his engravings rendered witchcraft as an ‘inversion of true science’; L. Hults, The Witch as Muse: Art, Gender, and Power in Early Modern Europe (Philadelphia, 2005), pp. 160-3; Davidson argues that de Gheyn was obviously very familiar with the literature of witchcraft, especially Reginald Scot’s publication, but that his personal beliefs about the topic remain obscure; J. Davidson, The Witch in Northern European Art, 1470-1750 (Freren, 1987), pp. 57-64.

[8] Petherbridge, Witches & Wicked Bodies, p.108.

[9] For witchcraft and the domestic sphere see; L. Roper, Oedipus and the Devil: Witchcraft, Sexuality and Religion in Early Modern Europe (London, 1994, reprinted 2005), pp. 200-27; D. Willis, Malevolent Nurture: Witch-Hunting and Maternal Power in Early Modern England (Ithaca, 1995); J. Durrant, Witchcraft, Gender and Society in Early Modern Germany (Leiden, 2009), pp. 197-8, 251-4; D. Purkiss, The Witch in History: Early Modern and Twentieth-Century Representations (London, 1996, reprinted 2005); F. Dolan, Dangerous Familiars: Representations of Domestic Crime in England, 1500–1700 (London, 1994), pp. 169-236.

[10] Davidson, The Witch, pp. 16-7; Zika, The Appearance of Witchcraft, pp. 17-27.

[11] J. Eales, Women in Early Modern England, 1500–1700 (London, 1998), p. 4; N. Z. Davis, Society and Culture in Early Modern France (Stanford, 1975), pp. 126–8; A. Fraser, The Weaker Vessel: Women’s Lot in Seventeenth-Century England (London, 1985), pp. 1–6; J. Stearne, A Confirmation and Discovery of Witchcraft (London, 1648), p. 11; R. Bernard, A Guide to Grand-Jury Men (London, 1627), pp. 87–90; James VI and I, Daemonologie (Edinburgh, 1597), p. 44; W. Gouge, Of Domesticall Duties (London, 1622).

[12] Hults, The Witch, pp. 98-9; Zika, The Appearance of Witchcraft, pp. 84-5. In learned circles it was thought that witches could not influence weather themselves, but only through the aid of a demon and God’s permission – the demon in the flask reflects this idea; Davidson, The Witch, pp. 25-6.

[13] Zika, The Appearance of Witchcraft, pp. 84-5.

[14] Petherbridge, Witches & Wicked Bodies, p. 22; Zika, The Appearance of Witchcraft, p. 87; Davidson, The Witch, p. 18; Hults, The Witch, pp. 64-73. For an alternative reading see, M. Sullivan, ‘The Witches of Dürer and Hans Baldung Grien’, Renaissance Quarterly, 53, no. 2 (2000), pp. 333-401.

[15] Davidson, The Witch, pp. 20-6; Petherbridge, Witches & Wicked Bodies, pp. 30, 44; Holts, The Witch, p. 85.

[16] N. Kwan, ‘Woodcuts and Witches: Ulrich Molitor’s “De lamiis et pythonicis mulieribus”, 1489–1669’, German History, 30, issue 4 (Dec. 2012), pp. 493-527, https://doi.org/10.1093/gerhis/ghs077; Davidson, The Witch, pp. 14-9; Petherbridge, Witches & Wicked Bodies, pp. 22, 42; S. Clark, ‘Inversion, Misrule and The Meaning of Witchcraft’, Past & Present, 87, issue 1 (May 1980), pp. 98-127, https://doi.org/10.1093/past/87.1.98.

[17] M. Mencej, Styrian Witches in European Perspective: Ethnographic Fieldwork (London, 2017), pp. 318-22; S. Eaton, ‘Witchcraft and Deformity in Early Modern English Literature’, The Seventeenth Century, 35, no. 6 (2020), 10.1080/0268117X.2020.1819394, pp. 819-20.

[18] Definition from, Oxford English Dictionary.

[19] M. Gaskill, Witchfinders: A Seventeenth-Century English Tragedy (London, 2005), pp. 3, 41-2; S. Eaton, John Stearne’s Confirmation and Discovery of Witchcraft: Text, Context and Afterlife (Routledge, 2020), Chap. 3; M. Hopkins, The Discovery of Witches (London, 1647), frontispiece; Anon., Damnable Practices (London, 1619); Anon., Wonderful Discoverie of the Witchcrafts of Margaret and Phillip Flower (London, 1619). For additional examples see: Anon., Rehearsall Both Straung and True (London, 1579); Anon., A Detection of Damnable Driftes (London, 1579); Anon., Apprehension and Confession (London, 1589); Anon., A Most Certain, Strange, and True Discovery (London, 1643).

[20] T. Potts, The Wonderful Discovery of Witches (London, 1613), sig. G, M2; reprinted with notes in, J. Crossley, Potts’s Discovery of Witches in the County of Lancaster…With an Introduction and Notes by James Crossley, Esq (Manchester, 1845); Anon., Witches of Northamptonshire (London, 1612) the pamphlet’s woodcut is subtly rendered so that it appears as if the witch atop the hog has a cloven foot, thus hinting at her demonic nature.

[21] E. Askew, Brotherly reconcilement preached in Oxford (London, 1605), p. 124.

[22] Stearne, A Confirmation, pp. 26-7.

[23] C. Millar, Witchcraft, the Devil, and Emotions in Early Modern England (London, 2017), pp. 119-22; also see M. Gaskill, ‘Witchcraft and Power in Early Modern England: The Case of Margaret Moore’ in, J. Kermode and G. Walker (eds), Women, Crime and the Courts in Early Modern England (London, 1994), pp. 138-41; C. Koslofsky, ‘Knowing Skin in Early Modern Europe, c. 1450-1750’, History Compass, 12, issue 10 (2014), pp. 794-806, https://doi.org/10.1111/hic3.12195.

[24] Willis, Malevolent Nurture; L. Jackson, ‘Witches, Wives and Mothers: Witchcraft Persecution and Women’s Confessions in Seventeenth-Century England’, Women’s History Review, 4, no. 1 (1995), pp. 63–84; Purkiss, The Witch in History, pp. 102–5, 130-4; A. Hughes, ‘Puritanism and gender’ in, Coffey and Lim (eds), The Cam- bridge companion to Puritanism, pp. 296–7.

[25] Willis, Malevolent Nurture; L. Jackson, ‘Witches, Wives and Mothers’, pp. 63–84; Purkiss, The Witch in History, pp. 102–5, 130-4; Roper, Oedipus and the Devil, pp. 20–6; M. Salmon, ‘The Cultural Significance of Breastfeeding and Infant Care in Early Modern England and America’, Journal of Social History, 28, no. 2 (1994), pp. 251–2; P. Crawford, ‘Attitudes Towards Menstruation’, Past & Present, 91, no. 1 (1981), pp. 47–73, especially p. 52.

[26] L. Houwen, ‘Howling Wolves and Other Beasts: Animals and Monstrosity in the Middle Ages’ in, B. Boehrer, M. Hand and B. Massumi (eds), Animals, Animality, and Literature (Cambridge, 2018), p. 43; J. Salisbury, The Beast Within: Animals in the Middle Ages (London, 1994), pp. 77–101, 146–66; K. Thomas, Man and the Natural World: Changing Attitudes in England, 1550-1800 (London, 1984), p. 41.

[27] E. Wilby, ‘The Witch’s Familiar and the Fairy in Early Modern England and Scotland’, Folklore, 111, no. 2, (Oct., 2000), pp. 283–305; Stearne, A Confirmation, especially pp. 16–33; Carr, ‘The Witch’s Animal Familiar’, pp. 34–9, 74, 79, 101; Millar, Witchcraft, the Devil and Emotions, pp. 81-3.

[28] B. Rosen, Witchcraft in England, 1558–1618 (Amherst, 1991), p. 32; Willis, Malevolent Nurture, p. 244; Roper, Oedipus and the Devil, pp. 200-27; Thomas, Man and the Natural World, pp. 38-9; Millar, Witchcraft, the Devil, and Emotions, pp. 130-2.

 

 

 

 

 

The Female Crime: Gender, Class and Female Criminality in Victorian Representations of Poisoning

Abstract

The Victorian nineteenth century was awash with crime, murder, and violence. Not least, the ‘feminine’ art of poisoning. This was a ‘clean’ method of murder that might conveniently  rid oneself of an unhappy marriage or a love rival. Whilst poisoning cases framed interesting and salacious fiction, the conception of poisoning as a woman’s crime relates to deeper stereotypes in Victorian  society. Gender and class norms  weighed heavily, and poisoning was configured as an essentially feminine crime. This article examines, via several Old Bailey cases, the factors  responsible for the supposed link between women, poisoning, and predisposed gender and class ideals. I also consider the role that the nineteenth-century press played in establishing poisoning as a woman’s crime. The history of poisoning has been little considered due to the lack of archival material on poisoning cases. This study intends to expand the study of gender and crime in nineteenth-century Victorian Britain.

Key Words: Victorian, poisoning, murder, gender, class, trials, crime

Author Biography

Alison Morton is a postgraduate student of history at the University of Lincoln, currently studying crime and punishment in nineteenth-century Britain.

 

The Female Crime: Gender, Class and Female Criminality in Victorian Representations of Poisoning

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In nineteenth-century Britain, poisoning was a sensationalised crime, often in the public eye. No case better highlights the embedded Victorian middle-class fear of the secret female poisoner than that of Christiana Edmunds in 1872. Edmunds poisoned boxes of chocolates and other sweets as part of a plot to target her love interest’s wife. Her case demonstrates how poisoning was represented in the press as a female crime. During her trial it was noted that crowds of well-dressed women came to sit in the gallery of the Old Bailey. They were described as ‘enthralled’ by the defendant, with audience numbers increasing at every session.[1] It was feared that these women were flocking to hear and learn how Edmunds conducted her crime, later meeting in groups to share the recipes and tactics she used.[2] It is interesting that this perspective existed. After all, the evidence is clear that poisoning, while popular with women, was not a uniquely female crime. For example, William Palmer, a doctor, was sentenced to hang after he poisoned his friend John Cook with strychnine in 1855.[3] [4] Furthermore, women also committed murder through means considered more ‘masculine’. Eliza Gibbons murdered her husband in 1857 by shooting him in the head,[5] and Jane Colbert was imprisoned for murdering her husband by throwing a knife at him and piercing his lung in retaliation to domestic abuse in 1854.[6] However, poisoning was closely linked with female murderers in the Victorian press, which, as this article will demonstrate, was particularly related to sensationalist journalism.

This article examines the factors that drove women to kill their husbands, in the context of several poisoning cases tried at the Old Bailey, London. Providing a general history of poisoning cases in Victorian England, it will examine the types of poison used; how methods of detection changed; legislative changes; and will consider the public perception of such crimes. It will argue that the gender ideologies of the period helped to define poisoning as a female crime. Using several cases of husband murder this article will discuss the media representation of such crimes; why women might have chosen poison as their preferred method; and how gender ideals and social expectations were presented in court. This paper also considers how women in turn utilised the press’ sensationalist image of the female poisoner, in retaliation against male violence.

Studying the testimony and evidence given in the trials of nineteenth-century crimes can tell us much about society in Victorian Britain.[7] This article draws on five trials from the Old Bailey online archive, dated between 1842 and 1886, all of which were for cases of mariticide by poisoning. The cases include those of Jane Bowler, who was tried in 1842. Jane was a working-class woman accused of murdering her husband, Joseph Bowler, with arsenic. She was found not guilty. Ann Merritt was a working-class woman who, in 1850, was accused of murdering her husband, James Merritt, with arsenic. She was convicted and sentenced to death. Ann always asserted that she was innocent, and even in her final statement before the magistrate she reiterated that she originally bought the arsenic for herself. She claimed to have intended to commit suicide because of her husband’s recent drunken behaviour, but she changed her mind. She believed her husband must have taken it in place of the acids and sodas he had in the morning: whether accidentally or not she did not disclose. . Finally, Adelaide Bartlett was a lower-middle-class woman who was accused of murdering her husband, Thomas Edwin Bartlett, by poisoning him with chloroform in 1886. George Dyson, the man who purchased the chloroform for her, and who was also her love interest, was acquitted before trial. Adelaide was ultimately found not guilty.[8]

Whilst these sources give an insight into what the court deemed to be relevant information, one of the main issues with the Old Bailey trial reports is that they only show the witness testimony, and nothing from the lawyers, judge, or jury in the courtroom. Defendant statements are frequently missing from the testimony. In some cases, for example where multiple doctors were questioned, the accounts are often highly repetitive in nature. It is also important to note that some words had different meanings in the nineteenth century and so need to be read from a nineteenth-century perspective. Other primary source material drawn upon in this paper includes press reports and cartoons, either directly associated with these trials or of a related nature. The press reports add context to the trial reports, and they can fill in the gaps in the testimonies by exemplifying the popular attitudes and opinions of Victorian society, particularly on the subjects of class and gender. These reports, too, should be read with caution. The views of the editor, journalist, or audience could influence reporting, as could the geographical location of the paper. However, the five case studies that are the focus of this paper only offer a snapshot of cases of women killing by poisoning. Reconstructing the context and social concerns surrounding female crime more generally is, therefore, essential in order to interrogate the network of ideologies surrounding women’s alleged use of poison in murder cases, and the sensationalism that characterised the reporting of these crimes.

 

Gender, class, and women’s crimes

In the nineteenth century, women were legally classed as secondary citizens and were discouraged from gaining a formal education or a career and were unable to own property or vote.[9] Despite, in reality, very many women demonstrating agency and activities well beyond the domestic realm, the middle-class ideology of ‘separate spheres’ dictated, in theory, that a woman’s place was attending to the private sphere of home and family life as ‘the angel of the house’. This worldview came to transcend class boundaries to a great extent: the industrialisation of the workforce brought gender issues to the forefront of labour disputes, as working-class men competed against lower-paid women who they sought to relegate to the home in consequence. Moreover, middle-class philanthropic practices such as that of district visiting saw middle-class women taking domestic ideology into lower-class homes. As a result, for much of the nineteenth-century, women across society were expected to conform to these gendered, domestic roles. However, this ideology of ‘separate spheres’ was a pervasive discourse that was not always reflected in lived experiences.[10] Most lower-class women, and some middle-class women, had to work to survive. These working lifestyles did not conform to popular standards of feminine behaviour, and put women into the public sphere ideologically reserved for men. We see, here, the intersection of class and gender. Although working-class, (and, in reality, some middle-class) women had to work beyond the domestic sphere, for practical reasons, their transgression of gender ideals was used to show why middle-class women and, thus, the middle classes generally, were ‘superior’, justifying their societal cultural, moral, and political authority.[11]

Cases involving a sexual aspect, such as adultery or the murder of a lover or a rival were seen as didactic, warning of the ‘dangers’ associated with out-of-control female expressions of sexuality, to individual victims but also to stable society. Not only was it considered that such women’s divergence from the feminine ideal was a factor in their crimes, but they acted as examples of just why a woman’s place was at home, under the control and supervision of a husband, father, or brother, for their own and societies benefit. Furthermore, an essential aspect of middle class discourse was their ‘superiority’ over the working classes, whose women were more likely to have to work outside of the home, again diverging from expected female norms of behaviour. Court proceedings, press coverage and public interest in women’s crimes thus reflected and reinforced norms of gender and class. Such cases also reveal the contradictory nature of such discourses, as the press and public revelled in the fantasies of exoticized sexual revelation.

 

Poisoning in Victorian Britain

Eliza Fenning was sentenced to death for poisoning in 1815, although none of her victims died as a result of her actions. Fenning attempted to murder her employers by poisoning their food with arsenic, after she was disciplined by the lady of the house for visiting the rooms of young male workers in the house whilst semi-dressed.[12] Fenning provided four statements of good character at her trial, and there was doubt of her guilt, yet she, nevertheless, received the death penalty and was later executed at Newgate prison. It was hoped that harsh punishments would act as a deterrent, amongst fears that cases of poisoning were on the rise. John Marshall, a member of the Royal College of Surgeons, published a pamphlet in 1815 describing five cases of recovery from arsenic poisoning. In this pamphlet he detailed why he thought Fenning was guilty, claiming to have witnessed Fenning double over in pain after eating some of the dumplings she had cooked in what he believed to be an attempt to divert suspicion away from herself.[13] He followed this with a piece in The Times, describing her as ‘one of the perpetrators of this dreadfully alarming and daily increasing evil’.[14] Marshall’s accounts reflected popular concerns about the increasing number of poisoning cases and the role of women such as Fenning in this surge of cases.

During the trial of Ann Merritt, who was tried and sentenced to death in 1850 for murdering her husband, the judge remarked on ‘the strange and horrible frequency of the crime which you are charged’.[15] As public concerns over poisoning grew, press reports of these crimes increased in number, reaching almost hysterical heights by the middle of the nineteenth century.[16] The rise in sensationalist reporting, and the fear that even more cases were going unreported, drew attention from both the medical and legal professions.[17] For example, the 1851 Arsenic Regulation Act prohibited shopkeepers from selling arsenic and other poisons to people they did not know. Buyers were required to sign a register with their name and the purpose for the poison. The regulation further meant that arsenic, typically a white powder, had to be mixed with either soot or indigo. This was because arsenic has a bitter taste and mixing with food or drink seemed to be a common way to hide this bitterness and administer the poison to victims.[18] By mixing it with soot or indigo, it would stand out in food and drink, reducing the likelihood that it would go undetected. The principles of this act worked on paper; however, the act relied on shopkeepers keeping well-documented ledgers, not destroying or altering their records, or selling poison illicitly. In Christiana Edmunds’s case, for example, it was discovered that the shopkeeper who had supplied the poison had pages missing from his record book.[19] Furthermore, whilst the legislation might have restricted anonymous sales, it did not help if the chemist knew the purchaser. In the case of Ann Merritt, for example, the chemist she obtained the arsenic from had sold the poison to her before, so did not feel it necessary to ask questions as prescribed by law, again showing the discrepancies between theory and practice.[20]

Legal professionals again tried to intervene five years after the Arsenic Regulation Act was introduced. In 1856 Betsy McMullen was tried for poisoning and murdering her husband. The presiding judge argued that women should be banned from buying any potentially lethal drugs and that those selling them should      be convicted of manslaughter in the event of them being used to cause harm.[21] Banning women from purchasing poisons would, in reality, have been practically difficult as common poisons such as arsenic, chloroform, and strychnine had many domestic uses as cleaning aids or medicines. Oddly, the focus of legislation and detection in this era focused specifically on arsenic. Although widely used, many of the trials, such as some of those considered in this article, related to other poisons. This special focus on arsenic was perhaps due to its particularly vicious effects and bitter, unpleasant taste. Contemporaries also remarked upon this focus on arsenic, to the exclusion of other poisons. A letter written to Northern Star and Leeds General Advertiser on 23 March 1850, signed only by ‘An Englishman’, for example, questioned why arsenic was subjected to stricter controls compared to other poisons available, many of which were subtler in nature. The writer argued that, because these other poisons were used in medicine rather than domestically, the other poisons were protected from legislation.[22] This letter was dated a year before the Arsenic Regulation Act was passed in 1851 and it is probable  that the author, like the judge in Betsy McMullen’s trial, would not have been impressed at the limited extent of this legislation.

Ironically, a case brought against a male poisoner promoted legislation to protect defendants. When William Palmer was deemed not have been afforded a fair trial in Staffordshire due to sensational and widespread newspaper representation that caused public prejudice against him, the Palmer Act of 1856 was enacted.[23] This Act enabled hearings from outside of the London area to be moved to the Central Criminal Court at the Old Bailey, to ensure fair trials for the accused.[24] Palmer’s case also indicates the influence that sensationalist journalism had over public opinion and that high profile poisoning cases had on the British legal system in the mid nineteenth century.

 

New methods of detection

One of the key challenges for contemporaries was determining poison as the cause of death. Other difficulties were discovering the exact substance, who administered it, and how. Testing for arsenic poisoning was developed during the early 1800s: until then there was not a test conclusive enough to differentiate between a stomach condition or an illness and a case of poisoning. This difficulty formed a point of contention that can be seen in the extensive trial transcript of Adelaide Bartlett, which discusses, across almost sixty pages, how chloroform could have gotten into the stomach of her alleged victim without any burns in the throat or mouth.[25]

During the middle of the century much changed. The 1840s bore witness to developments in both medicine and policing which had several key effects on the detection of poisoning crimes. First, rural English communities developed police and detective forces which investigated crimes that might have otherwise been abandoned and neglected.[26] At around the same time, medical professionals focused on the problem of detection, quickly leading to the development of a more conclusive and sensitive test for arsenic poisoning, commonly known as the Marsh Test.[27] Created by chemist James Marsh in 1836, it was found specifically useful in the area of forensic toxicology.[28] The result of better testing and wider investigation was a rise in documented cases and increased media coverage. However, Ann Merrit’s case highlights the continued difficulty of proving murder involving poison, mainly as it was almost impossible to determine who administered the poison to the victim. Ann Merritt was handed a death penalty based on a statement by Dr Henry Letherby, a ‘seasoned and educated toxicologist’, resulting in uproar from the public, and medical and legal professionals alike.[29] His statement implied that the average man’s stomach takes around five hours to digest food and pass into the bowel, creating a timeline that incriminated Ann Merritt.[30] R. E. Davies, of the Royal College of Surgeons, wrote a letter to the London Daily News in which he questioned Letherby’s statement. Merritt’s husband was an alcoholic and Davies presented a theory that food digests slower in a drunken man’s stomach. He argued that because of Letherby’s statement the jury in Merrit’s trial could not entertain a theory that the victim may have taken his own life, as in the time frame given it would have been virtually impossible.[31] Merritt was eventually pardoned following the outcry. An article in the Hereford Times, on 30 March 1850, explained that ‘our readers of whatever sex or party will rejoice to [know] that the efforts which have been made to save the life of Ann Merritt have been attended with success’.[32] Communication was made between the Home Secretary and the Governor of Newgate, ‘the execution of this unhappy woman would be respited during her Majesty’s pleasure’, meaning she had been detained in an asylum after being declared insane.[33] Martin Weiner observes that in the second half of the century there was a decline in prosecutions of women for serious crimes, and a larger decline in convictions and length of prison sentences.[34] The number of women executed reduced dramatically, whilst insanity verdicts for women nearly doubled. Weiner argues that the reason for this increase is that whereas Victorian juries would consider male criminals to be ‘bad’, it was becoming easier to explain female “deviants” who committed heinous crimes as ‘mad’.[35]

 

Press coverage

The public interest in cases of female poisoners is demonstrated by the large crowds at the trials of both Christina Edmunds and Adelaide Bartlett. In the latter case the courtroom was so crowded that one of the main doors was completely blocked.[36] There were crowds of spectators inside and outside of the courtroom. Even the apartments surrounding the Old Bailey had a considerable number of spectators watching the building.[37] The press both reflected and fed such interest, through  sensationalist journalism which fed social and moral fears of poisoning and poisoners, suggesting a threat to society more broadly.[38]

One concern was the secretive nature of the crime. George Robb argues that known poisonings were believed to be the tip of the iceberg and that for every case that was discovered dozens probably went undiscovered.[39] It does seem that the fear of unknown cases of murder caused some disquiet among a public concerned that wives were regularly killing their husbands, without detection.[40] On 16 December 1882, The Times remarked:

 

‘from the numerous poisonings which have only been detected by an accident or an afterthought, the inference is only reasonable that there remains a margin of poisonings which are never detected at all.[41]’

 

The obsessive coverage of poisonings in Britain played a slightly contradictory role. By publishing details of poisonings, the press potentially created the very problem they claimed to be concerned about, by providing details which might facilitate further poisonings.[42]

Sensationalist imagery also painted a misleading picture of poisoning as a crime conducted under the darkness of night. This sort of media representation was at best selective, and, at worst, inaccurate because poisonings also happened during daylight. An example of such sensationalist imagery appeared on the front page of the Illustrated Police News on 8 June 1889. It depicts the case of Florence Maybrick, accused of poisoning her husband, James, a wealthy Liverpudlian cotton merchant, by switching his medicine whilst he slept in his bed next to her.[43][44] The newspaper depicts multiple scenes from the crime she was accused of, including a maid finding the fly papers which Maybrick is said to have soaked to extract the arsenic, and a scene of her in prison after her arrest.[45]

It is interesting to note that the prison scene is the only one in which she is depicted showing any form of emotion. During the crime Maybrick is depicted as passionless and rather malevolent, but once she is in jail she holds her head in her hands, perhaps inferring guilt and regret. While this could be an indication of remorse, the overall depiction suggests that she is perhaps just grieved at being caught. Either way, the images imply guilt and she was indeed found guilty.[46] A similar image appeared on the front page of Reynolds’s Miscellany on 10 July 1858. Here, a woman named Joanna is shown preparing poison near a sleeping Sir John Cleveland. She is looking over her shoulder to ensure he is still sleeping and thus not aware of her actions. Meanwhile another man, who we can only assume was Joanna’s accomplice or perhaps her lover, looks on in the background.[47] She is depicted as protected under the cover of night, while Cleveland slept ‘safely’ in his bed, unaware that someone was attempting to murder him.[48] According to Lucy Williams, these women conformed to the ‘very middle-class fears of the sneaking female poisoner’.[49] Again, such representations both reflected and reinforced public fears and opinion in this period, and ultimately led to female poisoners being compared to witches and being labelled monstrous.[50] These ideas were not unique to the nineteenth century, and there is evidence of poisoning being linked to women and the comparison to witches, as far back as the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.[51] The context of nineteenth century gender and class relations provided a framework in which that connection could be made more explicit, and more threatening. This was a useful discourse for journalists during a period of substantial expansion of the popular press. As we have seen, this combination of pre-existing public prejudices, fears and concerns, and the press coverage which reflected and fed them, influenced legislative, social, and medical perspectives on poisoning throughout the nineteenth century.

 

Poisoning and gender

Popular perspectives on women and gender in this period drove a view that poisoning was a largely female crime. Both men and women used poison to injure, incapacitate, and kill, however the Victorian press particularly portrayed poisoning as a female crime. Portrayed as a subversive crime, requiring no physical strength, female poisoners fed societal views of women as naturally passive but potentially dangerous and insidious when influenced by their emotions, particularly of a sexual nature. Such ideas supported and reflected a discourse of stable society requiring women to be under the supervision of men.

The idea that poisoning was a secretive crime is seen in trial judgements and contemporary press reports. In the Bartlett case, for example, the judge commented that ‘poisonings were not like crimes of sudden passion. They were necessarily mysterious and hidden in their operation’.[52] But this representation was not just about the subversive nature of poisoning. The nineteenth century, as many periods in history, considered men physically stronger and more violent than women. Judith Knelman and Martin Weiner have discussed how male crime was, therefore, expected to be more violent and on the spur of the moment in comparison to female crime, which was less physical due to women’s physical weakness.[53] Press representation promulgated this distinction. For example, in both the Maybrick and Cleveland illustrations, the victims were shown to be physically incapacitated, either by illness or simply because they were asleep, whilst the poison was administered. The female poisoner thus committed her crime in a non-violent manner.

This argument that the lack of physical force required in a case of poisoning meant the act could be attributed to women has another dimension. Knelman suggests that poisoning presented a practical, but immoral and illegal, response to the oppression of women. Or, in other words, a non-physical response to the physical violence of male partners.[54] Knelman believes any hostility and violence in a relationship comes out of a man’s attempt to control the woman and the woman’s attempt to exert her own independence and agency.[55] However, unlike an overzealous beating, poisoning could not be considered an accident because there is an element of premeditation in all poisoning cases; one had to go and acquire the poison, as well as determine how to administer it. [56] It is therefore unlikely that someone killed another by poisoning in a jealous fit of rage.

Mary Hartman argues another reason for poisoning to be considered a threat in nineteenth-century Britain, is that women who killed men represented a threat to social norms of gender. She goes on to explain that if these women were also middle- or upper-class, the worry was that they would tip the scale of social class normativity, leading to potential social non-conformity.[57] In his letter to the London Daily News in 1850, R.E. Davies commented on expectations of women in this era: ‘Lately few women have humiliated their sex by the perpetration of heinous offences. The natural attributes of Women are kindness, virtue and affection’.[58]

Davies was writing in defence of Ann Merritt and argued that women did not poison as widely as the press suggested. But his perspective shows that, in this era, women were not expected to be a threat to men. Lucy Williams has considered how female crime lay outside of the normal social expectations of their gender. Women were considered caring, kind, and calm, whereas male crime fitted within the social bounds of masculinity. However, Williams explains that, for women, murder was ‘doubly deviant’, denoting a significant departure from femininity.[59] Robb argues that ‘a woman’s ideal gender role was to “love, honour and obey”’, not maim, injure and murder.[60] Unlike Weiner and Knelman, Hartman focuses on class rather than gender, stating that middle class women were literally getting away with murder.[61] One reason for this could have been that the middle classes had access to knowledge of poisons through domestic handbooks on medicine and drugs.[62] Robb expands on this argument, stating that middle-class women committing murder by poison was particularly troubling because their outward behaviours and appearance did not indicate any criminal nature. However, working-class women were almost expected to have a criminal side. Represented as ‘rough’ and ‘degenerate’, murder was just seen as another aspect of their depraved working-class lifestyle.[63] Anger and physicality were considered masculine traits and had no place in the home or around family.[64] Women were expected to dedicate themselves to the private sphere, running the home and family; while the men would go out in to the public sphere to work, earn money, and socialise. I would argue that men and women had to look and act in a certain way to remain adequately masculine or feminine. Those that did not fit into the boundaries of gender set out by Victorian society had to be ‘understood’ within a pre-existing framework of society. To challenge the idea that women were essentially passive and non-violent, or that men were just as likely as women to use poisoning to commit harm, was to challenge the very intersection of class and gender on which the middle classes predicated their social, cultural and political authority.

Due to the divisive intersection of class and gendered ideology that underpinned them, female offenders were judged  by these standards, rather than the facts of the case, by both the court and press. Often, they were also judged in medical and psychiatric terms. Female murderers of the Victorian era were almost never presented as the women they were, whether excused or vilified. Instead they were judged on their status as ‘good women’ and the ‘social rules’ they had broken.[65] Hence a woman’s reputation played a role in the court, the jury’s view of them, and how their sentence was decided.[66] Lucy Williams and Judith Knelman both agree that the masculinity or femininity of an offender was commented on by the papers and that their personal character was also a factor of judgement.[67] Robb uses the example of Mary Ann Geering in his article. Geering was described as ‘a woman of masculine and forbidding appearance’ in a Times newspaper article representing her trial.[68] It could be argued that these women’s greatest crimes were going against their prescribed social roles.

The trial transcripts of Merritt, Bartlett, and Bowler, also devote significant attention to a discussion of the character traits of both the victim and the accused. In the Bowler case, the victim was described as gloomy and disconsolate, and it was documented that he tried to kill himself on two separate occasions. A friend of Bowler’s, Henry Clarke, told the court that he had to stop Joseph jumping into the canal, for example. On the other hand, Jane Bowler was depicted as a good mother and wife, and therefore considered of good character. This may have swayed the jury and contributed to her ultimately being found innocent..[69] Although drunkenness was not discussed in the Bowler trial (it was only hinted at), alcohol abuse was a common theme in nineteenth-century trial reports. During the Merritt trial the victim was identified as a heavy drinker, a fact which grieved his wife. Francis Toulman, a surgeon and acquaintance of the Merritts, specifically commented that Ann attended to her husband judiciously, indicating that she adhered to the ideological expectations of a Victorian wife.[70] Other witnesses said that she was devoted to her husband and her grief after her husband’s death, if genuine, was described as overwhelming.[71] Whilst it did not sway the jury at the time, in contrast to the case of Jane Bowler, it had an effect on public opinion, eventually leading to Ann Merrit’s release. During her trial, Adelaide Bartlett seemed outright offended at the suggestion she could not adequately care for her husband, showing that she took her role as nurturer very seriously.[72] Of all the trials this article addresses, Bartlett’s is the lengthiest and the most unusual in terms of the character of the accused and victim. The Bartlett’s had a platonic marriage, their relationship one of brother and sister more than husband and wife. Edwin Bartlett, Adelaide’s father-in-law, insinuated at her trial that Adelaide and her husband had a sexual relationship in the beginning, noting that they shared a bed and that she had been pregnant once before which resulted in a stillborn child. While Edwin had no reason to believe the relationship was nothing short of marital normality, later in the trial he describes them as no longer having an intimate relationship.[73] The attention to detail given in the Bartlett trial to their relationship highlights the significance that the legal system, at least, attributed to this area in poisoning cases, again underlining the centrality of gender normativity to such cases.[74]

Whilst the media often focused only on the female offender, their character, personal circumstances, and physical attributes, the trials would look at both the victim and accused. Negative revelations about the personalities of the victim could help sway the court and jury in favour of the accused. Weiner believes that juries often looked with sympathy on women when their crimes were retaliatory.[75] However, Knelman discusses the case of Elizabeth Martha Brown which was given significant coverage in a broadsheet newspaper in 1856. However, there was no mention of the character of her victim, a violent and abusive husband, anywhere in the newspaper reports. In fact, she was regarded as a ‘wretched criminal’ murdering ‘poor Anthony Brown’.[76] This language also indicates that perceptions drawn upon in press reports about the victim’s character might be used by the wider public as a way to judge whether the crime could be morally explained or not, in terms of the popular ideologies surrounding gender roles. In portraying the victim as a good man, reporters consequently portrayed Elizabeth as a cruel and wretched murderer who had no reason to commit her crime. In contrast, Lisa Appignanesi refers to the case of Louise Hartley, an eighteen-year-old who attempted to murder her father. The defence condemned the victim for his ‘unfatherly behaviour’ and displayed him as being ‘vindictive and a brute’.[77] Appignanesi argues that such press coverage was influential on public opinion and, ultimately, on the jury who acquitted the accused.[78] Unlike Elizabeth, Louise’s crimes were excusable because of the ways in which the character of her victim were portrayed.

One area that garnered significant attention in both the trial and press was a woman’s sexual agency, which was considered as evidence of a deviant nature. This is shown in the trial of Florence Maybrick, whose adulterous affair with her husband’s friend was used as evidence against her in court. However, her husband’s numerous infidelities were never mentioned,  deemed irrelevant by the Victorian sexual double standard.[79] [80] Likewise, during Jane Bowler’s trial, focus was given to her interest in Jon Dunster, a lodger who lived in her house. This interest called into question her ‘loyalty’ to her husband, despite her otherwise appearing to be a ‘dutiful’ wife.[81] The Bartlett case presents sexual license, or lack of, as a motivation for the crime. Edwin, the victim, had married Adelaide on the promise of a largely platonic relationship. According to witnesses, he even went so far as to encourage Adelaide to receive male attention and Dyson, the co-conspirator, explained how Adelaide had been ‘given’ to him by her husband.[82] During the trial it emerged that Edwin had begun to change his mind about the platonic nature of his marriage.[83] The press seized on this information, with The Times creating a motive for Adelaide to administer chloroform to her husband: to prevent his sexual advances.[84]

Some women exploited the reputation that poisoning had as ‘the female crime’ to gain power over men. A salient example of this form of intimidation was women’s response to male violence in the period following the 1888 “Jack the Ripper” murders. Men would threaten to ‘whitechapel’ their wives; women, in return, threatened to ‘white powder’ their husbands.[85] A woman’s threat to poison her husband was both equivalent to, and a response to, a man’s threat of physical violence, aggression, or intimidation in a relationship.[86] Sarah Brice, for example, threatened to poison her husband after he was accused of robbery due to the bad company he kept.[87] Although these threats were not seen through, they were used as a form of intimidation against men.[88]

Another interesting example of this occurred in 1856, when Betsy McMullen was accused of murdering her husband in Bolton by putting tartarised antimony in his tea. Her supposed motive was to claim insurance money. An investigation revealed that it was common practice for women to give their drunken husbands antimony which caused vomiting and extreme physical weakness. Locally this practice was referred to as ‘quietness’.[89] The Times commented on the poisonings, stating that there were three customary evils in Bolton: that women were poisoning their husbands while they were incapacitated and drunk, that they did this without the husband’s knowledge, and that husbands became ‘wretchedly’ drunk.[90] It is interesting that the writer made the link between the evils of the husband and that of the wife, and seemed to be suggesting that the men and their actions were as culpable as the women.

Despite the salacious press and public hysteria, Martin Weiner notes some public and court sympathy towards ‘wronged women’ in this period, at least toward the end of the nineteenth century.[91] In certain cases a woman’s personal circumstances might be used in her defence or as grounds for reprieve. An example of this can be seen in the case of Charlotte Harris. Harris was convicted and sentenced to hang for deliberately poisoning her husband over a week so that she could marry her wealthy lover. However, she was later found to be pregnant.[92] Public interest in this case built, and letters were even sent to Queen Victoria pleading for her release. Her sentence was eventually commuted to transportation to the colonies and from then on no pregnant women or new mothers were hanged in Britain..[93][94]  When Ann Merritt was sentenced to death, even after the jury recommended to the court due to accounts of her good character, her case generated  public outcry.[95] The Times was clear in indicating that this sympathy was from both men and women, and that both campaigned equally. Not necessarily for Merritt’s release, but for at least a commutation her death sentence. These campaigns were successful and her sentence was reduced to incarceration in an asylum.[96]

There was, though, no guarantee of clemency. Mary Ball was hanged after being convicted of her husband’s murder by poisoning. Although the jury recommended mercy, the judge, Lord Coleridge, pressured them into withdrawing their recommendation.[97] Murders committed in the ‘heat of the moment’ were also shown limited mercy. Many were shown to be forms of self-defence or in retaliation to any wrongdoing towards them. As poisoning was predominantly premeditated, this defence was not available to these women. [98]

    

Conclusion

Cases of female poisoners offers a fascinating and instructive window through which we can view the intersection of class and gender norms in nineteenth century British society. Also, the growing influence of the popular press on public opinion and legislative change.

The very fact that female murderers existed challenged the ideals of femininity that justified supposed national and middle-class cultural, political, and moral ‘superiority’. The middle-class ‘domestic angel’ was at the heart Britain’s concept of itself as a stable and constitutional nation at home, authorised to bring such civilisational benefits to the benighted and backward peoples of their empire far away. To ‘explain’ the contradiction, poisoning was configured, by the criminal justice system, the public and the press, as an essentially female crime. Without the proper and appropriate supervision of a man, women were liable to be overcome by sexually-related emotions, become potentially dangerous to those around them and threaten the basis of stable society. Such unsupervised women could commit heinous crimes, but ones of insidious and ‘sneaky’ passivity, in line with their ‘natural’ characteristics.

Such ideas also required a very specific definition of what constituted ‘violence’, as an act requiring physical strength in the open, rather than an equally harmful act committed with malice aforethought, committed, supposedly, in the dark of night against an unresisting victim. Through such ‘understandings’ of poisoning, the public, press, and courts tried to maintain norms of gender and class. Recognising that women, middle class or otherwise, were as capable of violence as men, or that men were liable to resort to ‘passive’ crimes such as poisoning, would challenge the entire classed and gendered edifice around which society as structured.

What are also revealed are the cracks in such discourses. The recognition of male violence and abuse towards women, and the obvious contradictions between Victorian class and gender ideals and reality, are exposed in the protests and sympathy expressed towards many women; by the very public, press, and criminal justice system that judged those women by the same standards they critiqued and objected to through such sympathy. Even women’s apparent threats to poison abusive men reveals the oppression of women and their agency in resistance; an agency Victorian society did its utmost to deny. But through this study of female poisoning, we see signs that the centre would, eventually, not hold and begin to fracture under the weight of its own contradictions.

 

Bibliography

Primary Sources

Charge of Wilful Murder, Western Daily Press, 16 October 1869, p. 3.

Chester Guardian and Record, 26 June 1878, p. 8.

Chester Guardian and Record, 27 February 1878, p. 6.

Child Murder and Attempted Suicide, The Times, 28 October 1843, p. 5.

Child Poisoned by its Mother, Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser, 16 December 1843, p. 5.

Hereford Times, 30 March 1850, p. 6.

Joanna Preparing the Poison for Sir John Cleveland, Reynolds’s Miscellany, 10 July 1868, Front Cover.

London Daily News 18 March 1850, p. 5.

Marshall John, Five Cases of Recovery of the Effects of Arsenic, (London, 1815).

Midland Circuit – Warwick, Shipping and Mercantile Gazette, 4 April 1850, p. 1.

No Headline, Brighton Herald, 31 March 1849, p. 3.

No Headline, The Irishman, 6 November 1869, p. 10.

No Headline, The Times, 16 December 1882, p. 9.

No Headline, The Times, 19 April 1886, p. 4

No Headline, The Times, 26 August 1856, p. 6.

Northern Star and Leeds General Advertiser, 23 March 1850, p.?

The Proceedings of the Old Bailey, 1674­–1913: William Palmer, May 1856, ref. t18560514-490, https://www.oldbaileyonline.org/browse.jsp?div=t18560514-490, accessed 04/02/2019.

The Proceedings of the Old Bailey, 1674­–1913: Eliza Fenning, April 1815, ref. t18150405-18, https://www.oldbaileyonline.org/browse.jsp?div=t18150405-18, accessed 04/02/2019.

The Proceedings of the Old Bailey, 1674­–1913: Adelaide Bartlett, George Dyson, April 1886, ref. t18860405-466, https://www.oldbaileyonline.org/browse.jsp?div=t18860405-466, accessed 04/02/2019.

The Proceedings of the Old Bailey, 1674­–1913: Ann Merritt, March 1850, ref. t18500304-599, https://www.oldbaileyonline.org/browse.jsp?div=t18500304-599, accessed 04/02/2019.

The Proceedings of the Old Bailey, 1674­–1913: Jane Bowler, October 1842, ref. t18421024-3062, https://www.oldbaileyonline.org/browse.jsp?div=t18421024-3062, accessed 04/02/2019.

The Proceedings of the Old Bailey, 1674-1913: John Hutchings, 20 September 1847, ref. T18470920-2217, https://www.oldbaileyonline.org/browse.jsp?id=t18470920-2217, accessed 11/04/2021.

The Proceedings of the Old Bailey, 1674-1913: Benjamin Alison, 2 April 1838, ref. t18380402-1088, https://www.oldbaileyonline.org/browse.jsp?id=t18380402-1088, accessed 11/04/2021.

The Mysterious Poisoning Case at Liverpool, The Illustrated Police News, 8 June 1889, Front Cover.

Wrongs Without Redress, Lincolnshire Chronicle, 5 April 1850, p. 7.

Gilbert Dugdale, A True Discourse of the practises of Elizabeth Caldwell (London, 1604).

 

Secondary Sources

Appigagnesi, L., Trials of Passion: Crimes in the Name of Love and Madness (London, 2014).

Arnot, M., ‘The Murder of Thomas Sandles: Meanings of a Mid-Nineteenth-Century Infanticide’, in Mark Jackson (ed.), Infanticide: Historical Perspectives on Child Murder and Concealment, 1550-2000 (Aldershot, 2002), pp. 149–167.

D’Cruze, S., Everyday Violence in Britain, 1850-1950 (Essex, 2000).

Digby, A., ‘Victorian Values and Women in the Private Sphere’, Proceedings of the British Academy, 78, (1990), pp. 195–215.

Hartman, M., Victorian Murderesses: A True History of Thirteen Respectable French & English Women Accused of Unspeakable Crimes, (London, 1977).

Higginbotham, A., ‘“Sin of the Age”: Infanticide and Illegitimacy in Victorian London’, (1989), pp. 319–337.

Knelman, J., Twisting in the Wind: The Murderess and the English Press (London, 1998).

Morgan, S., A Victorian Woman’s Place: Public Culture in the Nineteenth Century, (London, 2007).

Robb, G., ‘“Circe in Crinoline”: Domestic Poisonings in Victorian England’, Journal of Family History, 22 (1997), pp. 176–190.

Stratman, L., The Secret Poisoner: A Century of Murder (Llandysul, 2016).

Walkowitz, J., City of Dreadful Delight: Narratives of Sexual Danger in Late-Victorian London, (Chicago, 1992).

Weiner, M., Men of Blood: Violence, Manliness, and Criminal Justice in Victorian England, (Cambridge, 2004).

Williams, L., Wayward Women: Female Offending in Victorian England (Barnsley, 2016).

Notes

[1] L. Appigagnesi, Trials of Passion: Crimes in the Name of Love and Madness (London, 2014), p. 69.

[2] G. Robb, ‘“Circe in Crinoline”: Domestic Poisonings in Victorian England’, Journal of Family History, 22 (1997), p. 178.

[3]The Proceedings of the Old Bailey, 1674-1913: William Palmer, 14 May 1856, ref. t18560514-490,

https://www.oldbaileyonline.org/browse.jsp?div=t18560514-490 (accessed 04/02/2019).

[4] Further examples of Male poisoners can be found when searching through the trial reports of The Old Bailey Online, including Benjamin Alison who murdered his wife with Laudenum in 1838. The Proceedings of the Old Bailey, 1674-1913: Benjamin Alison, 2 April 1838, ref. t18380402-1088, https://www.oldbaileyonline.org/browse.jsp?id=t18380402-1088 accessed 11/04/2021. and John Hutchings who killed his wife with arsenic in 1847. The Proceedings of the Old Bailey, 1674-1913: John Hutchings, 20 September 1847, ref. T18470920-2217, https://www.oldbaileyonline.org/browse.jsp?id=t18470920-2217 (accessed 11/04/2021).

[5] J. Knelman, Twisting in the Wind: The Murderess and the English Press (Toronto, 1998), p. 108-109.

[6] M. Weiner, Men of Blood: Violence, Manliness, and Criminal Justice in Victorian England (Cambridge, 2004), p. 132.

[7] Robb, ‘Circe in Crinoline’, p. 180.

[8]The Proceedings of the Old Bailey  5th April 1886, Adelaide Bartlett, George Dyson, ref t18860405-466, https://www.oldbaileyonline.org/browse.jsp?div=t18860405-466 accessed 04/02/2019.

[9] A. Digby, ‘Victorian Values and Women in the Private Sphere’, Proceedings of the British Academy, 78 (1990), p. 198.

[10] S. Morgan, A Victorian Woman’s Place: Public Culture in the Nineteenth Century (London, 2007), pp. 1–2.

[12] The Proceedings of the Old Bailey, 1674­–1913: Eliza Fenning, April 1815, ref. t18150405-18, https://www.oldbaileyonline.org/browse.jsp?div=t18150405-18, accessed 16/03/2021.Old Bailey

[13] J. Marshall, Five Cases of Recovery of the Effects of Arsenic (London, 1815).

[14] Eliza Fenning, The Times, 27 September 1815, p. 4.

[15] The Proceedings of the Old Bailey, 1674­–1913: Ann Merritt, March 1850, ref. t18500304-599, https://www.oldbaileyonline.org/browse.jsp?div=t18500304-599, accessed 04/02/2019.

[16] Robb, ‘Circe in Crinoline’, p. 185.

[17]Robb, ‘Circe in Crinoline’, p. 185; J. Knelman, Twisting in the Wind (London, 1998), pp. 86.

[18] Robb, ‘Circe in Crinoline’, p. 182.

[19] Appigagnesi, Trials of Passion, (London, 2014), pp. 69.

[20] Old Bailey, Ann Merritt.

[21]The Times, 26 August 1856, p. 6.

[22]Northern Star and Leeds General Advertiser 23 March 1850.

[23] L. Stratman, The Secret Poisoner: A Century of Murder (Llandysul, 2016), pp. 181–182.

[25] Old Bailey, Adelaide Bartlett.

[26] Robb, ‘Circe in Crinoline’, p. 179.

[27] Stratman, The Secret Poisoner, p. 181.

[28] Stratman, The Secret Poisoner, p. 180.

[29] London Daily News, 18 March 1850, p.5.

[30] Old Bailey, Ann Merritt.

[31]London Daily News, 18 March 1850, p. 5.

[32] Hereford Times, 30 March 1850, p. 6

[33]Hereford Times, 30 March 1850, p. 6

[34] M. Weiner, Men of Blood: Violence, Manliness, and Criminal Justice in Victorian England (Cambridge, 2004), p. 133.

[35] M. Weiner, Men of Blood: Violence, Manliness, and Criminal Justice in Victorian England (Cambridge, 2004), p. 133.

[36]The Times, 19 April 1886, p. 4.

[37]The Times, 19 April 1886, p. 4.

[38] Stratman, The Secret Poisoner, p. 274.

[39] Robb, ‘Circe in Crinoline’, p. 185.

[40] Appigagnesi, Trials of Passion, p. 25.

[41]The Times, 16 December 1882. p. 9.

[42] Robb, ‘Circe in Crinoline’, p. 182.

[43]The Mysterious Poisoning Case at Liverpool, The Illustrated Police News, 8 June 1889, Front Cover.

[44] This is the same James Maybrick, incidentally, who was the supposed writer of a faked diary, published in 1992, identifying him as Jack the Ripper. https://www.jack-the-ripper.org/james-maybrick.htm (Accessed 26/4/21).

[45]The Mysterious Poisoning Case at Liverpool, The Illustrated Police News, 8 June 1889, Front Cover.

[46] Florence Maybrick was released in 1904, after a review of her case showed that it was unsafe (her husband had been self-prescribing medicines), to significant public sympathy.

[47]Joanna Preparing the Poison for Sir John Cleveland, Reynolds’s Miscellany, 10 July 1868, Front Cover.

[48]Joanna Preparing the Poison for Sir John Cleveland, Reynolds’s Miscellany, 10 July 1868, Front Cover.

[49] L. Williams, Wayward Women (Barnsley, 2016), p. 29.

[50] Appigagnesi, Trials of Passion, (London, 2014), p. 25.

[51] G. Dugdale, A True Discourse of the practises of Elizabeth Caldwell (London, 1604).

[52]The Times, 19 April 1886, p. 4.

[53] Knelman, Twisting in the Wind, p. 86.

[54] Knelman, Twisting in the Wind, p. 86–87.

[55] Knelman, Twisting in the Wind, p. 86.

[56] Robb, ‘Circe in Crinoline’, p. 185.

[57] Hartman. Victorian Murderesses, p. 1.

[58] London Daily News, 18 March 1850, p. 5.

[59] Williams, Wayward Women, p. 29.

[60] Robb, ‘Circe in Crinoline’, p. 184.

[61] Hartman. Victorian Murderesses, p. 1.

[62] Robb, ‘Circe in Crinoline’, p. 182.

[63] Robb, ‘Circe in Crinoline’, p. 178.

[64] Williams, Wayward Women, p. 82.

[65] Hartman. Victorian Murderesses, p. 255.

[66] Robb, ‘Circe in Crinoline’, p. 183.

[67] Knelman, Twisting in the Wind, p. 93.

[68] Robb, ‘Circe in Crinoline’, p. 178.

[69] The Proceedings of the Old Bailey, 1674­–1913: JaneBowler, October 1842, ref. t18421024-3062, https://www.oldbaileyonline.org/browse.jsp?div=t18421024-3062, accessed 04/02/2019

[70] Old Bailey, Ann Merritt.

[71] Old Bailey, Ann Merritt.

[72] Old Bailey, Adelaide Bartlett.

[73] Old Bailey, Adelaide Bartlett.

[74] Old Bailey, Adelaide Bartlett.

[75] M. Weiner, Men of Blood: Violence, Manliness, and Criminal Justice in Victorian England (Cambridge, 2004), p. 134.

[76] Knelman, Twisting in the Wind, p. 105.

[77] Appigagnesi, Trials of Passion, p. 114.

[78] Appigagnesi, Trials of Passion, p. 114.

[79] Robb, ‘Circe in Crinoline’, p. 184.

[80] For wider context on the sexual double standard the recommended reading is Judith R. Walkowitz’s Prostitution and Victorian Society: Women, Class and the State

[81] Old Bailey, Jane Bowler.

[82] Old Bailey, Adelaide Bartlett.

[83]Old Bailey, Adelaide Bartlett.

[84]Old Bailey, Adelaide Bartlett.

[85] J. Walkowitz, City of Dreadful Delight, (Chicago, 1992), pp. 219–20.

[86] Robb, ‘Circe in Crinoline’, p. 187.

[87]Robb, ‘Circe in Crinoline’, p. 187.

[88]Robb, ‘Circe in Crinoline’, p. 187.

[89] Robb, ‘Circe in Crinoline’, p. 179.

[90] The Times, 26 August 1856, p. 6.

[91] Weiner, ‘Men of Blood’, pp. 131-132.

[92] Weiner, ‘Men of Blood’, p. 133.

[93] Weiner, ‘Men of Blood, p. 131.

[94]Transportation was seen as a cost effective and positive form of punishment; it removed convicted criminals from British society, and the country’s prisons or asylums but in its own right it could be a death sentence.

[95]Old Bailey , Ann Merritt.

[96] ‘Wrongs Without Redress’, Lincolnshire Chronicle, 5 April 1850, p. 7.

[97] Weiner, ‘Men of Blood’, p. 131.

[98] Weiner, ‘Men of Blood’: Violence, Manliness, and Criminal Justice in Victorian England (Cambridge, 2004), pp. 131.

 

 

 

The Perfect Ambassador? The Life and Career of the Early Modern French Diplomat Jean-Antoine de Mesmes d’Avaux (1640–1709)

Abstract

European diplomacy was born of the relations between northern Italian city-states during the Renaissance, and developed from occasional delegations to resident embassies in the early modern period. In the seventeenth century, the Kingdom of France became the protagonist of European political and military affairs, particularly under the reign of Louis XIV. This article analyses the personality, family background and professional career of Jean-Antoine de Mesmes d’Avaux (1640–1709) through a range of diplomatic documents to assess the extent to which he met the expectations and diplomatic objectives set by the Sun King. I argue that although d’Avaux was a successful and appreciated Louisquatorzien ambassador, his personal views and approach to diplomatic matters did not always align with royal guidelines.

Keywords: Early Modern diplomacy, Comte d’Avaux, ambassador, Louis XIV, Kingdom of France, Dutch Republic, Peace of Nijmegen, James II, Irish expedition

Author Biography

Elvira Tamus is a PhD student in History at Sidney Sussex College / Faculty of History, University of Cambridge. Her doctoral research focuses on Franco-Hungarian diplomatic relations in the 1520s and 1530s in the context of the Valois-Habsburg-Ottoman imperial rivalry. She obtained her BA in History and French language at the University of Leicester, and her MA in History (specialisation: Europe 1000–1800) at Leiden University. This article is a revised version of a paper written for a research seminar at Leiden.

 

The Perfect Ambassador? The Life and Career of the Early Modern French Diplomat Jean-Antoine de Mesmes d’Avaux (1640–1709)[1]

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In the seventeenth century, the custom of establishing permanent embassies and sending resident ambassadors to represent their sovereigns in other countries became common in Europe. The key actor in European diplomacy was King Louis XIV (r.1643–1715), whose large-scale political and military endeavours made France the principal power on the continent. The diplomatic machinery that evolved under his reign had a crucial impact on the foreign policy practices of various European states. Thus, along with the status quo set by the Peace of Westphalia which ended the European wars of religion in 1648, Louis instituted the roots of modern diplomacy.

The selection criteria of Louis XIV has been widely discussed in the historiography of French diplomacy. The seventeenth and early eighteenth-century evolution of ambassadorial characteristics, tasks, and responsibilities was carried out by Dutch diplomat Abraham de Wicquefort (1606–82) and French diplomat François de Callières (1645–1717). Wicquefort wrote in his L’Ambassadeur et ses fonctions that an ambassador should possess unquestionable loyalty towards his monarch and a perfect understanding of the issues under negotiation, in order to act in accordance with the interests of his prince.[2] Callières described ambassadors’ responsibilities as representing their princes’ interests and discerning the intentions of other sovereigns. He claimed that a negotiator is first and foremost the executor, rather than the originator of diplomatic decisions which should be made only in consultation with the prince or the principal ministers.[3]  In this regard, as William Roosen has argued, Jean-Antoine de Mesmes d’Avaux was an exception, since Louis relied heavily on d’Avaux’s insight into political conditions gained during his long experience in The Hague and in Sweden.[4]  Orloue N. Gisselquist has concluded that the decade of 1678–88 was a ‘critical period’ for Louis’ foreign policy.[5]  As the French ambassador in the Dutch Republic, d’Avaux frequently used bribery and propaganda (in the form of widely distributed pamphlets) to influence the many officials involved in decision-making, and to promote French interests.[6] Moreover, Gisselquist notes that the centralised nature of French diplomacy required that its ambassadors dealt only with the local issues around their residencies, and therefore, they were often provided with limited information regarding the broad horizon of French foreign affairs.[7] Due to this feature and the exceptionally long time spent in the Dutch Republic, d’Avaux occasionally misunderstood the king’s intentions. Marie-Hélène Côté highlights that the selection procedure of ambassadors included many aspects, such as their social and financial status, appearance, attitude, morals and education, along with the Louis’ personal confidence in the diplomatic candidates selected.[8]

Jean-Antoine de Mesmes d’Avaux served as Louis’ ambassador and envoy in several of countries throughout his own illustrious career and the Sun King’s reign.[9] This case study, therefore, offers an opportunity to consider a detailed picture of the lives, duties, personal and professional specialties of Louisquatorzien ambassadors.

In this article, I will analyse the personal background and diplomatic career of Jean-Antoine de Mesmes d’Avaux, with an emphasis on his service as Louis XIV’s peace negotiator during the Franco-Dutch War; as ambassador to the Dutch Republic; and as an envoy to James II of England’s Irish expedition. These missions represented a critical period of Louis’ reign when the king was engaged in several political and military conflicts. Thus, I will consider the extent to which d’Avaux carried out his diplomatic missions in line with the brief given to him by Louis. I argue that foreign service, remote from regular contact with the French court and his monarch, influenced d’Avaux to the extent that his diplomatic interactions became increasingly independent. Through these observations, I consider the developement of the ambassadorial role in this period. I further reflect on the shifting relationship between ambassador and their monarch back home, and the impacts of this for foreign policy decision-making.

 

Family background, youth and early career (1640–76)

Jean-Antoine de Mesmes d’Avaux was born in 1639 or 1640 into a highly prestigious intellectual family whose members had acquired their title for serving the French government in judicial, administrative and diplomatic positions –members of the Noblesse de robe.[10] His grandfather, Jean-Jacques was a knight (chevalier) and seigneur of Roissy, while his father, Jean-Antoine possessed one of the most significant mandates of justice at the Parlement of Paris as président à mortier.[11] His uncle, Claude de Mesmes, comte d’Avaux was a prominent diplomat and ambassador under cardinals Richelieu and Mazarin in Venice, Rome, Sweden and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The family’s involvement in state affairs is documented in Claude’s correspondence with his father, in which they frequently discussed French and European political news as well as the son’s career progress.[12] In the 1640s, Claude de Mesmes served at the peace negotiations in Münster which ended the Thirty Years’ War.[13] Although Jean-Antoine de Mesmes d’Avaux may be a less well-known diplomat than his uncle, he was nevertheless a crucial agent of French diplomacy in the Dutch Republic for a significant period of time, in one of the most critical periods of Franco-Dutch relations. Jean-Antoine followed a traditional judicial career, becoming firstly conseiller at the parliament in 1661, and then maître de requêtes in 1667.[14] These administrative offices provided the young noble with expertise in law and government. His sufficient but not ‘too high-level’ education and remarkable background accord with Wicquefort’s argument that a prestigious family was more influential in determining a potential ambassador’s success than were schooling and professional experience.[15] Additionally, Callières believed that it was beneficial for a diplomat to have a sufficiently pleasing face to charm an audience.[16] The French duke Louis de Rouvroy de Saint-Simon mentioned the Mesmes family several times in his memoirs and described d’Avaux’s appearance and behaviour as follows: ‘C’étoit un fort bel homme et bien fait, galant aussi, et qui avoit de l’honneur, fort l’esprit du grand monde, de la grâce, de la noblesse, et beaucoup de politesse.’[17] Saint-Simon also noted that d’Avaux had never possessed the title ‘comte d’Avaux’ but nevertheless liked to be referred to as count throughout his career.[18]

Due to a period of almost continuous warfare, Louis needed an efficient, professional diplomatic service to represent his interests abroad and, occasionally, to address disputes by diplomatic means. D’Avaux met these criteria, and was given his first ambassadorial commission to the Republic of Venice between 1672 and 1673. Although this period was relatively peaceful in the series of the Ottoman-Venetian wars, d’Avaux had an important diplomatic task. He needed to reconcile the relationship between the republic and France after the Cretan War (1645–69) in which the Venetians attributed the Ottoman victory at the Siege of Candia (1648–69) to the failures of the allied French army.[19] In addition to this effort, d’Avaux also dealt with commercial affairs by acting as mediator for the acquisition of Italian artefacts by the French court.[20] In a letter from Jean-Baptiste Colbert (1619–83) to d’Avaux, the Minister of Finances thanked the ambassador for sending him an item of luxury clothing as well as for his remarks on Venetian traders, suggesting that d’Avaux had contributed significantly to economic agreements between France and Venice.[21]

 

The Treaty of Nijmegen and the ambassadorial service in The Hague (1675–88)

One of the major political aspirations of the Sun King concerned the Spanish Succession, an ongoing European-wide dilemma of the late seventeenth century. The problem originated with Charles II of Spain, who was physically and mentally disabled and childless in both of his marriages. Louis initiated the War of Devolution (1667–68) by staking his claim for the Spanish throne through his wife, the sister of Charles, Maria Theresa of Spain. The Triple Alliance of the United Provinces of the Netherlands, England and Sweden in 1668 made Louis step back from his plans and thus became, along with the Dutch embargo on French products, one of the causes of the Franco-Dutch War between 1672 and 1679.[22]

Louis launched a war of conquest for territorial and commercial benefits and triumphed over the alliance that William III, Prince of Orange, had forged with Spain and the Holy Roman Empire. It was in the final stage of this conflict that the young d’Avaux truly grounded his future diplomatic career through his valuable negotiating skills. In 1674, Louis was primarily concerned with dismantling any form of alliance that opposed his interests, such as the one which was soon to emerge between the Dutch Republic and England. To negotiate the best conditions for France, the Sun King needed loyal, dedicated and well-trained diplomats. In December 1675, Louis appointed three plenipotentiaries to represent his interests directly in the negotiations: Colbert de Croissy (1625–96), brother of Minister of Finances Jean-Baptiste Colbert; Godefroi, Comte d’Estrade (1607–86); and Jean-Antoine de Mesmes d’Avaux.[23] Their main responsibility was to assure the delegates from other states of Louis’ benevolence and willingness to cooperate.[24] They relayed the King’s offers which consisted of trading benefits; the withdrawal of formerly installed restrictive duties; and the return of territories which had been occupied by French troops such as Maastricht and the Principality of Orange-Nassau. The latter concession was particularly important, since Louis had previously seized a number of European fortresses of strategic importance.[25] The mission enhanced the professional reputation of all three and proved to be an ideal entry-point into successful ambassadorial careers. From the French perspective, the treaty, which was signed by the representatives of France and the Dutch Republic on 10 August 1678, aimed to utilise and increase the political and military glory that Louis XIV had gained with his territorial captures.

The more than six years of hostility had fundamentally damaged the relations between the two states, and careful diplomatic steps were needed to reconcile them. Louis sent an ambassadeur extraordinaire to reinvigorate his relationship with the United Provinces, to extend the political, diplomatic and commercial successes which he had gained from the war and, most importantly, to uncover more about William III’s potential future military endeavours. For this, Louis chose d’Avaux as the key figure of the diplomatic rapprochement between France and the United Provinces. When the Prince of Orange challenged the Treaty of Nijmegen in August 1678 and called for resistance against France with a planned coalition with England, d’Avaux was put in charge of disentangling the issue by convincing the Dutch leadership of Louis’ trustworthiness. The king justified his appointment by stating that d’Avaux’s ‘présence donnera beaucoup plus de force aux assurances’.[26] Additionally, he instructed the diplomat to communicate with other ambassadors in The Hague and to convince them that the ratification of the remaining treaties with France would bring peace and friendship.[27] After d’Avaux’s success in resolving post-war interstate issues with Venice, Louis had confidence that d’Avaux could facilitate trust between the two sides. The latter was pleased to receive his commission in September 1678 and travelled from Nijmegen to The Hague at the end of that month.[28]

Court life was particularly expensive and Louis’ ambassadors never felt they were provided with sufficient means to maintain an appropriate degree of opulence – the Sun King’s envoys were meant to represent his superiority both materially and ceremonially. Callières similarly argued that ambassadors should possess considerable wealth, ‘afin d’être en état de soutenir les dépenses necessairement attachées a cet emploi.’[29] In 1679, d’Avaux began his commission as the new French ambassador to The Hague with an impressive ceremony to celebrate French successes gained with the Peace of Nijmegen.[30] The language of d’Avaux’s Mémoirs shows that he, as any of Louis’ ambassadors, was primarily and almost exclusively to represent the Roi Soleil personally, rather than the gouvernement and still less the peuple. The King’s name, titles and laudation were permanent elements of d’Avaux’s records, negotiations and widely circulated pamphlets.[31] One of the main benefits he had gained in the preceding years was his great circle of acquaintances and a few confidential relations. Most importantly, Colbert de Croissy, his fellow negotiator, became Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs in 1679. D’Avaux had several relatives and friends in high administrative positions at the royal court who provided him with a regular flow of information of considerable value in the following years.[32] During the negotiations, the policy of aggressive expansion that Louis had initially pursued fundamentally changed. Taking advantage of the political tension between the trading leaders and the Prince of Orange, Louis turned towards a more subtle approach by trying to create favourable conditions for the Dutch merchant elite.[33] In 1684, d’Avaux successfully negotiated with the Dutch provinces to have Louis’ proposals accepted by the States General, the legislature body of the Republic – in spite of the efforts of secrétaire général Gaspar Fagel (1634–88), a key representative of William III.[34]

A contemporary of d’Avaux, Louis-Henri de Loménie, comte de Brienne (1635–98) praised the diplomatic skills of the diplomat:

M. d’Avaux est un beau génie et fort facile; il a de grandes vues, beaucoup de pénétration et un grand usage des affaires. Il sait parfaitement les intérêts des princes de l’Europe, écrit et parle bien. Il seroit très digne d’être secrétaire d’État.[35]

D’Avaux dedicated considerable efforts to the resolution of two further issues. The first of these was the interception in the United Provinces of Huguenot refugees who had fled France after the enacting of the Edict of Fontainebleau in October 1685. With this decree, Louis revoked the Edict of Nantes, in which Henry IV of France had granted free exercise of religion for Calvinists in 1598. The persecution of French Protestants forced many of them to leave their home country for more religiously tolerant states, notably the Dutch Republic. The revived persecution of Protestants not only undermined the diplomatic relations of France, but caused economic harm due to the absence of a great number of Huguenots, who were diligent merchants and tradesmen.[36]  D’Avaux was trying to tempt some of these craftsmen back by offering them benefits, as long as they were willing to reconvert to Roman Catholicism. Politically, the growing number of Huguenot refugees in the Dutch Republic contributed to the deterioration of the States General’s attitude towards France, potentially frustrating d’Avaux’s plans to foster the conflict between them and William III.[37]

D’Avaux deployed espionage and bribery to gain access to the Huguenot community, with the intent that they be returned to France where they would have to abandon Protestantism. The ambassador addressed this problem with the help of a spy in Haarlem, Sieur de Tillières, who had been providing him with information about the refugees for years. This issue prompted d’Avaux to express his concerns regarding the negative impact of the persecutions. He indicated in his letters to Louis that the most effective technique to reduce the emigrations would be decreasing state aggression against the Protestants, instead of the continued policy of catching and returning them home.[38]

D’Avaux strongly encouraged Louis to cement his diplomatic relationship with the Dutch. However, William III of Orange, Stadtholder of the United Provinces approached the other Protestant maritime power, the Kingdom of England, hoping for an anti-French alliance. William had had aspirations to become the heir to the English throne since his marriage to Princess Mary in 1677, niece of the then sovereign Charles II. Mary’s father was crowned James II, King of England in 1685, but was not viewed favourably at home, due to his Catholic affiliations. His situation was threatened in June 1688, when a son was born to his second wife Mary of Modena. The birth of a Catholic prince provoked fears that through the heir, Catholicism would be restored and become the official religion.[39] D’Avaux was sufficiently confident to urge his king in the strongest terms: ‘J’avertis le Roi, pour la dixième fois, que tout ce qui se passoit de plus secret dans le Conseil du Roi d’Angleterre, étoit révélé au Prince d’Orange.’[40] Indeed, d’Avaux was proved correct when William ’invaded’ at England Protestant request in the Glorious Revolution in November 1688.[41]

Eventually, a large-scale European clash of political and economic interests developed in the guise of the Nine Years’ War (1688–97), mainly consisting of a Dutch, English (Williamite), and Holy Roman alliance against France’s ever increasing commercial and political superiority.[42] During the initial phase of the English dynastic rivalry, Louis had supported his cousin James, hoping that Catholicism, and his own influence, would be revived in England. D’Avaux dedicated considerable efforts to obtaining intelligence regarding William III’s maritime preparations. He reported on the danger he discerned in the plans of the Prince of Orange, particularly towards the English throne. To gather as much information as possible, d’Avaux followed Louis’s recommendation of establishing relations with the the republicans (members of the States party), who generally opposed the aspirations of the Stadtholder and the Orangist (pro-William) party.[43] He also found informants in the council of Amsterdam, a rich city with many republican supporters.[44] In addition, d’Avaux made use of William’s unpopular plan of increasing the size of the army against a possible French advancement in the Spanish Netherlands. D’Avaux was expected by the French administration to send alerts about every single movement of William and his Troupes, and his reports illustrate his diligence in this respect. Nonetheless, he did not hesitate to report about the States General’s decreasing sympathy towards the French cause:

Les Ministres du Roi d’Angleterre dirent que leur Maitre auroit une grosse Flotte en mer : cela servit de prétexte au Prince d’Orange pour faire un plus grand armement, car il étoit bien éloigné d’en rien craindre, puisqu’il étoit assuré que le Roi d’Angleterre n’étoit pas en état de mettre plus de sept á huit Vaisseaux. (…) Que supposé que le Prince d’Orange eut tous ces desseins, j’étois obligé de dire á Sa Majesté qu’il ne trouvat du secours dans les Etats-Generaux, que tous les fugitifs de France avoient tellement animé les Calvinistes de Hollande, qu’on n’oseroit se promettre que les Etats entrassent dans leurs véritables interets, comme ils auroient fait autrefois, si pareille occasion s’étoit présentée.[45]

From these reports, Louis learned that in addition to the followers of the prince, many supported William’s goal of promoting Protestantism and Dutch trade in England. However, the French court could not be fully aware of, or prepared for, the upcoming developments, due to William’s well-organised and cautious steps and the gradual erosion of d’Avaux’s intelligence circle. The inefficacy in providing sufficient information about William’s project can be regarded mainly as the result of the prince’s precautionary and increasing support, rather than d’Avaux’s failure as ambassador.

 

Irish expedition with James II (1689–90)

In early 1689, Louis appointed d’Avaux as advisor to James II of England, to help him reorganise his army in Ireland comprising both Protestants and Catholics.[46] D’Avaux’s correspondence from Ireland with Louis and Louvois, the French Secretary of State for War, provides us with a valuable insight into James II’s intentions and also into the diplomat’s endeavours and judgment of the situation during the campaign in Ireland in 1689–90. James II aimed to seize absolute control over Ireland in order to retaliate against William III, and thus to restore his royal power with a considerable social and military force behind him. However, the French king, and hence his ambassador, had a different priority in this campaign – to occupy William III’s attention and army away from the continent as much as possible.[47] Consequently, the clash of these interests was virtually inevitable.

William III was the central figure of the anti-French European coalition but his new English crown resulted in several challenges to this leadership.[48] Although d’Avaux did not arrive in Ireland in 1689 as an ambassador, he did bear a large share of the responsibility of Louis’s military success in Britain and Ireland. His extensive experience as both observer and influencer of public and political opinion facilitated his orientation in the Irish question. D’Avaux’s role in James II’s expedition in Ireland was essential as the diplomat realised the importance of William’s obstruction in the success of France and the Jacobites, and kept emphasising the interests of the French crown in the entire course of his engagement. In this expedition, James II was advised by the Irish soldier Richard Talbot, 1st Earl of Tyrconnell; the Scottish politician John Drummond, 1st Earl of Melfort; and d’Avaux. In the course of the first month, d’Avaux perceived a promising situation regarding the acceptance of James’ expedition. Nonetheless, upon arrival, d’Avaux found himself in disagreement with James over the crucial question of the Act of Settlement – the king wanted to maintain it, while the diplomat wished to terminate it. The 1662 law had caused problems because it had provided land for Protestants by taking land from Catholics. Consequently, either its upkeep or its dissolution would have resulted in dissatisfaction with James in Ireland. The land issue between Catholics and Protestants made Louis XIV reconsider his ideas about the clash of religious denominations. The Sun King appreciated d’Avaux’s suggestions of creating a compromise, and encouraged him to keep working on the improvement of James’ support among Irishmen:

En sorte que non seulement les Irlandois Catholiques . . . puissent espérer qu’il leur fera justice, mais aussy que les Protestants… puissent estre asseurez, que la différence de leur religion ne leur fera aucun prejudice aupres de luy.[49]

Nevertheless, a parallel can be drawn with the situation in The Hague, when the ambassador was closer to the actual situation than was the court he was serving, and thus assessed the situation differently from Louis. Firstly, d’Avaux’s judgement that the deteriorating situation was due to James’ incompetence and vanity was nurtured by his own experience of the English King. Secondly, Louis’ solution to the land question did not prove to be feasible—d’Avaux found out what the king had not: namely, that the religious division in Ireland was deeper than expected, and the initial objectives of the campaign should be adjusted to this reality. One of d’Avaux’s earliest reports expressed his discontent with James II’s leadership and organisational skills:

La seule chose, Sir, qui pourra nous faire de la peine, est l’irrésolution du Roy d’Angleterre, qui change souvent d’avis, et ne se détermine pas toujours au meilleur. Il s’arrête aussy beaucoup à de petites choses où il employe toujours son temps et passe légèrement sur les plus essentielles.[50]

D’Avaux urged James to thoroughly strengthen his social support and military forces in Ireland in order to prepare for the continuation of the war with William III. The diplomat believed that this support would be gained by reconciling with the Protestants of the north, or at least by ensuring they did not view James with hostility. D’Avaux urged caution, contrary to the King’s wishes to capitalise on his early successes and continue his campaign in Scotland as soon as possible. D’Avaux was confident enough – almost daring – to voice his disagreements with the royal decisions when he judged them to be hazardous or oppositional to French interests. This attitude, however, led to significant tension with James and the Earl of Melfort, the former’s chief counselor in military matters.[51]

Moreover, d’Avaux complained about the difficulty of acquiring adequate information about James II’s supporters and opponents, telling Louis that ‘le Roy d’Angleterre n’a nulle correspondence en Angleterre, ny en Ecosse’.[52] In spite of the relatively short time he had spent in Ireland, d’Avaux was already able to effectively measure the attitude of Irish society by the beginning of April: ’Le peuple et la noblesse d’Irlande sont également persuadez que c’est icy la seule occasion qu’ils pouvoient avoir de recouvrer leur liberté…’[53] He recognised that the tension between James’ main objective and that of his subjects would have unpleasant ramifications for the enterprise. D’Avaux did not hesitate to express his concerns regarding the efficiency of the recruitment, organisation and management of soldiers as soon as he noticed the first signs of inadequacy in the middle of April 1689. The diplomat concluded that these problems would weaken James’ influence and also increase William’s chances of attacking him in Ireland.[54] News about his growing popularity in Scotland bolstered James’s confidence and determination to go on fighting there.[55] Negligence remained a general feature of James’ policy regarding the physical condition, preparedness and armament of his Irish troops throughout the entire expedition. Altogether, the delay in army reform and increasing Protestant resistance gradually decreased the opportunities of the Franco-Jacobite forces. D’Avaux informed Louis about further issues in the army, such as the inefficient use of French military aid and the lack of adequate payment which caused indiscipline among the soldiers.[56] From late spring, d’Avaux was placed in charge of the army and made efforts to install some degree of discipline, a scheme of payment and the provision of weaponry. However, these belated attempts brought limited success and only increased his personal frustration.[57]

Louis insisted on taking the lead in the Irish expedition and, through d’Avaux, on shaping the events according to his own judgement. However, James’ defeat in his conflict with the Protestants at Derry made the Sun King realise that the expedition would be delayed due to the contradiction between their intentions. Both the king and Louvois started to endorse d’Avaux’s observations and suggestions regarding the steps to be taken in early summer.[58] Over the course of the summer, d’Avaux showed disapproval towards James’ attitude, this time towards the Irish parliament which intended to facilitate trade with France and introduce an embargo on English products.[59] D’Avaux’s disillusionment with the ideals of the French-supported Irish expedition derived from James’ ignoring of most of his political and military advice, as well as the increasing tension between French and Jacobite intentions. D’Avaux’s warnings about the necessity of strengthening power in Ireland were ignored, which led to the weakening of James’ authority and social support, which gradually decreased the chances of his restoration. By the end of the summer, d’Avaux’s relationship with the English king had permanently deteriorated due to the lack of confidence and mutual agreement.[60] His reports about the situation spurred Louis to modify his policies and the French king often simply approved d’Avaux’s evaluations. Importantly, d’Avaux took Louis’ other military commitments in the continent into account when advising James.[61] By November, his position as James’ counselor became obsolete, and he was dismissed shortly thereafter.[62] D’Avaux accepted this news with opposition and contempt for his successor Antoine Nompar de Caumont, comte de Lauzun: ‘il n’est pas assez fort pour soustenir le poids des affaires dont il est chargé.’[63] D’Avaux felt fully responsible for the failure of most of his efforts to save James’ campaign. We can also presume some degree of perfectionism since he was unwilling to leave before achieving his goals. From these accounts, a conscientious, experienced and attentive diplomat emerges, one unafraid to report accurately and offer his own advice, even when it contradicted his king’s intended strategic direction. As d’Avaux observed the English king ignoring his strategic and tactical recommendations, his reports became increasingly disenchanted and resigned. After all, d’Avaux’s accurate appraisal of the political, military, social and religious circumstances in Ireland led not to the implementation of his advice, but rather to his alienation from James II.

Despite the failed Irish expedition, d’Avaux remained an honoured member of Louis XIV’s diplomatic staff. Between 1692 and 1699, d’Avaux served as France’s ambassador to the Kingdom of Sweden where his chief task was to convince Charles XI of Sweden (1660-97) to act as mediator between France and the Holy Roman Empire in the peace negotiations that concluded the Nine Years’ War.[64] In 1701, d’Avaux briefly deputised the ailing French ambassador Gabriel de Briord in The Hague, before Louis’ diplomatic relations broke with the United Provinces due to the outbreak of the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-14).[65]

 

Conclusion

Jean-Antoine de Mesmes d’Avaux followed the family tradition of entering a judicial career, followed by the diplomatic profession. He met the requirements set for Louisquatorzien ambassadors by being French, Roman Catholic, noble, wealthy, middle-aged, legally trained (but not highly educated), good-looking, well-behaved, and by having an extended network of influential friends and relatives in illustrious social circles. On the other hand, he remained unmarried and did not speak many languages. Most importantly, d’Avaux was eager, inventive, dedicated and loyal to Louis XIV. The combination of these characteristics, along with the prominence of his origins, made him a perfect candidate for the highest diplomatic service.

D’Avaux was a prominent, acknowledged and a highly successful ambassador of the Louisquatorzien era. The main proof of this were the high number of places of service throughout his career; the exceptionally long period of time spent in The Hague, Europe’s major diplomatic centre; and more importantly, his active involvement in Louis XIV’s most significant diplomatic issues. D’Avaux’s correspondence from the time of his activities in the Dutch Republic – at Nijmegen and in The Hague—attested to his incessant fidelity, dedication, enthusiasm and creativity in seeking information in favour of his prince’s interests. Many of the analysed sources demonstrate that the king relied not only on the news and rumours provided by d’Avaux about the events at his residencies, but also on his personal opinion in crucial questions. It is an ongoing question as to whether Louis XIV’s diplomats followed the King’s diplomatic directions in a largely servile fashion, and the degree to which they were able to assert their own views and voice disagreements. We can argue that Louisquatorzien ambassadors represented Louis XIV in the first instance and that the King’s values, interests and ambitions hence largely defined their manoeuvres. Nevertheless, d’Avaux gained a detailed knowledge of home affairs at foreign courts while receiving only partial information from Louis XIV about his own large-scale international political endeavours. Therefore, d’Avaux’s life and career show that an experienced ambassador, who had spent much time far away from Paris and was actively involved in influencing the direction of politics at foreign courts, could develop his own approach and attitude in diplomatic questions.

D’Avaux continued to diligently represent French interests by James II’s side in Ireland with his diplomatic and martial expertise. In addition to promoting what he found best for the French crown, he also strived to help James’ cause and success against William, as long as these two goals ran parallel to each other. The main issue that d’Avaux faced during this expedition was James’ differing aspirations and unwillingness to compromise, or at least to listen to his advice. Thus, the Irish expedition can be called successful in terms of d’Avaux’s loyal dedication to serving Louis XIV, but unsuccessful in influencing James II to the extent of fulfilling French interests and restoring his power. To conclude, Jean-Antoine de Mesmes d’Avaux was one of the most influential, prominent and reliable ambassadors of Louis XIV. He remained a faithful servant of his king during his career. At the same time, however, the evidence suggests that a sufficiently confident and successful diplomat could act with a fair degree of independence in matters of French foreign service.

 

Bibliography

 Manuscript and Archival Sources

Leiden University Libraries — Special Collections, Leiden (UBL): Jean-Antoine de Mesmes d’Avaux, Mémoires de S.E. mr. le comte d’ Avaux, ambassadeur extraordinaire de sa majesté trés-Chrétienne, presenté aux États Généraux des Provinces Unies (le 28 avril 1685).

Leiden University Libraries — Special Collections, Leiden (UBL): Jean-Antoine de Mesmes d’Avaux, Négociations de Monsieur le comte d’Avaux en Hollande depuis 1679 jusqu’en 1688, vol. 6 (Paris, 1704).

Nationale Bibliotheek van Nederland — Koninklijke Bibliotheek, The Hague (KL): Jean-Antoine de Mesmes d’Avaux, Négociations de M. le comte d’Avaux en Irlande, 1689–90, Hogan, J. (ed.) (Dublin, 1934).

Bibliothèque nationale de France, Gallica — The BnF digital library, Paris (BnF): Abraham de Wicquefort, L’ambassadeur et ses fonctions. Par Monsieur de Wicquefort, Marteau, P. (ed.) (Cologne, 1690, https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k93844c, accessed 08.12.2019.

Bibliothèque nationale de France, Gallica — The BnF digital library, Paris (BnF): Claude de Mesmes, comte d’Avaux, Correspondance inédite du Comte d’Avaux (Claude de Mesmes) avec son père Jean-Jacques de Mesmes, Sr de Roissy (1627–1642), Boppe, A. (ed.) (Paris, 1887), https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k9601491s.texteImage, accessed 12.12.2019.

Bibliothèque nationale de France, Gallica — The BnF digital library, Paris (BnF): François de Callières, De la manière de négocier avec les souverains : de l’utilité des négociations, du choix des ambassadeurs et des envoyez, et des qualitez necessaires pour réussir dans ces emplois (Amsterdam, 1716), https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k936753, accessed 08.12.2019.

 

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François Michel Le Tellier de Louvois, Letters of Louvois, Hardré, J. (ed.) (Chapel Hill, 1949).

Correspondance administrative sous le règne de Louis XIV, entre le cabinet du roi, les secrétaires d’état, le chancelier de France, Depping, G. B. (ed.) (Paris, 1855), https://archive.org/details/correspondancead04depp/page/406, accessed 19.12.2019.

Gazette de France, no. 35, 20 August 1695, https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k57029613.item, accessed 18.12.2019.

Jean-Antoine de Mesmes d’Avaux, A memorial of His Excellency the Earl of Avaux, extraordinary ambassador from the most Christian king; delivered to the States General, concerning the false interpretation, made to be the meanings of his intercepted letter (1684). London: Given at the Hague on 28 February 1684, and reprinted in London for Walter Davis, Early English Books Online (Imgaes reproduced by courtesy of Bodleian Library), https://search.proquest.com/eebo/docview/2240854408/fulltextPDF/B3750F6599ED4111PQ/1?accountid=12045, accessed 12.12.2019.

Jean-Baptiste Colbert, Lettres, instructions et mémoires de Colbert, Clément, P. (ed.) (Paris, 1863), https://archive.org/details/p2lettresinstruc02colbuoft, accessed 12.12.2019.

Louis-Henri de Loménie, Mémoires de Louis-Henri de Loménie, comte de Brienne, dit le jeune Brienne, Bonnefon, Paul (ed.) (Paris, 1916), https://archive.org/details/memoiresdelouish03brie, accessed 16.12.2019.

Louis Moréri, Le grand dictionnaire historique ou Le mélange curieux de l’histoire sacrée et profane, vol. 7, 3rd ed., Goujet, C-P., & Drouet, É. F. (eds.) (Paris, 1759), https://archive.org/details/MoreriGdDictHist07bnf.pdf, accessed 20.12.2019.

Louis de Rouvroy de Saint-Simon, Les grands écrivains de la France (tome XVII): Saint-Simon. Mémoires, Régnier, A. (ed.) (Paris, 1879), https://archive.org/details/memoiresdesaints17sain, accessed 16.12.2019.

Recueil des instructions données aux ambassadeurs et ministres de France depuis les traités de Westphalie jusqu’à la Révolution française. XXI–XXII: Hollande, André, L., & Bourgeois, É. (eds.) (Paris, 1922–1924).

 

Secondary sources

André, L., Louis XIV et l’Europe (Paris, 1950).

Chappell, C. L., ‘Through the Eyes of a Spy: Venom and Value in an Enemy’s Report on the Huguenot Emigration’, in McKee, J., & Vigne, R. (eds.), The Huguenots: France, exile & diaspora (Brighton, 2013), pp. 77–88.

Clark, G. N., The Dutch Alliance and the War Against French Trade, 1686–1697 (Manchester, 1923).

Côté, M-H., ‘What Did It Mean to be a French Diplomat in the Seventeenth and Early Eighteenth Centuries?’, Canadian Journal of History — Annales canadiennes d’histoire, 45 (2010), pp. 235–58.

Geyl, P., ‘Johan de Witt, Grand Pensionary of Holland, 1653–72’, History – New Series, 20 (1936), pp. 303–19.

Gisselquist, O. N., The French ambassador, Jean-Antoine De Mesmes, Comte D’Avaux, and French diplomacy in The Hague, 1678–1684 (Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Minnesota, 1968).

Lynn, J. A., The Wars of Louis XIV, 1667–1714 (London, 1999).

Miller, J., James II (New Haven, 2000).

Ogg, D., Europe in the seventeenth century (London, 1960).

Roosen, W., The Ambassador’s craft: a study of the functioning of French ambassadors under Louis XIV (Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Southern California, 1967).

Roosen, W., ‘The True Ambassador: Occupational and Personal Characteristics of the French Ambassador under Louis XIV’, European Studies Quarterly, 3 (1973), pp. 121–39.

Setton, K. M., Venice, Austria, and the Turks in the seventeenth century (Philadelphia, 1991).

Symcox, G. W., Louis XIV and the war in Ireland, 1689–1691: A study of his strategic thinking and decision-making (Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of California, 1967).

Tischer, A., ‘Claude de Mesmes, Count d’Avaux (1595–1650): The Perfect Ambassador of the Early 17th Century’, International Negotiations, 13 (2008), pp. 197–209.

Van Zuylen Van Nyevelt, S., Court life in the Dutch Republic, 1638–1689 (London & New York, 1906).

Wolf, J. B., Louis XIV (New York, 1968).

 

Further reading

Kossmann, E. H., ‘The Dutch Republic’ in Carsten, F. L. (ed.), The New Cambridge Modern History, vol. V (Cambridge, 1961), pp. 275–300.

Wilkinson, R., Louis XIV, 2nd ed. (London & New York, 2018).

Zeller, G., ‘French Diplomacy and Foreign Policy in their European Setting’ in Carsten, The New Cambridge Modern History, pp. 198–221.

 

Notes

[1] I would like to thank Dr. Maurits A. Ebben (Institute for History, Leiden University) for his valuable advice in the autumn of 2019 in the course of writing the paper which served as the basis of this article. Figure on the cover page: Hyacinthe Rigaud, Portrait of Jean-Antoine de Mesmes 4th son of Jean-Jacques de Mesmes (France, 1702), Wikimedia Commons, 2019, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Portrait_of_Jean-Antoine_de_Mesmes_(1640-1709)_by_Hyacinthe_Rigaud.jpg, accessed 23.12.2019. All translations are the author’s own unless otherwise indicated.

[2] Abraham de Wicquefort, L’ambassadeur et ses fonctions. Par Monsieur de Wicquefort, P. Marteau (ed.) (Cologne, 1690, https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k93844c, accessed 08.12.2019, p. 6, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Gallica — The BnF digital library, Paris (BnF).

[3] François de Callières, De la manière de négocier avec les souverains (Amsterdam, 1716), https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k936753, accessed 08.12.2019, pp. 85–90, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Gallica — The BnF digital library, Paris (BnF).

[4] W. Roosen, The Ambassador’s craft: a study of the functioning of French ambassadors under Louis XIV (Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Southern California, 1967), p. 106.

[5] O. N. Gisselquist, The French ambassador, Jean-Antoine De Mesmes, Comte D’Avaux, and French diplomacy in The Hague, 1678–1684 (Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Minnesota, 1968), pp. 336–60.

[6] The terms ‘Dutch Republic’ and ‘United Provinces (of the Netherlands)’ are used to refer to the same territory and political unity in this article.

[7] Gisselquist, The French ambassador, pp. 361–64.

[8] M-H. Côté, ‘What Did It Mean to be a French Diplomat in the Seventeenth and Early Eighteenth Centuries?’, Canadian Journal of History — Annales canadiennes d’histoire, 45 (2010), pp. 235–58, 242–50.

[9] These countries include the Republic of Venice, the Dutch Republic, Ireland, and the Kingdom of Sweden.

[10] W. Roosen, ‘The True Ambassador: Occupational and Personal Characteristics of French Ambassadors under Louis XIV’, European History Quarterly, 3 (1973), pp. 121–39, 122.

[11] The présidents à mortier were the principle magistrates of the parlements, the appellate courts of the Ancien Régime. Louis Moréri, Le grand dictionnaire historique ou Le mélange curieux de l’histoire sacrée et profane, vol. 7, 3rd ed., C.-P. Goujet, & É. F. Drouet (eds.) (Paris, 1759), https://archive.org/details/MoreriGdDictHist07bnf.pdf, accessed 20.12.2019, p. 495.

[12] Claude de Mesmes, comte d’Avaux, Correspondance inédite du Comte d’Avaux (Claude de Mesmes) avec son père Jean-Jacques de Mesmes, Sr de Roissy (1627–1642), A. Boppe (ed.) (Paris, 1887), https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k9601491s.texteImage, accessed 12.12.2019, pp. 197–99, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Gallica — The BnF digital library, Paris (BnF).

[13] A. Tischer, ‘Claude de Mesmes, Count d’Avaux (1595–1650): The Perfect Ambassador of the Early 17th Century’, International Negotiations, 13 (2008), pp. 197–209, 203.

[14] The maîtres de requêtes were judicial counselors of the Conseil d’État (Council of State). Gazette de France, no. 35, 20 August 1695, https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k57029613.item, accessed 18.12.2019, p. 395.

[15] Wicquefort, L’ambassadeur et ses fonctions, p. 77.

[16]  ‘…il ait un noble exteriur & une figure agreable qui lui facilite les moyens de plaire.’ in Callières, De la manière de négocier avec les souverains, p. 47.

[17] Louis de Rouvroy de Saint-Simon, Les grands écrivains de la France (tome XVII): Saint-Simon. Mémoires A. Régnier (ed.) (Paris, 1879), https://archive.org/details/memoiresdesaints17sain, p. 100.

[18] ‘He was a strong handsome man and good-looking, also brave, and who had honour, strong spirit of the great world, grace, nobility, and a lot of politeness.’ Saint-Simon, Les grands écrivains de la France, p. 110.

[19] K. M. Setton, Venice, Austria, and the Turks in the seventeenth century (Philadelphia, 1991), pp. 225–27.

[20] Jean-Baptiste Colbert, Lettres, instructions et mémoires de Colbert, P. Clément (ed.) (Paris, 1863), https://archive.org/details/p2lettresinstruc02colbuoft, accessed 16.12.2019, pp. 660–61.

[21] Colbert, Lettres, instructions et mémoires de Colbert, p. 672.

[22] P. Geyl, ‘Johan de Witt, Grand Pensionary of Holland, 1653–72’, History – New Series, 20 (1936), pp. 303–19, 311.

[23] Recueil des instructions données aux ambassadeurs et ministres de France depuis les traités de Westphalie jusqu’à la Révolution française. XXI–XXII: Hollande, L. André, & É. Bourgeois (eds.) (Paris, 1922–1924), pp. 344–45.

[24] John B. Wolf, Louis XIV (New York, 1968), pp. 193–211.

[25] André & Bourgeois, Recueil des instructions … Hollande, pp. xxxviiil xl.

[26] ‘… presence will give much more strength to the assurances.’ André & Bourgeois, Recueil des instructions … Hollande, pp. xl–xliii.

[27] André & Bourgeois, Recueil des instructions … Hollande, pp. 396–98.

[28] André & Bourgeois, Recueil des instructions … Hollande, p. 382.

[29] ‘… in order to be able to support the expenses necessarily attached to this job.’ Callières, De la manière de négocier avec les souverains, p. 46.

[30] S. Van Zuylen Van Nyevelt, Court life in the Dutch Republic, 1638–1689 (London & New York, 1906), p. 292.

[31] For instance: Jean-Antoine de Mesmes d’Avaux, Mémoires de S.E. mr. le comte d’ Avaux, ambassadeur extraordinaire de sa majesté trés-Chrétienne, presenté aux États Généraux des Provinces Unies (le 28 avril 1685), Leiden University Libraries – Special Collections, Leiden (UBL).

[32] For example, during James II of England’s Irish campaign where he worked as the king’s advisor. D’Avaux to Louis XIV on 30 August 1689 in Jean-Antoine de Mesmes d’Avaux, Négociations de M. le comte d’Avaux en Irlande, 1689–90, J. Hogan (ed.) (Dublin, 1934), p. 428, Nationale Bibliotheek van Nederland – Koninklijke Bibliotheek, The Hague (KL).

[33] Gisselquist, The French ambassador, pp. 9–10.

[34] François Michel Le Tellier de Louvois, Letters of Louvois, J. Hardré (ed.) (Chapel Hill, 1949), pp. 365–66.

[35] ‘M. d’Avaux is a nice and very easy-going genius; he has great views, a lot of understanding, and a great use of business. He knows the interests of the princes of Europe perfectly, writes and speaks well. He would be very worthy of being secretary of state.’ Louis-Henri de Loménie, Mémoires de Louis-Henri de Loménie, comte de Brienne, dit le jeune Brienne, P. Bonnefon (ed.) (Paris, 1916), https://archive.org/details/memoiresdelouish03brie, accessed 16.12.2019, pp. 261–62.

[36] D. Ogg, Europe in the seventeenth century (London, 1960), p. 293.

[37] Correspondance administrative sous le règne de Louis XIV, entre le cabinet du roi, les secrétaires d’état, le chancelier de France, G. B. Depping (ed.) (Paris, 1855), https://archive.org/details/correspondancead04depp/page/406, accessed 19.12.2019, p. 406.

[38] C. L. Chappell, ‘Through the Eyes of a Spy: Venom and Value in an Enemy’s Report on the Huguenot Emigration’, in J. McKee, & R. Vigne (eds.), The Huguenots: France, exile & diaspora (Brighton, 2013), pp. 77–88, 81–84.

[39] D’Avaux to Louis XIV on 20 July 1688 in Jean-Antoine de Mesmes d’Avaux, Négociations de Monsieur le comte d’Avaux en Hollande depuis 1679 jusqu’en 1688, vol. 6 (Paris, 1704), pp. 168–69, Leiden University Libraries – Special Collections, Leiden (UBL).

[40] ‘I warn the King, for the tenth time, that everything that is going on in the greatest secrecy in the Council of the King of England has been revealed to the Prince of Orange.’ D’Avaux to Louis XIV on 24 June 1688 in d’Avaux, Négociations… en Hollande…, p. 164.

[41] J. Miller, James II (New Haven, 2000), pp. 186–96.

[42] G. N. Clark, The Dutch Alliance and the War Against French Trade, 1686–1697 (Manchester, 1923), p. 1.

[43] André & Bourgeois, Recueil des instructions … Hollande, p. 399.

[44] A memorial of His Excellency the Earl of Avaux, extraordinary ambassador from the most Christian king; delivered to the States General, concerning the false interpretation, made to be the meanings of his intercepted letter (1684). London: Given at the Hague on 28 February 1684, and reprinted in London for Walter Davis, Early English Books Online (Images reproduced by courtesy of Bodleian Library), https://search.proquest.com/eebo/docview/2240854408/fulltextPDF/B3750F6599ED4111PQ/1?accountid=12045, accessed 12.12.2019.

[45] ‘The ministers of the King of England said that their master would have a large fleet at sea: this served as an excuse for the Prince of Orange to make a greater armament, for he was far from fearing anything, since it was assured that the King of England was not in a condition to apply more than seven to eight ships. (…) That supposing that the Prince of Orange had all these designs, I was obliged to tell His Majesty that he found no help in the Estates-General, that all the fugitives from France had invigorated the Calvinists of Holland so much that one would not dare to promise that the States would join their genuine interests, as they would have done in the past, if such an opportunity had risen.’ D’Avaux to Louis XIV on 10 June 1688 in d’Avaux, Négociations… en Hollande…, vol. 6, pp. 160–62.

[46] L. André, Louis XIV et l’Europe (Paris, 1950), pp. 256–57.

[47] J. A. Lynn, The Wars of Louis XIV, 1667–1714 (London, 1999), p 203.

[48] G. W. Symcox, Louis XIV and the war in Ireland, 1689–1691: A study of his strategic thinking and decision-making (Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of California, 1967), pp. 97–98.

[49] ‘So that not only the Irish Catholics… can hope that he will do justice to them, but also that the Protestants… can be assured, that the difference of their religion will not do any harm to them by him.’ Louis XIV to d’Avaux on 12 March 1689 in d’Avaux, Négociations… en Irlande…, pp. 31–32.

[50] ‘The only thing, Sir, that can hurt us, is the irresolution of the King of England, who often changes his mind, and is not always determined to the best. He also stops a lot at little things where he always takes his time and spends it lightly on the most essential [things].’ D’Avaux to Louis XIV on 23 March 1689 in d’Avaux, Négociations… en Irlande…, p. 23.

[51] Symcox, Louis XIV and the war in Ireland, 1689–1691: A study of his strategic thinking and decision-making, p. 106.

[52] ‘… the King of England has no correspondence in England, nor in Scotland.’ D’Avaux to Louis XIV on 4 April 1689 in d’Avaux, Négociations… en Irlande…, p. 50.

[53] ‘The people and the nobility of Ireland are also convinced that this is the only opportunity they can have to regain their freedom…’ D’Avaux to Louis XIV on 4 April 1689 in d’Avaux, Négociations… en Irlande…, p. 50.

[54] D’Avaux to Louis XIV on 14 April 1689 in d’Avaux, Négociations… en Irlande…, pp. 50–54.

[55] D’Avaux to Louvois on 16 April 1689 in d’Avaux, Négociations… en Irlande…, p. 77.

[56] D’Avaux to Louis XIV on 6 May 1689 in d’Avaux, Négociations… en Irlande…, p. 111.

[57] D’Avaux to Louis XIV on 27 May 1689 in d’Avaux, Négociations… en Irlande…, pp. 183–85.

[58] Louis XIV to d’Avaux on 24 May 1689 in d’Avaux, Négociations… en Irlande…, p. 239; Louvois to d’Avaux on 13th June 1689 in d’Avaux, Négociations… en Irlande…, pp. 271–72.

[59] D’Avaux to Louis XIV on 6 August 1689 in d’Avaux, Négociations… en Irlande…, pp. 341–42.

[60] D’Avaux to Louis XIV on 14 August 1689 in d’Avaux, Négociations… en Irlande…, pp. 378–79.

[61] Louis XIV to d’Avaux on 29 June 1689 in d’Avaux, Négociations… en Irlande…, pp. 409–10.

[62] Louvois to d’Avaux on 11 November 1689 in d’Avaux, Négociations… en Irlande…, p. 585.

[63] ‘…. he is not strong enough to bear the weight of the matters he is in charge of.’ D’Avaux to Croissy on 22 December 1689 in d’Avaux, Négociations… en Irlande…, p. 618.

[64] Lynn, The Wars of Louis XIV, 1667-1714, p. 253.

[65] Lynn, The Wars of Louis XIV, 1667-1714, pp. 267-70.

 

 

 

What is ‘trans history’, anyway?: Historiographical theory and practice in a flourishing field

Abstract

This article provides an overview of theory and practice in current trans historical scholarship. It delineates key historiographical discussions and examines their implications for one of the most controversial and long-standing questions in the field: when does trans history begin? It is argued that there are three prominent schools of thought in contemporary trans history — the Feinberg school, which views trans history as extending into antiquity; the medical school, which views it as beginning in the mid-nineteenth or early-twentieth century with the coining of ‘trans’ medical terminology; and the intersectional school, which shifts emphasis away from the question of when trans ‘began’ and towards a discussion of its social, cultural, and political entanglements alongside other forms of identity and oppression.

Keywords: Trans history, trans historiography; transgender, transsexual, LGBT+.

A note on names and pronouns: This article uses each author’s preferred name at the time of writing. Some books and articles examined here were originally published under a different first name. The gender-neutral pronouns they/them and ze/hir are used where applicable.

Author Biography

Rebecca Hickman is a PhD History student at the University of Nottingham, funded by Midlands4Cities. Her research examines the role of ‘recognition’ in the British trans rights movement

What is ‘trans history’, anyway?: Historiographical theory and practice in a flourishing field

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Since the first institutional shoots of what is now called ‘transgender studies’ emerged in the late-twentieth century, commentators have perennially called it an ‘emerging’ field. However, as Regina Kunzel argued in the first volume of the journal Transgender Studies Quarterly (TSQ) in 2014, trans scholarship, with its own journal, several archival institutions, and a number of edited collections, is now better described as ‘vibrant, diverse, and flourishing’.[1] In addition to the general overviews provided by the two Transgender Studies Reader volumes,[2] more targeted edited volumes like Debates in Transgender, Queer, and Feminist Theory (2010), Transfeminist Perspectives in an beyond Transgender and Gender Studies (2012), and Trans Studies: The Challenge to Hetero/Homo Normativities (2016), have seen trans scholarship — secure in its foundations — subdivide itself into specialist lines of inquiry. The maturation in the previous decade of trans of colour critique, one of the most intellectually progenitive elements in contemporary trans studies, has been punctuated by a 2011 volume of Feminist Studies titled ‘Race and Transgender Studies’ and a 2017 volume of TSQ titled the ‘Issue of Blackness’. There are still significant limitations, however — not least of which is the field’s geographic truncation. Of the various national and regional subsections, North American trans studies is, by some margin, the most institutionally developed, with a dominant share of the field’s major monographs, edited volumes, journals, archival institutions, and research/teaching positions.[3]

Trans history has undergone much the same developmental trajectory as the broader field. Some of the leading theorists in trans studies have been historians, while many of the seminal texts of trans scholarship are histories by discipline or at least carry historically-oriented arguments.[4] The centrality of history to this new academic ecosystem is attributable in part to the pressing question of where trans phenomena ‘came from’. Put simply, dispelling myths that trans is a ‘fad’ remains key to its historicisation. In addition to its political and cultural timeliness, trans history’s rise has also been aided by concurrent developments in trans archiving: most significantly, the Transgender Archives at the University of Victoria, Canada, the largest trans archive in the world, was founded in 2007, while the Digital Transgender Archive, a valuable and accessible resource with global reach, was launched in 2016. In the United Kingdom there are numerous institutions with archives partly or entirely relating to trans history, including the Museum of Transology, the Queer Beyond London Project, the Hall-Carpenter Archives, and the Bishopsgate Institute, as well as records kept by former or current activists. Trans-related files are also gradually becoming available at the National Archives, Kew, and oral history collections are growing in size and number.[5] Given this growth in catalogued source material, efforts to codify a trans archival praxis have emerged to consider pressing methodological and ethical issues like the inclusion of pre-trans forms of gender-nonconformity under the label ‘trans’,[6] and the handling of material that relates to living and marginalised people/communities.[7] Trans historians beginning their research career today have the luxury of entering a field with an evolved praxis and an exponentially growing list of canonical texts.

The field has matured to such an extent that there are now recognisably distinct schools of thought within it. I will examine three of the most prominent schools here — which I will call the Feinberg school (after the pioneering American trans activist and historian, Leslie Feinberg), the medical school, and the intersectional school — and will argue that each group’s view of trans history ultimately stems from a fundamental disagreement about when the trans past actually begins (or, alternatively, whether there is any theoretical value in trying to pin down a precise trans ‘beginning’). Scholars from the Feinberg school envision a long chronology, believing trans identity and practice to be as old as humanity itself. Conversely, those in the medical school typically place trans history’s beginnings quite recently: either in the 1950s, when ‘sex-change’ stories became media sensations; or otherwise in the mid-nineteenth century, when the actual phraseology of transvestism and transsexuality was coined. Intersectional trans histories, though often focusing on the 1800s and 1900s, tend to shift emphasis away from the question of when trans history begins towards the question of why trans took over as the dominant mode of understanding gender-nonconformity.

Each answer is tied up with other fundamental questions, like the supposed ‘causes’ of trans, and each carries heavy political implications. For instance, if trans is ‘caused’ by inexpungible biological factors (a notion, it must be noted, that is rejected or problematised in many trans discourses[8]) or otherwise infused into the human condition, it follows that it is likely older than recorded history. Thinkers of the Feinberg school use the ‘fact’ of trans antiquity as the foundation stone for their campaign for respect and rights. Those who see trans as regressive or inimical to women’s ‘sex-based rights’,[9] on the other hand, have argued that it is a new invention and that, having arisen from nothing, it can return to nothing with enough social and political pressure. Many of the theories discussed below are thus responses to immediate political contingencies. Indeed, from the beginning, the very existence of trans history has itself been a point of contention. Bombarded by condescension and erasure, early pioneers in the field were continually required to justify their own professional existence.

 

Justification

Trans history had to overcome numerous theoretical and practical barriers in its early years. Emerging after at least three decades of gay and queer historical inquiry, for example, trans history had to contend with the fact that many potentially ‘trans’ historical figures had already been co-opted as lesbian or gay. This led some trans people to feel that ‘their history was being taken away’, particularly where trans men were concerned.[10] Nan Alamilla Boyd observed that lesbian and trans communities ‘share a common but sometimes hostile relationship to overlapping historical geographies’, resulting in tempestuous discussions over whether certain individuals were butch lesbians or trans men.[11] Both claims could be seen as ahistorical in the sense that they impose contemporary concepts on figures who existed in different intellectual and discursive ecosystems from our own, assuming the existence of a transhistorical, underlying truth behind sex and gender that, as French philosopher-historian Michel Foucault argued in the context of hermaphroditism, has not always been regarded as ontologically necessary.[12] In that regard, neither can be characterised as ‘correct’, but nor should either be disregarded entirely. Lesbian and trans scholars draw different significances from historical gender-nonconformity because they are attempting to shed light on distinct aspects of the ‘relationships of power’[13] perpetuated via sexuality, sex, and gender. Trans scholars simply had the practical misfortune of coming second to the historical co-option game.

Even more fundamentally, various influential authors around the turn of the twenty-first century cast doubt on the historicity of trans and emphasised instead its futurity. For better or worse, trans temporality was widely seen as quintessentially futuristic, having revolutionised our relationship with nature, medical technology, and time in a ‘postmodern’ world.[14] Every trans life seemed to remove another brick from cultural and biological shibboleths once held inviolable.[15] This perception came to a head in the 1980s and 1990s, when the concurrent rise of home computers and the Internet made the growing visibility of trans people seem like part of a broader post-structural ontological crisis in the digital age[16] — a ‘punk hyper-modernity’, as Paul B. Preciado dubbed it.[17]

As befitting the era of existentialist science fiction films like Bladerunner (1982) and The Matrix (1999), some commentators borrowed sci-fi terminology to describe this disturbance in the order of things. Donna Haraway, a defining late-twentieth century feminist, argued that trans medical procedures were part of a new ‘cyborg’ humanity, heralding a ‘post-gender world’ where the organic and the artificial comingled.[18] This was the final frontier of post-structuralism; a Rubicon; a brave new world where ‘no amount of trying’ could ever revive the perceived simplicity of the past.[19] For some, like prolific trans historian Susan Stryker, ‘posthuman’ epistemology brought exciting new possibilities.[20] For others, including ‘trans-exclusionary’ feminists like Janice Raymond and Germaine Greer, trans identity represented an existential new threat to women’s rights — an attempt by the patriarchy to undermine the political coherence of womanhood so as to undo the progress of feminism.[21] Either way, as literary critic Rita Felski recognised, there was a tendency for trans and non-trans commentators alike to see the birth of trans temporality as a rupture in history. Felski notes that, as the third millennium approached,

gender emerge[d] as a privileged symbolic field for the articulation of diverse fashionings of history and time within postmodern thought. Thus the destabilization of the male/female divide is seen to bring with it a waning of temporality, teleology, and grand narrative; the end of sex echoes and affirms the end of history.

Accordingly, Felski writes, the transgender subject is portrayed as ‘either apocalyptic or redemptive metaphor’.[22]

Swept away by the intoxicating futurity of the new millennium, few cisgender[23] scholars stopped to wonder if there was a longer trans story to tell. In this discursive context, the contention that trans has a history at all was revolutionary. Indeed, proving the existence of a trans past became a key method for justifying trans people’s right to live as they see fit in the present. This is why early historical works by trans authors read more like political manifestos than Rankean scholarly texts. Faced by the erasure of trans existence from mainstream consciousness, social disenfranchisement, and often physical violence, several trans authors responded with a simple, powerful message: trans people have always existed, and we therefore deserve rights. This argument has been extant for over half a century. As early as 1969, trans man Reed Erickson wrote that ‘transsexualism has been a human problem since the most ancient times’[24] — but it acquired new momentum with the publication of Missouri-born Jewish trans activist Leslie Feinberg’s book, Transgender Warriors: Making History from Joan of Arc to Dennis Rodman, in 1996. Having grown up wondering if gender-nonconforming people have historical precedent, Feinberg began hir journey of discovery in the 1970s after seeing statuettes of Two-Spirit people at the Museum of the American Indian in New York. Ze discovered that, in ‘far-flung cultures all over the world’,[25] from ancient Greece and Egypt to pre-colonial India, Africa, and America to medieval France and industrial Wales, there have been individuals who existed outside of the modern man/woman binary. Transgender Warriors co-opts many of these historical subjects as essentially proto-trans — embodying the fundamental characteristics of trans as we know it, but, in Feinberg’s Marxist view, lacking the impetus to politically organise as a distinct community before ‘patriarchal class divisions’ had fully taken hold.[26] The belief that trans is a recent techno-capitalist invention is therefore turned on its head. By arguing that ‘transgender predates oppression’ by thousands of years, and that ‘ancient communal societies held transgendered people in high esteem’,[27] Feinberg lays claim to the legitimisation of antiquity for an otherwise embattled and marginalised community.

Feinberg’s work was understandably popular. ‘Trans people have always existed’ is a simple, rhetorically impactful, and easily replicated contention. Even as criticism of this mode of trans historicisation mounted in the late-2000s and 2010s, drawing attention to the historical contingency of trans temporality and the problems inherent in applying modern labels to fundamentally different times and cultures, popular and academic authors alike continued to cling to Feinberg’s methodology. German-American poet and filmmaker Max Wolf Valerio, in his 2006 memoir, argued that people like him ‘have always existed, in every era, on every continent’.[28] And in 2013, anthropologist-archaeologist Mary Weismantel published an impassioned plea for a ‘transgender archaeology’ that would perform ‘a queer rampage through prehistory’. This was presented as an exercise in reclamation, since, Weismantel argues, prior archaeologists lacked the analytical tools to understand gender-liminality or extra-binary existences and therefore failed to do justice to gendered temporalities alien to the modern Western binary. ‘It is as if the premodern past had to wait for transgender scholarship to arrive’, she wrote.[29] That trans has always existed in one form or another is therefore axiomatic.

As discussed at greater lengths below, the dictum of trans antiquity remains a powerful force in trans scholarship to this day. It does not, however, hold a monopoly over trans historical imaginations. It has long competed with the medicine-centric narrative that places the beginnings of trans history somewhere between 1850-1950 — the period when medical professionals, particularly sexologists, coined the terminology of trans and popularised the notion that trans was a pathological or intersex condition that could be treated with a specific set of therapeutic, endocrinological, and surgical procedures. This narrative largely takes from Foucault’s conceptualisation of the early days of Western medicine, when an ‘immense will to knowledge’, as he put it, brought new epistemological categories into being so as to give order and coherence to the world.[30] Medicine-centric narratives argue that the origins of trans history proper can be traced directly to this milieu.

Designation

Many of the foundational texts of trans studies — texts that pre-date the field and provided the theoretical building blocks from which it was built — concern themselves with the role of medical knowledge in the conditions of modernity. Most obviously, Foucault’s work on ‘biopower’, which refers to the means by which the state gains ‘access even to the body’ to regulate the behaviour of its citizens,[31] and ‘epistemes’,[32] the epistemological systems that define how we catalogue the world around us and conceptualise (im)possibilities, is often regarded as elementary to subsequent trans analysis.[33] Foucault pays particular attention to the justification and perpetuation of invasive state regulation via medical authority in contemporary society, a subject of immediate concern for trans writers. Another oft-cited work is Thomas Laqueur’s Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud (1990), from which trans scholars take the lesson that the modern ‘incommensurable’ categories of sex came about through medical science’s ‘discursive creation of difference’ in the nineteenth century, and that they ‘are not the necessary, natural consequence of corporeal difference’.[34] It was against the cultural backdrop of this medico-scientific episteme that sexologists like the German pioneers Magnus Hirschfeld and Karl Heinrich Ulrichs discussed theories to explain deviations from binary sex. Modern trans designation was coined at this time and gained in popularity throughout the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries.

Just as pioneering lesbian and gay historians placed great emphasis on the modern medical origins of labels like ‘homosexual’,[35] many trans historians have understandably taken this period as their starting point. Joanne Meyerowitz’s How Sex Changed: A History of Transsexuality in the United States (1980), is an influential example of medicine-focused trans history, looking at the pathologised category ‘transsexual’ and the emergence of gender ‘reassignment’ procedures in the United States in the twentieth century.[36] There have also been historical studies looking at the development of medical ideas in Britain. Clare Tebbutt, in particular, submitted a doctoral thesis to the University of Manchester in 2015 titled ‘Medical and Popular Understandings of Sex Changeability in 1930s Britain’, which shows how the growth of endocrinology shifted both professional and popular beliefs about the fluidity of sex and created the conceptual space for ‘trans’ to exist. Adrian Kane-Galbraith, a PhD candidate at the University of Washington, is examining the entanglement of bureaucratic and medical practices in British gender transition between the Second World War and the 1970s.

Howard Chiang could be seen as the current standard-bearer of the medical school. His recent book, After Eunuchs: Science, Medicine, and the Transformation of Sex in Modern China (2018), narrates the replacement, in early-twentieth century China, of an episteme mediated by traditional Chinese medicine with one mediated by modern gender-dimorphic Western medicine. Chiang argues that the way the Chinese word xing came to be equivalated with the Western biomedical notion of sex ‘reflects a broader underlying transformation in its epistemological designation of human nature: from the rock-solid essence of things into a mutable ontological referent’.[37] He coins the term ‘epistemic modernity’ to describe this new worldview.[38] It was under the auspices of epistemic modernity that eunuchs, integral to the courtly culture of Imperial China, came to be regarded as symptoms of a national backwardness, a disease, in the Republican and Communist eras. By the mid-twentieth century, Chiang argues, Western notions of ‘transsexuality’ had replaced eunuchs as the dominant mode of understanding gender-liminal people, handing doctors the ‘alleged authority [to] unlock the secret of sexual identity’.[39]

While After Eunuchs offers valuable insights into how the ‘modern’ Western biomedical episteme interacted with non-Western epistemes, it is lacking in key areas which point to the general shortcomings of the medical school of trans history, with its focus on trans temporality’s dependence on the conditions of modernity that developed in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. First, despite the book’s attentiveness to epistemic specificity, there is a surprising laxity in Chiang’s use of terminology. In one paragraph he refers to the same individual as ‘transgender’, a ‘cross-dresser’, and a ‘transvestite’, with no indication as to how these terms should be differentiated. Additionally, some of the book’s more innovative points are underdeveloped. For instance, Chiang insists on the agency of eunuchs in their own ‘social and cultural reproduction’ through the finding and raising of new eunuchs and through passing down their customs,[40] subverting the view that physical castration automatically discounts reproduction. However, he does not carry this point forward to insist on the agency of trans people in mid-century to mediate the contours of their own identities. Instead, Chiang gives primacy to medicine and the state, creating the impression that trans existence was impossible outside the walls of the clinic.

To be clear, scholars of trans medical history do not argue that trans as it now exists is purely a medical phenomenon, still less that all gender-nonconformity is only explicable through a medical lens. Chiang, for instance, specifically warns against ‘the assumption that the nature of the historical relationship of sex to science was fundamentally fixed so that an undisguised view of xing (as sex) was merely waiting to be acquired’.[41] Rather, the medical school argues that trans phraseology and phenomenology itself arose from the specific sexological milieu of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries and cannot be separated entirely from this historical contingency. The problem is that, in privileging medical discourses, the agency of trans people themselves is often obscured. Their nonconformity seems to derive entirely from their interactions with medicine, rather than being dialogically formulated, negotiated, and affirmed and only later being identified and diagnosed with reference to medical concepts. It was partly in response to this shortcoming that another strand of trans historiography gathered pace in the 2000s and 2010s. This school largely took its inspiration from postmodern intersectional feminist thought and places trans within a much wider nexus of interlocking identity forms and oppressions, principally race and racism.

 

Intersection

Intersectional and trans of colour trans history had a long incubation. One key aspect of its worldview can be traced directly to the postmodern feminist theorising of Judith Butler in the 1990s. Her book, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (1990), is used as the basis for viewing gender as ‘performative’ and therefore malleable, rather than biologically infused. Almost immediately upon publication, as literary critic Jay Prosser observed, Gender Trouble (GT) ran away from Butler. Despite the fact that GT barely mentions trans people and is more concerned with drag, it still ‘transformed transgender into a queer icon, in the process becoming something of an icon of the new queer theory itself’.[42] In order to fulfil this role, the original ‘underwent a certain overreading, playful exaggeration, [and] mischievous adding of emphasis’.[43] Readers latched onto buried sentences about gender being a ‘stylized repetition of acts’,[44] and paid little attention to Butler’s post-GT interventions, in which she warned against seeing gender as a free-for-all.[45] Nevertheless, the atomised version of GT took deep hold in trans studies, as demonstrated by Susan Stryker’s reading of performativity in her introduction to the first Transgender Studies Reader (2006):

To say that gender is a performative act is to say that it does not need a material referent to be meaningful […] is not subject to falsification or verification, and is accomplished by “doing” something rather than “being” something. A woman, performatively speaking, is one who says she is. […] The biologically sexed body guarantees nothing; […] it has no deterministic relationship to performative gender.[46]

Belief in the performativity of gender became a necessary precursor to later critiques of the Feinberg and medical schools of trans history. If trans is neither a distinct set of practices and characteristics that can be traced into antiquity, nor a biologically or neurologically intrinsic trait, but rather something that is performed, socially reproduced, and perpetuated in relation to changing cultural norms, then the issue of its social utility as a category of otherness becomes more important than its ‘causes’. Giving primacy to social analysis, in turn, prompts questions about how trans interacts with other categories of identity and oppression, like race, disability, class, and sexuality — in a word, its intersectionality.

Often traced back to the Combahee River Collective Statement in Boston, 1977,[47] and codified in an article by Black feminist scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989,[48] intersectional feminism resists totalising narratives that collapse complex human experiences of oppression into a unidimensional narrative, and advocates instead an analysis of the ways that different oppressions interact to create unique experiences. Intersectionality is widely associated with ‘third wave’ feminism, a loosely-defined signifier that came of age in the 1990s in response to the second wave’s much-critiqued analytical limitations in relation to race and class.[49] British sociologist Shelley Budgeon conceptualises the third wave as promoting individual ‘empowerment’ within an individualist ‘culture of the self that endorses self-invention, autonomy and personal responsibility’.[50] Intersectionality distils this belief in the heterogeneity of human experience into a focussed analysis of how differing experiences are shaped through the interaction of various strands of privilege and oppression. It is also closely associated with Black feminism and feminism of colour.

Even before intersectionality’s formal integration into mainstream feminist theory, recognition of the overlapping nature of oppressions was, by necessity, central to Black British feminist analysis.[51] It is fitting, then, that intersectionality was primarily introduced to trans historiography via trans of colour critique. As Ellison, Green, Richardson, and Snorton put it in their 2017 TSQ article ‘We Got Issues: Towards a Black Trans*/Studies’, Black trans theory provides impetus to investigate ‘repressed genealogies that might come into view through a more sustained engagement with blackness’. It questions, among other things, teleologies of ‘progress’ and ‘solidarity’ that push trans of colour history aside while erasing the cultural contexts in which other forms of gender liminality exist(ed). Stryker and Currah argue in their introduction to the TSQ issue ‘Decolonizing the Transgender Imaginary’ that ‘transgender — grounded as it is in conceptual underpinnings that assume a sex/gender distinction as well as an analytic segregation of sexual orientation and gender identity/expression […] [is] simply foreign to most places and times’.[52] Trans of colour critique refuses to perpetuate the erasure of these histories in favour of Western whiteness.

Transgender Day of Remembrance, founded in 1999 as an annual memorial of lives lost to anti-trans violence, has proved to be an instructive focal point of scholarly attention. Sociologist Jin Haritaworn coined the term ‘trans necropolitics’ to describe the process by which trans murder victims are martyred and turned into utilities for the mainstream trans political movement. Haritaworn and C. Riley Snorton point out that ‘trans women of color act as resources—both literally and metaphorically—for the articulation and visibility of a more privileged transgender subject’. This process is ‘cannibalistic’, since it is only ‘in their death that they suddenly come to matter’.[53] Sarah Lamble has commented similarly upon the inappropriateness of white trans people ‘taking the voice of the other as our own’. In doing so, Lamble writes, ‘we colonize the bodies of the dead’.[54] This colonisation also entails the appropriation of significant events in trans of colour history as deracialised ‘gay’, ‘queer’, or ‘trans’ events — most notably the Stonewall Riots in New York, 1969. First colonised as a white gay riot, over time it was overtaken by another myth, as Jessi Gan explains, ‘that all transgender people were most oppressed and most resistant at Stonewall (and still are today)’. This myth could be ‘circulated and consumed [in] the service of a liberal multicultural logic of recognition’ that privileges white transness. It was only when an historian interviewed the Puerto Rican-Venezuelan drag queen and trans activist Sylvia Rivera in the early 1990s that the integral role of gender-nonconforming people of colour at Stonewall became widely known.[55]

Various scholars have also called into question the Feinberg school’s perennial use of ‘other cultures’ as historical proof that transgender people have always existed. As Native American studies scholar Deborah A. Miranda has explained, the Western hegemonic culture from which ‘transgender’ emerged is the very same culture which committed ‘gendercide’ against gender-nonconforming people during colonisation.[56] Those identity forms that survived are now subject to efforts by the trans umbrella to claim their history as its own. Thus, as Nael Bhanji has elaborated, trans identity ‘carries its own imperialist baggage’, which manifests in Western-centric scholarship on ‘other cultures’ as ‘a veritable buffet of exotic (trans) sexuality’ wherein ‘a rotating chain of marginality tends to be pitted against an unstated, white, Western norm’.[57]

By drawing attention to the oppressions and marginalisations fused into and perpetuated through trans temporalities, trans of colour critique fundamentally altered trans studies in the 2010s. Intersectional trans history synthesised elements from the Feinberg and medical methods, arguing that while identities, ways of life, and practices outside the Western gender binary have always existed, it is the specific political, social, and medical circumstances of the last two hundred years that have enabled them, on an ontological level, to be grouped together as ‘trans’. In this new iteration of trans history, the key objective is not to claim all historical gender-nonconformity as trans by default, nor to trace all forms of gender-nonconformity back to a common medical discursive modality, but to ask how and why trans took over as the dominant mode of understanding non-normative gender, and to identify what impact this had upon the dialogical possibilities of gendered expression.

Jules Gill-Peterson’s ground-breaking book, Histories of the Transgender Child (2018), is an influential and passionately argued example of the intersectional/trans of colour approach. Gill-Peterson’s analysis of trans children’s interactions with gender identity clinics in the United States dating back to the Interwar Years demonstrates, firstly, that children often developed their own autonomous sense of who they were long before hearing about trans medical theory, and secondly, that once they were under medical supervision their minds and bodies resisted efforts to make them fit one of the two available gender categories. This suggests that, while gender-nonconforming children do not typically get to choose the diagnostic words that are applied to them, they do play an independent role in defining what those words mean socially, subverting medical definitions with self-made forms of expression.[58] They themselves are not ‘made trans’, so to speak, by medical diagnosis or intervention, but their identities are rendered intelligible to broader society as trans. Trans terminology, once popularised and placed in the hands of the diagnosed, left the sole control of medical doctors and came to be infused with new meanings and possibilities, as can be seen in the heated debates over the definitions of ‘transvestite’, ‘transgender’, and ‘transsexual’ in the pages of Transvestia, an international magazine by and for trans people that circulated from the 1960s to the 1980s.[59] This process resembles the ‘looping effect’ theorised by Canadian philosopher Ian Hacking, whose work on ‘human kinds’ stresses the dialogical back-and-forth through which feedback from the diagnosed ultimately affects the discursive contours of the diagnosis itself.[60]

C. Riley Snorton authored another seminal text in this vein. Black on Both Sides: A Racial History of Trans Identity (2017) delves further into the construction of ‘trans’ as its own distinct category of identity, drawing particular attention to the role that racist caricatures of Black people played in delineating what a ‘normal’ male or female body looked like (i.e., conforming to a particular white vision of anatomical congruity, purity, and good health), which in turn made trans ‘conceivable’ as an exception to the rule. Starting with the use of Black chattel slaves in the experiments of early gynaecology in the mid-nineteenth century and ending with the erasure of anti-Black violence by the mainstream trans rights movement in the present, Snorton narrates how Black flesh served as the ‘malleable matter’ from which modern white notions of normative and non-normative gender are crafted.[61] Trans cannot, therefore, be understood in isolation from broader histories of systemic racism in Western medicine and society.

These theories have profound implications for trans history as a subject. Because ‘trans’ as we know it is epistemologically dependent on the conditions of modernity, claiming that trans people per se have always existed is fundamentally fallacious. To reiterate: liminal, transgressive, and nonconforming modes of identification and expression have always existed. Trans identity, specifically, has not. Intersectional trans history thus does away with a certain level of chronological and thematic precision and replaces it with a more sophisticated analysis of the cultural and social entanglements of trans. In the syntax of Foucault, the quest for historical origin, which ‘assumes the existence of immobile forms that precede the external world of accident and succession’, and which, as a result of this assumption, ‘neglect[s] as inaccessible the vicissitudes of history’, is dropped in favour of an appraisal of the ‘genealogy of values, morality, asceticism, and knowledge’.[62] The question of when, precisely, trans history should begin — so keenly debated between the Feinberg and medical schools— is consequently and deliberately left open-ended by the intersectional school.

So, too, is the thematic remit of trans studies. As early as 2006, Susan Stryker, whose work bears the distinct mark of intersectional feminism, urged trans scholars to be ambitious, and not to limit themselves to researching people and phenomena specifically identified as ‘trans’:

[T]ransgender studies is concerned with anything that disrupts, denaturalizes, rearticulates, and makes visible the normative linkages we generally assume to exist between the biological specificity of the sexually differentiated human body, the social roles and statutes that a particular form of body is expected to occupy, the subjectively experienced relationship between a gendered sense of self and social expectations of gender-role performance, and the cultural mechanisms that work to sustain or thwart specific configurations of gendered personhood.[63]

While undoubtedly vibrant, enterprising, and pioneering, however, intersectional trans history has not replaced, but rather stands alongside, the other schools. In fact, the Feinberg model experienced something of a resurgence around the turn of the 2020s.

 

Amalgamation?

If the medical and intersectional schools both seek to deconstruct the belief that ‘trans has always existed’, the previous few years showed the notion’s capacity for endurance. This neo-Feinbergian moment encompasses both wholesale restatements of Feinberg’s original thesis and attempts to amalgamate it with current scholarly trends, expressed in both popular and academic contexts. Transgender Resistance: Socialism and the Fight for Trans Liberation (2020), by trade unionist and trans activist Laura Miles, falls into the former, less critical category. It is a primarily political text that draws on Feinberg’s Marxist view of trans oppression, particularly hir argument that systemic, institutionalised transphobia is an invention of modern capitalism.[64] Intersectionality and other intellectual traditions that might disrupt this narrative are dismissed by Miles as insufficiently sensitive to the class origins of oppression. Another prominent non-academic text, Trans Britain: Our Journey from the Shadows (2018), edited by veteran British trans campaigner Christine Burns, displays more awareness of the Feinberg line’s limitations. Burns warns readers:

Labelling figures from antiquity with modern terms such as “transgender” is a dangerous thing. People living hundreds of years ago couldn’t have ‘identified’ with such a term because it didn’t exist. We rely on the co-evolution of identities and the word available to describe them in order to provide the script for how to interpret our feelings and possibilities – the things we can be and embrace. What we can look for, however, are behaviours identified by ancient documents and life in ways that apparently departed from a simple binary man-woman model of life. Those exist throughout recorded history and across cultures.[65]

Though prefaced with this qualification, what follows in Trans Britain is a fairly orthodox recounting of trans antiquity, employing pre-trans figures like the gender-transgressive French spy, the Chevalier d’Éon (1728-1810), in service to its narrative of trans people’s ‘journey from the shadows’.[66]

Historian Jen Manion’s Female Husbands: A Trans History (2020), which is dedicated to Feinberg, attempts a similar if more theoretically complex modification of hir approach. Rather than looking for historical examples of trans identity as we know it, Manion focusses on the transing of gender as an activity or process. They particularly build on Clare Sears’s dictum that studies of cross-dressing should move ‘away from the recognizable cross-dressing figure to multiple forms of cross-dressing practices’.[67] Manion argues that deemphasising the search for specifically trans identity forms avoids some of the pitfalls of the traditional argument for trans antiquity. ‘To say someone “transed” or was “transing” gender’, they write, ‘signifies a process or practice without claiming to understand what it meant to that person or asserting any kind of fixed identity on them’.[68] This entails a ‘trans reading’ of historical subjects (in this case ‘female husbands’) without ‘foreclosing’ on their mode of self-identification,[69] thus opening ‘a window into our [the trans community’s] collective past’ while not laying claim to historical actors as ‘trans’ per se.[70] The implication is that transing, rather than trans identity itself, has always existed, and this is indeed a more defensible claim. There have always been those who cross, complicate, subvert, and sit astride the categorical boundaries extant in their communities. Most of them did not understand their selfhood as do modern trans people, but this is beside the point. What matters in this modified Feinbergian approach is that the feelings, practices, concepts, movements, images, and imaginaries of the modern trans community have precedent.

Another author, Barry Reay, has proposed a different solution to the Feinberg problem. Given his pointed rejection of the idea that trans people have always existed and his insistence that trans history essentially began in the 1950s,[71] it may seem incongruous to include Reay’s Trans America: A Counter-History (2020) in a section about a Feinbergian revival. However, Trans America deviates less from theories of trans antiquity than the author himself implies. Rather than label millennia-old gender-nonconforming and gender-liminal phenomena as trans history, Reay categorises them as trans pre-history, arguing that gender-nonconforming temporalities extant before the rise of trans phraseology should be seen as ‘prefigurements of transgender: trans before trans’.[72] In effect, this is an effort to square a circle — to claim a long precedent for trans people (and therefore invoke the legitimisation of antiquity) while not participating in the fallacy of trans anachronism. It is not clear, however, what the shift from ‘trans history’ to ‘trans prehistory’ achieves on a theoretical level. The end result — the placement of all forms of gender-nonconformity and gender-liminality within a narrative that leads eventually to modern transgender — is the same. Trans pre-history might even be more problematic in some respects, since, firstly, it risks portraying ‘trans before trans’ identities and expressions as merely primitive foreshadowings of an inevitable trans endpoint (a ‘monotonous finality’, as Foucault put it[73]), and secondly, it conjures notions of a foggy past about which nothing substantial is known. Indeed, such a hard separation between ‘history’ from ‘pre-history’ potentially lowers the burden of proof for scholars seeking to link trans with pre-trans temporalities by removing the need to demonstrate an actual continuity of concepts, practices, or traditions.

It seems unlikely, then, that Reay’s model shows the best way forward. Manion’s emphasis on ‘transing’ as an historically omnipresent phenomenon is more promising, and, with its awareness of the historical contingency of trans identity (as emphasised by the medical school) and its refusal to co-opt pre-modern and non-Western gender systems as belonging to trans temporality per se (in keeping with the intersectional school), could potentially catalyse a moment of synthesis in trans historiography. Such a synthesis is long overdue, and would undoubtedly open new research trajectories should an ambitious theorist be willing to attempt it.

 

Conclusion

Whatever their theoretical and ideological stripes, fresh trans historians today can rest assured that, at the very least, they will spend far less time than their predecessors justifying the very necessity of trans historical inquiry. Though there continue to be impassioned disagreements about what it encompasses, there can no longer be any reasonable doubt that trans history exists. Whether thousands of years old, hundreds of years old, or merely tens of years old, it has been clearly established that trans is not a contemporary invention, as so many turn-of-the-century writers thought, but an ever-mutating nexus of phenomena, some of which are very old. Indeed, contrary to the popular obsession with trans-postmodernist-cyborg futurity, one of the most pressing questions now is not whether trans has a history, but whether it has a future. Leading theorists fully expect that trans, with all its entanglements in oppressive histories and invasive medical authority, will sooner or later be ‘eclipsed by new imaginaries that might not even call themselves transgender at all’.[74]

Is it possible to make educated guesses about what these new imaginaries might look like? Some authors have conducted thought experiments, positing fresh terminology not in the expectation that others will necessarily adopt it, but rather as a call for readers to think outside the box. Paul Preciado, for example, suggested a list of possible names for Internet-age queer movements that speak to the irreverence and impermanence of our ‘punk hyper-modernity’: ‘Postporno, Free Fuckware, Bodypunk, Opengender, Fuckyourfather, PenetratedState, TotalDrugs, PornTerror, Analinflaction, [or] TechnoPriapismoUniversal United’.[75] Radical liberation for gender-nonconforming people has also been integrated into broader intersectional feminist, xenofeminist, posthuman, and antihumanist future imaginaries that seek to strip gender of its ‘extraordinary explanatory power’,[76] thus embracing ‘unintelligibility’ and removing the need for formalised trans identity to exist as an exception to normative strictures.[77] To an extent, however, predictions are unnecessary. The process of formulating extra-trans and post-trans identities is already underway. Words like genderqueer, genderfluid, agender, and non-binary have been in mainstream circulation for over a decade, providing modes of self-understanding and self-representation beyond the more established trans narratives.[78] For some, these terms are merely a precursor to the total ‘deconstruction of gender’, one feature of which would be an end to the social expectation that one should make oneself sexually intelligible to others by accumulating identifying adjectives.[79] In that imaginary, all gender-nonconforming identities, and indeed gender itself, will eventually fall into disuse.

Accurate or not, this glimpse into the yet-to-be might, ironically, represent the most important lesson a passing observer can take from trans history. We and our tools of self-expression are historically contingent. The identity forms that make sense to us will not necessarily make sense to others in a few centuries, a few decades, or even a few years. Just as there was a pre-trans, so too must there be a post-trans, and, in this sense, trans history has fully anticipated its own obsolescence. It is a matter of when, not if.

 

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Mahoney, K., ‘Historicising the “third wave”: narratives of contemporary feminism’, Women’s History Review, 25 (2016), pp. 1006-13. DOI: 10.1080/09612025.2015.1131052.

Manion, J., Female husbands: a trans history (Cambridge, 2020).

Martínez-San Miguel, Y. and Tobias, S. (eds.), Trans studies: the challenge to hetero/homo normativities (New Brunswick, 2016).

McIntosh, M., ‘The homosexual role’, Social Problems, 161(1968), pp. 182–92. DOI: 10.2307/800003.

Meyerowitz, J., How sex changed: a history of transsexuality in the United States (Cambridge, MA, 1980).

Miles, L., Transgender resistance: socialism and the fight for trans liberation (London, 2020).

Miranda, D. A., ‘Extermination of the joyas: gendercide in Spanish California’, GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, 16 (2010), pp. 253-84. DOI: 10.1215/10642684-2009-022.

Mirza, H. S.(ed.), Black British feminism: a reader (London, 1997).

Olufemi, L., Feminism, interrupted: disrupting power (London, 2020).

Raymond, J. G., The transsexual empire: the making of the she-male (London, 1979).

Reay, B., Trans America: a counter-history (Cambridge, 2020).

Sares, J., ‘Postmodernism’, Transgender Studies Quarterly, 1 (2014), pp. 158–61. DOI: 10.1215/23289252-2399902.

Scott, J., ‘Gender: a useful category of historical analysis’, The American Historical Review, 91 (1986), pp. 1053-75. DOI: 10.2307/1864376.

Sears, C., Arresting dress: cross-dressing, law, and fascination in nineteenth-century San Francisco (Durham, NC, 2014).

Serano, J., Whipping girl: a transsexual woman on sexism and the scapegoating of femininity (Berkeley, 2007).

Smith, B.(ed.), Home girls: a black feminist anthology (New York, 1983).

Snorton, C. R., Black on both sides: a racial history of trans identity (Minneapolis, 2017).

Sperber, D., Premack, D., and Premack, A. J. (eds.), Causal cognition: a multi-disciplinary debate (Oxford, 1995).

Straub, K. and Epstein, J. (eds.) Body guards: the cultural politics of gender ambiguity (New York, 1991).

Stryker, S. ‘My words to Victor Frankenstein above the village of Chamounix: performing transgender rage’, GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, 1 (1994), pp. 237-54. DOI: 10.1215/10642684-1-3-237.

———and Whittle, S.(eds.), The transgender studies reader (London, 2006).

———and Aizura, A. Z.(eds.), The transgender studies reader 2 (London, 2013).

———and Currah, P., ‘General editors’ introduction’, Transgender Studies Quarterly, 1 (2014), pp. 303-7. DOI: 10.1215/23289252-4348593.

———Transgender history: the roots of today’s revolution (revised edition) (New York, 2017).

Tebbutt, C., ‘Medical and popular understandings of sex changeability in 1930s Britain’ (PhD thesis, University of Manchester, 2015).

Twist, J., Vincent, B., Barker, M., and Gupta, K. (eds.), ‘Introduction’ to Non-binary lives: an anthology of intersecting identities (London, 2020).

Valentine, D., Imagining transgender: an ethnography of a category (Durham, NC, 2007).

Valerio, M. W., The testosterone files: my hormonal and social transformation from female to male (New York, 2006).

Whittle, S., ‘Guest editorial’, Journal of Gender Studies, 7 (1998), pp. 269–72. DOI: 10.1080/09589236.1998.9960720.

———The transgender debate: the crisis surrounding gender identity (Reading, 2000).

Women’s Human Rights Campaign, ‘Declaration on women’s sex-based rights’, <https://www.womensdeclaration.com/en/declaration-womens-sex-based-rights-full-text/>, accessed 10.04.2021.

Notes

[1] R. Kunzel, ‘The flourishing of transgender studies’, Transgender Studies Quarterly, 1 (2014), pp. 285-6.

[2] S. Stryker and S. Whittle (eds.), The transgender studies reader (London, 2006); S. Stryker and A. Z. Aizura (eds.), The transgender studies reader 2 (London, 2013).

[3] Most existing trans historiographies are consequently America-centric. See, for instance, G. Beemyn, ‘A presence in the past: a transgender historiography’, Journal of Women’s History, 25 (2013), pp. 113-21.

[4] D. Valentine’s Imagining transgender: an ethnography of a category (Durham, NC, 2007), is a good example of this latter category. Another example is literary critic E. Heaney’s The new woman: literary modernism, queer theory, and the trans feminine allegory (Evanston, 2017).

[5] E. H. Brown, ‘Trans/feminist oral history: current projects’, Transgender Studies Quarterly, 2 (2015), pp. 666-72.

[6] R. Edwards, ‘”This is not a girl”: a trans* archival reading’, Transgender Studies Quarterly, 2 (2015), pp. 650-65.

[7] M. Crandall and S. W. Schwartz, ‘Moving transgender histories: Sean Dorsey’s trans archival practice’, Transgender Studies Quarterly, 2 (2015), pp. 565-77.

[8] S. Stone, ‘The “empire” strikes back: a posttranssexual manifesto’, in K. Straub and J. Epstein (eds.) Body guards: the cultural politics of gender ambiguity (New York, 1991); J. Serano, Whipping girl: a transsexual woman on sexism and the scapegoating of femininity (Berkeley, 2007), pp. 95-160.

[9] Women’s Human Rights Campaign, ‘Declaration on women’s sex-based rights’, <https://www.womensdeclaration.com/en/declaration-womens-sex-based-rights-full-text/>, accessed 10.04.2021.

[10] S. Whittle, The transgender debate: the crisis surrounding gender identity (Reading, 2000), p. 15.

[11] N. A. Boyd, ‘Bodies in motion: lesbian and transsexual histories’, in Transgender studies reader, pp.422-3.

[12] M. Foucault, ‘Introduction’ to Herculine Barbin (New York, 1980), p. vii.

[13] J. Scott, ‘Gender: a useful category of historical analysis’, The American Historical Review, 91 (1986), p. 1067.

[14] J. Sares, ‘Postmodernism’, Transgender Studies Quarterly, 1 (2014), pp. 158–61.

[15]S. S. Montefiore in The Daily Telegraph, ‘Sex change teacher is living proof of technological advance’, 12 January 2001.

[16] S. Stryker, Transgender history: the roots of today’s revolution (revised edition) (New York, 2017), p. 44.

[17] P. B. Preciado, ‘The pharmaco-pornographic regime: sex, gender, and subjectivity in the age of punk capitalism’, in Transgender studies reader 2, p. 269.

[18] D. Haraway, Simians, cyborgs, and women: the reinvention of nature (London, 1991).

[19] S. Whittle, ‘Guest editorial’, Journal of Gender Studies, 7 (1998), pp. 269–72.

[20] S. Stryker, ‘My words to Victor Frankenstein above the village of Chamounix: performing transgender rage’, GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, 1 (1994), pp. 237-54.

[21] J. G. Raymond, The transsexual empire: the making of the she-male (London, 1979); G. Greer, The whole woman (London, 1999).

[22] R. Felski, ‘Fin de siècle, Fin du sexe: transsexuality, postmodernism, and the death of history’, in Transgender studies reader, p. 566.

[23] Defined by Oxford Languages as ‘denoting or relating to a person whose sense of personal identity and gender corresponds with their birth sex.’

[24] R. Erickson, ‘Foreword’, in R. Green and J. Money (eds.), Transsexualism and sex reassignment (Baltimore, 1969), p. xi.

[25] L. Feinberg, Transgender warriors: making history from Joan of Arc to Dennis Rodman (Boston, 1996), p. 44.

[26] Ibid., pp. 49-53.

[27] L. Feinberg, Transgender liberation: a movement whose time has come (New York, 1992), pp. 5-6.

[28] M. W. Valerio, The testosterone files: my hormonal and social transformation from female to male (New York, 2006), p. 2.

[29] M. Weismantel, ‘Towards a transgender archaeology: a queer rampage through prehistory’, in Transgender studies reader 2, p. 321.

[30] M. Foucault, The history of sexuality, volume 1: an introduction (London, 1978), p 55.

[31] Ibid., p. 140.

[32] M. Foucault, The order of things: an archaeology of the human sciences (London, 1989).

[33] S. Dea, Beyond the binary: thinking about sex and gender (Ontario, 2016), p. 14.

[34] T. Laqueur, Making sex: body and gender from the Greeks to Freud (Cambridge, MA, 1990), p.198 and 243.

[35] M. McIntosh, ‘The homosexual role’, Social Problems, 161(1968), pp. 182–92.

[36] J. Meyerowitz, How sex changed: a history of transsexuality in the United States (Cambridge, MA, 1980).

[37] H. Chiang, After eunuchs: science, medicine, and the transformation of sex in modern China (New York, 2018), p. 13.

[38] Ibid., p. 135.

[39] Ibid., p. 263.

[40] Ibid., p. 50.

[41] Ibid., p. 13.

[42] J. Prosser, ‘Judith Butler: queer feminism, transgender, and the transubstantiation of sex’, in Transgender studies reader, p. 259.

[43] Ibid., p. 260.

[44] J. Butler, Gender trouble: feminism and the subversion of identity (London, 1990), p. 191.

[45] In particular, see the emphasis on the ‘citationality’ of sex in J. Butler, Bodies that matter: on the discursive limits of sex (London, 1995).

[46] S. Stryker, ‘(De)subjugated knowledges: an introduction to transgender studies’, in Transgender studies reader, p. 10.

[47] Reproduced in B. Smith (ed.), Home girls: a black feminist anthology (New York, 1983), pp. 264–74.

[48] K. Crenshaw, ‘Demarginalizing the intersection of race and sex: a black feminist critique of antidiscrimination doctrine, feminist theory and antiracist politics’, University of Chicago Legal Forum (1989), pp. 139-167.

[49] K. Mahoney, ‘Historicising the “third wave”: narratives of contemporary feminism’, Women’s History Review, 25 (2016), pp. 1006-13.

[50] S. Budgeon, Third wave feminism and the politics of gender in late modernity (Basingstoke, 2011), p. 284.

[51] B. Bryan, S. Dadzie, and S. Scafe, Heart of the race: black women’s lives in Britain (London, 1985); H. S. Mirza (ed.), Black British feminism: a reader (London, 1997).

[52] S. Stryker and P. Currah, ‘General editors’ introduction’, Transgender Studies Quarterly, 1 (2014), pp. 303-4.

[53] C. R. Snorton and J. Haritaworn, ‘Trans necropolitics: a transnational reflection on violence, death, and the trans of color afterlife’, in Transgender studies reader 2, pp. 71-4.

[54] S. Lamble, ‘Retelling racialized violence, remaking white innocence: the politics of interlocking oppressions in Transgender Day of Remembrance’, in Transgender studies reader 2, p. 40.

[55] J. Gan, ‘”Still at the back of the bus”: Sylvia Rivera’s struggle’, in Transgender studies reader 2, pp. 292-3.

[56] D. A. Miranda, ‘Extermination of the joyas: gendercide in Spanish California’, GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, 16 (2010), pp. 253-84.

[57] N. Bhanji ‘Trans/scriptions: homing desires (trans)sexual citizenship and racialized bodies’, in Transgender studies reader 2, p. 513.

[58] J. Gill-Peterson, Histories of the transgender child (Minneapolis, 2018), p. 94–5.

[59] R. Hill, ‘Before transgender: Transvestia’s spectrum of gender variance, 1960-1980’, in Transgender studies reader 2, pp. 364-79.

[60] I. Hacking, ‘The looping effects of human kinds’, in D. Sperber, D. Premack, and A. J. Premack (eds.), Causal cognition: A multi-disciplinary debate (Oxford, 1995), pp. 351-83; I. Hacking, Historical ontology (Cambridge, MA, 2002), pp. 99-114.

[61] C. R. Snorton, Black on both sides: a racial history of trans identity (Minneapolis, 2017), p. 135.

[62] M. Foucault, ‘Nietzsche, genealogy, history’, in D. F. Bouchard (ed.), Language, counter-memory, practice: selected essays and interviews (Ithaca, 1977), pp. 142-4.

[63] Stryker, ‘(De)subjugated knowledges’, p. 3.

[64] L. Miles, Transgender resistance: socialism and the fight for trans liberation (London, 2020), pp. 18-32.

[65] C. Burns (ed.), Trans Britain: our journey from the shadows (London, 2018), p. 8.

[66] Ibid., pp. 9-11.

[67] C. Sears, Arresting dress: cross-dressing, law, and fascination in nineteenth-century San Francisco (Durham, NC, 2014), p. 9.

[68] J. Manion, Female husbands: a trans history (Cambridge, 2020), p. 11.

[69] Ibid., p. 265.

[70] Ibid., p. 264.

[71] B. Reay, Trans America: a counter-history (Cambridge, 2020), p. 2, 57.

[72] Ibid., p. 16, 55.

[73] Foucault, ‘Nietzsche, genealogy, history’, p. 76.

[74] S. Stryker and A. Z. Aizura, ‘Introduction: transgender studies 2.0’, in Transgender studies reader 2, p. 10.

[75] Preciado, ‘Pharmaco-pornographic regime’, p. 275.

[76] H. Hester, Xenofeminism (Cambridge, 2018), p. 49. See also L. Cuboniks, The Xenofeminist manifesto: a politics for alienation (London, 2018).

[77] A. Escalante, ‘Gender nihilism: an anti-manifesto’, 2016, <https://libcom.org/library/gender-nihilism-anti-manifesto>, accessed 13.04.2021. For examples of the incorporation of trans into intersectional feminist agendas, see: R. Eddo-Lodge, Why I’m no longer talking to white people about race (London, 2017), p. 181; L. Olufemi, Feminism, interrupted: disrupting power (London, 2020), p. 6.

[78] J. Twist, B. Vincent, M. Barker, and K. Gupta (eds.), ‘Introduction’ to Non-binary lives: an anthology of intersecting identities (London, 2020), pp. 19-20.

[79] LJ, ‘Who needs gender?’, in Non-binary lives, pp. 63-9.

 

Iranian Cinema and the New Woman: The Islamic Revolution’s Impact on Female Agency in Film

Abstract

This article examines how Iranian regime, politics, and religion shaped the presence and roles of women in film. In the monarchical Pahlavi era, film followed early 20th century Western archetypes, marginalizing women to the binary role of virgin or whore. Despite misogynistic undertones of the Islamic Revolution, the “New Woman” created in the image of Fatima gave birth to honorific and deep roles for women on screen and within the industry, creating more agency for women in culture. In a complex balance between censorship and release valves, the Iranian government has allowed the film industry to deviate from their prescribed state stance on women’s rights, patriarchal authority, and female involvement.  This article identifies as a new genre of Iranian film, feminist realism, which is characterized by strong female performances and plotlines involving discussions of contemporary women’s issues. Feminist realism has made film an important outlet for cultural commentary and debate in Iran and has attracted international acclaim, particularly for the works of directors Asghar Farhadi and Dariush Mehrjui.  

Keywords: Cinema, Cultural history, Feminism, Film, Iran, Islamic Revolution, Middle East.

Author Biography

Sophia Hernandez Tragesser is an undergraduate at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota, USA. She studies history and theology with particular interest in the modern Middle East, nineteenth-century African American history, and Latin America. She would like to thank the Luann Dummer Center for Women for generously funding her research and Dr. Shaherzad Ahmadi for her guidance and support, without whom this paper would not be possible.

Iranian Cinema and the New Woman: The Islamic Revolution’s Impact on Female Agency in Film

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One of the core concepts at the heart of the intellectual politics of the 1979 Iranian Islamic Revolution was a rejection of the nation’s recent past under the ruling Pahlavi Dynasty and a hostility to cultural and social embodiments of ‘the West’. The Islamists’ rejection of Westernisation condemned not only the idea of Western morals and systems in situ, but also many aspects of urban and elite Iranian culture which followed American trends in fashion, beauty, and entertainment.[1] This tension between Western sociocultural trends and the Islamist ideals espoused by Ayatollah Khomeini and the revolutionaries culminated in a war over the ‘woman question’: who is the Iranian woman and what is her place in a theocratic Iran?[2] This crisis of state-women relations in the Islamic Republic was rooted in modern Pahlavi Iran’s cultural and political struggle to adequately address the same question in the preceding decades. Following the example of Turkey earlier in the twentieth-century, Pahlavi monarch Reza Shah sought to reform gender relations in 1930s Iran along Western lines.[3] These measures included banning the veil, encouraging co-educational public schooling, and promoting women’s suffrage.[4] Encouraging a Western understanding of gender and public politics served several ends. The first, as embodied in the Shah’s White Revolution of 1963, was to ‘modernize social and economic relations in order to build the nation state.’[5] By normalising male-female relations in social and political spheres and integrating women into the workforce, the Shah hoped to mirror the commercial success of the West.

The increased presence of women in the public sphere prompted the development of political, religious, and social women’s organisations in the 1930s.[6] In the 1950s, however, state-led repression of these organisations resulted in the dissolution of many of these groups and any remaining organisations for women were taken under central control by the government, often under the direct jurisdiction of the Shah’s sister, Ashraf Pahlavi.[7] The integration of the women’s movement into the state allowed the Shah to stifle discontent while making token gestures of progressive reform. This process represented a release valve of political activism for large numbers of women while also allowing the government to maintain bureaucratic control over the activities of many, potentially subversive, organisations.

After the Revolution, the Islamic Republic seized control over film content, production, and development. Just as the Pahlavi control over women’s socio-political activities enabled activism without substantially threatening the state, controls over film enabled the Islamic government to dictate film content while leaving room for subtle, contained dissent on political issues. As the state could easily cease production on a particular film, those which challenged Islam or the Islamic Republic could quickly be shut down without causing significant damage. Consequently, film had the latitude to examine what womanhood meant in Iran and to diverge from the official state policy on women’s rights and patriarchal authority. This relationship between censorship, the state, and the film industry has enabled twenty-first-century Iranian cinema to become a significant battlefield where debates over women’s roles in Iranian society are fought out. After the Islamic Revolution of 1979, Iranian cinema provided a forum where a ‘new woman’ could be debated, constructed, and represented.

The popular rejection of the Western woman of the Pahlavi era, known critically as a ‘painted doll’, in the aftermath of the Islamic Revolution led to the construction of a new female character-type in Iranian cinema. This redefinition along Islamist lines created an ideal characterised by piety, intelligence, and motherhood which then permeated wider society and culture. Central characters in Iranian films were now occupied by women with greater emotional depth than their Pahlavi predecessors and plotlines often centred on routine lifestyles and relationships. On top of this, censorship instated by the Islamic Republic served to phase out previously male-centric content and plots, especially those with extreme violence and sex. Out of necessity, content shifted focus to relationships, daily life, and cultural identity which naturally revolved around women. The focus on women’s stories and female characters created new agency for women both in film and in the broader film industry. This agency is visible in films from the 1990s to the 2010s which exhibit strong female roles, criticism of patriarchal and misogynistic aspects of Iranian society, and frequently involve female actors and directors.

These films, it is argued here, constitute a new genre of Iranian cinema: feminist realism. Feminist realism is characterised by strong female performances and plotlines involving discussions of contemporary women’s issues. Feminist realism diverges in significant ways from Western feminism. Rather than blatantly pushing the envelope of gender and modesty norms, Iranian feminist realism addresses questions of female identity and agency through mundane domestic plots driven by female action (and at times inaction) and consequently reveals important truths about the nature of womanhood in everyday Iran. As a result of the prominence of feminist realism, cinema has become a place for critical commentary and resistance against aspects of the Islamic Republic which restrict women. Despite the state’s active silencing of social criticism and women’s organisations, this genre of Iranian cinema has reached an international audience to great acclaim. Contrary to popular opinion, therefore, a more complex and nuanced portrayal of women in Iranian cinema did not accompany the modernisation of the Pahlavi period but only emerged after the Islamic Revolution of 1979. This article will begin by discussing the relationship between cinema and modernisation in Iran. From there, it will investigate the impact of twentieth-century Islamic philosophy and the Islamic Revolution on the role of women on screen and in the film industry. Lastly, this article will discuss cinema, particularly post-revolutionary cinema, as a space for feminist criticism of Iranian governance and society.

 

Iran’s Constitutional Revolution

The nature of modernity loomed large in the cultural and intellectual politics of early-twentieth-century Iran. The Constitutional Revolution of 1905–1909, albeit short-lived, created a parliament and restricted the power of the monarch. At the forefront of this modern expedition was an attempt to create an Iranian national identity largely based on the idea of a shared Persian history.[8] Similarly, notions of gender during the Constitutional Revolution were underpinned by distinctly Persian interpretations of the role of men and women in society. The dominant discourse of gender during this period has been extensively discussed by historian and gender theorist Afsaneh Najmabadi.[9] In particular Najmabadi highlights the practice, common in rural Iran, of using women and girls as a form of tribute payment to neighbouring villages.[10] The political climate of the Constitutional Revolution, however, encouraged fierce debate over this practice and prompted larger political and cultural discussions over the government’s role in protecting women. Of particular importance was the case of the ‘Daughters of Quchan’, a group of about 250 girls from the district of Quchan who were kidnapped and sold by the local government in lieu of tax. During the Constitutional era, Najmabadi argues, the ‘Daughters of Quchan’ became symbols of the national homeland and their loss of autonomy was considered both a sin against the girls as individuals and the broader notion of an Iranian nation.[11] Those who sold and bought the girls were portrayed as savage tribes who compromised Iran’s borders with Russia and exposed the government’s inability to protect the nation.

This national issue popularised the idea that women and girls should be protected from sexual insult and objectification as tribute. In order to protect women from these unacceptable tribal traditions, a strong and centralised government was deemed necessary to create a modern, non-tribal authority and to standardise the social and political treatment of women. This shift in popular opinion, away from tribal organisation and practices and toward a centralised modern state, set Iran on a Western path of nation-state development. However, neither a complete rejection of tribalism nor a full acceptance of the nation-state as a superior political body came to fruition for several decades.

 

Reza Shah and the Modernisation of Iran

Although the Qajar dynasty and their brief experiment with a constitutional monarchy was put to an end in 1925 by the ascent of the Pahlavi dynasty, the question of Iran’s modernity remained central. Pahlavi monarch Reza Shah launched aggressive modernisation efforts which not only encouraged the tentative development of a distinct ‘national’ identity, but also instituted technological leaps such as railways and radio broadcasting, which contributed to urbanisation and population growth.[12] This development primed the country to receive and soon produce cinema, which showcased and reinforced this nascent Iranian nationalism.

In 1924, Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, the American filmmakers who later produced King Kong, collaborated with journalist Marguerite Harrison on an ethnographic film following the migration of the Bakhtiari Tribe in Iran. The film, Grass: A Nation’s Battle for Life, captures the tribe’s seasonal trek from southern to central Iran, in addition to the filmmakers’ journey through Turkey to reach the ancient and unchanged ‘Forgotten People’.[13] In the tradition established by nineteenth-century Orientalist travellers, Grass is enamoured with the notion of an ‘ancient people’ at the heart of civilisation, struggling against nature to survive another migration. It presents the tribes as ’noble savages’, living in a different historical time from that experienced in the West. The film won international acclaim for its cinematic beauty and capturing of the tribe’s passage across the Karun River and over the Zardeh Mountain.[14] The film reflected tribal life as it existed in Iran and demonstrated the inability of central government to gain political dominance during the Constitutional Revolution. Grass portrayed the tribes in a dignified and valorised manner, a presentation which contradicts the narrative pushed by liberals in the Constitutional period and by Reza Shah. In Grass, the masculinity of the tribesmen is showcased through both physical feats and the life-and-death decision-making which the leaders must demonstrate throughout the migration. The women of the group are at the periphery and receive no specific attention. They are, however, presented as physically fit and capable, carrying large loads and contributing to the tribe’s migration. The incorporation of women in the tribe’s movements and their contribution to physical tasks sits in tension with the narrative of female vulnerability presented during the Constitutional Revolution and embodied in the ‘Daughters of Quchan’ incident. Here women were identified as incapable of self-defence, vulnerable to the whims of men, and in need of government intervention for their protection. This story of tribal independence undermined the nationalist narrative that traditional ways of life threatened the national social fabric.

Grass, in its original form, was banned in Iran as it critically contradicted the Shah’s actions to unite the tribes and construct a modern Iranian identity. Opposing the film gave the Shah the opportunity to institute state controls over cinema and to assert his authority over cultural affairs. After the deposing of the Shah in 1941 however, the film was edited with a Persian voice-over and became a point of national pride rather than of insult or alienation. Censorship during the Pahlavi period targeted scenes which challenged or mocked Islam as well as films with anti-state messages.[15] The government also implemented basic permit requirements for filming in public, specifically in religious or civic spaces.

Reza Shah used film to present his vision of a modern Iran and pushed back against the presentation of traditionalism in films such as Grass. A significant film in the early development of Iranian cinema and cultural modernisation was The Lor Girl (1933), also known as The Iran of Yesterday and the Iran of Today.[16] The Lor Girl was the first Persian talkie, produced by Ardeshir Irani and Abdolhossein Sepanta in Bombay.[17] In the film, Golnar—the Lor Girl—a young girl kidnapped by the Lor tribe of Western Iran, grows up and encounters a young man employed by the Iranian government, Jafar. The two intend to run away together when Gholi Khan, the leader of the bandit tribe, intercepts their plan and imprisons Jafar. Eventually they escape again, before an altercation with the remaining bandit gang members results in the death of several tribesmen. The two protagonists then flee to India and live there until they hear of Iran’s new government which has restored law and order by castrating tribal power and supplanting it with a centralised state. The film explores themes such as modernity and gender, themes which remained prominent in Iranian cinema until the 1970s. In a sense, modernity, and by extension the idea of a central state, saved the Lor Girl and delivered Iran from the grips of backward tribes. The Lor Girl establishes the primacy of male agency and action in film. However, Jafar is not a masculine or capable figure until he reaches India. When in Iran, the male figures appear inept and aloof, while the Lor Girl is clever and competent. When the two arrive in India, however, Jafar becomes the leading figure making decisions and taking action. The disordered gender roles in the first portion of the film are a consequence of tribalism and disappear when the setting changes to Zoroastrian India. The shift in gender relations based on setting speak to the ’correct’ cultural and political structures for social interaction. Being under orderly and structured governance enabled Jafar to become a man by taking up his responsibilities to lead and the Lor Girl was able to relinquish her more masculine qualities and take on a more appropriate secondary role once in India. At the end of the film, after retreating to Bombay, the Lor Girl only returns to Iran when a new government has incapacitated the tribes and brought the nation into modernity. Given these themes, this film supported Reza Shah’s repression of tribalism and his attempts to unify the country into a modern, Persian ethno-state.

In the 1930s and ‘40s, political tensions grew between the government and clerical establishment. Reza Shah continued to embrace modern reforms which sought to further integrate women into industrial and social settings previously dominated by men. In addition to clerical resistance, rural and lower-class individuals resented the Shah’s mandate of Western dress and the forced integration of men and women in schools. Ultimately however, sentiments of a strong and united Iran prospered. The narrative exemplified in The Lor Girl prevailed over that of Grass.

 

The Muhammad Reza Shah Era and Popular Cinema

Reza Shah was ousted by the British in 1941 and his son, Muhammad Reza Shah, ascended to power. Twelve years later, Iran’s Prime Minister, Mohammad Mossadeq, won the rights to Iran’s oil in an international court, forcing the British out and resulting in the industry’s nationalisation. Muhammad Reza continued his father’s modernisation efforts, bolstering educational opportunities and widening the civil service. In 1960, he launched the White Revolution which forced land redistribution, deployed students in rural areas as educators, furthered centralised state power, and promoted women’s enfranchisement. These efforts disturbed the clerical establishment, from whom much of the redistributed land was taken, as well as rural farmers who disliked having modern, secular students appear in their villages to re-educate their children. Opposition to Muhammad Reza’s revolution manifested itself in the foundation of organisations like the 1961 Freedom Movement, designed to oppose the regime’s pursuit of Western values. Opposition political parties and actors were silenced and exiled, which gave rise to discontent throughout the nation.

Between 1936 and 1947 no films were produced in Iran. Economic issues during these years contributed to political unrest, notably the protests of 1935 which culminated in the massacre of several hundred people at the hands of government troops. These economic and political issues  impacted production.[18] When commercial film production resumed in 1948, the Filmfarsi genre blossomed. Filmfarsi encompassed popular films which were typically melodramatic and involved Hollywood-style archetypes, often centred on a tough-guy trope. Filmfarsi actors quickly ascended to stardom and cinema began to dominate the national culture. Among film scholars, Filmfarsi marks a shift from film as a primarily artistic and artisanal medium to cinema as an industrialised and commercial product for popular consumption.[19] The masculinity espoused in Filmfarsi derived from the traditional Persian literary rogue figure: the luti.[20] In the nineteenth century this figure was portrayed as a gruff man living on the peripheries of society and operating under a traditional moralistic code, which at times required him to circumvent the law in the pursuit of vengeful justice. Representations of the luti were restricted during the Pahlavi period, in large part because the regime considered the figure to embody revolutionary tendencies.

Masud Kimiai’s 1969 film Qeysar confronts modernity and shifting gender roles in urban Tehran.[21] Title character Qeysar pursues the men who raped his sister (a crime which prompted her suicide) and killed his brother during a first revenge attempt, while evading the inept police’s attempts  to stop him. The film presents modernity as a war on women, only to be remedied by the return of masculinity in social and political structures. First, the virtuous women in the film, Fatima, Qeysar’s sister, and his mother are weak characters with little agency, suffering under the modern state of gender relations. Fatima is raped while studying with a male classmate and her subsequent suicide triggers a sequence of events which results in the deaths of her first brother, Faarman, and her mother, and in the potentially fatal stabbing of Qeysar. This plot is a clear attack on the Pahlavi desire to westernise women’s roles in Iranian society. While traditional gender roles would have kept Fatima at home safe with her mother, co-education, as established in the White Revolution, forced an already vulnerable young woman into an intimate position with an unrelated man who took advantage of her. Making matters worse, the modern police force is both incapable of protecting Fatima, and of  finding the perpetrators after the rape. The displacement of the traditional man’s role as avenger leaves Qeysar in the desperate position of having to avenge his sister in the urban landscape, under the radar of police or other witnesses.

Tough-guy films cast women in one of two ways: either as innocent unwilling victims of modernity or as sinful and complicit products of a Westernised culture. The first group encompasses most women in Qeysar. The second category of women is occupied by the club singer/dancer Soheila, girlfriend of the rapist and murderer Mansour. Soheila’s first scene opens in a club with her singing in a compromising dress, in full makeup, and pulled-up hair. In the almost seven-minute scene her very suggestive dancing captivates the gaze of all the men in the club, including the camera’s ‘male gaze’, reducing the character to her sexual attributes.

This virgin/whore or ‘pure/impure’ dynamic dominated Italian and Mediterranean film-making in this era and heavily influenced Iranian cinema. This binary character dynamic forces female characters into two-dimensional, shallow stereotypes, fully defined by their virtue or total abandonment thereof.[22] The virgin and whore roles both lack agency: the pure characters were dependent on men for their livelihood and the impure, though on the surface more independent than the former, still relied on men’s willingness to pay for sexual services in order to survive. Within Iranian Pahlavi-era film, women’s roles conformed to these categories, leaving little agency for females within plots and stifling the careers of female actors. For women portraying virgins, the available roles tended to be brief and weak, depicting women as subservient to the tough-guy, powerless and pitiful when caught up in the film’s dramatic plot. Women taking on the whore role necessarily participated in degrading scenes in compromising clothing, captured with an extremely objectifying male-gaze. This role encompasses the most liberal woman possible, with little regard of who she exposes herself to or sleeps with. In later tough-guy films, which take a very critical view of Pahlavi society, the whore is used to depict the degradation of women under the influence of Western liberal modernity in Iran.

 

The Islamic Revolution: Islamology and Politics

Qeysar and other films of the late 1960s and 1970s stood on the front line of the cultural war between the Westernised Pahlavi elites and the clerical establishment, buttressed by large numbers of conservative Islamists in rural Iran. Across the Middle East the idea of Pan-Arabism as an alternative to the West dissipated following the Arab defeat in the 1967 Six Day War with Israel.

In the 1950s, the Egyptian intellectual Seyyid Qutb began publishing political philosophy grappling with the meaning of Islam in a Western-dominated world. Qutb highlighted the West’s moral bankruptcy but also identified corruption and decay within the modern Islamic community. Qutb invoked the notion of Jahiliyya – the age of ignorance before the Prophet’s earthly life – and sought to apply it to the present state of Islam.[23] At the centre of his proposals to reinvigorate Islam as an international force was the creation of an intellectual vanguard to repress clerical corruption and to democratise access to the Quran. Though Qutb’s solution to Islamic governance utilised conservative structures, he sought to propagate Islamism as a theocratic movement across the Middle East. He was to have particular success with this project in Iran.

The intellectual Ali Shariati was one of the most significant theoretical influences on the development of the Islamic Revolution. While Shariati stemmed from the same Islamist intellectual movement as Qutb, he took a more leftist, revolutionary approach to achieving Islamic governance. After teaching, Shariati pursued studies at Mashhad University and the Sorbonne in Paris where he studied Islam in conjunction with philosophy, economics, ethics, sociology, and politics.[24] Shariati participated in multiple protest movements against the Shah both at home and abroad, including the National Movement of Iran in Europe and the Second National Front/Freedom Movement of Iran, for which he was imprisoned on several occasions. Shariati made critical contributions to the discussion of the ‘woman question’ in the 1970s and helped to shape the Revolution’s construction of the ‘new’ Iranian woman. In Woman in the Heart of Muhammad, Shariati asserts that Islam ‘emphasises equity by assigning to both [sexes] their natural places within society’, though the respective rights and duties of each differs. Shariati examines the life of Muhammad, specifically his relationships with, and treatment of, women, to contradict the Western narrative that Islam treats women as inferior to men. He also chastises the Christian missionary and European orientalist treatment of women ‘as a deception of the devil’, and their interpretation of Muhammad as a ‘Don Juan figure of the East.’ In this piece he specifically defends the practices of polygamy and modest dress as inherently protective for women.[25] Shariati does not promote modest dress as a means of controlling women, nor does he identify it as inherently spiritual. He sees the immodest Western dress as a symptom of youthful idolatry, connected to the propagation of cultural figures like Miss Universe. This mental attachment to shallow, anti-religious icons, Shariati argued, manifested itself in modern dress. He recognised, however, that intolerantly telling the youth what to do would not solve the problem. Instead, he advocated for presenting Islamic values ‘which are higher than the values represented by Miss Universe’ so that young women associate with the former and will ‘endure and incorporate all of those values herself’ by choice and not through coercion.[26]

Shariati’s most influential work on the ‘woman question’ in Iran was Fatima is Fatima, a lecture given at the Husayniyah Irshad and later distributed throughout the country. This piece was intended to address the identity crisis facing modern Iranian women who had adopted the ‘new imported mould’ of a distinctly foreign identity.[27] Shariati sought to find a model for Muslim women and, by expanding his source base to include several Shi’ite schools, eventually constructed the ideal heroine in the form of Fatima. Modern Iranian culture, Shariati argued, forced women to identify with either ethnic heritage or an ‘artificially imposed, imitative mask’. Instead, women want to ‘make decisions through reason and choice and to relate them to a history, religion, and society which received its spirit and basis from Islam.’ The lack of pre-existing theological movements which provided this basis, Shariati argues, was the fault of religious scholars and symbolised the schism between Islamic intellectuals and the Iranian people. Instead of seeing women in Muslim societies as either ‘traditional’ or ‘European-like’, the true face of a Muslim woman, and the ‘new woman’ of Iran, is Fatima.[28] Identifying with Fatima places all women in relativity to the time of the Prophet, espousing an identical standard which sits above generational time and space.

Shariati situates the new Islamic approach to questions of women and sexuality as the middle ground between the rigid, idealistic family of the religious Christian West and the short-sighted, pleasure seeking impulses of the secular West.[29] For Shariati, the Western notion of women – ‘toys of the Don Juans’ or ‘female slaves serving men’ – should be rejected and repressed.[30] Instead of seeking sexual freedom, which is fleeting, deceiving, and ultimately leads to dissatisfaction, Shariati argues that Muslim women should pursue womanhood as exemplified by Fatima and the Prophet, and that such womanhood would be best developed in a distinctly Islamic state. This authentic Islamic society would value women who are educated, virtuous, and are free to choose a life in the household, out of love for her family.[31] Muhammad loved Fatima and entrusted himself, his household, and his legacy to her. Shariati points to Fatima’s privileged place as beloved by the Prophet and as the perfect model of daughter, wife, and mother; she was ‘an outstanding example of someone to follow’, the model ‘for any woman who wishes to become herself […] through her own choice.’[32] Fatima’s personality, however, is more than a compilation of her roles in relation to Muhammad and others. Her identity can only be encompassed in herself: Fatima is Fatima.

Shariati’s assessment of Fatima enthrones her in inherent dignity while situating her in the lives of Islam’s most important figures. This analysis conveys the intrinsic value of women as understood by Shariati, as well as the dignity found in embracing Fatima as daughter, wife, and mother. This model of Fatima was rapidly embraced by Iranian women in the 1970s and underpinned the challenge to Westernised gender relations during the Islamic Revolution.[33] The identity of the ‘new woman’ did not rely on pure traditionalism or mimicry of the over-sexualised ‘painted doll’, but instead allowed Islam to serve as the basis of a chosen identity with intellect, agency, piety, and purpose. It was this new identity, forged in the Islamic Revolution, which challenged the role of women in Pahlavi film and provided the basis for a transformed, post-revolutionary Iranian cinema. This rejection of the Western-infused Pahlavi culture transformed the film industry and repealed many of the methodological and thematic tenets associated with Pahlavi-era films.

The Islamic Revolution’s redefinition of women’s role in society was of course part of a larger movement resisting the notion of Western modernity. The Revolution heightened religious and patriotic zealotry in Iran, priming the country for intensified conflict with Iraq. Tensions over the borderlands increased as Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein openly attacked Iran’s revolutionary leader Ayatollah Khomeini and renounced the 1975 Algiers Accords, a critical agreement which previously kept the two from direct conflict over the Shatt al-Arab waterway.[34] On 22 September 1980, Hussein invaded Iran and embarked on a conflict which would come to embody an existential battle between the Shi’ite Islamists and the Sunni Pan-Arabs. The conflict presented the Iranian regime with the opportunity to consolidate power and Khomeini perpetuated the war despite Iraq’s willingness to cease hostilities after being pushed out of Iran in 1982.[35] The prolonged conflict, however, came at a high price. Iraq’s prolonged use of chemical weapons and Iran’s reliance on child soldiers made the war particularly ghastly, requiring heavy state propaganda to maintain a stream of volunteer fighters. The war offered women a new opportunity to take part in the defence of Shi’ism by both producing sons and allowing them to be martyred. This era solidified the ideals of femininity advocated by Shariati and other conservatives prior to the Revolution. The war carved out a special place for women in society, a place of honour in line with Islamic teaching.[36]

 

The New Woman in Revolutionary and War Cinema

Cinema during the war captured fighting on the front lines in a documentary style. These films featured minimalistic plots with little dialogue. Martyrdom became a central theme in war cinema and the notion of individual sacrifice for a collective or religious good was emphasised in contrast to Western individuality. The sense of collective identity was intensified by the limited focus on setting or personnel. Instead, voice-overs were added and scenes accompanied by narration and infused with religious rhetoric. Television specials and films covering the lives of war martyrs, notably a series entitled Chronicle of Victory, bolstered religious and patriotic devotion to the war.[37] In war cinema, the majority of stories centred on men in combat and were exclusively filmed and directed by men. Women only appeared as grief-stricken mothers and as relatives of the fallen soldiers.[38]

In terms of both production and consumption, the Revolution and subsequent war significantly harmed the film industry financially. The state acquired movie houses and implemented film content standards, mandating films to support the Islamic values of the new regime. [39] Both domestic and foreign-imported films required purification, something that could not be trusted to many of the industry’s former, largely secular, personnel. The Hijab became mandatory for all women in film, and Pahlavi or foreign films featuring unveiled women were censored. Considered the first post-revolutionary studio, Ayat Film Studio ascended to the forefront of Islamicate film because they were deemed trustworthy to produce films with the desired Islamic values. Ayat Film Studio, whose creation was inspired in the late-1970s by Ali Shariati’s call for Muslim youth activism in the arts, began filming documentaries of the marginalised.[40] Government film institutions quickly increased in number, alongside a small number of private and para-governmental studios.[41] In 1987, Ayatollah Khomeini relaxed the Islamic morality codes which created more artistic and political freedom for cinema.[42]

 

Post-revolutionary Cinema

The increasing dominance of Islamic values following the Revolution of 1979 unravelled the ‘whore/virgin’ dichotomy at the heart of Pahlavi-era film and created space for new female characters to emerge in Iranian cinema. Film became more accessible to, and directed at, religious audiences, children, and families. Furthermore, the film industry became a viable career path which girls and women could pursue without fear of the moral and social backlash which had followed Pahlavi-era stars.[43] Consequently, more women directed movies in the 1980s than in all preceding decades combined. This increased visibility of women was also apparent in other social and cultural spheres, such as the previously male-dominated environments of journalism and higher education. Despite their greater prominence in the film industry, however, women remained second-class citizens due to Iran’s imposition of sharia law.[44]

The separation of women and men in the public sphere, and the Islamic Republic’s codified modesty for women, produced a three-phase women’s movement in post-revolutionary cinema according to film historian Hamid Naficy. The first, in the early 1980s, can be characterised by ‘women’s structured absence’. This was a period of purification where women disappeared as hosts and as subjects in television news, were heavily edited or entirely removed from films whenever unveiled or sexualised, and were temporarily suspended from contemporary filming until new standards of purity were adhered to in the industry.[45] The second phase, in the mid-1980s, saw women as a largely ‘background presence’. This coincided with the height of the Iran-Iraq War and featured minor roles for women who were often confined to the domestic sphere. In particular, women only appeared dressed conservatively and the camera would intentionally avoid displaying their bodies. These modesty requirements noticeably complicated the filming process as even intimate scenes between a husband and wife could not be captured without veiling, and only behaviour acceptable in public settings was permitted. Naficy characterises the third phase of post-revolutionary cinema, beginning in the late 1980s and continuing in contemporary Iranian cinema, as one in which women are a ‘foreground presence’.[46] This phase, under the influence of realist techniques and theories, successfully integrates women into the film’s main plotlines. Frequently entire films centre on the stories of women and their daily lives. Female characters in this phase are intricate, multi-layered individuals with strengths, weaknesses and mixed motives. The complexity of character and context in these films gives female characters new agency to respond to difficult situations and presents women as intelligent actors capable of understanding and responding to their environment.

 

Case Study One: Leila

The 1997 film Leila is a key example of the complexity and agency of women in post-revolutionary realist cinema.[47] The film follows Leila, a young woman who learns that she is infertile and comes under pressure from her mother-in-law to allow her husband, Reza, to take a second wife. Though Reza continually insists that he loves Leila and does not want a child, his female relatives pressure her throughout and Leila eventually decides to allow Reza to pursue other potential partners. Reluctantly he does so but insists that if Leila later objects to the idea, or to a particular woman he chooses, he will stop the pursuit. Despite Leila’s internal anguish, she does not resist the pressure and in turn actively contributes to the search for Reza’s new wife. After the wedding, Leila cannot handle the reality of having another woman in her home and flees to her parents’ home to live separately. Reza and his new wife have a child and shortly thereafter divorce. Despite Reza’s appeals to Leila to return to his home and restore their marriage, she declines. Reza and his daughter appear at a family gathering as Leila watches from a window. Leila sees the girl and says, ‘maybe one day, when someone tells Reza’s daughter Baran this story, she might laugh when she learns that if it hadn’t been for [Reza’s] mother’s persistence, she might never have been born.’[48]

Leila stirred up considerable debate among audiences and film critics over its feminist credentials. Director Dariush Mehrjui is often regarded as a feminist film-maker, though Western audiences tend to view Leila as displaying misogynistic tropes due to Leila’s lack of agency in the face of an antagonistic mother-in-law.[49] The film should be read, however, as neither misogynistic nor feminist—at least in as far as these terms are commonly understood in the West. All of the central action of the film relies on female characters. There is only one significant male character, Reza, who makes no independent decisions and defers to Leila and his mother to address every issue. It is clear that all the women have the ability to navigate either alongside or around their husbands, and in many ways have more influence over the situation than many of the men. In this respect, Leila affirms female agency and presents it as especially powerful in domestic politicking. The film does not, however, take a stereotypical feminist stance, as Leila is far from the archetypical heroine. She is passive, quiet, indecisive, and allows her mother-in-law to intervene and dictate, despite numerous opportunities to stop her. The film pits Leila and her mother-in-law against each other, showing one as a powerful agent and the other as a passive onlooker on her own life. The contrast between these two women speaks to the contrast between conservativism and progressivism in Iran, and how the former is maintained despite shifts in popular opinion. The mother-in-law, representing tradition and conservatism, actively pursues a second wife for her son so that he may have a child, and she a grandchild. Conversely, Leila, who represents a progressive understanding of marriage as primarily for love and satisfaction between spouses and not for the purpose of childbearing, chooses to quietly watch as the conservative agents successfully promote their cause.

The film presents women as the enforcers of culture standards, including practices considered patriarchal such as polygamy and divorce as a response to female infertility. It is the mother, not Reza, who insists that the marriage is unsatisfactory without children and that the remedy is to be found in polygamous arrangements. The film also portrays Leila, a cipher for young progressives, as the reason why Iranian culture remains traditional. Leila needed only to speak and the entire situation would be derailed. The film’s symbolic conversation between conservative and liberal women identifies women – not men – as significant perpetuators of patriarchal culture. This is an uncomfortable accusation. Leila highlights particular issues which dominate women’s lives in Iran, the pressures to have children, to permit divorce when infertile, and to consistently please in-laws, and identifies how these issues persist at the fault of multiple parties. Rather than deploying a conventional feminist argument, Leila presents the question of how women, who are agents with choices, can change their circumstances or submit to contextual pressures.

The strong female roles, domestic plot, and direct examination of womanhood in Iran exhibited in Leila is largely representative of Iranian films from the late 1990s until the present day. By engaging directly with the core of Iranian culture, these films both identify issues faced by women in daily life and pose the question, ‘what should, and could life in Iran be like for women?’ The boldness of these films in addressing both traditional cultural standards and political actions which oppress women is striking, especially when considering the Iranian state’s capability and willingness to censor and control the film industry.

 

Case Study Two: A Separation

The films of the internationally acclaimed director Asghar Farhadi serve as another excellent case study of feminist realism in contemporary Iranian cinema. Farhadi’s films are characterised by strong female characters in mundane yet complex situations speaking directly to the state of gender relations in modern Iran. His 2011 film A Separation directly confronts the gulf separating Western and Iranian understandings of female identity.[50] The film opens with a couple arguing before a judge; he woman (Simin) is seeking to flee to the West to raise her daughter (Termeh), and is requesting a divorce since her husband refuses to leave the country. Simin argues that, ‘as a mother, I’d rather she [Termeh] didn’t grow up in these circumstances.’[51] This dialogue characterised Iran as a country short on opportunity, a difficult place for girls to grow up, and ultimately as inferior to the West. After the opening scene, Simin and her husband Nader return to their home where Simin packs her clothes and leaves for her parents and Nader nurses his father, who suffers from advanced Alzheimer’s. Termeh, from the beginning, is trapped between her parents. As Simin pulls the last things together before she leaves she walks right past Termeh, asks her to do her laundry, and at no point addresses her departure.[52]

Once Simin leaves, Nader meets with a prospective caretaker (Razieh) and hires her to watch his father during work hours. Razieh is always pictured with her four year-old daughter Somayeh and is clearly from a lower-class background. When Razieh returns the next day it is revealed that she is pregnant as well as from an orthodox religious background. In these circumstances she faces the dilemma of caring for Nader’s father without making herself ritually impure. On a later day, Nader and Termeh return home early and find that Razieh and Somayeh are gone and his father is on the floor, tied to the bedpost. After frantically aiding his father, Razieh returns and apologises for leaving but the conversation quickly escalates with incendiary language. Nader tries to get Razieh out of the house so he can help his father, but she resists and will not leave until he takes back some of his accusations. This results in Nader closing the door on Razieh as Somayeh and Termeh watch silently. Later, Simin and Nader hear that Razieh has been taken to the hospital for a miscarriage, and Nader insists he did not know she was pregnant. Razieh’s husband takes Nader to court where the three explain the case before a judge, who eventually charges Nader with the murder of the unborn baby. Outside of the courtroom, Simin tires to settle with the family and the class differences between the two families become evident. Nader’s mother-in-law tells Razieh: ‘you’re young […] you can try next year.’[53] At the centre of this dispute is a discrepancy between two families from different class families over the value of an unborn life. For the middle-class family, the miscarriage is no more severe than the harm done by Razieh to their grandfather. But for the poor family, the loss of a child entails earthshattering material and spiritual consequences.

As the film progresses, Simin and Nader navigate their fraught relationship and despite Termeh’s pleas are unable to reconcile. Razieh has equally troubling times with her husband, who dodges creditors and resents her for working behind his back. After more clashes in court, Razieh approaches Simin in private and reveals that she most likely lost the baby prior to the incident with Nader, when she was hit by a car while rescuing his father from a busy street.[54] This scene emphasises women’s ability to get to the truth outside of the legal system and without their husbands. Despite their mutual desire to settle the dispute, Razieh is unwilling to take the blood money for fear of spiritual implications and her husband lashes out at this refusal. The two young girls are caught between their warring parents. Throughout the film, similar shots of the two girls emphasise their innocence and express their mutual helplessness. The presence and connection of the two girls’ quiet stories speaks to the opening claim: Iran is not the optimal environment for young girls. However, the precarious situation of the girls is the result of their mothers’ actions, not just the socio-political situation of their country. The relationship between Simin and Termeh is strained from the start, and ultimately Termeh is a victim of her mother’s use of agency while disregarding the needs of others, including her family. Simin’s agency, exercised through leaving the family home, results in the appointment of Razieh and ultimately the conflict between the two families.

A Separation articulates bold critiques of class, divorce, and the position of women in contemporary Iran. Should A Separation, however, be classified as a feminist film? On one hand, the entire plot is propelled by the actions of women. On the other, the film also reveals how unbridled agency can disrupt family life, alienating children who do not have the agency to self-advocate. In a similar way to how Leila asserted female agency and strength, A Separation clearly affirms that Iranian women are capable, intelligent, and independent decision makers. However, the film does not overlook the consequences of strong, inward-looking women who fail to recognise the needs of others. A Separation, along with Leila and other contemporary Iranian films, exhibits a unique characterisation of women which this article has described as feminist realism. The film simultaneously portrays the damaging legal and social restrictions afflicting women in Iran while highlighting the profound consequences of challenging deeply embedded assumptions, traditions and systems. This feminist realism leaves room for the concept of the ‘new woman’ established during the Islamic Revolution – a woman with a strong religious identity – and for a female identity influenced by the West.

 

Conclusion

The Islamic Revolution led to the removal of the ‘painted doll’, the overly-sexualised Western image of women, from Iranian film and culture and replaced it with the image of Fatima, a figure present at the foundation of Islam and capable of transcending time and place. This ‘new woman’ was to exist within religious structures and expected to uphold the principles of dignity and piety. The Western interpretation of the Revolution, and the Islamic codes which followed, almost exclusively highlight the misogynistic, oppressive and patriarchal structures it imposed. An exploration of the film industry, however, tells a different story. Iranian cinema in the post-revolutionary decades is characterised by increased dignity and agency for both female characters and actors. It was the identity of the ‘new woman’ which destroyed the ‘virgin/whore’ dynamic that had dominated Pahlavi film and which had confined women to either weak or overly-sexualised roles. Post-revolutionary censorship demanded women take on asexual roles and refocused cinema around mundane, relationship-based plots. Increasingly these plots centred on the lives of women and enabled a deeper examination of gender relations across Iranian society. As a result of the increased presence of women on screens across Iran, cinema has become a place for commentary and resistance against the aspects of the Islamic Republic which restrict women. It remains one of the most important outlets for cultural commentary, debate and social resistance.

 

Bibliography & Filmography

 

Films

Grass: A Nation’s Battle for Life (Dir: Merian C. Cooper, Ernest B. Schoedsack, and Marguerite Harrison, 1925).

Leila (Dir: Dariush Mehrjui, 1997).

The Lor Girl (Dir: Ardeshir Irani, 1933).

Qeysar (Dir: Masud Kimiai, Tehran, 1969).

A Separation (Dir: Asghar Farhadi, 2011)

 

Secondary Sources

Afkhami, G.R., The Life and Times of the Shah (Berkeley, CA, 2009).

Al Sharaji, A. S. Negotiating the Politics of Representation in Iranian Women’s Cinema Before and After the Islamic Revolution (unpublished master’s dissertation, University of Arkansas, 2016).

Atwood, B., Reform Cinema in Iran: Film and Political Change in the Islamic Republic (New York, 2018).

Naficy, H., A Social History of Iranian Cinema Vol 1: The Artisanal Era, 1897–1941 (Durham, NC, 2011).

Naficy, H., A Social History of Iranian Cinema Vol. 3: The Islamicate Period, 1978–1984 (Durham, NC, 2011).

Naficy, H., A Social History of Iranian Cinema Vol 4: The Globalizing Era, 1984–2010 (Durham, NC, 2012).

Najmabadi, A., ‘Hazards of Modernity and Morality: Women, State and Ideology in Contemporary Iran’, in D. Kandiyoti (ed.), Women, Islam and the State (Philadelphia, PA, 1991), pp. 48–76.

Najmabadi, A., ‘“Is Our Name Remembered?” Writing the History of Iranian Constitutionalism as If Women and Gender Mattered’, Iranian Studies, 29/1–2 (1996), pp. 85–109.

Nashat, G., ‘Women in the Islamic Republic of Iran’, Iranian Studies, 13/1–4 (2007), pp. 165–94.

Mehrabi, M., ‘The History of Iranian Cinema, Part Two’, <http://www.massoudmehrabi.com/articles.asp?id=-1303821578>

Qutb, S., Milestones (Cairo, 1964).

Razavi, S., Labour, Women, and War in the 1979 Iranian Revolution (unpublished doctoral dissertation, TED University, Ankara, 2017).

Sedghi, H., ‘Feminist Movements III: In the Pahlavi Period’, Encyclopaedia Iranica, 9/5 (1999), pp. 492–98.

Shariati , A., and  Bakhtiar, L., Shariati on Shariati and the Muslim Woman (Chicago, IL, 1996).

Takeyh, R., ‘Iran’s New Iraq’, The Middle East Journal, 62/1 (2008), pp. 13–30.

Tavakoli-Targhi, M., ‘Refashioning Iran: Language and Culture During the Constitutional Revolution’, Iranian Studies, 23/1–4 (1990), pp. 77–101.

Totaro, D., ‘Leila: Dariush Mehrjui’s Post-Revolution Masterpiece’, Off Screen Journal, 6/5 (2002).

 

Notes

[1] G. Nashat, ‘Women in the Islamic Republic of Iran’, Iranian Studies, 13 (2007), pp. 165–194.

[2] H. Sedghi, ’Feminist Movements III: In the Pahlavi Period’, Encyclopaedia Iranica, 9/5 (1999), pp. 492–498.

[3] Sedghi, ‘Feminist Movements’, p. 496.

[4] H. Naficy, A Social History of Iranian Cinema, Volume 1: The Artisanal Era, 1897-1941 (Durham, NC., 2011), p. 147.

[5] S. Razavi, Labor, Women, and War in the 1979 Iranian Revolution (unpublished doctoral dissertation, TED University, Ankara, 2017), pp. 102–104.

[6] G. R. Afkhami, The Life and Times of the Shah (Berkeley, CA, 2009), p. 237.

[7] A. Najmabadi, ‘Hazards of Modernity and Morality: Women, State and Ideology in Contemporary Iran’, in D. Kandiyoti (Ed.), Islam and the State (Philadelphia, PA, 1991), p. 60.

[8] M. Tavakoli-Targhi, ‘Refashioning Iran: Language and Culture during the Constitutional Revolution’, Iranian Studies, 23 (1990), pp. 77–101.

[9] A. Najmabadi, ‘“Is Our Name Remembered?Writing the History of Iranian Constitutionalism as if Women and Gender Mattered’, Iranian Studies, 29 (1997), pp. 85–109.

[10] Najmabadi, ‘“Is Our Name Remembered?”’, p. 86.

[11] Najmabadi, ‘“Is Our Name Remembered?”’, p. 88.

[12] Naficy, A Social History of Iranian Cinema Vol. 1, p. 10.

[13] Grass: A Nation’s Battle for Life (Dir: Merian C. Cooper, Ernest B. Schoedsack, and Marguerite Harrison, 1925).

[14] Naficy, A Social History of Iranian Cinema Vol. 1, p. 162.

[15] Naficy, A Social History of Iranian Cinema Vol. 1, p. 162.

[16] The Lor Girl (Dir: Ardeshir Irani, 1933).

[17] M. Mehrabi, ‘The History of Iranian Cinema, Part Two’, <http://www.massoudmehrabi.com/articles.asp?id=-1303821578>, (Accessed: 17/07/2020).

[18] A. S. Al Sharaji, Negotiating the Politics of Representation in Iranian Women’s Cinema Before and After the Islamic Revolution (Unpublished MA Thesis, University of Arkansas, 2016), p. 14.

[19] B. Atwood, Reform Cinema in Iran: Film and Political Change in the Islamic RepublicReform Cinema in Iran (New York, 2018), pp. 142–143.

[20] Atwood, Reform Cinema in Iran, p. 144

[21] Qeysar (Dir: Masud Kimiai, 1969).

[22] H. Naficy, A Social History of Iranian Cinema Vol. 4: The Globalizing Era, 1984–2010 (Durham, NC, 2012), p. 96.

[23] S. Qutb, Milestones (Cairo, 1964).

[24] A. Shariati and L. Bakhtiar (eds.), Shariati on Shariati and the Muslim Woman (Chicago, IL, 1996), p. xvii.

[25] A. Shariati and L. Bakhtiar, ‘Woman in the Heart of Muhammad’, in  Shariati on Shariati, p. 5–7, 43.

[26] A. Shariati and L. Bakhtiar, ‘The Islamic Modest Dress’, in  Shariati on Shariati, p. 43.

[27] A. Shariati and L. Bakhtiar, ‘Fatima is Fatima’, in  Shariati on Shariati, p. 79.

[28] Shariatiand Bakhtiar, ‘Fatima is Fatima’, p. 80, 83, 99.

[29] Shariati and  Bakhtiar, ‘Fatima is Fatima’, p. 110.

[30] Shariati and  Bakhtiar, ‘Fatima is Fatima’, p. 111, 112, 119.

[31] Shariati and  Bakhtiar, ‘Fatima is Fatima’, p. 139, 42.

[32] Shariati and  Bakhtiar, ‘Fatima is Fatima’, p. 212, 213.

[33] A. K. Ferdows, “Women and the Islamic Revolution” International journal of Middle East Studies, 15 (1983), pp. 283–298, pp. 293.

[34] R. Takeyh, ‘Iran’s New Iraq’, The Middle East Journal, 62 (2008), pp. 13–30.

[35] Takeyh, ‘Iran’s New Iraq’, p. 17.

[36] Shariati and  Bakhtiar, ‘Woman in the Heart of Muhammad’, p. 7.

[37] Naficy, A Social History of Iranian Cinema Vol. 4, p. 13, 15.

[38] Naficy, A Social History of Iranian Cinema Vol. 4, p. 25.

[39] H. Naficy, A Social History of Iranian Cinema Vol. 3: The Islamicate Period, 1978–1984 (Durham, NC., 2012), p. 118.

[40] Naficy, A Social History of Iranian Cinema Vol. 3, pp. 122–123.

[41] Naficy, A Social History of Iranian Cinema Vol. 3, p. 130.

[42] Naficy, A Social History of Iranian Cinema Vol. 3, p. 186.

[43] Naficy, A Social History of Iranian Cinema Vol. 3, p. 187.

[44] Naficy, A Social History of Iranian Cinema Vol. 4, p. 94, 95, 96.

[45] Naficy, A Social History of Iranian Cinema Vol. 4, pp. 111–112, 114.

[46] Naficy, A Social History of Iranian Cinema Vol. 4, p. 121.

[47] Leila (Dir. Dariush Mehrjui, 1997).

[48] Leila, Minute 2:03:14.

[49] D. Totaro, ‘Leila: Dariush Mehrjui’s Post-Revolution Masterpiece’, Off Screen Journal, 6 (2002).

 

[50] A Separation (Dir: Asghar Farhadi, 2011).

[51] A Separation, Minute 03:28.

[52] A Separation, Minute 08:57.

[53] A Separation, Minute 1:06:08.

[54] A Separation, Minute 1:48:20.

 

‘Vermin and Devil-Worshippers’: Exploring Witch Identities in Popular Print in Early Modern Germany and England

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Author Biography

Natalie Grace is a History PhD student at the University of Nottingham researching witchcraft in print in Germany and England. She is funded by the Midlands4Cities DTP and supervised by Dr David Gehring and Dr Simone Laqua-O’Donnell.

Twitter: @Witchy_Nat

Midlands4Cities VPP: https://www.midlands4cities.ac.uk/student_profile/natalie-grace/

Abstract

This paper compares the creation of witch identities in news reports about witchcraft printed in Germany and England (1560 – 1650). The scale of witch-hunts and witchcraft reports differed dramatically in Germany and England. This difference, however, masks similarities in the created identities of witches in both countries. Both sometimes overlooked male witches, a decision shaped by reporters’ need to engage readers with sensational stories. Witch identities in both countries were always fluid, although this fluidity was especially evident during periods of intense witch-hunting. Ultimately, a diabolic connection and evil nature were the defining characteristics of witches in both Germany and England. In portraying the witch as a diabolic other – as ‘vermin and devil-worshippers’ – the pamphleteers in Germany and England created an enemy against whom Christian readers could unite.

Keywords: witchcraft, Germany, England, early modern, identity, sex, gender, crime, news, popular print, diabolism

‘Vermin and Devil-Worshippers’: Exploring Witch Identities in Popular Print in Early Modern Germany and England

Who, or what, is a witch? Belief in witches and witchcraft can be found, in some form, throughout history across the globe.[1] Yet a scholarly consensus on what exactly defines a witch remains elusive. Even contemporaries during the early modern European witch-hunts – which claimed the lives of roughly 45,000 people between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries – struggled to find a coherent definition of a witch.[2] The difference of opinion was not a simple separation between so-called ‘popular’ and ‘elite’ thinking. Rather, ideas about witches and witchcraft varied significantly at every level of society. Historians have long been interested in untangling the complex web of meanings surrounding witchcraft, but extant sources pose a problem when trying to explore the identity of the witches themselves. Even witches’ confessions, recorded in trial documents and news reports in the first person, are not unmediated windows on their thoughts and feelings.[3] Trial records are full of silences. Since questions were not often recorded, identifying leading questions and when the questioner has shaped the answers is challenging. Records of trials, whether they be court documents or news reports, often underwent significant editing, translation, and shaping to present a coherent narrative.[4] Some scholars argue that, by seeking signs of resistance in the records, it is possible to identify some semblance of the witch’s own ideas and agency.[5] This article, however, explores how the identity of the witch was constructed and created by others – namely, the writers and printers of witchcraft news reports.

This article examines such reports about witchcraft, from Germany and England, between 1560 and 1650. The witch-hunts in Germany and England could both be considered exceptional for different reasons. Germany – or, more properly, the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation – has been dubbed ‘the heartland of the witch craze’ and ‘the mother of witches’: approximately 25,000 people were executed for the crime of witchcraft there.[6] The picture in England was different: around 1000 people were tried, and approximately 500 executed by hanging.[7] For some scholars, the comparatively mild approach to witch-hunting, and what they view as a lack of popular acceptance of the diabolic nature of witchcraft – that is, the notion that witches’ power was derived from making a pact with the Devil and Devil-worship marked England out as distinct from mainland Europe.[8] Of course, the suggestion that either was exceptional implies that there were norms of witch-hunting in other parts of Europe, but decades of detailed witchcraft research demonstrate that every country and region had its own idiosyncrasies in its approaches to witch-hunting. While the scale of witch-hunting differed considerably in Germany and England, the two countries also shared several characteristics. Both experienced significant religious upheaval, because of the Reformation. They also experienced significant political upheaval in the form of civil strife and warfare, including the Thirty Years’ War in central Europe (1618 – 1648) and the British Civil Wars (1642 – 1651).[9]  As will become clear in this paper, these periods of conflict coincided with significant witch-hunts in the respective countries. Both also had vibrant print industries. In England, this industry was concentrated primarily (although not solely) in London, while in Germany several print centres emerged including Augsburg, Nuremberg, Erfurt, Leipzig, and Cologne. These print centres, coupled with developments in communication networks, and cheaper production of paper, led to a growing popular print industry by the second half of the sixteenth century.[10]

The news reports on witchcraft discussed here were part of this wider growth in print. More specifically, they belong to the genre of crime reporting, alongside reports of other lurid and serious crimes such as murder. They were printed in the form of short pamphlets (approximately eight pages), chapbooks, single-sheet broadsheets, and ballads. Such documents often claimed to be ‘truthful’ (wahrhaftig) and ‘authentic’ (glaubwürdig), but they were not objective factual reports.[11] Rather, they were literary constructions, moulded by their authors (who were, in most cases, anonymous) to appeal to their readers and to present certain perspectives. Such representation was only indirectly related to actual events; pamphlets and ballads tended to report only the most sensational and atypical cases because they were likely to attract buyers.[12] It should not be assumed, therefore, that these accounts are simply reflections of existing ideas. The value of these sources for studying witchcraft in Germany has been demonstrated by Wolfgang Behringer, Harald Sipek, Ursula-Maria Krah, Robert Walinski-Kiehl, and Abaigéal Warfield.[13] Similar arguments have been made by Barbara Rosen, Marion Gibson, Carla Suhr, James Sharpe, and Charlotte-Rose Millar regarding witchcraft in England.[14] Witch news reports were accessible to a wider audience than the learned treatises that have often been the focus of witchcraft research; they were cheaper, shorter, and often illustrated or written with a tune to be sung aloud, ensuring that their message could be disseminated beyond the literate elite. They offer, therefore, the opportunity to explore what the wider populace learned about witchcraft. Millar has recently demonstrated the importance of these sources for exploring witch identities, offering an insight into male witches in English witchcraft pamphlets and highlighting the need for diabolism to be integrated into our understanding of English witchcraft.[15]

While this essay echoes Millar’s conclusions, it goes further by closely comparing German and English witch identities. Such comparison has not been undertaken previously. Comparative research remains rare in witchcraft scholarship, despite notable studies including the works of Johannes Dillinger, Laura Stokes, and Louise Nyholm Kallestrup demonstrating the merits of the approach.[16] Historiographical reviews of both English and German witchcraft note the potential for comparative work to yield new insights.[17]  This study provides convincing evidence for commonalities between German and English witch identities, while acknowledging and explaining differences. In doing so, it deepens our understanding of witchcraft in both countries, provides a framework to consider overarching trends in a way that is not possible with regional case studies, and highlights the potential of comparative research in the field of witchcraft. It asks what characteristics pamphleteers in both countries considered to be quintessential to the witch. It also considers how the genre of crime reporting and the intentions and priorities of pamphleteers shaped their approach to witch identities.

The essay is divided into four parts. Part one investigates pamphleteers’ approach to sex and gender, aspects of witch identity central in the historiography; part two considers how the need for sensational and shocking stories influenced the choices made by pamphleteers, and compares a sensational case that was reported in both countries; part three looks at the wider witch identity and considers the extent to which the identity broke down during times of intense witch-hunting; finally, part four shows the centrality of diabolism and evil nature in the witch identity, and argues that the moralistic and religious tone of the pamphlets explains their emphasis on these characteristics. Ultimately, the essay demonstrates that, while they are not identical, there are clear overlaps in the witch identities created by German and English pamphleteers.

What the Devil cannot do himself he does through an old woman’: Sex and Gender in Witchcraft Reports

In Germany and England, the female criminal was an anomaly, although the percentage of men and women prosecuted varied in different localities. According to Jeanette Kamp, some major European cities such as London, Leiden, and Glasgow had relatively high proportions of female criminals (30 to 50 percent), but others, such as Frankfurt am Main, had a much lower rate of female prosecution (22 percent).[18] Nevertheless, the majority of those who were officially prosecuted were men.[19] Men and women were also traditionally accused of different crimes. Men were the chief offenders in major crimes including treason, heresy, and murder. Women tended to be involved in crimes which undermined public order, such as slander, scolding, sexual impropriety, or property offences.[20] Two serious crimes, however, were closely associated with women: infanticide and witchcraft. In England, 90 percent of those executed for witchcraft were women.[21] In Germany, the figure was closer to 80 percent, although this masks significant regional variations across the Empire.[22]

The connection between witches and women has prompted much debate. In the 1960s and ‘70s, second-wave feminists viewed the witch as evidence of the longstanding oppression of women by patriarchal structures. Andrea Dworkin and Mary Daly argued that the witch-hunts were ‘gynocide’, claimed erroneously that the hunts cost the lives of nine million women, and suggested that the high proportion of widows and spinsters among the accused is evidence that witch-hunts targeted women ‘whose crime [was] independence’.[23] These claims have been criticised for their ahistorical use of terms such as misogyny and patriarchy, neglect of archival evidence, and their refusal to treat male witches as a worthy subject of investigation.[24] They did, however, highlight the need to investigate relationships across sex, gender, and witchcraft properly. Subsequent explorations have added depth and nuance to our understanding of the connections.[25] Significant work has been done to integrate male witches and masculinities into discussions.[26] Considerations of gender and witchcraft also increasingly emphasise the need to move away from simple binaries, and to explore ‘how and to what extent gender was intrinsic to the identity of the witch’.[27]

Julian Goodare suggests that different ideas about witches and women existed at learned and popular levels.[28] Because witchcraft news reports appealed to both learned and popular audiences, it is worth considering how they navigated the relationship between witchcraft and women. The majority of German and English news reports published between 1560 and 1650 solely discuss female witches. Woodcut illustrations – important because they communicated ideas to illiterate or semi-literate audiences – feature primarily women. The Examination and Confession of Certaine Witches (1566), for example, which warned its readers about ‘feminine dames […] whom sathan hath infect’, included depictions of each of the three women who feature in the text.[29] Another, A Rehearsall Both Straung and True (1579), contains two depictions of women feeding animals or alongside demon-like creatures.[30] In Germany, the title page of A Truthful Report from the Town of Osnabrück (1588) shows a woman, whose crooked stance and supporting stick gives her an aged appearance, reaching out to a scaly, horned creature, presumably the Devil.[31] The image bears a resemblance to the woodcut showing a woman and the Devil embracing in Ulrich Molitor’s Of Witches and Diviner Women (first published 1489), indicating perhaps that printers took inspiration in their depictions of witches from learned treatises.[32] Another German woodcut, on the title page of A Truthful Report Concerning Wicked Witches (1571) shows four women, naked or barely dressed, with long flowing hair, gathered around a cooking pot with bones strewn on the ground around them.[33] The nakedness, loose hair, and the cooking pot are all symbols which Charles Zika suggests represented the connection between witchcraft and women in art during the late fifteenth century.[34] These features once again indicate that ideas about witches and women from other learned sources were adopted and disseminated in these pamphlets. The connection between witches and women is not restricted to visual imagery. It is sometimes explicitly stated in the text. Several German reports from the late 1570s and early 1580s, for example, include the phrase ‘as the old saying goes, what the devil cannot do himself, he does through an old woman’.[35] This statement, presented as received wisdom, implies that writers were simply reflecting a popular notion that old women were in league with the Devil and were, therefore, archetypal witches.

Yet it is important not to take such statements at face value. Some pamphleteers appear to have actively curated an image of the witch as exclusively female, disregarding the facts of the events that they were reporting. Of the 72 reports surveyed for this paper, 24 (thirteen English and eleven German) include references to men accused of or executed for the crime of witchcraft. In some cases, however, male witches are relatively downplayed or overlooked. The clearest example is two English pamphlets from 1579 discussing a trial in Windsor. The first is A Rehearsall Straung and True. This pamphlet names ‘fower notorious witches’ on its title page: Elizabeth Stile alias Rockingham, Mother Dutten, Mother Devell, and Mother Margaret.[36] The text provides the testimony of Elizabeth Stile, who begins by naming other witches. The first name she gives is Father Rosimond.[37] Father Rosimond reappears later in Elizabeth’s confession, as she describes meeting with the other witches to perform ‘heinous and vilanous practices’: he is, once again, the first person she names.[38] A Brief Treatise Containing the Most Strange and Horrible Cruelty of Elizabeth Stile alias Rockingham and her Confederates (1579) discusses the same events. It is written by Richard Galis, an apparent first-hand victim of the witches. Galis also refers to Father Rosimond. He describes seeking Father Rosimond’s advice about suspected sorcery and witchcraft, indicating that Father Rosimond acted as a cunning man.[39] Galis reports that Elizabeth named ‘diverse men as well as women, that used to do much harm by sorcery, witchcraft, and enchantments.’[40] In both pamphlets, however, Elizabeth’s naming of Father Rosimond as a witch is downplayed in the overall narrative. The pamphlets inform readers that Elizabeth and three other women that she named were executed, but Father Rosimond’s fate remains unclear. Galis’s choice of language makes his position clear. He talks of how the ‘sisters’ gathered to perform their sorcery – a gathering at which Elizabeth states Father Rosimond was present – and, in his conclusion, warns his readers about the ‘daughters of the devil’.[41] The reader is left with the distinct impression that witches are women.

A similar technique can be observed in a German pamphlet – A True and Authentic Report: How 225 Women were Burned in the Year 1582 – which reported numerous witch trials in the south of the Empire. The word choice in the title is significant. The writer used the German Weiber which translates as ‘women’ or, alternatively, ‘hags’.[42] Different terms which include both men and women, such as Unholden (fiends), appear in other German pamphlet titles.[43] The choice of Weiber here suggests that the author of this pamphlet wanted to place emphasis on the fact that the witches were female despite the fact that within the text there are scattered references to male witches. Indeed, the report states that ‘44 women and three men’ were captured and burned in the county of Montbéliard.[44] It also mentions a male sorcerer (Hexenmeister) in Colmar.[45] At the end of the report, however, the author warns of Satan’s power over ‘his weak instruments of the female sex’.[46] Evidently, this pamphlet’s author felt that sex was a defining component of witch identity. In both English and German sources, then, there is a clear emphasis on female witches and male witches’ roles are downplayed. Why exactly did pamphleteers in both countries choose to emphasise female witches in this way?

‘The most monstrous act that ever man heard of’: Sensationalism and shock in the shaping of witch identities

The attention given to female witches can be explained, at least partially, by the conventions of the crime reporting genre to which these sources belong. Alongside claims to be ‘truthful’, reports emphasise the shocking nature of their stories using terms like ‘wonderful’, ‘strange’, and ‘terrifying’.[47] The juxtaposition of truth and shock leads Warfield to characterise such sources as ‘a forerunner for our own modern-day fascination with “true crime” series and documentaries’.[48] Attention-grabbing headlines ensured the purchase of the pamphlet in an increasingly competitive market; put another way, they were the early modern equivalent of ‘clickbait’. Andrew Pettegree suggests that there was ‘a particular fascination with the crimes of women […] because they were so rare’.[49] Several scholars have noted that the audience for such cheap print was ‘socially variegated’ and ‘assumed a broad social consensus of shared values’.[50] Yet the people most likely to purchase these documents, especially in the earlier years of the period examined here – and the audience, therefore, that printers were particularly seeking to entice – were ‘the literate upper levels of early modern society.’[51] For members of this stratum of society who had achieved some level of security and comfort, news pamphlets like these witchcraft reports ‘spoke to [their] deepest fears of attacks on established social and gender hierarchies.’[52] Reporting on witchcraft offered an ideal opportunity for pamphleteers and printers to tap into the market for dramatic tales of women who had contravened societal norms, which may go some way to explaining why writers chose to only mention female witches in the titles of their pamphlets in the examples above. Criminal women were more sensational than criminal men, and the reports on such women nurtured the anxieties of upper-class men who sought to maintain their positions within the social order.

The role of sensationalism in moulding the witch identities in these reports is illustrated by the fact that, where male witches do feature prominently, the stories were especially sensational and shocking. Both German and English reports discussing male witches accuse them of a litany of dreadful crimes. The English pamphlet discussing Lewis Gaufredy, a French priest who was convicted for witchcraft, emphasises his duplicitousness and how he used his diabolic powers to seduce and rape women.[53] A German pamphlet reporting the prosecution of a family of witches, but primarily focusing on the men in the family, accused them not only of witchcraft, but also multiple counts of murder, theft, and arson.[54] The case of Peter Stumpf, who was executed in Bedburg near Cologne in 1589, is particularly sensational. Alongside sorcery, Stumpf was accused of child-murder, incestuous rape, and cannibalism. His crimes obviously captured the European imagination. Alongside four surviving German reports, his story was translated and printed in Dutch, Danish, and English.[55] The English version, printed in London in 1590, claims to be a translation from a German copy, but does not match any of the extant versions.[56] The survival rate for such ephemeral literature is extremely low, so it is possible that the source text for the translation has simply not survived. It is, however, also plausible that the author simply claimed it was a translation to lend legitimacy to the account, a common tactic when reporting foreign news.[57]

The survival of German and English examples of this case offers a rare opportunity to directly compare witch reporting and the creation of witch identities in the two countries. The extant German copies are three broadsheets (all written in verse) and one pamphlet; the English version is a pamphlet.[58] There are some similarities across the five sources. All report Stumpf’s crimes, including the murder of thirteen children, eating his son’s brain, and sleeping with his daughter. All proclaim the incredible nature of the tale: one German broadsheet talks of Stumpf’s ‘unspeakable shame and vice’, while another claims his story is ‘too terrifying to hear’; the English pamphlet reports that Stumpf ‘did more mischeefe and cruelty then would be credible, although high Germany hath been forced to talke the truth thereof.’[59] Both the German and the English texts give the impression that Stumpf was, in a twisted way, a celebrity. One of the broadsheets is written from Stumpf’s own perspective, offering a vicarious insight into the imagined mindset of a serial killer.[60] The English version describes him as a ‘most wicked sorcerer’.[61] According to Sara Barker, focusing the story on a central character was a common technique in news reporting, allowing the reader to create a personal connection.[62]

There are, however, some differences. As Warfield has observed, the English version is far more detailed than any of the German accounts.[63] Comparing the German pamphlet with the English one, the German account spends just two of eight pages discussing Stumpf, before moving on to discuss witch trials happening elsewhere.[64] The English pamphlet devotes nineteen pages solely to discussing Stumpf, providing far more detail about his life, his deeds, failed attempts to capture him, and his final demise. The English pamphlet is particularly hyperbolic in its descriptions of Stumpf: he is ‘a most wicked sorcerer’, he lusted after his daughter ‘most unnaturally, and cruelly committed most wicked incest with her’, and the murder and cannibalisation of his son was ‘the most monstrous act that ever man heard of.’[65]

The extra detail provided in the English report may partially be to aid the reliability of the report, given the foreign origins of the tale. Yet this level of detail and hyperbole is also found in other English witch reports examined for this paper. Similar exaggerations are found in the news ballad from 1628 reporting the murder of Doctor Lambe, an associate of the Duke of Buckingham who was widely believed to be a sorcerer: the ballad describes him as ‘the Devill of our nation’ and states that ‘such a wicked wretch/in England hath liv’d seldom’.[66] These hyperbolic descriptions are not reserved for male witches. In Thomas Potts’s report on the witches of Lancaster, published in 1613, he describes the witchcraft performed there by both male and female witches as ‘the most barbarous and damnable practices’, and labels one of the accused witches, Elizabeth Demdike, as ‘the most dangerous and malitious witch’.[67] Another early English report from 1592 is titled A Most Wicked Worke of a Wretched Witch (the like whereof none can record these manie yeeres in England.).[68] The length of English witch reports is also notable. While the vast majority of the German reports examined for this paper were between eight and sixteen pages long, the length of the English reports varies considerably. It is not uncommon for English witch reports to devote several pages to the description of each individual witch’s character and misdeeds.[69]

The differences between the German and English pamphlets discussing the Stumpf case are, therefore, indicative of a wider difference between German and English witch reports, and one which has a significant impact on the way they treat witch identities and construct sensational stories: scale. In the German version, Stumpf is a case that, while admittedly notable because of his sex and the severity of his crimes, is one of multiple cases of witchcraft across the Empire. The discussion is, therefore, fairly brief. Most German pamphlets report the trials and executions of multiple witches in different regions; they do not tend to focus heavily on individuals’ motivations and lives, but instead emphasise the widespread devastation and threat posed by the witches collectively. The sensationalism which printers needed to sell their stories comes, in these instances, from the extensive and growing nature of the problem. English witch reports, by contrast, tend to report on only one trial in a particular locality and, consequently, they spend more time discussing the individuals involved in the trials. The sensationalism in these reports is more tied to individuals’ failures to conform to societal norms. As a result, the individual witch identity appears more important and more stable in the English pamphlets than it does in the German reports. Yet what characteristics formed part of this identity, and how far were these identities truly fixed in either country?

‘Men and women, young and old, poor and rich’: Breakdown of the Witch Identity

Thus far this article has explored gendering and sensationalism in print. Sex and the gendering of witch identity have dominated historical discussions. In examining the pamphlets, it is clear that they are also the individual characteristics that both English and German witch pamphlets most commonly make reference to: even if German sources discuss large groups of witches, the gendering of the language chosen gives some indication as to the sex of the witches. Historians have, however, highlighted that witch identities were multifaceted.[70]  Historians of both German and English witchcraft have, for example, noted a high proportion of old women among the accused.[71] In many cases, the specific age of the witch is not mentioned in the pamphlets examined for this paper. Yet often when age is mentioned the accused is notably old. A New Report from Bernburg (1580), for example, discusses ‘three old women’, one of whom was 90 years old.[72] Another German account discussing a witch and a Jesuit claims that the witch was 73 years old.[73] In England, Elizabeth Stile – discussed above – was 65 years old.[74] In The Apprehension and Confession of Three Notorious Witches (1589), the only person whose age is recorded is Joan Cunney (80 years old).[75] According to Raisa Maria Toivo, descriptions of witches as old, poor, or lame ‘may have been made to fit the popular notion of how a witch should be rather than a genuinely accurate portrayal.’[76] The way that pamphleteers provide information about the age of the accused when they are particularly old, and are silent on the ages of other witches, supports Toivo’s suggestion that such sources created an idea of what witches ought to have been (in the eyes of the intended audience) rather than simply reflecting reality.

Poverty is another characteristic mentioned by Toivo. This characteristic is also not mentioned by pamphleteers as frequently as sex or gender, but some English pamphlets do draw a clear connection between poverty, lack of education, and witchcraft, as The Witches of Northamptonshire (1612) demonstrates. The author states that those tempted into witchcraft are ‘of the meanest, and the basest sort both in birth and breeding, so are they the most uncapable of any instruction to the contrary’.[77] One witch, Agnes Brown, is described as ‘of poore parentage and poorer education’; another, Arthur Bill, is labelled ‘a wretched, poor man, both in state and mind.’[78] Perhaps because of the differences in scale of the events they are describing, the German pamphlets do not emphasise poverty in the same way. More often, German reports state that witches were ‘poor and rich’.[79] References to rich, handsome, and stately witches can also be found in several German pamphlets in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.[80] These examples indicate that the German witch identity was broader and more malleable that its English counterpart.

While the witch identity in Germany seems to have been comparatively flexible, some German witchcraft historians have suggested that the stereotype broke down entirely during so-called witch panics.[81] This argument was first made by Hans Christian Erik Midelfort, who focused on the increased number of men among the accused during the large-scale witch-hunts in the southern parts of the Empire in the 1610s and 1620s.[82] The reports published in these decades evoke paranoia and fear in their characterisation of witches. One from 1616 states that ‘men and women, young and old, poor and rich, have been executed and burned because of their witchcraft and sorcery’.[83] Similar sentiments are found in the Certain Account of Witch Burnings in the Territory of Bamberg (1628), which describes how ‘gentlemen as well as women’ were burned, and claims that ‘many are arrested daily […] rich, poor, beautiful, men, and women.’[84] A year earlier, A True and Thorough Report from the Bishoprics of Würzburg and Bamberg (1627), warned that anyone could be a witch. The pamphlet opens by lamenting the discovery of ‘many witch men and women’ (vil Hexen Mann und Weib) and explains that  family members could not be certain about whether their relatives were witches.[85] It lists the professions of several witches, including a grocer (ein Kramer), a butcher (ein Metzger), a tanner (ein Gerber), and a schoolmaster (ein Schulmeister).[86]  Taken together, these pamphlets appear to reflect a change in the witch stereotype because pamphleteers specifically emphasised the diverse characteristics of those accused of witchcraft, rather than isolating particular traits.

England never experienced witch-hunts on the same scale as those in Germany. There was, nevertheless, a peak in witch-hunting during the 1640s due to a breakdown of law linked to the British Civil Wars and the zealous witch-hunting of Matthew Hopkins and John Stearne.[87] 100 people were executed in the East Anglia trials, carried out by Hopkins and Stearne in Essex, Suffolk, and Norfolk between 1645 and 1647; this figure amounts to a fifth of the total witchcraft executions in England across the early modern period.[88] During these trials, witch reports also reflect a shift in witch identities away from the old, poor, ill-educated woman. More male witches feature in pamphlets published during this decade than any other time.[89] One 1643 report begins by stating that ‘many are in a belief, that this silly sex of women can by no means attaine to that so vile and damned a practise of sorcery, and Witch-craft, in regard of their illiteratenesse and want of learning, which many men have by great learning done.’[90] That the author deemed it necessary to justify the existence of female witches suggests there has been a significant change in thought about what witchcraft is and who can perform it. Another pamphlet, printed in 1645, lists the trials of several groups of witches in various parts of England including Norfolk and Suffolk. This pamphlet, commenting on numerous trials, is more in keeping with the German style of witch reporting than the English, an indication of the shift in scale of witch-hunting in England.[91] In one of the cases reported in this pamphlet, the witch is not an impoverished old woman but is instead described as ‘a gentlewoman or a great lady’.[92]

How far do these examples truly represent a breakdown of the witch stereotype? As Alison Rowlands notes, male witches exist outside major witch-panics; similarly, many other characteristics highlighted in the examples from the 1610s and 20s are present in earlier reports.[93] It may be unusual to see so many varied characteristics side-by-side as they are in the German reports from the 1610s and 20s, but the potential for the broader witch identity is arguably present throughout the reports, as illustrated above. When the wider corpus of German witch reports is considered, the witch stereotype – that is, the idea that the witch identity was largely fixed and narrowly defined as an old, poor, socially-isolated woman – seems to be an illusion. This period represents, rather than a breakdown of the stereotype, an intensification of the enduring flexibility of the German witch identity. Scholars of English witchcraft have expressed similar misgivings about the extent to which the trials of the 1640s can be truly considered atypical. Sharpe argues that, in fact, ‘the alleged witches […] were firmly in the English mainstream’, and Millar agrees that while the period was unusual it did not include anything that had not previously appeared in witchcraft print.[94] The broader witch identities shown in the 1640s English pamphlets are arguably an amalgamation of the possible identities that appear in earlier pamphlets. One of the earliest English pamphlets, published in 1566, features a man accused of witchcraft and argues that ‘not onely simple people have been falsely seduced and superstitiously led’, foreshadowing the emphasis on learned and elite individuals seen in the 1640s pamphlets.[95]

Close analysis of the witch reports from both countries indicates, therefore that the periods of crisis in each respective country unlocked the potential, which had always been present, for flexible witch identities. While some individual characteristics were more closely associated with witchcraft at certain points or in certain reports, the association was not consistent over time. The lack of consensus on which individual characteristics were synonymous with witchcraft that emerges in these pamphlets is actually logical. The ambiguity of the witch is a significant factor in its power to inspire fear. By failing to tie the witch to any one group of society, the news reports contribute to the sense that witchcraft was ever-present and posed a significant threat to all. The role of fear in shaping witch identities explains why they were at their most flexible at times of heightened anxiety about witchcraft. The adaptability of the witch identity is perhaps more obvious in the German reports because of their tendency to focus on several trials at once, meaning individual pamphlets can reflect a diverse range of individuals accused of witchcraft. Individual English pamphlets may create the illusion of a fixed witch identity, but by considering the corpus as a whole, it becomes clear that the situation was more complex.

A witch is one that worketh by the Devil’: Diabolic Identities

Although German and English witch reports did not link witches to one social group, comparison shows that there was a characteristic which pamphleteers in both countries considered quintessential to the witch identity: the witch’s connection with the Devil and their fundamentally evil nature. The connection between witchcraft, diabolism, and heresy is well-established in German scholarship. Imperial law, codified in the Constitutio Criminalis Carolina or Carolina Code (1532), distinguished between harmful and non-harmful magic and only punished the former with death.[96] In practice, however, territorial rulers across the Empire introduced their own legal codes concerning witchcraft. Laws introduced in the Electorate of Saxony in 1572, for example, stated that sorcery was forbidden in the Bible and that ‘those who make a pact with the devil – even if they harm no one with their sorcery – must be executed by fire’.[97] In England, the exact connection between diabolism, witchcraft, and heresy is disputed. Like the Carolina Code, the Elizabethan Witchcraft Act (1563) distinguished between those who performed harmful and non-harmful magic, punishing the former with death on their second offence.[98] The act refers to the existence of ‘many fantasticall and devilishe persons’ but does not specifically link witchcraft with devil-worship.[99] The Jacobean Witchcraft Act (1604) called for ‘more severe punishing’ and removed the distinction between harmful and non-harmful magic.[100] This act mentions consulting with evil and wicked spirits but stops short of placing diabolism at the centre of witchcraft.[101] Clive Holmes suggests that the courts were primarily concerned with ‘harm rather than heresy’, a distinction which seems to suggest significant difference between German and English conceptions of witchcraft.[102]

Recently, however, scholars including Millar and Sharpe have used witchcraft pamphlets to argue that the centrality of diabolism to popular English witch beliefs needs to be re-examined. Sharpe suggests that Christina Larner’s notion of a ‘popular demonic’, the development of well-rooted popular demonology in Scotland, can also be found in England.[103] Millar argues that understanding the role played by diabolism in English witchcraft is key to incorporating male witches into the broader paradigm, because both male and female witches were ultimately defined by their relationship with demonic familiars (a spirit – often in the form of a domestic animal – that made a bond with the witch and did their bidding).[104] The pamphlets certainly draw a clearer connection between the Devil and witchcraft than the statutes. A True and Just Recorde (1582) offers a particularly stark example: the author is openly critical of the leniency of English law, describing witches as ‘that hellish liverie’ and labelling witchcraft ‘a devilish and damnable practice.’[105] They praise ‘magistrates of forren lands’ for treating witchcraft with the severity it deserves.[106] Gibson has noted that this pamphlet is unusual because it specifically draws on ideas from mainland Europe.[107] Yet it is far from the only English pamphlet to consider witchcraft tantamount to heresy and devil-worship. The Witches of Northamptonshire (1612), for instance, offers this definition of witchcraft:

‘A witch is one that worketh by the Devill, or by some Devillish or Curious act, either hurting or healing, revealing things secret, or foretelling things to come, which the Devill hath devised to entangle, and to snare men’s souls withal unto damnation.’[108]

These ideas are remarkably similar to German reports which frequently label witches as ‘devil-worshippers’, the ‘devil’s servants’, or ‘instruments of the Devil’. The connection to the Devil is more explicit in the German reports, often featuring descriptions of meetings between the Devil and groups of witches. Such meetings with the Devil in human form are rare in English pamphlets outside of 1645-50, although the familiar arguably performs a similar role. Additionally, a similar providential explanation for witches’ power exists in German and English reports. In Germany, Lutz’s Concerning Wicked Witches outlines the hierarchy within which witches operate. The hierarchy is as follows: the primary cause of misfortune in God, who permits; the secondary cause is Satan, who brings the misfortune about; the third is the witches, who consent and cooperate with Satan.[109] An analogous explanation of witches’ power is found in the English The Wonderful Discoverie of the Witchcrafts of Margaret and Phillip Flower (1619), which states that ‘divers impious and facinorous [i.e. extremely wicked] mischiefs have been effectuated through the instruments of the Diuell, by the permission of God.’[110]

Clearly, then, not only are Millar and Sharpe correct in their identification of diabolism in English witchcraft pamphlets, but this comparative study demonstrates that there are evident parallels in the characterisation of witches and their connection with the Devil in England and Germany. These resemblances can also be seen in the German and English witch reports’ emphasis on the evil and disruptive nature of the witch. Many English witches are portrayed as outsiders, disliked by their community and driven by revenge. An early English report, for example, describes the examination and confession of three women accused of witchcraft: Elizabeth Francis, Agnes Waterhouse, and Joan Waterhouse.[111] Elizabeth and Agnes are both described as living ‘unquietly’ with their respective spouses, and confess to disposing of their husbands with Satan’s aid; Agnes and Joan both confess to using their witchcraft to take revenge on neighbours who had refused them charity.[112] These descriptions are typical of the deviant quality associated with witches in the English sources. Although the German pamphlets focus more on groups of witches rather than individuals, their wickedness and evil nature is unmistakable. Several pamphlets discuss the witches’ plots to harm and kill people. The idea that witches particularly target babies, new mothers, and older people – presented in many pamphlets including the Expanded Witch Report (1590) – serves to emphasise their implicit wickedness because of their decision to target the weak, innocent, and most vulnerable members of society.[113] Johannes Dillinger suggests that, rather than seeking commonalities in the social characteristics of those accused of witchcraft, scholars should consider that the individual’s reputation for conflict or disruption was the key to their identification as a witch: he terms this the ‘Evil People Paradigm’.[114] A similar argument has been put forward by Rowlands, who argues that the idea of the witch as a ‘bad neighbour’ is ‘a more useful conceptual category than that of the masculine or feminine “other”’.[115] Comparison of English and German witch reports supports the validity of these arguments, suggesting that a person’s moral background and bad nature were central to the witch identity in both countries.

The notion of a diabolic, wholly evil sect was undoubtedly shocking, and as sensationalism has been emphasised throughout the printed works examined here, it is probable that this factor played some role in the ways that witches were characterised. Yet, while sensationalism was important to engage readers, the role of these pamphlets was not merely to entertain. It is unlikely that anyone could have to survived solely on profits made from writing these news pamphlets; it is also unlikely, therefore, that such pamphlets were written purely for commercial gain.[116] Why, then, were these pamphlets written, and how does this influence their construction of witch identities? Several scholars have noted that crime pamphlets, including witchcraft reports, were moralistic and didactic, bearing a close resemblance to sermons in the way that the stories they reported had a clear moral message for their readers.[117] This moral purpose is crucial to understanding the focus of the pamphleteers. These pamphlets did not simply seek to report events, but also to instruct their readers on sinful behaviour, to remind them of the cosmic struggle between God and his foes, and to exhort them to good Christian living.[118] The German and English witch pamphlets often contain laments about sin, other crimes, and the state of the world, and commonly conclude with calls to God to protect them against the ‘tricks and wiles of the Devil and his followers’.[119] The witches are portrayed as a threatening infestation; such ideas are neatly encapsulated in the Expanded Witch Report, which claims that ‘nearly every city, market, and town in all of Germany […] is full of these vermin and devil-worshippers’.[120] Similar rhetoric can be found in an English pamphlet which describes how God ‘weeds [the witches] out in every cell they lurke’.[121] Witch pamphlets in both Germany and England ultimately construct witch identities in a very similar way, with the diabolic connections and evil nature of the witch at the centre of their identity. In doing so, the pamphleteers construct the witch as a wholly evil, diabolic other, acting as a foil for the good Christian readers to whom they appealed and sought to influence.

Conclusion

This article has explored the creation and shaping of witch identities in German and English witch reports from 1560 to 1650. The topic is challenging and complex, making it impossible to cover every aspect of the witch identity sufficiently here. Many other areas would benefit from further exploration. It would be interesting, for example, to examine how the pamphlets in the two countries explained the act of becoming a witch; is it innate, inherited, or learned? Linking to the notion that witchcraft could be inherited, there is also significant scope to explore the notion of the ‘witch family’, a concept discussed elsewhere and a recurring theme in the reports in both countries. Additionally, the role of reputation, briefly mentioned in this piece as it relates to an individual’s bad nature, could be considered in greater depth.

Nevertheless, this article offers the first comprehensive comparison of these German and English witch reports. This comparative approach offers new insights into commonalities and contrasts in English and German constructions of witch identities that had not previously been fully explored. To allow for sufficient and detailed comparison, it has limited its focus to the aspects of witch identity that have drawn the interest of witchcraft historians and emerge most clearly in the pamphlets from both countries. Undoubtedly, one of the most frequently discussed characteristics of the witch is their sex and gender. In this case, clear similarities emerge in both German and English witch reports. Although most witches prosecuted were women in both countries, part one above demonstrates that, even if male witches were present in the trials, pamphleteers in both countries chose to downplay their role and emphasise instead the feminine connection with witchcraft. This tendency to highlight female witches might have been influenced by the need for the pamphlets to catch the eye of their audience. As part two, and particularly the example of Peter Stumpf, illustrates, pamphleteers would put male witches front and centre in their narratives if the story was especially shocking or sensational. Once again, the idea that sensationalism was a driving force in the writing of witch reports applies to both German and English reports, although the Stumpf case and other English examples indicate that the English reports drew their sensationalism from individual actors more than the German sources did.

This observation draws attention to the differences in scope and scale of the German and English witch reports. These differences, on the surface, had a significant influence on the way that witch identities were presented in the two countries. German sources often discussed larger groups of witches or several different trials in one report; the broader scope of these reports meant that the witch identity emerging from individual reports was often fairly diverse, and not limited to a single social group. This diversity was especially evident during the peak of the trials in the south of the Empire during the 1610s and 20s, but this does not represent a total breakdown of the witch stereotype in German reports. Rather, the fear and anxiety that this period generated brought the diverse witch identities to the forefront of the pamphlets to a greater extent than previously, as pamphleteers sought to remind readers that anyone in their community could be a witch. The English witch reports, tending to focus on a small group of witches or on one isolated trial, give the initial impression of a stronger, fixed witch identity centred on impoverished old women. The reports published in the 1640s at first glance seem to represent a departure from this fixed stereotype. As in Germany, however, this period merely realised the potential for more diverse witch identities that had always been present in the English witch reports. The notion that anyone could be a witch was more threatening than was a more limited notion restricting the witch to a small section of society.

Ultimately, both German and English witch reports considered the same characteristics – a connection to the Devil and a wicked nature – to be definitive components of the witch identity. The diabolic connection is more explicit in the German reports which often feature the Devil as a character and include descriptions of the Devil meeting with witches. Nevertheless, scholars such as Millar and Sharpe are correct to highlight the diabolism present in English witchcraft reports. While diabolism may be more implicit than the German accounts, English witch reports frequently describe the witches and their actions as ‘devilish’. Both German and English reports offer similar explanations for the witches’ power, with God giving permission to the Devil to perform harm, who then employs his witches to wreak havoc. The witches in both countries are also presented as wicked or evil, although the way in which the pamphlets convey this idea differs in England and Germany. The reason for emphasising these wicked and devilish characteristics of the witches is clear in light of the purpose of these pamphlets. In portraying the witch as a diabolic other, as ‘vermin and devil-worshippers’, the pamphleteers in both Germany and England created an enemy against whom good Christian readers could unite.

 

Bibliography

Primary Sources

Printed primary sources

Note: Where available, bibliographical references have been provided to the English Short Title Catalogue (ESTC) in England and the Verzeichnis der im deutschen Sprachbereich erschienenen Drucke des 16. Jahrhunderts (VD16) and the Verzeichnis der im deutschen Sprachraum erschienenen Drucke des 17. Jahrhunderts (VD17) in Germany.

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Anon., A Rehearsall Straung and True, of Hainous and Horrible Actes Committed by Elizabeth Stile alias Rockingham, Mother Dutten, Mother Devell, Mother Margaret, Fower Notorious Witches apprehended at Winsore in the Countie of Berks. (London, 1579). [ESTC S101967]

Anon., A True Discourse. Declaring the Damnable Life and Death of one Stubbe Peeter, a Most Wicked Sorcerer (London, 1590). [ESTC S101735]

Anon., ANNO MDLXXXVI. Ist bey Bedbur ein Zauberer geweßen STUMP PETER genant, welcher sich in einen WOLF verwandelt (s.l., 1589). [No VD16 Catalogue Number]

Anon., Augusten Hertzogen zu Sachsen … Verordnungen und Constitutionen des rechtlichen Process (Dresden, 1572).  [VD16 S 895]

Anon., Des allerdurchleuchtigsten, groszmechtigsten vnüberwindlichsten Keyser Karls des Fünfften, vnd des Heyligen Römischen Reichs peinlich Gerichts ordnung:auff den Reichßtägen zu Augspurg vnd Regenspurg, in jaren dreissig vnd zwey vnd dreissig gehalten, auffgericht vnd beschlossen (Frankfurt am Main, 1562) [VD16 D 1081]

Anon., Ein New kläglich Lied von dem grossen Schaden der Unholden So sie in Westphalen zu Aschenbruegk und andern Orten begangen haben in dem jetztwerenden 1583. Jar (Wesel, 1583). [VD16 ZV 11599]

Anon., Ein Warhafftige und gründliche Beschreibung Auß dem Bistumb Würtz und Bamberg Deßgleichen von dem ganzen Fränkischen Kraiß wie man alda so vil hexen Mann vnd Weibspersohnen verbrennen laßt (S.l., 1627). [No VD17 Catalogue Number]

Anon., Ein Warhafftige Zeitung Von etlichen Hexen oder Unholden welche man kürtzlich im Stifft Mäntz zu Ascheburg, Dipperck,Ostum, Rönßhoffen auch andern Orten verbrendt was Ubels sie gestifft und bekandt haben (Frankfurt am Main, 1603). [VD17 1:691858R]

Anon., En forskreckelig oc sand bescriffuelse om mange troldfolck som ere forbrends for deris misgierninger skyld fra det aar 1589 (Copenhagen, 1591).

Anon., Erweyterte Unholden-Zeitung: Kurze Erzelung wie viel der Unholden hin vnd wider/ sonderlich inn dem Obern Teutschland/ gefängklich eingezogen (Ulm, 1590). [VD16 E 3889]

Anon., Gewisser Bericht des Truten und Hexenbrennens Bambergischen Gebiets wie lang es gewehrt: Was für ubels ihrer Außsag nach sie viel Jahr hero an Menschen, Vihe, Früchten und andern verübet was allbereit verbrennet (Schmalkalden, 1628). [VD17 23:293541Q]

Anon., Newe Zeitung aus Berneburgk Schrecklich und abschewlich zu hoeren und zu lesen von dreyen alten Teuffels Bulerin Hexin oder Zauberinnen (s.l., 1580). [VD16 N 624]

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Anon., The Apprehension and Confession of Three Notorious Witches. Arreigned and by Justice condemned and executed at Chelmes-forde, in the Countye of Essex, the 5. day of Iulye, last past. 1589 (London, 1589). [ESTC S119280]

Anon., The Examination and Confession of Certaine Wytches at Chensforde in the Countie of Essex (London, 1566). [ESTC S2279]

Anon., The Examination, Confession, Triall, and Execution, of Joane Williford, Joan Cariden, and Jane Hott: who were executed at Feversham in Kent, for being witches, on Munday the 29 of September, 1645 (London, 1645). [ESTC R200303]

Anon., The Examination of John Walsh […] upon certayn interrogatories touchyng wytchcrafte and sorcerye (London, 1566) [ESTC S102100]

Anon., The Life and Death of Lewis Gaufredy (London, 1612). [ESTC S102950]

Anon., The Witches of Northamptonshire Agnes Browne. Ioane Vaughan. Arthur Bill. Hellen Ienkenson. Mary Barber. (London, 1612). [ESTC S115086]

Anon., The Wonderful Discouerie of the Witchcrafts of Margaret and Phillip Flower, daughters of Ioan Flower neere Bever Castle (London, 1619). [ESTC S102363]

Anon., Warhaffte und glaubwirdige Zeytung. Wie man in diesem 1582. Jahr wol in die 200. und fuenff und zweyntzig Weiber verbrant hat (Strasbourg, 1582). [VD16 ZV 29564]

Anon., Warhafftige Newe Zeittung auß dem Land Westvahlen von der Stat Ossenbruck wie man da hat auff einen Tag 133. Unholden verbrendt (s.l., 1588). [VD16 W 337]

Anon., Warhafftige und erschreckliche Beschreibung, von einem Zauberer (Stupe Peter genandt) der sich zu einem Wehrwolff hat können machen (Cologne, 1589). [VD16 W 516]

Anon, Warhafftige unnd Erschreckliche Thatten und Handlungen der Lxiij. Hexen unnd Unholden, so zu Wisenstaig, mit dem Brandt gericht worden seindt (Launigen, 1563). [VD16 W 535]

Anon., Warhafftige und Wunderbarlich Newe Zeitung von einem Pauren der sich durch Zauberey des tags siben stund zu ainen Wolff verwandelt hat (Nuremberg, 1589). [No VD16 Catalogue Number]

Anon., Warhafftige und wunderbarliche Newe Zeitung von einem Bawren der sich durch Zauberey deß Tags siben stunnd zu einem Wolff verwandelt hat (Augsburg, 1589). [No VD16 Catalogue Number]

Anon., Witchcrafts, Strange and Wonderfull: Discovering the Damnable Practices of Seven Witches, against the lives of certaine noble personages, and others of this kingdome, as shall appeare in this lamentable history (London, 1635). [ESTC S92558]

Zwo erschreckliche und unerhörte Geschicht, welches in diesem XCCI Jar geschehen ist auff dem Brockersberg, dar sich ahn die hundert tausend Unholden oder Hexen versamlet (Cologne, 1596). [No VD16 Catalogue Number]

Anon., Zwo Hexenzeitung: Die Erste Auß dem Bisthumb Würtzburg, das ist Gründliche Erzehlung wie der Bishoff zu Würtzburg das Hexenbrennen im Franckenlande angefangen […] die Ander Auß dem Hertzogthumb Würtenburg wie der Hertzog zu Würtenberg in unterschiedlichen Stätten das Hexenbrennen auch angefangen (Tübingen, 1616). [VD17 23:626143G]

Anon., Zwo schröckliche Newe Zeitung, die erste ist von dem grewlichen Elendt, so sich in Aschenburck am Maynstrom von Hexen unnd Unholten geschehen (Giessen, 1612). [No VD17 Catalogue Number]

Anon., Zwo Warhafftige newe Zeitungen […] Die andere Zeitung: Eine abschewliche vnd zuuor nie erhoerte erschreckliche Zaubereyen Moerdt vnnd Diebereyen von Vater Mutter zweyen Soehnen vnd zweyen Toechtermaennern geschehen Welche in … Muenchen im Beyerland sind gefaenglich eingezogen worden (Basel, 1600). [VD16 ZV 21490]

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Galis, R., A Brief Treatise Containing the Most Strange and Horrible Cruelty of Elizabeth Stile alias Rockingham and her Confederates (London, 1579). [ESTC S124945]

Kuntz, H., Newe Zeitung von einer Erschrecklicher That, welche zu Dillingen, von einem Jhesuwider, vnd einer Hexen geschehen ist (Basel, 1579). [VD16 ZV 21532]

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Parker, M., The Tragedy of Doctor Lambe, / The great suposed Coniurer, who was wounded to death by Saylers / and other Lads, on Fryday the 14. of Iune, 1628. And dyed in the / Poultry Counter, neere Cheapside, on the Saturday morning following (London, 1628). [ESTC S126177]

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Kounine, L., Imagining the Witch: Emotions, Gender, and Selfhood in Early Modern Germany (Oxford, 2018).

Krah, U., ‘Fiktionalität und Faktizität in frühneuzeitlichen Kleinschriften (Einblattdrucke und Flugschriften)’, in K. Moeller & B. Schmidt (eds.), Realität und Mythos: Hexenverfolgung und Rezeptionsgeschichte (Hamburg, 2003), pp. 77 – 87.

Levack, B. P., The Witch-Hunt in Early Modern Europe (4th edn., London, 2016).

Midelfort, H. C. Erik, ‘Heartland of the Witchcraze: Central and Northern Europe’, History Today, 31/2 (1981), p. 27.

Midelfort, H. C. Erik, Witch Hunting in Southwestern Germany 1562 – 1684: The Social and Intellectual Foundations (Stanford, CA, 1972).

Millar, C., ‘Diabolic Men: Reintegrating Male Witches into English Witchcraft’, The Seventeenth Century (2020), pp. 1 – 21.

Millar, C., Witchcraft, the Devil, and Emotions in Early Modern England (London, 2017).

O Lynn, A. A., ‘Ghosts of War and Spirits of Place: Spectral Belief in Early Modern England and Protestant Germany’ (unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Bristol, 2018).

Pettegree, A., The Invention of News: How the World Came to Know About Itself (London, 2014).

Robisheaux, T., ‘The German Witch Trials’ in B. P. Levack (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe and Colonial America (Oxford, 2013), pp. 179–98.

Roper, L, Witch Craze: Terror and Fantasy in Baroque Germany (London, 2004).

Rosen, B., Witchcraft (London, 1969).

Rowlands, A., ‘Not the Usual Suspects? Male, Witchcraft, and Masculinities in Early Modern Europe’, in A. Rowlands (ed.), Witchcraft and Masculinities in Early Modern Europe (Basingstoke, 2009), pp. 1 – 30.

Rowlands, A., ‘Witchcraft and Gender in Early Modern Europe’, in B. P. Levack (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe and Colonial America (Oxford, 2013), pp. 449 – 67.

Schulte, R., Man as Witch: Male Witches in Central Europe, trans. L. Froome-Döring (Basingstoke, 2009).

Sharpe, J., ‘English Witchcraft Pamphlets and the Popular Demonic’, in J. Goodare, R. Voltmer and L. Helene Willumsen (eds.), Demonology and Witch-Hunting in Early Modern Europe (London, 2020), pp. 127 – 47.

Sharpe, J., ‘The Devil in East Anglia: the Matthew Hopkins Trials Reconsidered’, in J. Barry, M. Hester, and G. Roberts (eds.), Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe: Studies in Culture and Belief (Cambridge, 1996), pp. 237 – 54.

Sharpe, J., ‘Witch Hunts in Britain’, in J. Dillinger (ed.), The Routledge History of Witchcraft (London, 2020), pp. 145 – 59.

Sipek, H., ‘Newe Zeitung. Marginalen zur Flugblatt – und Flugschriftenpublizistik sowie zur Druckgraphik im Kontext der Hexenverfolgung’, in S. Lorenz (ed.), Hexen und Hexenverfolgung im Deutschen Südwesten. Aufsatzband (Ostfildern, 1994), pp. 85 – 92.

Slotkin, J. E., Sinister Aesthetics: The Appeal of Evil in Early Modern English Literature (Cham, 2017).

Stokes, L., Demons of Urban Reform: Early European Witch Trials and Criminal Justice, 1430–1530 (Basingstoke, 2011).Suhr, C., ‘Portrayal of Attitude in Early Modern English Witchcraft Pamphlets’, Studia Neophilogica, 84/1 (2012), pp. 130 – 42.

 

[1] R. Hutton, The Witch: A History of Fear, From the Ancient Times to the Present (London, 2017), pp. 41 – 3.

[2] B. P. Levack, The Witch-Hunt in Early Modern Europe (4th edn., London, 2016), p. 23.

[3] L. Kounine, Imagining the Witch: Emotions, Gender, and Selfhood in Early Modern Germany (Oxford, 2018), p. 7.

[4] M. Gibson, Reading Witchcraft: Stories of Early English Witches (London, 1999), pp. 14 and 36 – 7.

[5] G. Warburton, ‘Gender, Supernatural Power, Agency and the Metamorphoses of the Familiar in Early Modern Pamphlet Accounts of English Witchcraft’, Parergon, 20/2 (2003), p. 118.; Kounine, Imagining the Witch, p. 14.

[6] H. C. Erik Midelfort, ‘Heartland of the Witchcraze: Central and Northern Europe’, History Today, 31/2 (1981), p. 27.;  J. Dillinger, ‘Germany – “The Mother of the Witches”, in J. Dillinger (ed.), The Routledge History of Witchcraft (London, 2020), p. 94.

[7] J. Sharpe, ‘Witch Hunts in Britain’, in J. Dillinger (ed.), The Routledge History of Witchcraft (London, 2020), p. 145.

[8] B. Rosen, Witchcraft (London, 1969), p. 19.; Levack, The Witch-Hunt in Early Modern Europe, pp. 8 and 243.

[9] A. A. O Lynn, ‘Ghosts of War and Spirits of Place: Spectral Belief in Early Modern England and Protestant Germany’ (unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Bristol, 2018), p. 5.

[10] A. Pettegree, The Invention of News: How the World Came to Know About Itself (London, 2014), p. 2.; H. Droste, ‘How Public Was the News in Early Modern Times?’, in H. Droste & K. Salmi-Niklander (eds.), Handwritten Newspapers: An Alternative Medium during the Early Modern and Modern Periods (Helsinki, 2019), p. 29.

[11] See, for example: W. W., A True and Just Recorde, of the Information, Examination and Confession of all the Witches, taken at S. Ofes in the countie of Essex (London, 1582).; A Most Certain, Strange, and True Discovery of a Witch (London, 1643).; Warhafftige vnnd Erschreckliche Thatten vnd Handlungen der Lxiij. Hexen vnnd Unholden, so zu Wisenstaig, mit dem Brandt gericht worden seindt (Launigen, 1563).; Warhaffte und Glaubwirdige Zeytung. Wie man in diesem 1582. Jahr wol in die 200. und fuenff und zweyntzig Weiber verbrant hat (Strasbourg, 1582).

[12] S. Clark, Women and Crime in the Street Literature of Early Modern England (London, 2003), p. 35.

[13] W. Behringer, ‘Witchcraft and the Media’, in M. E. Plummer & R. B. Barnes (eds.), Ideas and Cultural Margins in Early Modern Germany: Essays in Honor of H. C. Erik Midelfort (Farnham, 2009), pp. 217 –36.; H. Sipek, ‘Newe Zeitung. Marginalen zur Flugblatt – und Flugschriftenpublizistik sowie zur Druckgraphik im Kontext der Hexenverfolgung’, in S. Lorenz (ed.), Hexen und Hexenverfolgung im Deutschen Südwesten. Aufsatzband (Ostfildern, 1994), pp. 85 – 92.; U. Krah, ‘Fiktionalität und Faktizität in frühneuzeitlichen Kleinschriften (Einblattdrucke und Flugschriften)’, in K. Moeller & B. Schmidt (eds.), Realität und Mythos: Hexenverfolgung und Rezeptionsgeschichte (Hamburg, 2003), pp. 77 – 87.; R. Walinksi-Kiehl, ‘Pamphlets, Propaganda and Witch-Hunting in Germany, 1560 – 1630’, Reformation, 6/1 (2002), pp. 49 – 74.; A. Warfield, ‘The Media Representation of the Crime of Witchcraft in Early Modern Germany: An Investigation of Non-Periodical Newsheets and Pamphlets, 1533-1669’ (unpublished doctoral dissertation, National University of Ireland, Maynooth, 2013).

[14] Rosen, Witchcraft.; Gibson, Reading Witchcraft.; C. Suhr, ‘Portrayal of Attitude in Early Modern English Witchcraft Pamphlets’, Studia Neophilogica, 84/1 (2012), pp. 130 – 42.; J. Sharpe, ‘English Witchcraft Pamphlets and the Popular Demonic’, in J. Goodare, R. Voltmer and L. Helene Willumsen (eds.), Demonology and Witch-Hunting in Early Modern Europe (London, 2020), pp. 127 – 47.; C. Millar, Witchcraft, the Devil, and Emotions in Early Modern England (London, 2017).

[15] C. Millar, ‘Diabolic Men: Reintegrating Male Witches into English Witchcraft’, The Seventeenth Century (2020), pp. 1 – 21.

[16] J. Dillinger, ‘Evil People’: A Comparative Study of Witch Hunts in Swabian Austria and the Electorate of Trier, trans. L. Stokes (Charlottesville, VA, 2009).; L. Stokes, Demons of Urban Reform: Early European Witch Trials and Criminal Justice, 1430–1530 (Basingstoke, 2011).; L. N. Kallestrup, Agents of Witchcraft in Early Modern Italy and Denmark (Basingstoke, 2015).

[17] M. Gaskill, ‘Witchcraft Trials in England’, in B. P. Levack (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe and Colonial America (Oxford, 2013), p. 289.; T. Robisheaux, ‘The German Witch Trials’ in B. P. Levack (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe and Colonial America (Oxford, 2013), p. 196.

[18] J. Kamp, Crime, Gender and Social Control in Early Modern Frankfurt am Main (Leiden 2019), p. 6.

[19] G. Walker & J. Kermode, ‘Introduction’ in J. Kermode & G. Walker (eds.), Women, Crime and the Courts in Early Modern England (London, 1994), p. 4.

[20] Clark, Women and Crime, p. 34.

[21] Sharpe, ‘Witch Hunts in Britain’, p. 151.

[22] Dillinger, ‘Germany – “The Mother of the Witches”’, p. 97.

[23] A. Dworkin, Woman Hating (New York, NY, 1974), pp. 125 – 50. M. Daly, Gyn/Ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism, with a New Introduction by the author (London, 1991), pp. 179 – 85.

[24] A. Rowlands, ‘Witchcraft and Gender in Early Modern Europe’, in B. P. Levack (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe and Colonial America (Oxford, 2013), pp. 451 -3. L. Apps and A. C. Gow, Gender at the Stake: Male Witches in Early Modern Europe (Manchester, 2003), p. 26.

[25] For a historiographical overview, see: Rowlands, ‘Witchcraft and Gender in Early Modern Europe’.

[26] See, for example: Apps and Gow, Gender at the Stake. and R. Schulte, Man as Witch: Male Witches in Central Europe, trans. L. Froome-Döring (Basingstoke, 2009).

[27] Kounine, Imagining the Witch, p. 90.

[28] J. Goodare, The European Witch-Hunt (London, 2016), p. 310.

[29] The Examination and Confession of Certaine Wytches at Chensforde in the Countie of Essex (London, 1566), sigs. Aiiiv, [Avir] and Biiir.

[30] A Rehearsall Both Straung and True, of Hainous and Horrible Actes Committed by Elizabeth Stile alias Rockingham, Mother Dutten, Mother Devell, Mother Margaret, Fower Notorious Witches apprehended at Winsore in the Countie of Berks. (London, 1579), sigs. Ar and Avr.

[31] Warhafftige Newe Zeittung auß dem Land Westvahlen von der Stat Ossenbruck wie man da hat auff einen Tag 133. Unholden verbrendt (s.l., 1588), (unpaginated – p. 1.).

[32] U. Molitor, Von den Uholden oder Hexen (Augsburg, 1508), sig. [Bvv].

[33] R. Lutz, Warhafftige Zeittung Von Gottlosen Hexen Auch Ketzerischen und Teuffels Weibern die zu Schettstadt deß H. Römischen Reichstadt in Elsaß auf den XXII. Herbstmonat deß 1570 Jahrs von wegen ihrer schändtlichen Teuffelsverpflichtung sind verbrennt (s.l, 1571), sig. Ar.

[34] C. Zika, The Appearance of Witchcraft: Print and Visual Culture in Sixteenth-Century Europe (London, 2007), pp. 12 – 26.

[35] ‘nach dem alten Sprichwort/ Was der Teuffel nicht kan zu wege bringen/ das bringt er durch ein alt Weib zu wege’: H. Kuntz, Newe Zeitung von einer Erschrecklicher That, welche zu Dillingen, von einem Jhesuwider, vnd einer Hexen geschehen ist (Basel, 1579), sig. Aiiir.  H. Kuntz, Newe Zeitung von einer Erschrecklicher That, welche zu Dillingen, von einem Jhesuwider, vnd einer Hexen geschehen ist (Urssel, 1580), sig. Aiiir. Newe Zeitung aus Berneburgk Schrecklich und abschewlich zu hoeren und zu lesen von dreyen alten Teuffels Bulerin Hexin oder Zauberinnen (s.l., 1580), sig. Br.

[36] A Rehearsall Both Straung and True, sig. Ar.

[37] A Rehearsall Both Straung and True, sig. Avv.

[38] A Rehearsall Both Straung and True, sig. [Aviv].

[39] R. Galis, A Brief Treatise Containing the Most Strange and Horrible Cruelty of Elizabeth Stile alias Rockingham and her Confederates (London, 1579), sig. [Ciiiv].

[40] Galis, A Brief Treatise, sig. Dv.

[41] Galis, A Brief Treatise, sigs. Ciiv and [Diiiir].

[42] Warhaffte und Glaubwirdige Zeytung. Wie man in diesem 1582. Jahr wol in die 200. und fuenff und zweyntzig Weiber verbrant hat (Strasbourg, 1582).

[43] See, for example: Ein New kläglich Lied von dem grossen Schaden der Unholden So sie in Westphalen zu Aschenbruegk und andern Orten begangen haben in dem jetztwerenden 1583. Jar (Wesel, 1583) and Ein Warhafftige Zeitung Von etlichen Hexen oder Unholden welche man kürtzlich im Stifft Mäntz zu Ascheburg, Dipperck,Ostum, Rönßhoffen auch andern Orten verbrendt was Ubels sie gestifft und bekandt haben (Frankfurt am Main, 1603).

[44] ‘man hat auch vier und viertzig Weiber und drey Man gefangen/ und den 24. Oct: zu Mimpelgart verbant’: Warhaffte und Glaubwirdige Zeytung, sig. [Aiiir].

[45] Warhaffte und Glaubwirdige Zeytung, sig. [Aiiiir].

[46] ‘dem leydigen Sathan solche gewalt/uber den schwachen Werckzeug weibliches Geschlecht’: Warhaffte und Glaubwirdige Zeytung, sig. [Aiiiir].

[47] See, for example: T. Potts, The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster With the arraignement and triall of nineteene notorious witches (London, 1613).;   Witchcrafts, Strange and Wonderfull: Discovering the Damnable Practices of Seven Witches, against the lives of certaine noble personages, and others of this kingdome, as shall appeare in this lamentable history (London, 1635).; Zwo erschreckliche und unerhörte Geschicht, welches in diesem XCCI Jar geschehen ist auff dem Brockersberg, dar sich ahn die hundert tausend Unholden oder Hexen versamlet (Cologne, 1596).

[48] Warfield, ‘The Media Representation of the Crime of Witchcraft’, p. 265.

[49] A. Pettegree, The Invention of News, p. 92.

[50] T. Watt, Cheap Print and Popular Piety, 1550 – 1640 (Cambridge, 1991), p. 3.; J. Wiltenburg, Disorderly Women and Female Power in the Street Literature of Early Modern England and Germany (London, 1992), p. 38.

[51] Pettegree, The Invention of News, p. 93. J. Wiltenburg, ‘True Crime: The Origins of Modern Sensationalism’, American Historical Review, 109/5 (2004), p. 1382.

[52] Pettegree, The Invention of News, p. 94.

[53] The Life and Death of Lewis Gaufredy (London, 1612), sigs. A2r – A4v.

[54] Zwo Warhafftige newe Zeitungen […] Die andere Zeitung: Eine abschewliche vnd zuuor nie erhoerte erschreckliche Zaubereyen Moerdt vnnd Diebereyen von Vater Mutter zweyen Soehnen vnd zweyen Toechtermaennern geschehen Welche in … Muenchen im Beyerland sind gefaenglich eingezogen worden. (Basel, 1600), sigs. Aiiv – Aiiiiv.

[55] ANNO MDLXXXVI. Ist bey Bedbur ein Zauberer geweßen STVMP PETER genant, welcher sich in einen WOLF verwandelt (s.l., 1589).; Warhafftige und wunderbarliche Newe Zeitung von einem Bawren der sich durch Zauberey deß Tags siben stunnd zu einem Wolff verwandelt hat (Augsburg, 1589).; Warhafftige und Wunderbarlich Newe Zeitung von einem Pauren der sich durch Zauberey des tags siben stund zu ainen Wolff verwandelt hat (Nuremberg, 1589).; Warhafftige und erschreckliche Beschreibung, von einem Zauberer (Stupe Peter genandt) der sich zu einem Wehrwolff hat können machen (Cologne, 1589).; J. van Gehlen, Warachtighe ende verschrickelijcke beschryvinge van vele toovenaers, hoe ende waerom men die verbrandt heeft in 1589 (Antwerp, 1589); En forskreckelig oc sand bescriffuelse om mange troldfolck som ere forbrends for deris misgierninger skyld fra det aar 1589 (Copenhagen, 1591).; A True Discourse. Declaring the Damnable Life and Death of one Stubbe Peeter, a Most Wicked Sorcerer (London, 1590).

[56] A. Warfield, ‘Witchcraft and the Early Modern Media’, in J. Dillinger (ed.), The Routledge History of Witchcraft (London, 2020), p. 215.

[57] S. K. Barker, ‘International News Pamphlets’, in A Kesson and E. Smith (eds.), The Elizabethan Top Ten: Defining Print Popularity in Early Modern England (Ashgate, 2016), pp. 152 – 4.

[58] ANNO MDLXXXVI. Ist bey Bedbur ein Zauberer geweßen STVMP PETER genant.; Warhafftige und wunderbarliche Newe Zeitung von einem Bawren.; Warhafftige und Wunderbarlich Newe Zeitung von einem Pauren .; Warhafftige und erschreckliche Beschreibung, von einem Zauberer .; A True Discourse. Declaring the Damnable Life and Death of one Stubbe Peeter.

[59] ‘unsäglich schandt unndt Laster’: ANNO MDLXXXVI. Ist bey Bedbur ein Zauberer geweßen STVMP PETER genant.; ‘schröcklich ist es zu hören an’: Warhafftige vnd wunderbarliche Newe Zeitung von einem Bawren.; A True Discourse. Declaring the Damnable Life and Death of one Stubbe Peeter, p. 12.

[60] ANNO MDLXXXVI. Ist bey Bedbur ein Zauberer geweßen STVMP PETER genant.

[61] A True Discourse. Declaring the Damnable Life and Death of one Stubbe Peeter, p. 1.

[62] Barker, ‘International News Pamphlets’, p. 150.

[63] Warfield, ‘Witchcraft and the Early Modern Media’, p. 215.

[64] Warhafftige und erschreckliche Beschreibung, von einem Zauberer, sigs. Aiv – Aiir.

[65] A True Discourse. Declaring the Damnable Life and Death of one Stubbe Peeter, pp. 1, 7, and 10.

[66] M. Parker, The Tragedy of Doctor Lambe, / The great suposed Coniurer, who was wounded to death by Saylers / and other Lads, on Fryday the 14. of Iune, 1628. And dyed in the / Poultry Counter, neere Cheapside, on the Saturday morning following (London, 1628).

[67] Potts, The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster, sig. Br.

[68] G. B, A most wicked worke of a wretched witch (the like whereof none can record these manie yeeres in England.) (London, 1592).

[69] See, for example: W. W., A True and Just Recorde. and The Examination, Confession, Triall, and Execution, of Joane Williford, Joan Cariden, and Jane Hott: who were executed at Feversham in Kent, for being witches, on Munday the 29 of September, 1645 (London, 1645).

[70] Rowlands, ‘Witchcraft and Gender in Early Modern Europe’, p. 466. J. Dillinger, Hexen und Magie (2nd edn., Frankfurt am Main, 2018), p. 126.

[71] K. Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic: Studies in Popular Belief in Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century England (London, 1971), p. 671.; L. Roper, Witch Craze: Terror and Fantasy in Baroque Germany (London, 2004), p. 161.

[72] Newe Zeitung aus Berneburgk, sig. Aiir.

[73] Kuntz, Newe Zeitung von einer Erschrecklicher That, sig. Av.

[74] A Rehearsall Both Straung and True, sig. Aiiiir.

[75] The Apprehension and Confession of Three Notorious Witches. Arreigned and by Justice condemned and executed at Chelmes-forde, in the Countye of Essex, the 5. day of Iulye, last past. 1589 (London, 1589), sig. Aiiir.

[76] R. M. Toivo, ‘Witchcraft and Gender’, in J. Dillinger (ed.), The Routledge History of Witchcraft (London, 2020), p. 225.

[77] The Witches of Northamptonshire Agnes Browne. Ioane Vaughan. Arthur Bill. Hellen Ienkenson. Mary Barber. (London, 1612), sig. A3r.

[78] The Witches of Northamptonshire, sig. B2r and Cv.

[79] See, for example: Warhafftige Newe Zeittung auß dem Land Westvahlen von der Stat Ossenbruck.

[80] See, for example: Warhafftige und erschreckliche Beschreibung, von einem Zauberer (Stupe Peter genandt), sig. Aiiir.; Erweyterte Unholden-Zeitung: Kurze Erzelung wie viel der Unholden hin vnd wider/ sonderlich inn dem Obern Teutschland/ gefängklich eingezogen (Ulm, 1590), sig. [Aiiiir].; Zwo schröckliche Newe Zeitung, die erste ist von dem grewlichen Elendt, so sich in Aschenburck am Maynstrom von Hexen unnd Unholten geschehen (Giessen, 1612).  Sig. Aiir.

[81]  Robisheaux, ‘The German Witch Trials’, p. 187.

[82] H. C. Erik Midelfort, Witch Hunting in Southwestern Germany 1562 – 1684: The Social and Intellectual Foundations (Stanford, CA, 1972), pp. 178 – 85.  

[83] ‘Manns und Weibspersonen/ jung und alt/ arm und reich/ so der Hexenkunst und Zauberey erfahren/ hinrichten und verbrennen’: Zwo Hexenzeitung: Die Erste Auß dem Bisthumb Würtzburg, das ist Gründliche Erzehlung wie der Bishoff zu Würtzburg das Hexenbrennen im Franckenlande angefangen […] die Ander Auß dem Hertzogthumb Würtenburg wie der Hertzog zu Würtenberg in unterschiedlichen Stätten das Hexenbrennen auch angefangen (Tübingen, 1616), (unpaginated – p.1).

[84] ‘Teglich mehr eingefangen viel/ kein ansehen der Person gilt/ Reich/ Arm/ Schön/ Herr und Frawen’: Gewisser Bericht des Truten und Hexenbrennens Bambergischen Gebiets wie lang es gewehrt: Was für ubels ihrer Außsag nach sie viel Jahr hero an Menschen, Vihe, Früchten und andern verübet was allbereit verbrennet (Schmalkalden, 1628), sigs. Aiiiv and [Aiiiir].

[85] Ein Warhafftige und gründliche Beschreibung Auß dem Bistumb Würtz und Bamberg Deßgleichen von dem ganzen Fränkischen Kraiß wie man alda so vil hexen Mann vnd Weibspersohnen verbrennen laßt (S.l., 1627), sig. Av.

[86] Ein Warhafftige und gründliche Beschreibung Auß dem Bistumb Würtz und Bamberg, sig. Av.

[87] M. Gaskill, ‘Witchcraft and Evidence in early modern England’, Past and Present, 198 (2008), pp. 46 – 54.

[88] J. Sharpe, Instruments of Darkness: Witchcraft in England 1550 – 1750 (London, 1996), pp. 128 – 9.

[89] Millar, ‘Diabolic Men’, p. 8.

[90] A Most Certain, Strange, and true Discovery of a Witch, sig. A2r.

[91] Signes and Wonders from Heaven (London, 1645), pp. 2 – 5.

[92] Signes and Wonders from Heaven, p. 3.

[93] A. Rowlands, ‘Not the Usual Suspects? Male, Witchcraft, and Masculinities in Early Modern Europe’, in A. Rowlands (ed.), Witchcraft and Masculinities in Early Modern Europe (Basingstoke, 2009), p. 6.

[94] J. Sharpe, ‘The Devil in East Anglia: the Matthew Hopkins Trials Reconsidered’, in J. Barry, M. Hester, and G. Roberts (eds.), Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe: Studies in Culture and Belief (Cambridge, 1996), p. 249. Millar, Witchcraft, the Devil, and Emotions, p. 8.

[95] The Examination of John Walsh  […] upon certayn interrogatories touchyng wytchcrafte and sorcerye (London, 1566), sig. Aiir.

[96] Des allerdurchleuchtigsten, groszmechtigsten vnüberwindlichsten Keyser Karls des Fünfften, vnd des Heyligen Römischen Reichs peinlich Gerichts ordnung:auff den Reichßtägen zu Augspurg vnd Regenspurg, in jaren dreissig vnd zwey vnd dreissig gehalten, auffgericht vnd beschlossen (Frankfurt am Main, 1562), sig. Dr.

[97] Augusten Hertzogen zu Sachsen … Verordnungen und Constitutionen des rechtlichen Process (Dresden, 1572), sig. ff. 71v – 72r.

[98] ‘An Act agaynst conjuracons inchantmentes and Witchecraftes (5 Eliz I, c. 16)’, in Statutes of the Realm, vol. 4 part I (London, 1819), p. 446.

[99] ‘An Act agaynst conjuracons inchantmentes and Witchecraftes (5 Eliz I, c. 16)’, in Statutes of the Realm, vol. 4 part I (London, 1819), p. 446.

[100] ‘An Act against Conjuration Witchcrafte and dealing with evill and wicked Spirits (1 Jac. I, c. 12)’, in Statutes of the Realm, vol. 4 part II (London, 1819), p. 1028.

[101] ‘An Act against Conjuration Witchcrafte and dealing with evill and wicked Spirits (1 Jac. I, c. 12)’, in Statutes of the Realm, vol. 4 part II (London, 1819), p. 1028.

[102] C. Holmes, ‘Popular Culture? Witches, Magistrates, and Divines in Early Modern England’, in S. L. Kaplan (ed.), Understanding Popular Culture: Europe from the Middle Ages to the Nineteenth Century (New York, NY, 1984), p. 87.

[103] Sharpe, ‘English witchcraft pamphlets and the popular demonic’, pp. 127 – 8.

[104] Millar, ‘Diabolic Men’, p. 14. Millar, Witchcraft, the Devil, and Emotions in Early Modern England, p. 48.

[105] W. W., A True and Just Recorde, sigs. A3r – v.

[106] W. W., A True and Just Recorde, sig. A3v.

[107] M. Gibson, ‘French demonology in an English village: the St Osyth experiment of 1582’, in J. Goodare, R. Voltmer & L. Helene Willumsen (eds.), Demonology and witch-hunting in early modern Europe (London, 2020), p. 108.

[108] The Witches of Northamptonshire, sig. A4v.

[109] Lutz, Von Gottlosen Hexen, sig. Av.

[110] The Wonderful Discouerie of the Witchcrafts of Margaret and Phillip Flower, daughters of Ioan Flower neere Bever Castle (London, 1619), sig. Bv.

[111] The Examination and Confession of Certaine Wytches at Chensforde.

[112] The Examination and Confession of Certaine Wytches at Chensforde, sigs. [Aviiv] – [Biiiir].

[113] Erweyterte Unholden-Zeitung, sig. A2r – v.

[114] Dillinger, ‘Germany – “the Mother of the Witches”’, p. 98.

[115] Rowlands, ‘Not the Usual Suspects’, p. 19.

[116] Wiltenburg, ‘True Crime: the Origins of Modern Sensationalism’, p. 1383.

[117] Wiltenburg, ‘True Crime’, p. 1385.; J. E., Slotkin, Sinister Aesthetics: The Appeal of Evil in Early Modern English Literature (Cham, 2017), p. 132.; Krah, ‘Fiktionalität und Faktizität’, p. 77.

[118] Watt, Cheap Print and Popular Piety, p. 69.; Wiltenburg, ‘True Crime’, pp. 1384 -5 .

[119] Ein Warhafftige vnd gründtliche BeschreibungAuß dem Bistum Würtz und Bamberg, sig. Aiiv.

[120] ‘das schier alle Stödt/ Märckt/ und Dörffer/im gantzen Teutschland […] desselbigen unzifers und Teuffelsdienern voll seindt’: Erweyterte Unholden-Zeitung, sig. A2r.

[121] G. B, A most wicked worke of a wretched witch, sig. Av.