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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.

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———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.

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

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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]

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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]

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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]

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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]

  1. B, A most wicked worke of a wretched witch (the like whereof none can record these manie yeeres in England.) (London, 1592). [ESTC S119200]

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]

Kuntz, H., Newe Zeitung von einer Erschrecklicher That, welche zu Dillingen, von einem Jhesuwider, vnd einer Hexen geschehen ist (Urssel, 1580). [VD16 ZV 28968]

Lutz, R., 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). [VD16 L 7693]

Molitor, U., Von den Unholden oder Hexen (Augsburg, 1508). [VD16 M 5976]

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]

Potts, T., The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster With the arraignement and triall of nineteene notorious witches (London, 16139). [ESTC S114979]

van Gehlenahlen III, J., Warachtighe ende verschrickelijcke beschryvinge van vele toovenaers, hoe ende waerom men die verbrandt heeft in 1589 (Antwerp, 1589).

  1. W., A True and Just Recorde, of the Information, Examination and Confession of all the Witches, Taken at St. Ofes in the Countie of Essex (London, 1582). [ESTC S101821]

Primary sources in edited collections

Statutes of the Realm. Volume 4, Part I (London, 1819).

‘An Act agaynst conjuracons inchantmentes and Witchecraftes (5 Eliz I, c. 16)’, pp. 446 – 7.

Statutes of the Realm. Volume 4, Part II (London, 1819).

‘An Act against Conjuration Witchcrafte and dealing with evill and wicked Spirits (1 Jac. I, c. 12)’, pp. 1028 – 9.

Secondary Sources

Apps L., and A. C. Gow, Gender at the Stake: Male Witches in Early Modern Europe (Manchester, 2003).

Barker, S. K., ‘International News Pamphlets’, in A Kesson and E. Smith (eds.), The Elizabethan Top Ten: Defining Print Popularity in Early Modern England (Ashgate, 2016), pp. 145 – 155.

Behringer, W., ‘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.

Clark, S., Women and Crime in the Street Literature of Early Modern England (London, 2003).

Daly, M., Gyn/Ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism, with a New Introduction by the author (London, 1991).

Dillinger, J., ‘Germany – “The Mother of the Witches”’, in J. Dillinger (ed.), The Routledge History of Witchcraft (London, 2020), pp. 94 – 118.

Dillinger, J., Hexen und Magie (2nd edn., Frankfurt am Main, 2018).

Dillinger, J., ‘Evil People’: A Comparative Study of Witch Hunts in Swabian Austria and the Electorate of Trier, trans. L. Stokes (Charlottesville, VA, 2009).

Droste, H., ‘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), pp. 29 – 44.

Dworkin, A., Woman Hating (New York, NY, 1974).

Gaskill, M., ‘Witchcraft Trials in England’, in B. P. Levack (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe and Colonial America (Oxford, 2013), pp. 283 – 99.

Gaskill, M., ‘Witchcraft and Evidence in early modern England’, Past and Present, 198 (2008), pp. 33 – 70.

Gibson, M., ‘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), pp. 107 – 26.

Gibson, M., Reading Witchcraft: Stories of Early English Witches (London, 1999).

Goodare, J., The European Witch-Hunt (London, 2016).

Holmes, C., ‘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), pp. 85 – 112.

Hutton, R., The Witch: A History of Fear, From the Ancient Times to the Present (London, 2017).

Kallestrup, L. N., Agents of Witchcraft in Early Modern Italy and Denmark (Basingstoke, 2015).

Kamp, J., Crime, Gender and Social Control in Early Modern Frankfurt am Main (Leiden 2019).

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.

Bad or Mad? Infanticide: Insanity and Morality in Nineteenth-Century Britain

Bad or Mad? Infanticide: Insanity and Morality in Nineteenth-Century Britain

PAIGE MATHIESON

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Introduction

Infanticidal mothers have been murdering their newly born offspring for hundreds of years. Historically, infanticide was used as a form of contraception by hunter-gatherers in nomadic tribes, when their societies were at war and food supplies were scarce.[1] The horrific act of infanticide has been practiced throughout history amongst communities for various reasons, the most common motivations being, social, economic and religious.[2] Historian Anne Kilday describes infanticide as an ‘international phenomenon’.[3] Economic motivations behind infanticide can be seen woven throughout history and in the nineteenth century, women often resorted to infanticide as a form of delayed abortion amongst the most destitute of women.[4] For a considerable part of the Victorian era, London accounted for roughly half of all infanticide cases carried out in England and Wales; ‘Edwin Lancaster, coroner for Central Middlesex, claimed that some 12,000 London mothers had murdered their infants without detection.’[5] Infants were killed during this period by means of strangulation, suffocation and drowning.[6]

Responses to cases of infanticide in the nineteenth century saw an increasing connection to feminine ideals. Although the vast majority of infanticide victims were new-born infants, the murder of a child up to one year of age was categorised as infanticide under Victorian law. Single women and those working as domestic servants were the most frequently acknowledged social group of women to commit infanticidal acts during this time period.[7] James Kelly believes that this was a result of women longing to escape the ‘consequent social ostracism and economic marginalization’ they faced when giving birth to an illegitimate child. The ideal Victorian woman was held in high regard as an emblem of inherent purity. As a result of this, the nineteenth century saw an increase in reported infanticide cases as it contradicted the new-found values of womanhood, becoming a threat to the strong principles of family that stood at the roots of Victorian society.[8]

Nineteenth-century society in Britain saw a growth in fascination with infanticide cases. The horrors of child-murder were sensationalised in the press and became a catalyst for Victorian anxieties and fears surrounding motherhood. Infanticide spread alarm throughout Victorian society regarding the innocence and vulnerability of new-born infants.[9] Horrifying cases of infanticide were often published: local and national newspapers identified public areas such as parks and streets in which the bodies of infants were found.[10] ‘It has been said of the police, with too much truth’, reported Mrs Baines in the Journal of Social Sciences in 1866, ‘that they think no more of finding the dead body of a child in the streets than of picking up a dead cat or dog’.[11]

Throughout the early 1800s, doctors of medicine developed and established the medical term ‘infanticide’ as an indication of insanity. Scholars have been inclined to focus on infanticidal women and the questions surrounding infant murder, such as puerperal insanity, poverty and illegitimacy.[12] Puerperal insanity was one of the few psychiatric disorders that was recognised in the Nineteenth-Century, understood as insanity caused by the trauma of childbirth.[13] Nineteenth-century Britain saw dramatic changes to the legislation of infanticide and insanity. The National Health Service states that the 1800s saw a ‘new found interest in the causes and treatment of mental illness’, which shaped the way in which the insane were assessed and treated as a result of their condition.[14] Additionally, the changing legislation of insanity shaped society’s responses to infanticidal mothers and created a more ‘sympathetic approach’ to cases of infanticide as a result of insanity.[15] The changing legislation surrounding the murder of children demonstrates an already ongoing changing perception of women prior to the nineteenth century. The Infanticide statute of 1624 became the first written law for the killing of children and was established to ‘prevent the destroying and murthering of bastard children’, demonstrating the strong link between illegitimacy and infanticide already embedded in the seventeenth century.[16]

Infanticide carried with it a sentence of execution in the nineteenth century, however, it was widely accepted that a woman who committed acts of infanticide did so because she had been driven to insanity.[17] Consequently, judges avoided sentencing such women to death by charging them with concealment of birth rather than infanticide which carried a prison sentence rather than execution; not reporting the birth of a child would be considered concealment of birth.[18] Lord Ellenborough’s Act of 1803 saw dramatic change in the conviction of infanticide and overrode the harshness of the Stuart Bastard Neonaticide Act of 1624, which decreed that the mothers of bastard children, if found attempting to conceal the child’s birth by hiding the body, were assumed to have murdered the infant and were therefore subject to the death penalty. Yet, the newly established 1803 Act assumed the mother innocent of infanticide until proven guilty. As a result of the newly established law no women were executed in Britain for the crime of infanticide after 1849.[19]

This article recognises that the changing perception of insanity shaped the responses to infanticidal women in nineteenth-century Britain. Society understood that poverty and illegitimacy were also causes of infanticide. In addition to this it is argued that mothers who committed infanticide as a result of poverty, illegitimacy and insanity were recognised as victims of society and were thus treated with increasing sympathy. Furthermore, although there was increasing sympathy for infanticidal mothers in this period, there was a continuous recognition that female baby-farmers and infanticidal fathers were murderous and thus were increasingly villainised in society. Nineteenth-century baby-farmers consisted of women who offered their services to take on other women’s children in exchange for payment, and young children who were taken to these establishments often died within a short period of time; thus young vulnerable mothers who could not cope with motherhood would use baby-farmers as a desperate solution in an attempt to rid themselves of their child.[20]

 

Bad?

Records from the nineteenth century evidence the existing stereotypes illustrated in society when discussing infanticide. The majority of those convicted of both infanticide and concealment of birth were un-married, working-class women in domestic service.[21] It was not uncommon for single working-class women of very little means to enter the workhouse in order to give birth as their pregnancy left them destitute and desperate. Therefore, it is significant to note that a considerable number of infanticide cases during this time period involved women who had recently entered the workhouse with limited and fragile support networks; Jackson argues that for these single women there was no place for them in society, even in working-class culture.[22] Society acknowledged that poverty became one of the primary causes of infanticide in Britain during the nineteenth century; in conjunction with the ‘avoidance of shame of an illegitimate child’, illegitimacy was perceived to be a far more influencing factor resulting in child-murder.[23] However, impoverished women were perceived as unwell as they did not fit into the Victorian ideology of femininity and thus were treated with increasing sympathy. This was because motherhood was such a strong Victorian ideal that only women who were in mental and social distress would commit acts such as infanticide and break away from the strongly implemented ideals of femininity and motherhood.[24] This section explores Victorian perceptions of poverty and illegitimacy as influencing factors of infanticide; whilst acknowledging societies’ increasing sympathetic responses to infanticidal women. Furthermore, this section analyses the way in which baby-farmers and infanticidal fathers were continually villainised in society.

Prior to the 1624 Infanticide Act equal numbers of mothers with legitimate and illegitimate offspring were tried with child-murder. However, after the 1634 statute the majority of mothers found guilty of infanticide were unmarried women, further suggesting that during the nineteenth century, illegitimacy was perceived to be associated with guilt and the mothers of illegitimate children were therefore more likely to be found guilty of infanticide in a court of law.[25] Nineteenth-century Christianity preached that, ‘virginity was not only an admirable human condition, but also the only appropriate state for an unmarried woman.’[26] The very existence of an illegitimate child would have deemed a woman in ‘poor mental state’, as the connection between female sexuality and insanity had been progressively woven into Victorian society.[27] Moreover, illegitimacy in the nineteenth century presented a threat to female reputation.

Thorn states that the Victorian period brought about a medical transformation in which the body of the infant became a vast source of medical knowledge and thus medicalised the criminal trial; consequently the judge and jury were no longer dependent on the mother’s testimony and were made reliant on the medical autopsy.[28] New medical understandings of the body and insanity led to the end of executions as a punishment for infanticide: the doctor’s testimony ensured that though the mother had been found guilty of infanticide she would not be sentenced to execution or become a public spectacle, but would be disciplined under the newly developing procedures of social welfare.[29] Therefore, the medicalisation of infanticide trials shaped the legislation surrounding child-murder and created a new classification of crime for infanticidal mothers. One doctor in 1865 stated that:

Above all let, women feel that they should not be visited with so much indignation for simple pregnancy as for murder… Let society, if possible, look on the fact of illegitimate pregnancy with a more forgiving eye, and pity at least the unhappy victims of seduction, or the otherwise innocent who may have fallen. Let such victims have their future course through life of a less hopeless character. [30]

This demonstrates an increasing sympathy toward infanticidal women. When illegitimacy was a factor, such women were regarded as victims of a discriminating society, as opposed to simply being irredeemably cruel. In the nineteenth century juries were reluctant to commit the infanticidal mother to death whom had suffered deplorable and distressing social conditions that were instrumental in her committing of the crime.[31] Nevertheless, the act of infanticide in itself contradicted the Victorian idealised role of femininity in which motherhood was seen as central to their identity.[32] Committing child-murder was perceived to be unnatural and society demanded a solution for the eradication of infanticide and punishment for the offender.[33]

The harshness of the Bastardy Clauses originating in the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act placed full moral responsibility for the illegitimacy of a child on the mother, ensuring that the mother carried the full financial burden of the child.[34] Therefore, illegitimacy and poverty can be perceived as a viable cause for the increase in infanticide.[35] Hoffer and Hull have argued that the 1624 Act to prevent the ‘Destroying and Murthering of Bastard Children’ consequently became a motive for avoiding the ‘economic burdens of bastardy’ resulting in child-murder.[36] In order to understand the motives behind nineteenth-century infanticide, it is important to recognise the Victorian understandings of sexual liaisons and social practices connecting to marriage. The inherent abundance of shame in association with pre-marital fornication and the sexual ignorance apparent within nineteenth-century society created a platform upon which infanticide would be conceived as a viable option to combat illegitimacy.[37]  On 23 October 1851, The Morning Chronicle reported a case of infanticide near Bury St. Edmunds in which, ‘a young woman named Maria Stewart was charged, on her own confession, with the murder of her two illegitimate children’. The accused stated that:

It was born about 9 o’clock in the morning and was alive in the afternoon. When I laid hands on it, held it to my breast and let it suck it began to cackle and I thought someone would hear it, and that I must kill it. I put my hand over the mouth and nipped the throat with my fingers, and then took my garter and tied or put it around the neck so that it might die okay. I killed it because I thought I should not have a father for my child…It is the second little girl I have murdered, I strangled the both.[38]

This case illustrates that illegitimacy was Maria Stewart’s central reason behind the murder of her two children. Maria’s reasoning for murdering her two children is representative of the way in which illegitimate single mothers were ostracised from polite society.  The profound sensationalism of infanticidal cases in nineteenth-century publications scandalised child-murder and shaped the responses to infanticidal women portraying them as victims of illegitimacy and thus created an increasing sympathetic response to infanticidal mothers. [39]

Whilst infanticide was a criminal act, it was viewed as a lesser crime than that of the murder of an adult. This can be partly attributed to society’s observations of Victorian women and how they were generally regarded as acting under the extreme ‘pressures of poverty and social stigma’.[40] Poverty was a crucial factor that unquestionably contributed to women committing infanticide.[41] D’Cruze presents the case study of Sarah Cooper in 1847 in which poverty is shown to be the significant factor behind the murder of her child. The young women is said to have stood before the Central Criminal Court accused of murdering her new-born infant, her circumstances being ‘very bad indeed’, she showed no sign of having a regular occupation and thus no income. After she was in custody, a police sergeant stated that:

… it would not have happened had she not been in such a bad state of poverty, that she and her children had been starving all the winter…she said that the child was hers…that she must have fainted after she was delivered, and she had put it where it was found.[42]

In support of this, it is important to note that some mothers turned to infanticide as their last option to prevent the infant from growing up in a life of poverty and suffering. [43]  A mother’s act of intentional infanticide can therefore be seen as an emotional reaction and an act of love in order to stop the child from suffering as opposed to an act of inherent violence and cruelty. The police sergeant’s admission to Sarah Cooper’s distressing conditions further illustrates the changing perceptions of infanticidal women during this period and further demonstrates that mothers who committed infanticide as a result of poverty, were seen as victims of society and treated with increasing sympathy in the nineteenth century.

During the eighteenth century violence was an accepted code of male behaviour yet, upon the emergence of the Victorian period, violence became less tolerated in polite society.[44] Violence against children in the nineteenth century became much less tolerated as it contradicted the ideals of the new Victorian gentlemen and the expectations of a father as a moral protector.[45] Child-murder was a heinous criminal act committed historically by both parental figures yet, during the Victorian period the word ‘infanticide’ was labelled only on the murders committed by women.[46] Men accused of child-murder often killed their offspring in an attempt to conceal the evidence of their illicit sexual relations. Nonetheless, infanticide historians have often concentrated on unmarried mothers, whose fear of shame upon exposure of their illegitimate child had come to be associated with puerperal mania and infanticide. Men also attempted to evade association with illegitimate children either because they were married or they feared for their social positions.[47] Historian Jennifer Thorn discovered that there were around eighty articles written by The Times that document paternal child-murder between the years of 1807 and 1905; these articles described the murders as being, ‘committed largely by working-class fathers who reportedly strangled, stabbed, beat, and drowned their children’.[48]

Frost argues that the act of child-murder committed by men was less frequent in comparison to that of women and therefore has received much less historical attention.[49] Furthermore, Victorian masculinity encompassed the significance of male honour and ‘saw the pride and status of the patriarchal family’ at the central core of fatherhood; this transgression of the Victorian ideals of fatherhood became of significant importance in infanticide cases and thus shaped the way in which infanticidal men were perceived as a more severe threat to society than that of infanticidal women.[50] As a result of this, men suffered from fewer leniencies in court as a consequence of their violent aggression in order to conceal the shame of their infidelity.[51] It was assumed in the nineteenth century that men were sexual aggressors who ‘seduced women into falling’ and were therefore released from their parental responsibility. However, whilst women could claim to have committed infanticide as a result of insanity or poverty, men could not.[52]  Jackson has argued that men were to blame for tempting women into sexual acts more so than women were to blame for yielding to them and thus society held little sympathy for men in infanticide cases.[53] Furthermore historian Jade Shepherd states that murderous fathers were treated unsympathetically, as savage tyrants due to their inability to plead insanity as motivation behind the murder of their children.[54]

Male infanticide cases were very much dependent on the masculine characteristics of respectability and class. Frost argues that the higher the social standing of the accused gentleman, the more he had to lose as a result of an allegation of illegitimacy; the courts held very little sympathy for men in cases of infanticide as they held the strong belief that men were themselves responsible for their position in both society and familial situations.[55] The few accounts of child-murder committed by men during the nineteenth century provide insight into the ‘ideological pressures and fears underlying constructions of fatherhood’ that existed during this period. Whilst the press and popular fiction often represented the infanticidal mother as a young single woman in stifling poverty, men were usually depicted as violent, hostile and unable to provide for their families, a complete contrast to the idealised Victorian gentleman.[56] As Jackson has argued, women were seen as ‘passive, compassionate, pitiable, and innocent victims of society’s heathen principles and of men’s criminally cruel behaviour… acknowledged in part by the wider public.’[57] This further illustrates the lack of sympathy for men accused of child-murder and demonstrates society’s perception of the infanticidal father as a violent aggressor. One of the chief motivations behind fatherly violence came as a consequence of objecting to pay for financial support, despite the Victorian ideals of masculinity that inherently obliged men to provide for their family.[58]  Men were more frequently executed for infanticide unlike women; this was often due to women being able to claim postpartum ‘mania’ and puerperal insanity whilst men were unable to do so.[59] Victorian courts considered that men were able to obtain sufficient amounts of self-control in regards to violent behaviour. [60] Hunter in 1783 argued that, ‘the father of the child is really criminal, often cruelly so; the mother is weak credulous and deluded’.[61] This suggests that the attitude towards men was one of continuity while that toward women changed throughout the century becoming much more understanding and lenient in their attitudes to infanticidal women.

Nevertheless, infanticidal fathers and baby-farmers were continuously villainised in the Victorian period in contrast to the way in which infanticidal mothers were treated. By the mid-1800s resourceful women from within the working-classes began establishing child minding businesses in exchange for payment. These businesses were commonly known as baby-farms and allowed single unmarried women to continue in employment and function within the public sphere.[62] Established baby-farms often ran on overstrained resources and as a consequence resulted in an extremely low standard of care for the infants.[63] For the majority of people during the nineteenth century, seeking out a baby-farm was usually a last resort and was, ‘probably restricted to unmarried mothers…and social outcasts such as casual prostitutes or members of the petty criminal classes’.[64] Nevertheless, the children in these late-Victorian enterprises were dying at alarmingly high rates and the ‘farms’ were soon exposed as corrupt and murderous trades.[65]

Commonly known as ‘she-butchers’ in the eighteenth century, nineteenth-century baby-farmers were a consequence of societal anxiety surrounding ‘over-breeding’ within the poorer classes. Baby-farming was a pejorative term that grouped together all working-class females involved in the same criminal class.

[n]o respectable woman . . . would have called herself a baby farmer, ‘Baby farming’ was an accusation, not a profession. In normal usage, the term conflated the criminal acts of wilful murderers with the daily labor of honest nurses. [66]

It is significant to note that Annie Cossins villainises the term ‘baby farmer’ when she states that, ‘[n]o respectable woman . . . would have called herself a baby farmer’ suggesting that the mothers were exempt from blame in cases of infanticide that occurred within baby-farms. Printed in the early 1860s, this poem reveals the public’s abhorrence to Mrs Winsor’s baby-farm and is representative of society’s repugnance to the baby-farming industry during the nineteenth century.

This dreadful woman, Charlotte Winsor,

Took children in to nurse,

A devil she was in human form

We could not call her worse;

She would tamper with their young mother,

With if you would like to pay,

For a few pounds, say three of four,

I will put your child away.

Those children belong to some poor girl

That has been led astray.

Mrs. Winsor would take them to nurse

As long as they would pay.

She would murder them – yes, strangle them

For this paltry gain,

By putting them between beds,

Or pressing the juglar vein.[67]

It is significant to note that the poem presents the mother of the child as a victim of the baby-farming industry when it states that the mother has been ‘led astray’ and is supportive of the ongoing argument that society increasingly sympathised with the infant’s mother. Additionally, the ‘baby-farmer’ is endlessly associated with blame similarly to that of the infanticidal father. The interesting use of language by the poet such as ‘young mother’ and ‘poor girl’ suggests that it was perceived by Victorian society that only young, single, vulnerable women living in poverty sought out baby-farms as a desperate solution to rid themselves of shame.

Motherhood was seen as central to the construction of female identity in the nineteenth century, therefore, female ‘baby-farmers’ in this period juxtaposed these strongly implemented feminine ideals.[68] ‘The Execution of Mrs Winsor’, demonstrates the Victorian anxieties surrounding child-murder and the conflict between femininity and motherhood in the fourth stanza when it states:

While the babes on her would smile,

She would kiss and feed him tenderly,

And murder all the while.[69]

Anxiety around illegitimate children and the practice of baby-farming erupted in the late 1860s and the women involved became objects of scorn and derision.[70] On 25 September 1867, The Pall Mall Gazette stressed that ‘care of illegitimate children has become a regular trade’ and that the death of a child whilst in the care of a baby-farm was often a ‘happy release’ for the parent.[71] The press’s evaluation of the nineteenth-century baby-farm suggests that these establishments murdered children upon the instruction of the mother(s) and therefore should carry the same amount of blame as infanticidal fathers. Nevertheless, the language presented in the first stanza of the poem ‘Baby-Farming Mothers Bewareis illustrative of society’s attitudes towards Victorian mothers and the ‘baby-farming’ trade during the nineteenth century:

Oh, mothers, fond mothers your attention I pray.

And listen a while to a pitiful late. It’s a out baby farming a scandalous trade.

And shocking disclosures have a lately been made.

Near Brixton in Surrey this system so base.

Has at last! Been discovered a social disgrace.[72]

The phrases such as, ‘scandalous trade’ and ‘social disgrace’ are representative of the societal distain against the new found practice and thus become a contradiction of the Victorian familial ideals of gentility and sensibility. [73] The language used in this poem demonstrates the continuation of the idealisation of motherhood when it describes the parental figures as ‘fond mothers’. As a result of the Victorian ideals of motherhood ‘baby-farming women’ were seen as transgressors of their natural roles as women and thus presented a threat to society as they prevented mothers from fulfilling their natural duty. Consequently, baby-farmers were villainised by society and were judged with more severity than infanticidal mothers.

Perceptions of poverty and illegitimacy as justified causes of infanticide shaped the way in which infanticidal women were viewed in the nineteenth century. Men of the courts increasingly anticipated that infanticidal women were, ‘young, poor… naive victims of a wily seducer’ and thus justified the sympathetic treatment they received.[74] Perceptions of infanticidal women have fashioned more sympathetic reactions from society as shown by the poems in Appendix 1 and 2 which villainise the baby-farming industry. Furthermore, society’s perception of male infanticide as a villainous crime further weakened the impact of female infanticide; the medicalisation of insanity ensured that ‘mad’ women were being medically diagnosed as insane and were no longer a threat to the Victorian ideals of motherhood. [75] Furthermore, society’s perception of infanticidal fathers as ‘criminally cruel’ suggests the possibility that the nineteenth century saw an increasing shift away from the infanticidal woman as ‘bad’ and instead seeing them as victims of insanity and society.[76] Moreover, the transgression of the Victorian ideals of fatherhood became of significant importance in infanticide cases and thus shaped the way in which infanticidal men were perceived as a more severe threat to society than that of infanticidal women. In the Victorian period women were seen as ‘innocent victims of society’s heathen principles and of men’s criminally cruel behaviour.’[77] There was substantial emphasis on the mother’s ‘natural capacity for love and nurture’ and as a result, the nineteenth century saw a growing shift of sympathy for infanticidal mothers who were seen as victims of insanity or of society itself.

 

Mad?

Alongside the understanding that poverty and illegitimacy caused infanticide, child-murder was also perceived to be a product of insanity in the nineteenth century. The 1800s saw significant changes in the legislation of the Lunacy Acts. The Lunacy Act of 1845 and the County Asylums Act of 1845 combined to form mental health law in England and Wales.[78] Their most significant provision was in categorising mentally ill people as patients in order to stop the abuse of the insane; patients were admitted to licensed premises and institutionalised care was established for lunatics in public asylums.[79] This act was revisited in 1853 and ensured that a medical examination and certificate was to be issued and signed by a medical practitioner when administrating a patient to an asylum.[80] Finally, the Lunacy Act of 1890 generated a set of rules evoking legal controls over the psychiatric admissions of private patients.[81] The newly founded legislation of the Lunacy Acts during the course of the nineteenth century demonstrates the ongoing formal treatment of insanity during the Victorian era. This formalised treatment of the ‘insane’ enabled the Criminal Justice System to utilise the new medical advances in mental illness to diagnose women with puerperal insanity and which constituted an ‘appropriate charge’ in place of a prison sentence.[82] The emergence of ‘moral insanity’ into the medical profession saw the appearance of a body of ‘alienists’ whose job was to identify and treat mental conditions. This section assesses perceptions of insanity and establishes insanity as the chief influential factor in cases of infanticide during the nineteenth century. Furthermore, this section evidences that there was a growing sympathy for infanticidal mothers in Victorian Britain.

Puerperal insanity became a popular topic amongst ‘alienists’ and by the middle of the nineteenth century it had been readily implemented into the discourse of insanity.[83] The 1800s saw an increasing development of medicine as a natural science consequently leading to the rise of the medical profession and the specialisation of mental illnesses.[84] The medicalisation of infanticidal cases in the nineteenth century was dependent on medical professionals ‘pathologising’ puerperal mania, consequently treating the accused as subjects of ‘medical rather than legal attention and treatment rather than punishment’.[85] In the nineteenth century, the role of doctors as witnesses in infanticide trials became increasingly prominent; this was a consequence of the complex forensic evidence they were required to provide; in the case of doctors whom worked in mental asylums legal proceedings such as infanticide trials could be considered opportunities to improve their status and repertoire.[86]

This section assesses perceptions of insanity and establishes insanity as the chief influential factor in cases of infanticide during the nineteenth century. Furthermore, this section evidences that there was a growing sympathy for infanticidal mothers in Victorian Britain as a result of the increasing awareness of mental health disorders.

On the 10 October 1881, Catherine (Kate) Rumsby from Hertford was accused of the murder of her new-born infant. The case demonstrates the newly founded importance of the doctor in infanticide trials. The attending registered medical practitioner, George Marshall Phillips, concurred that:

the umbilical cord was broken off and had not been tied. There was a long abrasion on the front of the neck about the length and width of a finger, blood on the brain, bruises to the right hand side of the face and blood in the ear. Both lungs inflated and were filling up the cavity of the chest nearly covering the pericardia. The ten portions of arms and legs were immersed in hot water sufficiently long enough to solidify the flesh. There were patches of blood on the accused’s dress corresponding to the size of the placenta.[87]

Doctor Phillips confirmed that the bruising on the forehead and blood on the brain were sufficient to cause death and that the lungs were capable of working upon birth. He also stated that he could not verify that the umbilical cord had been severed before death. The bruising on the top of the infant’s cranium, as Doctor Phillips stated ‘may have been caused by the child falling on the floor not in birth.’ The remains of the infant were found in two separate places, the head and the torso in a paper box and the remaining limbs in a cooking pot upon the kitchen stove. Medical practitioner George Phillips deducted that the violent mutilation and trauma to the body were a consequence of the mother’s insanity and concluded that Catherine Rumsby was in a ‘state of much mental distress and excitement at the time of the murder’.[88] In 1859, Forbes Winslow, writing about puerperal insanity, argued that subsequent to giving birth the woman’s temper ‘changes completely, and family affection is apparently changed into the bitterest hatred; this is particularly observed as regards the child, which the mother often attempts to destroy.’[89] Catherine Rumsby pleaded not guilty of infanticide in court. Although a conviction on this case could not be found it might be considered that as a result of the statements given by Doctor Phillips and the apparent Victorian anxieties surrounding puerperal mania, Miss Rumsby may have been confined to an asylum as a result of suffering from puerperal insanity. In 1815, historian William Hunter declared that, ‘it is only murder when it is executed with some degree of cool judgement, and wicked intention. When committed under phrenzy from despair, can it be more offensive in the sight of God, than under a phrenzy from a fever, or in lunacy?’ In addition to this, Hunter also stated that, ‘the insane are not to be held responsible for their actions’.[90] The case of Catherine Rumsby provides evidence to suggest that insanity was perceived to be the main influencing factor behind her act of infanticide.

Victorian notions of femininity understood the female body to be associated with unconditional love and nurture of her husband and offspring.[91] These illustrations of the ideal women were based upon images of motherhood, domesticity and passive obedience, compared to ‘the sexually aggressive harlot’ exiled from society as a consequence of defying the Victorian codes of conduct that deemed their behaviour as ‘irrational’ or ‘wicked’. Women who denied ideological codes of behaviour were understood as ‘becoming more like the animal within, she was a mythical figure of power and destruction, selling her soul to the powers of Darkness.’[92] The behaviour of mothers suffering from puerperal insanity was shocking to Victorian society as their unsettling and frightening behaviour became a risk to new-born children, a time when the young infant is in constant need of its mother’s care and protection. ‘The hand that rocked the cradle was also the hand that slapped, smothered or strangled the infant’, as women suffering from insanity put their baby at risk of injury and even fatality.[93]

During the middle of the nineteenth century, ‘child-murder became a modern secret…the modernity of this secret was signalled in the vigorous publicity that surrounded it: everybody was talking about how no one was willing to talk about it.’[94] In 1862, William Burke Ryan described his first-hand account of living in a time of heightened infanticide rates.

[T]he feeble wail of murdered childhood in its agony assails our ears at every turn, and is borne on every breeze. The sight is horrified as, day after day, the melancholy catalogue of murders meets the view, and we try to turn away the gaze in hope of some momentary relief. But turn where we may, still we are met by the evidence of a widespread crime. In the quiet of the bedroom we raise the box-lid, and the skeletons are there. In the calm evening walk we see in the distance the suspicious-looking bundle, and the mangled infant within. By the canal side, or in the water, we find the dead child. In solitude of the wood we are horrified by the ghastly sight; and if we betake ourselves to the rapid rail in order to escape the pollution, we find a journey’s end that the mouldering remains of a murdered innocent have been our travelling companion; and that the odour from that unsuspected parcel truly indicates what may be found within.[95]

The Victorian era was a period surrounded by an atmosphere of elevated anxieties concerning the endangerments of childbirth ‘and threats to the sanctity of the bourgeois home offered an ideal medium for it to take hold and flourish’.[96] The period saw the introduction of the new term and medical jargon ‘puerperal insanity’ and ‘puerperal mania’ into medical texts which incorporated the newly established forms of mental illness associated with childbirth.[97] Expectant mothers before the introduction of ‘puerperal insanity’ were still thought to fall victim to mental disorders, such as hysteria.[98] Women’s biological weaknesses that had been medically determined in the nineteenth century were thought to have put them at risk of developing insanity during pregnancy or subsequently months after giving birth due to their weakened mental state.[99]

Giving birth in the Victorian era was increasingly described as, ‘dangerous and pathological rather than normal and natural’; in his introduction to ‘Lectures on the Theory and Practice of Midwifery’, Robert Lee states that that all women were ‘exposed to great suffering and danger during pregnancy and childbirth’.[100] Although the disorder became a complete contradiction to the social norms of behaviour during this period, puerperal insanity became so frequently identified by male medical professionals that it became an accepted accomplice to the process of giving birth.[101] The new medical jargon and legislation surrounding insanity and puerperal mania ensured that childbirth was perceived to be a threat to new mothers and also became a ‘successful defence strategy’ in infanticide cases during this period.[102] The Victorian period saw the introduction of the term ‘puerperal insanity’ and its use in both a medical and social setting; violent mania, severe melancholia, or postpartum dysphoria were accredited by physicians to be accepted as a common consequence of childbirth.[103] In the 1880s the eminent psychiatrist Thomas Clouston described how childbirth, ‘One of the most joyous times of life is made full of anxiety and the strongest affection on earth is then often suddenly converted by disease into an antipathy: for the mother not only ‘forgets her suckling child’, but often becomes a danger to its life’.[104] In 1848, James Reid, physician to the General Lying-in Hospital in London, described how:

the mothers urged on by some unaccountable impulse to commit violence on herself or on her offspring… the infant is usually the object … in puerperal insanity; an impulse to destroy, haunts the mind continually, and struggles with maternal tenderness… The sufferer, in some cases, implores that the infant may be removed from her, lest she should altogether lose her self-control, and is heard praying to heaven to prevent her from yielding temptation.[105]

It is significant to note the juxtaposition of the emotional and dispassionate language used by Reid, when he refers to children as the ‘object’ and cause of the mothers suffering yet, he discusses ‘maternal tenderness’, juxtaposing ‘puerperal insanity’ with ‘maternal tenderness’.[106]

In the case of Rose Earle for the murder of her new-born child (in Appendix 3) who was also named Rose Earle in Liverpool October 1899, (by cutting of the throat) the mother is explicitly described as showing extreme physical signs of insanity. Medical Officer (MO) Arthur Price stated that:

Her general health has not been good. She has been depressed in her manners subject to outbursts of crying, swinging of the hands and generally chewing…She also suffers from delusions to the effect that God told her to kill her child to save it from suffering and she hears impossible voices urging her to commit suicide, says she must die as she is not fit to live…I consider her to be unsound of mind.[107]

Rose Earle’s apparent affection and maternal tenderness for the child was demonstrated when she stated that she must save it from ‘suffering’. The MO’s evaluation of her physical symptoms and emotional verbal outbursts demonstrates the changing nature of how women were perceived to have developed insanity during the nineteenth century as a result of giving birth. [108] In addition to this, the certificate (in Appendix 3) provides evidence to suggest that the medicalisation of insanity born of the nineteenth century shaped the way in which infanticidal women were treated in court. The certificate confirms that Miss Earle was incarcerated in the Liverpool Lunatic Asylum in 1899.

Marland states ‘that doctors saw infanticide as an actual symptom of puerperal insanity, so prevalent was the extraordinarily deranged and dangerous behaviour of the women, expressed in sexual obscenity, filthy language, self-neglect, attempted suicide and violence to others.’[109] This can be evidenced through the confinement of women to asylums as punishment for infanticidal crimes in replacement of execution. Subsequent to both the mental and physical pain of giving birth, new mothers were seen as predisposed to developing deranged, neglectful and violent behaviour. Thus, they became a risk to themselves, their family members and most importantly their new-born infant(s). These behaviour traits were categorised as mental conditions and labelled as puerperal insanity or mania. This newly established diagnosis in new mothers led to its increasing use in defence of the mother in cases of infanticide in the Criminal Courts.[110] Furthermore, Logan states that, ‘deliberate infanticide by a sane woman has far different connotations from the unaccountability of a random act prompted by insanity,’ further demonstrating the ongoing understanding of mental health and how this resulted in growing sympathy for infanticidal mothers in the nineteenth century. [111]

In the case of Bridget Doyle accused of the murder of Ellen Doyle in Liverpool in 1899, the witness statement from Mrs Doyle’s eight year old son John shows that the accused made statements such as ‘Oh my Jesus, begin today tomorrow is too late.’ After that she remained in a kneeling position on the bed and seemed to be praying silently until 4 o’clock the next morning when she said, ‘the devil is coming into me and it is not Kate Holland.’[112] The accused was, according to young John Doyle, ‘sitting on the floor bleeding from a wound in her throat and the deceased lying a little to the right in a pool of blood.’ Bridget Doyle was under mental observation since her reception on 27 September 1899 and was assessed by Medical Officer Arthur Price who found her to be:

very violent, behaving in an excited maniacal fashion shouting incoherently. It had been necessary to transfer her to prison in a strait jacket, restraint was continued for two days when she became stuporous…She still refuses to speak nor has she spoken since I have seen her. I consider her to be unsound of mind.[113]

Though the incriminating evidence suggests that Bridget Doyle was guilty of the murder of her child and thus of infanticide the certificate in Appendix 4 demonstrates that Bridget Doyle was ‘unfit to plead’ and was ‘to be detained in strict custody as a criminal lunatic until her Majesty’s pleasures be known’. Bridget Doyle’s indefinite confinement to a lunatic asylum in Liverpool as punishment for her crime further supports the argument that the changing legislation of insanity shaped responses to infanticidal mothers and created a more ‘sympathetic approach’ in infanticidal trials as a result of the medicalisation of insanity.[114]

Puerperal mania was of great interest to psychiatrists during this period as it not only ‘developed their theories which tied women’s mental disturbances to their intrinsic weakness and the rigours of reproductions, but also linked women to a wider range of social, environmental and moral factors’.[115] It was mania which appeared most frequently in infanticide cases with its, ‘temporary nature and sudden onset, typified by the struggle that mothers felt… between not wanting to harm their infants and the inability to prevent themselves from doing so’.[116] This can be evidenced in the case of Mary Harrison who was charged with the murder of her two children on the 28 September 1894 at the parish of Bootle in the County of Cumberland; her charge reads as follows, ‘She did feloniously wilfully and of her malice afterthought did kill and murder one Hannah Mary James and John Harrison against the peace of our Sovereign Lady the Queen her Crown and Dignity.’ Upon questioning at H. M. Prison Carlisle on 11 October 1894, the accused stated that:

On Friday morning last I brought my children down stairs soon after my husband had left the house. I got a step ladder and put it against the water tub. I went up the ladder with Hannah Mary and baby in my arms. I got into the water with them I held them in the water until they were dead. I intended to drown myself but the water in the barrel was not deep enough… I have been troubled in my mind for the last three years…I told Hannah Mary I was going to drown them both she cried bitterly and said oh mamma mamma don’t. I now sincerely regret I have done… I hope the lord will forgive me.[117]

Women who suffered from puerperal insanity often displayed outbursts of deranged and dangerous behaviour such as ‘attempted suicide and violence to others’ as displayed by Mary Harrison.[118] The Victorian period saw a general consensus about puerperal insanity and its sub-divisions: Melancholia, ‘a form of intense misery which was likely to result in permanent insanity’ and Mania, ‘distinguished by overexcited, disruptive and deviant behaviour, usually curable within a few months.’[119] Mary Harrison’s initial regret for the murders of both her children in her confession provides confirmation that she was suffering from mania; her apparent ignorance to her child’s cries at the time of the murders suggests a poor emotional and mental state and that she may have been suffering from post-partum melancholia. Furthermore in a statement made by J. A. Campbell the Medical Superintendent of Cumberland and Hertfordshire concludes that, ‘Mary Harrison was insane at the time her two children were drowned on September 28th 1894’. [120] This is further supported by the certificate in Appendix 5 in which the verdict reads that Mary Harrison was ‘Found insane on arraignment by a jury duly empanelled for this purpose’ and certifies that the accused will be, ‘detained in custody until Her Majesty’s pleasure shall be known’. The courts verdict in response to Mary Harrison’s exhibit of insane behaviour further illustrates that there was a growing recognition and perception of insanity that shaped the responses to infanticidal women in the nineteenth century. Moreover, the treatment of Mary Harrison as a victim of insanity in conjunction with the case studies of Rose Earle and Bridget Doyle demonstrates that the newly perceived consequences of insanity became the most important factor in cases of infanticide in nineteenth-century Britain.

The ambiguity surrounding the definition of puerperal mania contrasts the increasing levels of precision that were used in the establishment of procedures evaluating the circumstances of new-born infant mortality; this included establishing the difference between stillborn infants and those who had been born alive. It was difficult to establish evidence whether the child had breathed independently from the mother, whether strangulation by the umbilical cord was accidental and occurred during the birthing process, or whether the infant had been deliberately suffocated.[121] This can be seen in the case against Florence Dolman who at the parish of South Bearsted in the county of Sussex on the 15 March 1881 ‘did feloniously wilfully and of her malice aforethought did kill and murder a certain female infant child born of her body’. After Dolman’s employer discovered the body of the new-born infant, Dr Samuel Maughan was called to the scene and noted:

There was blood in serval places of the carpet in the small room. I saw two boxes underneath the basin on the shelf, upon opening the box I found the body of a female child. The child had the head turned downwards, it was dead but quite warm. On examining the body, I found two wounds on the neck (one either side). The wound on the right was 2-2.5 inches long, deep. Superficial on the left around 1 inch. The windpipe and the gullet were both severed underneath the skin. The head was bruised at the back, potentially from birth. They did a test hydrostatic, the lung floated. I cannot say whether the child was fully born when the wounds were inflicted but it had respired. The deep wounds had the appearance of being done with scissors. I saw the scissors at the time on the floor…The right wound was such as would have caused death had the child been born alive. The umbilical cord was torn about 3 inches from the trunk. There was a loose piece about 6 inches long in the same vessel as the after birth. This appeared to have been cut. Jugular veins had been divided but not the main artery, assuming the child was born alive the wounds would have been fatal. There is not medical proof of the child being born alive. I think the wounds may have been inflicted before the child was fully born by the mother, I have heard of such cases and believe it to be possible.[122]

The denial of either pregnancy or of the new-born infant there after often resulted in the death of the infant.[123] Miss Dolman when approached by Dr Maughan and asked about the child said ‘I have not had one.’ Upon asking a second time the accused simply denied having had the child. Her denial further illustrates her weakened mental state. Although the verdict for this case could not be found, it demonstrates the difficulties that both medical and legal professionals had in finding concrete evidence to convict women of infanticide in the nineteenth century, as Dr Maughan could not find ‘medical proof of the child being born alive’.[124] Sit, Rothschild and Wisner stated that patients involved in cases of infanticide often ‘denied their pregnancy and the pain of childbirth; they often experienced dissociative hallucinations, brief amnesia, and depersonalization’.[125] Moreover, the case of Florence Dolman provides evidence to support that the changing legislation of the Infanticide Acts in the nineteenth century increased convictions of concealment of birth which further supports the fact that there was an ever increasingly sympathetic reaction to the infanticidal mother in the Victorian period.

To further illustrate the difficulties in evidencing still-birth and infanticide it is important to note that all forms of abortion were illegal. However, abortion after the fifth month of pregnancy remained a capital crime throughout the nineteenth century.[126] Nevertheless, unwanted pregnancies often resulted in abortions at all different stages of pregnancy; some desperate women who lacked networks in order to have an abortion resorted to infanticide.[127] Thorn describes the killing of new-born bastard infants during this time period as a ‘kind of belated birth control, regrettable but nonetheless understandable’.[128] In 1862, George Graves noted that the law’s classification of live birth in contrast to stillbirth could be seen ‘in the eye of the law of England, that it is, no crime to strangle a child with a cord, to smash its skull with a hammer, or to cut its throat from ear to ear… [if] its lower extremities are at the time within the body of the mother’.[129] Using Graves’s statement as a platform for the perceptions of society in the Victorian period, the case of Florence Dolman becomes representative of a more prominent sympathetic reaction to infanticide in cases of belated abortion.

The changes to the legislation of the Lunacy Acts during the nineteenth century had a profound effect on the establishment of the mentally ill as medical patients; further supported by historian Michael Foucault who has argued that madness has been understood to be a ‘phenomenon assessable and resolvable within the terms of the nineteenth-century explanatory programmes of chemistry, physics and biology’ and that prior to the nineteenth century there were no specific scientific regulations that classified a diagnosis of insanity.[130] Thus the medicalisation of insanity in this period created a more protective environment for the patients and established an improvement in their care in institutionalised asylums.[131] The case of Florence Dolman demonstrates the difficulty that doctors had in evidencing that the child was alive after birth in conjunction to establishing still-births in infanticide cases. Moreover, the cases of Rose Earle and Mary Harrison provides evidence to demonstrate that women who were accused of infanticide in the nineteenth century could now be verified as victims of a mental disorder and in association, not be convicted on a murder charge but treated more sympathetically escaping the death penalty.[132] The growing recognition and perception of insanity in the nineteenth century shaped the responses to infanticidal women and the way in which patients were treated in a court of law and by medical professionals.[133] This new found perception of puerperal mania as a mental illness shaped the way in which women were treated in infanticide trials evoking an increased sympathetic response from both judge and jury.[134] Similarly, the newly established language around ‘puerperal mania’ and ‘puerperal insanity’ demonstrates a shift away from the historical perceptions of hysteria and insanity that attacked women for their madness towards a more medicalised diagnosis and thus provided justification for infanticidal crimes.

 

Conclusion

Victorian periodicals sensationalised crimes of infanticide linked to illegitimacy and poverty in the nineteenth century. Acknowledging women as the victims of distressing social conditions shaped the way in which infanticidal women were received with compassion in both the criminal courts and in society. Although, illegitimacy juxtaposed the Victorian ideals of femininity and motherhood, single vulnerable mothers were seen to be victims of men who were perceived in the nineteenth century to be sexual aggressors and thus infanticidal women were treated with increasing sympathy.

Infanticidal fathers challenged the new-found ideologies of fatherhood as a moral protector and were treated with a greater sense of hostility both in society and in the court of law. Victorian society became progressively lenient towards the crime of infanticide when committed by women as a consequence of suffering from emotionally distressing conditions such as insanity, poverty and illegitimacy and therefore shaped society’s responses to infanticidal women. Nevertheless, female baby-farmers were treated with greater hostility as they juxtaposed the construct of motherhood that was seen as central to female identity in the nineteenth century. Additionally, female baby-famers were continuously villainised during this period as they disrupted the duty of other mothers and presented a threat to society. Male offenders accused of infanticide and the proprietors of baby-farms were punitively judged in society and were increasingly portrayed in a negative light as they became a threat to the Victorian ideologies and society’s well-being. Although the majority of the people accused of infanticide were women, it is significant to note that infanticidal fathers were also tried for the crime. Even though there were significantly fewer cases of infanticide committed by fathers during the course of the nineteenth century, men were treated considerably harsher than women in court as a consequence of transgressing the moral codes of masculine behaviour.

Nineteenth-century Britain saw a period of increased anxiety around child-murder; female infanticide was an act of emotional desperation in response to distressing social conditions. Newly established medical knowledge and recognised treatments of the insane confirmed society’s perception of insanity as the most influential factor instigating child-murder in this period. The new-found perception of puerperal mania as a mental illness fashioned the way in which women were treated in infanticide trials with an increasingly sympathetic response from both judge and jury. The social constructs of femininity by Victorian definition, similar to those of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries contained women to the domestic sphere and defined women as being, ‘virginal, passive and obedient’.[135] Insanity became a threat to Victorian society and  a solution was therefore needed. Overall, there were shifts in the nineteenth century in how infanticide was viewed; there was a growing recognition of the impact of insanity, poverty and illegitimacy in shaping the actions of mothers who killed their babies.

Appendices

Appendix 1:

Anon, ‘The Execution of Mrs Winsor’ (1865), in M. Jackson (ed.), Infanticide: Historical Perspectives on Child Murder and Concealment, 1550-2000 (Aldershot, 2002)

You mothers all, come listen to me,

While a dreadful tale I tell.

Of all she crimes upon this earth,

This one does all excel.

Children slaughter’d fearlessly,

And by a woman’s hand,

Just for the sake of getting gold,

This woman you command.

 

This dreadful woman, Charlotte Winsor,

Took children in to nurse,

A Devil she was in human form,

We could not call her worse;

She would tamper with their young mother,

With if you would like to pay,

For a few pounds, say three or four,

I will put your child away.

 

Those children belong to some poor girl,

That had been led astray,

Mrs. Winsor would take them to nurse,

As long as they would pay.

She would murder them – yes, strangle them,

For this paltry gain,

By putting them between beds,

Or pressing the juglar vein.

 

What must this wretch’s feelings be,

While the babes on her would smile,

She would kiss and feed him tenderly,

And murder all the while.

She would tamper with their motuers,

And of them beg and pray,

With get four pounds together dear,

And your child shall die to day.

 

She stifled one just three weeks old,

Jane Harris, she would say,

You will never see them after,

They will sink in the Torquay.

Dead children tell no tales,

And cause no more strife,

And with children smiling on her,

She would take away their life.

 

No one knows this woman’s crime,

Bet God’s a l eeing eye,

But justice overtook her,

And for these crimes she died.

The tempter and the murderess,

As you see by these lioes,

As gone to face their Maker,

And to answer for her crimes.

Appendix 2:

Anonymous, ‘Baby Farming Mothers Beware’ (London, 1871), in P. Chassaigne and W. Heppel, ‘Popular Representations of Crime: The Crime Broadside – A Subculture of Violence in Victorian Britain?’ Crime, Histoire & Sociétés / Crime, History & Societies, 3/2 (1999), pp. 23-55.

Oh, mothers, fond mothers your attention
I pray.
And listen awhile to a pitiful lay.
It’s a out baby farming, a scandalous trade,
And shocking disclosures have lately been made,
Near Brixton, in Surrey, this system so base,
Has at last! been discovered, a social disgrace.

Then mothers, fond mothers, of your children take care,
And against baby farming I pray you beware.

What is baby farming, some mothers may say
Tis a practice that takes a poor infant away
From the care of it’s mother by a stranger instead,
The poor little creature is foster’d and bred.
It encourages vice and [?] I won’t name,
Tis a means to get rid of the offspring o’shame.

Sometimes a young woman has been led astray,
Sends the child of her guilt to be out of the way.
She pays a few pounds, tis a bargain, and then
She gives it up never to see it again,
While the indolent wife in luxury fed,
Pays a stranger to suckle her offspring instead

In a Terrace, at Brixton, two sisters did dwell
And of their sad doings the newspapers tell.
How they tempted poor mothers their offspring to leave,
To their tender care, but alas to deceive.
They starved them to death, for of late has been found.
The bodies of infants in the fields there around.

Poor children half-naked, their state we deplore,
Too weak for to stand, they laid on the floor
Unwashed and neglected by night and by day,
Till their dear little souls from life pass away
And what cared the nurse for the dead ones, [?]
The [?] of a child, why a saving would be.

Will the hen drive the chicken from under under her wing,
And leave it to perish, the poor little thing,
Or will dumb brutes desert their offspring, ah ! no,
What proofs of affection animals show.
Yes mothers alas their children will slay,
Or else pay another to put it away.

Appendix 3:

Rose Earle Certificate. The National Archives, ASSI 52/44, Murder: Earle, Rose (Infanticide), 1899.

Appendix 4:

Bridget Doyle Certificate. The National Archives, ASSI 52/43, Murder: Doyle, Bridget (Infanticide), 1899.

Appendix 5:

Mary Harrison Certificate. The National Archives, ASSI 52/20, Murder: Harrison, Mary (Infanticide), 1894.

Bibliography

Primary Sources

Anonymous, ‘The Case of Infanticide Near Bury St. Edmund’s’, The Morning Chronicle, 23 October 1851, Issue 26478, in British Library Newspapers, Part I: 1800-1900.

Anonymous, ‘Baby-Farming Mothers Beware’ (1871) in P. Chassaigne and W. Heppel, ‘Popular Representations of Crime: The Crime Broadside – A Subculture of Violence in Victorian Britain?’ Crime, Histoire & Sociétés / Crime, History & Societies, 3/2 (1999), pp. 42-43.

Anonymous, ‘Baby Farming’, The Pall Mall Gazette, 25 September 1867, Issue 819, in British Library Newspapers, Part I: 1800-1900.

Burke, W. R., Infanticide: Its Law, Prevalence, Prevention, and History (London, 1862).

Hunter, W., On the Uncertainty of the Signs of Murder in the Case of Bastard Children (London, 1783).

Reid, J,. ‘On the Causes, Symptoms and Treatment of Puerperal Insanity’, Journal of Psychological Medicine and Mental Pathology, 1 (1848), pp. 128-51, 284-340.

The National Archives, London (TNA): ASSI 52/20, Murder: Harrison, Mary (Infanticide).

The National Archives, London: ASSI 52/43, Murder: Doyle, Bridget (Infanticide).

The National Archives, London: ASSI 52/44, Murder: Earle, Rose (Infanticide).

The National Archives, London: ASSI 72/04, Murder: Rumsby, Catherine.

The National Archives, London: ASSI 36/25/14, Sussex. Accused: F Dolman. Offence: Infanticide.

 

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Sussman, H., Victorian Masculinities: Manhood and Masculine Poetics in Early Victorian Literature and Art (Cambridge, 1995).

Thorn, J., ‘Introduction: Stories of Child-Murder, Stories of Print’, in Thorn, J. (ed.), Writing British Infanticide Child-Murder, Gender, and Print, 1722-1859 (Basingstoke, 2013), pp. 13-42.

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Trowbridge S. and Knowles, T., Insanity and the Lunatic Asylum in the Nineteenth Century (London, 2015).

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[1] N. Goc, Women, Infanticide and the Press, 1822-1922: News Narratives in England and Australia (Surrey, 2013), p. 1.

[2] S. Wilson, ‘Infanticide, Child Abandonment, and Female Honour in Nineteenth-Century Corsica’, Comparative Studies in Society and History, 30/4 (1988), p. 762.

[3] A. A. Kilday, History of Infanticide in Britain, c. 1600 to the Present (Palgrave MacMillan, 2013), p. 2.

[4] R. G. Fuchs, Gender and Poverty in Nineteenth-Century Europe (Cambridge, 2005), p. 192.

[5] A. R. Higginbotham, ‘Sin of the Age: Infanticide and Illegitimacy in Victorian London’, Victorian Studies, 32/3 (1989) p. 319.

[6] Fuchs, Gender and Poverty, pp. 99-100.

[7] Fuchs, Gender and Poverty p. 99.

[8] Goc, Women, Infanticide and the Press, p. 1.

[9] Higginbotham, ‘Sin of the Age’, p. 320.

[10] J. Thorn, ‘Introduction: Stories of Child-Murder, Stories of Print’, in J. Thorn (ed.), Writing British Infanticide: Child-Murder, Gender, and Print, 1722-1859 (Newark, 2003), p. 13.

[11] H. Marland, ‘Getting Away with Murder? Puerperal Insanity, Infanticide and the Defence Plea’, in M. Jackson (ed.), Infanticide: Historical Perspectives on Child Murder and Concealment, 1550-2000 (Aldershot, 2002), p. 169.

[12] J. Shepherd, ‘“One of the Best Fathers until He Went Out of His Mind”: Paternal Child-Murder, 1864 –1900’, Journal of Victorian Culture, 18 (2013), p. 17.

  1. Shepherd, Institutionalizing the Insane in Nineteenth-Century England (London, 2014), p. 9.
  2. Mauger, The Cost of Insanity in Nineteenth-Century Ireland: Public, Voluntary and Private Asylum Care (Basingstoke, 2018), p. 155.

[13] I. Loudon, ‘Puerperal Insanity in the 19th Century’, Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, 81 (1988), p. 76.

[14] Anon., ‘19th Century Mental Health’, National Health Service (2014), <http://www.ashfordstpeters.nhs.uk/19th-century-mental-health>, accessed 16.01.2018.

[15] Marland, ‘Getting Away with Murder’, p. 173.

[16] A. Loughnan, ‘The “Strange” Case of the Infanticide Doctrine’, Oxford Journal of Legal Studies, 32 (2012), p. 690.

[17] Kilday, A History of Infanticide in Britain, p. 167.

For more information on infanticide and execution see: J. Gregory, Victorians Against the Gallows: Capital Punishment and the Abolitionist Movement in Nineteenth Century Britain (New York, 2011).

[18] S. D’Cruze, Everyday Violence in Britain, 1850-1950: Gender and Class (Essex, 2000), p. 58.

[19] M. L. Arnot, ‘The Murder of Thomas Sandles: Meanings of a Mid-Nineteenth-Century Infanticide’, in Jackson (ed.), Infanticide, p. 150.

  1. L. Berry, The Child, The State and The Victorian Novel (Charlottesville, 1999), p. 179.

[20] L. M. Shanley, Feminism, Marriage, and the Law in Victorian England (New Jersey, 1989), p. 88.

[21] Thorn, ‘Introduction’, p. 28.

[22] Arnot, ‘The Murder of Thomas Sandles’, p. 150.

[23] J. Kelly, ‘Responding to Infanticide in Ireland, 1680–1820’, in E. Farrell, She said she was in the family way’: Pregnancy and Infancy in Modern Ireland (London, 2012), p. 189.

Fuchs, Gender and Poverty, p. 99.

  1. Andrews and A. Digby (eds.), Sex and Seclusion, Class and Custody: Perspectives on Gender and Class in the History of British and Irish Psychiatry (New York, 2004), p. 109.

[24] Fuchs, Gender and Poverty, p. 100.

For more on motherhood and maternal instincts see: A. Richardson, Love and Eugenics in the Late Nineteenth Century: Rational Reproduction & the New Woman (Oxford, 2003), p. 176.

[25] Thorn, ‘Introduction’, p. 28.

For more on Infanticide law see: L. Rose, Massacre of the Innocents: Infanticide in Great Britain 1800-1939 (Oxford, 2016), p. 77.

[26] Kelly, ‘Responding to Infanticide in Ireland’, p. 189.

[27]  J. A. Sheetz-Nguyen, Victorian Women, Unwed Mothers and the London Foundling Hospital (London, 2012), p. 38

[28] L. C. Berry, ‘Confession and Profession: Adam Bede, Infanticide, and the New Coroner’, in Thorn (ed.), Writing British Infanticide, p. 202.

[29] Higginbotham, ‘Sin of the Age’, p. 331.

[30] Berry, ‘Confession and Profession’, p. 202-03.

[31] Arnot, ‘The Murder of Thomas Sandles’, p. 150.

[32] E. Gordon, and G. Nair, ‘Domestic Fathers and the Victorian Parental Role’, Women’s History Review, 15 (2006), p. 551.

[33] Arnot, ‘The Murder of Thomas Sandles’, p. 150.

[34] S. L. Steinbach, Understanding the Victorians: Politics, Culture and Society in Nineteenth-Century Britain (London, 2012), p. 201.

[35] D’Cruze, Everyday Violence in Britain, p. 57.

[36] P. Hoffer and N.E.H. Hull, Murdering Mothers: Infanticide in England and New England, 1558–1803 (New York, 1981), cited in Thorn, Writing British Infanticide, p. 20.

[37] D. A. Logan, Fallenness in Victorian Women’s Writing: Marry, Stitch, Die, Or Do Worse (Columbia, 1998), p. 18.

[38] Anon., ‘The Case of Infanticide Near Bury St. Edmund’s.’, The Morning Chronicle, 23 October 1851, Issue 26478, in British Library Newspapers, Part I: 1800-1900.

[39] Kelly, ‘Responding to Infanticide in Ireland’, p. 189.

[40] R. Sauer, ‘Infanticide and Abortion in Nineteenth-Century Britain’, Population Studies, 32 (1978), p. 92.

Andrews and Digby, Sex and Seclusion, p. 109.

See for example: C. Chinn, Poverty amidst Prosperity: The Urban Poor in England 1834-1914 (Lancaster, 2006).

[41] Fuchs, Gender and Poverty, p. 192.

[42] D’Cruze, Everyday Violence, p. 57.

[43] D’Cruze, Everyday Violence in Britain, p. 58.

For more on the link between poverty and insanity see Chapter 6 in A. Gestrich, E. Hurren, and S. King (eds.), Poverty and Sickness in Modern Europe: Narratives of the Sick Poor 1780-1938 (London, 2012).

[44] R. Shoemaker, ‘Male Honour and the Decline of Public Violence in Eighteenth-Century’, Social History, 26 (2001), p. 194.

[45] C. Emsley, Crime and Society in England 1750-1900, 2nd edn (Harlow, 1996), p. 107.

  1. Tosh, Manliness and Masculinities: Nineteenth-Century Britain (Harlow, 2005), p. 130.

[46] M. V. Gregory, ‘“Most revolting murder by a father”: The Violent Rhetoric of Paternal Child-Murder in the Times (London), 1826-1849’, in Thorn (ed.), Writing British Infanticide, p. 71.

[47] G. Frost, ‘“I am master here”: Illegitimacy, Masculinity, and Violence in Victorian England’, in L. Delap, B. Griffin, and A. Wills (eds.), The Politics of Domestic Authority in Britain since 1800 (Basingstoke, 2009), p. 30.

[48] Gregory, ‘Most revolting murder by a father’, p. 72.

[49] Frost, ‘I am master here’, p. 31.

[50] J.M. Ferraro, Nefarious Crimes, Contested Justice: Illicit Sex and Infanticide in the Republic of Venice 1557-1789 (Baltimore, 2008), p. 12.

For more on masculinity see J. Tosh, Manliness and Masculinities, p. 133; H. Sussman, Victorian Masculinities: Manhood and Masculine Poetics in Early Victorian Literature and Art (Cambridge, 1995).

[51] E. Farrell, ‘A most diabolical deed’: Infanticide and Irish Society 1850-1900 (Manchester, 2013), p. 149.

Chinn, Poverty amidst Prosperity, p. 114.

[52] Frost, ‘I am master here’, p. 31.

[53] Jackson, New-Born Child Murder: Women, Illegitimacy and the Courts in Eighteenth-Century England (Manchester, 1996), p. 118.

[54] Shepherd, ‘One of the Best Fathers until He Went Out of His Mind’, p. 21.

[55] Frost, ‘I am master here’, p. 31.

[56] Gregory, ‘Most revolting murder by a father’, p. 72.

[57] Jackson, New-Born Child Murder, p. 118.

[58] D. Rabin, ‘Beyond ‘Lewd Women’ and ‘Wanton Wenches’: Infanticide and Child-Murder in the Long Eighteenth Century’ in Thorn (ed.), Writing British Infanticide, p. 47.

Tosh, Manliness and Masculinities, p. 132.

[59] Marland, ‘Getting Away with Murder’, p. 173.

[60] Frost, ‘I am master here’, p. 39.

[61] W. Hunter, On the Uncertainty of the Signs of Murder in the Case of Bastard Children (London, 1783), p. 6.

[62] A. Cossins, Female Criminality: Infanticide, Moral Panics and The Female Body (New York, 2015) p. 91.

[63] J. McDonagh, Child Murder and British Culture 1720-1900 (Cambridge, 2003), p. 125.

[64] J. Himmill, cited in Farrell, A most diabolical deed, p. 35. Fuchs, Gender and Poverty, p. 57.

[65] A. Clark, ‘Irish Orphans and the Politics of Domestic Authority’ in Delap, Griffin, and Wills (eds.), The Politics of Domestic Authority, p. 71. Fuchs, Gender and Poverty, p. 46.

[66] Cossins, Female Criminality, p. 91.

[67] Anon, ‘The Execution of Mrs Winsor’, in Jackson (ed.), Infanticide.

[68] Gordon and Nair, ‘Domestic Fathers and the Victorian Parental Role’, p. 551.

Tosh, Manliness and Masculinities, p. 108.

[69] Anon, ‘The Execution of Mrs Winsor’.

[70] M. Jackson, ‘The Trial of Harriet Vooght: Continuity and Change in the History of Infanticide’, in Jackson (ed.), Infanticide, p. 10.

[71] Anon., ’Baby Farming’, The Pall Mall Gazette, 25 September 1867, Issue 819, in British Library Newspapers, Part I: 1800-1900.

[72]  Anon., ‘Baby-Farming Mothers Beware’ (1871), in P. Chassaigne, and W. Heppel, ‘Popular Representations of Crime: The Crime Broadside – A Subculture of Violence in Victorian Britain?’ Crime, Histoire & Sociétés / Crime, History & Societies, 3/2 (1999), pp. 42-43.

[73] Anon., ‘Baby-Farming Mothers Beware’.

[74] E. Farrell, ‘A very immoral establishment’: The Crime of Infanticide and Class Status in Ireland, 1850–1900’, in Farrell (ed.), She said she was in the family way, p. 220.

[75] A. Loughnan, Manifest Madness: Mental Incapacity in the Criminal Law (Oxford, 2012), p. 154.

[76] Hunter, On the Uncertainty of the Signs of Murder, p. 6.

[77] J. Geyer-Kordesch, ‘Infanticide and the Erotic Plot: A Feminist Reading of Eighteenth-Century Crime’, in Jackson (ed.), Infanticide, p. 118.

[78] H. Small, Love’s Madness: Medicine, the Novel, and Female Insanity, 1800-1865 (Oxford, 1996), p. 21.

[79] C. Stebbings, ‘Protecting the Property of the Mentally Ill: The Judicial Solution in Nineteenth Century Lunacy Law’, Cambridge Law Journal, 71/2 (2012), p. 385.

[80] P. Bartlett, The Poor Law of Lunacy: The Administration of Pauper Lunatics in Mid-Nineteenth Century England with Special Emphasis on Leicestershire and Rutland (London, 1993), p. 192.

[81] I. Butler and B. Drakeford, Scandal, Social Policy and Social Welfare (Basingstoke, 2003), p. 22.

  1. Burtinshaw and J. Burt, Lunatics, Imbeciles and Idiots: A History of Insanity in Nineteenth-Century (Barnsley, 2017), p. 37.

[82] Loughnan, Manifest Madness, p. 154.

Small, Love’s Madness, p. 35.

[83] Loughnan, ‘The “Strange” Case of the Infanticide Doctrine’, p. 687.

Mauger, The Cost of Insanity, p. 155.

[84] T. Chakravarty, ‘Medicalisation of Mental Disorder: Shifting Epistemologies and Beyond’, Sociological Bulletin, 62/2 (2011), p. 21.

Tosh, Manliness and Masculinities, p. 132.

  1. I. Burney, ‘The Politics of Particularism: Medicalization and Medical Reform in Nineteenth-Century Britain’, in R. Bivins and V. J. Pickstone, Medicine, Madness and Social History: Essays in Honour of Roy Porter (Basingstoke, 2007), p. 4

[85] Loughnan, ‘The “Strange” Case of the Infanticide Doctrine’, p. 687.

Small, Love’s Madness, p. 35.

Butler and Drakeford, Scandal, Social Policy and Social Welfare, p. 17.

[86] Marland, ‘Getting Away with Murder’, p. 171.

[87] ASSI 72/04, Murder: Rumsby, Catherine (Infanticide), The National Archives, London (TNA).

[88] TNA, ASSI 72/04, Murder: Rumsby, Catherine (Infanticide).

[89] W. Forbes, ‘On Puerperal Insanity’, Journal of Psychological Medicine and Mental Pathology, 12 (1859), p. 21.

[90] Hunter, On the Uncertainty of the Signs of Murder, p. 5.

See also: K. Busfield, Men, Women and Madness: Understanding Gender and Mental Disorder (Basingstoke, 1996), p. 159.

[91] Cossins, Female Criminality, p. 57.

[92] Cossins, Female Criminality, p. 57.

[93] H. Marland, Dangerous Motherhood Insanity and Childbirth in Victorian Britain (Basingstoke, 2004), p. 4.

[94] Berry, ‘Confession and Profession’, p. 196.

[95] W. R. Burke, Infanticide: Its Law, Prevalence, Prevention, And History (London, 1862), p. 45-46.

[96] Marland, Dangerous Motherhood, p. 3.

[97] Shepherd, Institutionalizing the Insane, p. 9.

[98] Andrews and Digby, Sex and Seclusion, p. 165.

[99] Marland, Dangerous Motherhood, p. 3.

[100] R. Lee, Lectures on the Theory and Practice of Midwifery: Delivered in the Theatre of St. George’s Hospital (London, 1844), cited in Marland, ‘Getting Away with Murder’, p. 175.

[101] Marland, Dangerous Motherhood, p. 5.

[102] Marland, ‘Getting Away with Murder’, p. 175.

[103] Marland, Dangerous Motherhood, p. 4.

For anxieties surrounding puerperal mania see: D. Brunton, Health and Wellness in the 19th Century (Oxford, 2014), p. 142.

[104] T. S. Clouston, Clinical Lectures on Mental Diseases, 2nd edn (London, 1887), p. 502.

[105] J. Reid, ‘On the Causes, Symptoms and Treatment of Puerperal Insanity’, Journal of Psychological Medicine and Mental Pathology, 1 (1848), p. 135. Reid was an author on puerperal insanity who was much cited in forensic texts.

[106] Reid, ‘On the Causes, Symptoms and Treatment of Puerperal Insanity’, p. 135.

[107] ASSI 52/44, Murder: Earle, Rose (Infanticide), TNA.

[108] TNA, ASSI 52/44.

[109] Marland, Dangerous Motherhood, p. 4.

[110] Marland, ‘Getting Away with Murder’, p. 173.

[111] Logan, Fallenness in Victorian Women’s Writing, p. 184.

[112] ASSI 52/43, Murder: Doyle, Bridget (Infanticide), TNA. After extensive research it was not possible to identify what Mrs Doyle meant when referring to Kate Holland.

[113] TNA, ASSI 52/43.

[114] Marland, ‘Getting Away with Murder’, p. 173.

[115] Marland, Dangerous Motherhood, p. 6.

  1. Trowbridge and T. Knowles, Insanity and the Lunatic Asylum in the Nineteenth Century (London, 2015), p. 156.

[116] Marland, ‘Getting Away with Murder’, p. 176.

[117] ASSI 52/20, Murder: Harrison, Mary (Infanticide), TNA.

[118] Marland, Dangerous Motherhood, p. 174.

[119] Marland, ‘Getting Away with Murder’, p. 176.

[120] TNA, ASSI 52/20.

[121] Marland, ‘Getting Away with Murder’, p. 179.

[122] ASSI 36/25/14 Sussex. Accused: F Dolman. Offence: Infanticide, TNA.

[123] Thorn, ‘Introduction’, p. 13.

  1. I. Schwartz and N. Isser, Child Homicide: Parents Who Kill (London, 2007), p. 50.

[124] TNA, ASSI 36/25/14.

[125] D. Sit, A. J. Rothschild, and K. L. Wisner, ‘A Review of Postpartum Psychosis’, Journal of Women’s Health, 15/4 (2002).

[126] S. Mitchell, Victorian Britain: An Encyclopaedia (Oxford, 1998), p. 1.

[127] Fuchs, Gender and Poverty, p. 54.

[128] Thorn, ‘Introduction’, p. 25.

[129] G. K. Behlmer, ‘Deadly Motherhood: Infanticide and Medical Opinion in Mid-Victorian England’, Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, 34/4 (1979), p. 411.

[130] A. Still and I. Velody, ‘Introduction’, in A. Still and I. Velody, Re-Writing the History of Madness Studies in Foucaults ‘Histoire de la folie’ (London, 1992), p. 2.

[131] Stebbings, ‘Protecting he Property of the Mentally Ill’, p. 2.

[132] Loughnan, Manifest Madness, p. 154.

[133] Stebbings, ‘Protecting the Property of the Mentally Ill’, p. 2.

[134] Chakravarty, ‘Medicalisation of Mental Disorder’, p. 21.

[135] Cossins, Female Criminality, p. 57.

‘A Political Fight Over Beer’: The 1977 Coors Beer Boycott, and the Relationship Between Labour–Gay Alliances and LGBT Social Mobility

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Author Biography

Kieran Blake is a postgraduate student of History at the University of Lincoln, researching twentieth-century American social movements—specifically addressing queer studies and the history of sexuality.

Abstract

This paper examines the 1977 Coors beer boycott, to analyse the interplay of socio-political groups during 1970s America promoting the idea that labour and gay forces could form an alliance over economic disputes that were mutually beneficial. The workers’ strike demanded an end to the mandatory, homophobic polygraph tests; to do so, workers went on strike and asked San Franciscan gay bars to boycott Coors beer. By examining newspaper articles, trade union pamphlets and visual iconography, the paper highlights how labour forces invited the LGBT community because their bars were a powerful tool in forming a gay identity and allowed LGBT consumers to utilise their economic agency. Boycotting an alcohol brand allowed consumers to exercise their fundamental American rights, which, in turn, promoted their legitimacy as American citizens. Crucially, promoting a boycott enabled an economic spat to snowball into a wider social movement, as it was taken outside the parameters of the factory floor.

‘A Political Fight Over Beer’: The 1977 Coors Beer Boycott, and the Relationship Between Labour–Gay Alliances and LGBT Social Mobility

 

[Coors] is convinced that a boycott will not work because they

do not believe the consumer really cares about human rights or

the manner in which Coors violates the law.[1]

In 1977, brewery workers belonging to the trade union division Local 366 of the Adolph Coors Beer company printed and distributed a small flyer with one objective: to persuade the public to endorse their strike. The flyer was decorated with an illustration of a Coors beer can that had been crossed out. Displayed in a large font, the flyer told recipients to ‘BOYCOTT COORS BEER’.[2] Written overleaf was an informative bulletin in which Local 366 told readers why it was important to boycott the beer. The article was written in response to 1500 Coors employees walking out on strike against their employer in April of that year.

Local 366 was the trade union division which represented the workers of Coors. The strike was over a clause in employee contracts, which required all workers to take a mandatory polygraph test where they could be asked directly to reveal their sexual orientation. There was initial scepticism towards the strike, from Coors itself, workers and the public.[3] However, Local 366 found an unlikely partner in the gay community of America’s west coast—particularly San Francisco—courtesy of the American Federation of Labour and Congress of Industrial Organizations (ALF-CIO) president, George Meany.[4] Meany allowed the strikers to advertise the boycott in the sixteen states Coors was sold, by informing communities that Coors infringed on the human rights of its employees.[5] Due to the homophobic element to the polygraph test, the workers’ dispute gained a receptive LGBT audience in gay bars when they removed the beer from their bars and backed Local 366’s campaign. This withdrawal of Coors from San Francisco bars helped to produce a de facto ten-year ‘political fight over beer’.[6]

This article examines the 1977 Coors beer boycott, arguing that the protest cemented a labour–gay alliance, which transformed an economic spat into a gay rights social movement. This enabled an emerging sub-culture to advocate and utilise its economic agency and consumer rights to campaign for an end to discrimination in the workplace. By using the boycott as a case study to examine the interplay of socio-political groups during 1970s America, this article promotes the idea that, as consequence of such alliances, labour and gay forces found an unlikely partner in one other’s advocacy. Moreover, an examination into newspaper articles, trade union pamphlets and visual iconography sheds light into how a narrative focused on a shared understanding of oppression ran through both labour and gay forces; the oppression they faced—albeit over different grievances—promoted a mutual respect towards each other’s campaign.

The LGBT community exercised its economic and consumer rights by choosing what alcohol they purchased. In doing so, they highlighted their American citizenship—by this, I am referring to the fundamental values of suffrage, integration and economic agency which they used to credit themselves as American in an era of ever-expanding socio-political mobilisation.[7] As a legacy of the boycott, cooperation between labour–gay forces highlighted an effective method in which discrimination could be tackled on a case-by-case basis. As a result of such alliances, workers could legitimise their strike by taking it out of the locus of the factory floor. The gay bars’ invitation to boycott Coors provided a platform to work in tandem with workers, who, like anti–Vietnam War protesters, second-wave feminists and African–American activists, felt disadvantaged in comparison to the hegemony of the white, middle-class heterosexual.[8] Alongside these movements, the LGBT community could perpetuate its own wish to increase its social mobility from their bars.[9]

The history of American sexuality has found its feet in the last thirty years. Scholars have written on the topic to understand how a gay identity and LGBT community came to fruition in the twentieth century. The work of Elizabeth Armstrong, John D’Emilio and Margot Canaday, for example, suggests the LGBT movement was not born from the infamous 1969 Stonewall Riot. Instead, homosexual activism groups of the 1950s were the crux of activism, by aiming to re-educate heterosexuals’ pre-conceived attitudes regarding a homosexual morality.[10] D’Emilio’s ground-breaking research, Sexual Politics and Sexual Communities, summarised how ‘the [gay] movement constitutes a phase, albeit a decisive one, of a much longer historical process through which a group of men and women came into existence as a self-conscious, cohesive minority’.[11] Armstrong goes on to support this hypothesis, by suggesting the gay protests regarding those arrested at Stonewall provided the catalyst for the emergence of activist groups like the Gay Liberation Front by 1970.[12] Research into LGBT application of economic agency and consumer rights has received some, but not extensive, analysis. Miriam Frank’s Out in the Union, constitutes some of the only solid research into the boycott. Frank argues the emergence of a visible LGBT movement in 1969 augmented a relationship where some LGBT workers wished to construct a labour–gay alliance to help collectively improve welfare politics for workers.[13]

The LGBT movement of the 1960s and 1970s marks itself as another social movement at a time when socio-political mobilisation was rife in US society. Social movement theorists have noted the importance groups regarded identity for defining criterion on which they campaigned. David Meyer, Nancy Whittier and Belinda Robnett have argued the ‘standpoint’ of a social movement’s ideology rests upon the identity acquired, or the cultural changes which have brought it into being.[14] In the context of this paper, the identity that was nurtured in the gay bars and the actions of those activists in the 1950s, along with customers’ ability to choose the alcohol they drank based on LGBT politics rather than just its price, was the driving force in campaigning for the workers’ dispute with Coors.[15]

This article focuses on the significance of San Francisco’s community, particularly examining the impact gay bars had on this remarkably understudied event in the history of twentieth-century American sexuality. Firstly, the context of LGBT social mobility—in a century of changing attitudes towards sex and gender—is drawn upon, to show why gay bars became crucial to the boycott in 1977. In doing so, it highlights how those who frequented gay bars came to acknowledge them as a place where individual and a collective gay identities were nurtured, as well as a location for enabling gay customers to exercise their economic free-will.[16] These factors were essential in promoting a link between labour concerns and LGBT political demands, and suggested the boycott was essential to validate the workers’ demands and promote the LGBT agenda of acceptance.

Secondly, the paper examines the different perceptions of the boycott. This section considers the key figures who helped orchestrate labour–gay interactions: Local 366 head, Alan Braid, and the unofficial mayor of Castro, Harvey Milk (Castro refers to Castro Street, the most prominent LGBT area in San Francisco). Both figures respected and understood the oppression faced by the other, and showcased the importance of validating citizenship for the LGBT community and striving to meet workers’ demands by creating a mutually beneficial alliance.[17] As well as this, this section considers the role written press played in ensuring an alliance between labour–gay was perpetuated. Badges, newspaper interviews and posters were specifically addressed to the LGBT community through local press which ensured they were targeted and invited to boycott the beer, instead of a quasi-pact between two distinctly separate forces. Crucially, the rhetoric invoked by these articles informed LGBT boycotters how Coors had no desire for their employees’ working or human rights.

It shall also consider what impact a gay boycott had on Coors’s profits, reception of workers, as well as its need to re-brand itself as a corporation that was pro-worker and pro-LGBT once profit-loss became a tangible marker that the strike and boycott held resonance with San Franciscans.

Finally, this paper goes on to evaluate the legacy of the boycott by tracking the progression of LGBT socio-economic rights. The paper does not assert that the boycott provided a turning point in the history of sexuality—indeed, LGBT progression, I argue, cannot be viewed linearly in positive correlation.[18] However, the pact that developed between labour–gay forces through the boycott presented a system of alliance which showcased how the two could work together to tackle discrimination on case-by-case bases through similar economic disputes such as Florida’s orange production. Further socio-economic disputes were also fought by a mutually beneficial campaign which respected and understood the oppression faced by each other in a strive for citizenship through self-determination of economic free-will.[19] This, in turn, counters Alexandra Chasin’s argument who suggests that although boycotts emphasized a captive gay market, they ultimately reduced the choices available for the community as personal choices are not mutually exclusive to political action.[20]

Making America Queer: The Politics of Gender and Sexuality in Twentieth-century America

The socio-political climate of America in the 1960s—a time of protests from African–Americans, anti–Vietnam War protesters, second-wave feminists, as well as the counterculture movements—provided both a framework and platform for homosexuals to articulate and defend their new-found gay identities.[21] The campaigns of the 1960s—all of which focused on promoting an equal, yet nuanced American identity—produced a new generation of campaigners who successfully used protests as a method of deconstructing the hegemony of the white, middle-class, heterosexual norm.[22] The campaigns in the 1960s suggest LGBT activists emerged at the end of the decade because they belonged to the same generation of protesters. As Simon Hall suggests, the gay rights movement of the 1970s ‘followed the example of the “black, the poor, and the student”—who had been actively confronting systems which deny and demean them—joining the “age of revolution”’.[23] Direct-action protests such as rallies, marches and launching petitions were established as an effective way for minority groups to tackle the disadvantages they faced from this hegemony.[24]

San Francisco in the 1960s was a city that could facilitate and maintain political activism for minority groups on the quest of civil rights. The LGBT community—both on the cusp of liberation after Stonewall and its long struggle for agency and acceptance in the previous two decades—came to view San Francisco as their pseudo home: ostensibly, it was a homosexual town.[25] San Francisco was almost unique in its position—synonymously known as a permissive town where social norms were not fulfilled—according to Nan Boyd’s study, Wide-Open Town.[26] As a result of San Francisco’s status as a city like no other in the United States, a more coherent and tangible LGBT community, therefore, had the potential for greater agency. Crucially, they could become an effective social movement to campaign for civic equality by the 1970s when the openness of the LGBT community became ever-more present.

San Francisco’s plethora of gay bars became a hub for the LGBT community during the mid-twentieth century. These places offered a place outside of heteronormative society where people’s heterosexual ‘mask’ lifted and they were free to partake in identity-building practices such as dancing, drag artistry and drinking.[27] However, their openness was not welcomed by the San Francisco Police Department (SFPD). One defamatory article written in The San Francisco Examiner in October 1969 passes comment on the rocky relationship between the SFPD and gay bars. The author attributed this poor relationship to bars’ poor structural and hygiene control, as well as the clientele to whom the bars catered.[28] Undercover officers, ‘rookies’, the author said, solicitated with customers before ‘figurately blowing [sic] the whistle’ on the bar.[29] Officers tasked with entrapment were not, according to Christopher Agee, adhering to an anti–gay bar policy derived from the SFPD echelons, but were acting on their own personal prejudices.[30] This apparent lack of professionalisation allowed ‘gay bar owners to use [sic] an existing discourse about police organizational reform to integrate their movement into the mainstream political sphere.’[31] The Matachine Society’s president, Harry Call, argued:

the police are obsessed with the desire to supervise and regulate people […] for instance, they object to our dancing together. Next to sex, dancing is one of our most important of human joys. I believe that I speak for all homosexuals, and certainly for the Matachine Society, when I say we oppose police and other supervision.[32]

The gay rights movement, through the homophile organisations and bar-based culture, used the 1960s as a decade to express their hostilities to the civic order which deprived them of their fundamental rights. San Francisco’s bars and community therefore, according to union representatives of the boycott of Coors, appeared a fruitful place to engender and bolster the movement when they branched out for support. The gay scene was prepared to fight those who denied them their basic rights.

As San Francisco’s LGBT community expanded throughout the mid-decades of the twentieth century, its image as the ‘gay hub’ was cemented in the city’s psyche. One of the most prominent de facto homosexual communities was Castro Street. Located between Market Street and ‘19th Street’, the small district offered a public space for homosexuals to meet. Castro offered a plethora of gay bars for its LGBT customers, which played a critical role in creating a socio-political gay rights movement.[33] Gay bars were essential in helping to cement an identity and one necessary element was the liquor customers drank.[34] San Franciscan bars were noted as being extremely cheap—for example, one bar reportedly sold champagne for two dollars ‘served in a real champagne glass.’[35] As San Francisco developed into a de facto homosexual town, it also created a common market because gay bars provided a space where homosexuals specifically choose the types of alcohol customers could drink. Therefore, withdrawing an alcoholic brand from the bars held the potential to significantly impact a corporation’s profit margin.

Under this context, San Francisco, an ostensibly homosexual town, held a network of heavily frequented gay bars in which homosexuals were accustomed to fighting against oppression that denied their equality.[36] The foundation of the gay bars’ socio-political framework created a space useful for Coors strikers because it provided a capacity to transform their dispute into a community-led social movement. The cheap price of liquor ensured that bars became a hub for homosexual integration, whilst enabling customers to exercise their economic agency. It therefore meant that if a customer were to choose another brand—irrespective of price, but on a matter of politics—they promoted their rights as American citizens, by synthesising their spent revenue with political activism. Moreover, it served as a tangible act of defiance towards Coors, as their profit-loss threatened security as the Western States’ top beer seller. This outreach, in turn, validated the workers’ strike over their contracts. In doing so, the ensuing labour–gay pact ensured that the Coors boycott became a movement that was mutually beneficial.

We Need Some Milk: San Francisco, Gay Bars and People’s Reaction to the Boycott

In an interview in the New York Times in 1977, San Franciscan public figure Harvey Milk acknowledged the conservative attitudes of LGBT economic activity.[37] Milk argued that it was hypocritical for homosexuals to live a capitalistic lifestyle, but oppose conservative policies that denied LGBT-socio equality:

I’m a left winger, a street person… [m]ost gays are politically conservative, you know, banks, insurance, bureaucrats. So their checkbooks are out of the closet, but they’re not. So you get something going, and all the gay money is still supporting Republicans except on this gayness thing, so I say, ‘Gay for Gay’…[38]

Milk’s statement suggests if you were to campaign for full equality, gay meant gay. If one had consumer rights and economic agency, then it should be used to fight discrimination and recognise oneself as a full American citizen. This next section examines how the Coors boycott was received amongst the general public, and how the economic disruption of the factory floor became a labour–gay social movement in the community.

The merit of the boycott’s ability to become more than an workers’ dispute was its accessibility to an LGBT audience. After Local 366 was granted permission from the ALF-CIO, it was important to integrate themselves in the community to validate their concerns with the employment practices of Coors. Integration with the workers’ dispute was presented through the interaction of both Local 366s leader and Castro Street’s ‘unofficial’ mayor, Allan Braid and Harvey Milk, respectively. Moreover, trade union pamphlets, newspapers and visual iconography, all aimed to inform the community as well as invite them to take part, by invoking the idea that they were equals who understood the mutual oppression they faced.

The challenges faced by gay bars and the homophile movements during San Francisco’s journey for self-identity and openness in a heteronormative society, arguably made the gay rights movement a sensible choice for the union to approach to endorse their strike against Coors. As a key member in organising the Coors workers’ strike, Braid spoke with shop keepers asking for them to pledge to stop selling Coors beer.[39] Braid also met with Milk to inform him of Coors’s homophobic polygraph tests asking for support from the Tavern Guild to stop selling the beer.[40] The Tavern Guild was a network of gay bars established in the 1960s. As a resident of Castro himself, Braid was conscious of the potential agency LGBT people had allowing them to be useful allies in a social boycott. Sympathetic to Harvey Milk’s work, Braid’s eulogy to Milk highlighted his abilities to seemingly unify the LGBT movement, and create a safe and politically active space for the community in Castro.[41] As John Sweeney has argued, labour movements showed themselves as ‘capable of broadening to include and represent every class of workers’.[42] This highlighted that through Braid, the efforts of labour workers to manufacture a social movement benefited the LGBT community as it showed a progressive stance towards equality for all.

As Braid encouraged the gay bars to join the boycott, Harvey Milk brought it to the attention of the rest of the LGBT community. Milk had already encouraged members of Castro to boycott Coors’s beer in 1974; by 1977 Milk was a suitable figure to approach in order to gain support. Writing in the local San Francisco newspaper, Bay Report, in 1976, Milk delivered a speech in which he strongly urged folk to boycott Coors.[43] Milk implied that the LGBT community was closely related to the labour movement, therefore it was the LGBT community’s duty to call out Coors’s ‘very poor labour [sic] history’ as well as their ‘humiliating’ treatment to its employees.[44] Milk’s unique social status in Castro held him in good stead for engendering support for other minority groups’ struggles, like that of the workers; for the LGBT community to gain true equality, homosexuals had to use their economic agency, power of voting, and the commitment to better social relations with other minority groups in order to truly bring forth equality and legitimise LGBT citizenship.[45] The goal of key individuals was to appeal directly to the gay rights community, urging them to use their economic agency and strength as a new and open social movement to boycott the beer thus supporting the need of labour–gay relations. Newspapers and pamphlets, such as the one presented at the beginning of this paper, were a strong way to gain support because the radius of audience was specifically targeted at San Franciscans. Moreover, the language used specifically implied that Coors was breaching both the working and human rights of its employees. Local press and community members ensured that the LGBT community was informed of Coors’s homophobic actions and meant the workers could directly invite the LGBT community into a socio-political partnership.

As well as the promotion of economic agency, the relationship between Coors strikers and boycotters highlighted how the boycott promoted a united labour–gay alliance, rather than two separate movements. Cultural iconography helps assert the idea of a mutually beneficial socio-economic dispute. Mass produced artefacts such as posters, flyers and badges, which marked themselves as anti-Coors material, were designed to resonate with the recipient. One poster [Figure 1] emphasised the unethical nature of Coors’s homophobic polygraph tests. The illustration of a male and female worker strapped to the polygraph machine by a sinister-looking senior official, emphasised to its audience how workers were forced to take the test against their will. Moreover, badges and t-shirts advocating the Coors boycott, which were worn by some LGBT activists, cemented a direct affiliation to the protest [Figure 2]. Crucially, posters were directly addressed to ‘friends of labor [sic]’, as showcased in this article’s opening bulletin, by directly addressing the reader and commanding them to abstain from Coors’s alcohol.[46] The cultural products surrounding the boycott, more specifically the language they used, suggests LGBT customers were specifically chosen to engage with the boycott instead of attaching their agenda onto an altogether separate movement. Language had become a method in which homosexuals were able to express their concerns for their welfare.[47] Clothing and badges invited them to show their contempt when they were doing other activities.[48] Therefore, the LGBT movement was able to transform the boycott into a social movement that was mutually beneficial for both striker and LGBT boycotter.[49]

Figure 1: A Poster Promoting the Coors Beer Boycott, Online Archive of California (OAC), Unknown Author, Unknown Date, [online resource] <https://oac.cdlib.org/ark:/13030/hb7489p318/?brand=oac4>, accessed on 23 January 2019.

Cultural symbols and the language used in media representations allowed the LGBT community to express their support for the boycott. The protest shifted an economic dispute into a social movement because it synthesised a labour–gay alliance, through the invitation to protest for workers’ equality and the utilisation of economic agency by incorporating culture and language. This did not, therefore, mean the LGBT movement joined a labour-shaped bandwagon—instead it was a labour–gay protest movement.

Figure 2: Oklahoma State University Library, item oksa_phelps_11-07-0035, 1977, Edna Mae Phelps Collection, [online resource] <https://dc.library.okstate.edu/digital/collection/p17279coll7/id/1801>, accessed on 16 January 2019, and at the Digital Public Library of America, [online archive] <https://dp.la/item/786761a6c1c5a8b059539b62bcdb84c2?q=Coors%20Beer>, accessed 18 November 2018.

The boycott was successful in making the community aware of Coors’s employment practices. As polygraph tests and ‘search-and-seizures’ became common knowledge, Coors had to present their own side of the story. One consequence of the boycott’s establishment in the gay bars was profit loss, estimated at between eleven and twelve percent, to nineteen percent.[50] Coors’s damage control was three-fold: threaten workers with the sack, branch out their sales to Eastern States at extortionate prices, and donate to LGBT-charities.

Prior action from Coors employees had done little to dent Coors’s reputation as a leading beer brewer in the Western states. In 1974, Coors’s profits accounted for 49 percent of California’s beer sales—despite Teamster Union Local 888 (the truck driver division), Latino, and Chicano workers having already protested against their employer’s treatment towards them.[51] However, as the initial 1974 boycott progressed, and gained greater momentum through support from the LGBT community becoming increasingly aware of the discriminatory nature of Coors’s practices, sales of Coors’s beer began to falter. According to Milt Moskowitz’s article for The San Francisco Examiner, by 1976 Coors’s profits in the California region dropped by nineteen-point-six percent.[52] As Coors could lose the top-spot in California’s beer sales to the nationwide leader Budweiser, it suggests the boycott’s proliferation from the strikers and the LGBT movement held the capacity to threaten Coors’s economic security. In doing so, the boycott was something Coors could not ignore, especially when Local 366 joined in the strike in 1977. This is evident when chairman of Coors, William K. Coors, told The Wall Street Journal he would take ‘great satisfaction in opposing all the forces that would like to put [Coors] out of business.’[53] This also implies the power workers and the LGBT community had as social movements through their use of direct-action protests towards the heteronormative, middle-class establishment. When they worked in tandem, they could fight the capital interests of a company for the civil rights of workers.

Coors’s representatives presented a media front that was ready to fight against strikers and boycotters through antagonistic language. In the Colorado Springs Gazette-Telegraph, one article described how Coors employed permanent staff to replace those on strike—threatening strikers by suggesting ‘it may lead to the loss of your job.’[54] However, this threat was seemingly left unfulfilled through Coors’s rise in philanthropic work. The Empty Closet in 1980, an LGBT newspaper that emerged after the birth of the Gay Liberation Front, wrote an article about how Coors had donated a delivery truck to Denver’s Metropolitan Community Church (MCC).[55] This act of charity is crucial to understanding Coors’s seeming lack of desire to follow through on its threats because the MCC was an LGBT Christian church. This philanthropy not only showed that Coors donated to the church, but how it openly donated its own property to a LGBT institution in an apparent act of kindness. Coors highlight how it believed the boycott was an unfair attack, and this would therefore suggest they wished to present themselves as a pro-LGBT company.[56]

Coors found loopholes in strikers’ efforts to void them. Coors’s philanthropy to the church was one method of achieving this. Another method took the form of donations to AIDS-related charities when the epidemic took root in America in the mid-1980s.[57] Though profits may have decreased in Western states, in Eastern states Coors’s demand only increased. Writing about Coors’s acquittal on a trade restriction charge, the Fort Collins Coloradoan describes how beer sales were so quick that it was not even being refrigerated.[58] Because of the beer’s scarcity in Eastern states, Coors demanded prices of fourteen to eighteen dollars per case.[59] This suggests that Coors still held a captive audience in other states where the boycott was not as prolific and implies they capitalised on the deficits to ensure the company’s profits were not at a loss. Although these actions show soft forms of defence against the boycott, it emphasises how Coors was compelled to surrender to the LGBT movement. Ultimately they were left with little choice other than to make concessions in employment practices and the social conditions for LGBT people outside the factory walls.

Workers taking their grievance with Coors outside the parameters of the factory floor, ensured that the LGBT community was invited into dispute because workers were keen to emphasise both groups understood what it was like to be oppressed. Perpetuating the word through newspaper articles, posters and badges, a network of key figures both of whom held mutual respect for each other, along with having an inter-connected network of bars, allowed the LGBT community to utilise its economic agency by withholding the sales of Coors which promoted their citizenship. Crucially, the labour–gay pact that stemmed from moving the strike onto the streets brought Coors’s unethical practices into the public domain, something Coors was compelled to respond to given there was a quantifiable impact against their reputation as the top beer seller in Western states.

Tracking Progression: Labour–Gay Alliances, post–Coors Beer Boycott

This next section argues that the boycott did not create a psyche of LGBT acceptance to all, by considering the scope of acceptance towards homosexuality after the boycott began. On 28 June 1977, The San Francisco Examiner published a side story on the twenty-second page about a young man from Chicago who had been raped. This gentleman was a taxi driver who, on the night in question, was stopped by two male customers. As they got into the car, they informed him that this was a heist and ‘they [sic] have a .38 right here and if you see it, it will be the last thing you ever see’.[60] Taking control of the taxi, the two men drove around picking up passengers with the intention of stealing their possessions. Eventually, the taxi was stopped and—to ensure the victim would not go to the police—the victim was told he had to do something for them: ‘he’ll never cop (admit) to this. It will make him feel queer’.[61] The taxi driver was raped by the two men under the assumption that he would not report them to the police because he would feel homosexual. Indeed, the victim did not want people to find out for fear he may be labelled a homosexual—despite being heterosexual. The article’s publication date places it three months into the Coors workers’ strike, and the author, Roger Smith, pays homage to the active gay rights campaigns that were ongoing, such as the Florida orange juice boycott. Smith strongly asserts the law-abiding nature of homosexuals involved in the protest movements.[62] However, the subtext in the article’s message suggests the boycott did little to change the psyche of people’s attitudes surrounding homosexuality: for some, its connotations brought about feelings of shame and disgust.[63] Naturally, the boycott was limited in its scope, as its locus was specifically where Coors was a strong market force—the West coast. This article demonstrates that attitudes towards a person’s moral integrity—specifically, the perceived maxim that homosexuality was something perverse—had not wholly shifted after the boycott, despite labour–gay pacts promoting a shared understanding of oppression. What the boycott did bring, however, was an effective method of demonstration which involved linking economic agency and social movements, to vilify homophobic commercial figures or products.

One boycott which has received heavy scholarly analysis is the boycott of Florida’s orange juice, whose main commercial figure was singer and model, Anita Bryant. Her fundamental Christian values and strong anti-homosexual attitudes led her to run the Save Our Children campaign, which aimed to ban anti-discrimination laws against Florida’s LGBT community’s housing, employment and public accommodation welfare. Interestingly, the response towards Save Our Children was overwhelmingly negative.[64] Gay bars retaliated to these initiatives by banning orange juice in their bars, preferring to serve vodka with apple juice instead. The politics of this boycott appear to follow a similar pattern to the ones used in the Coors boycott: economic withdrawal from a homophobic organisation, and the social mobilization in the community to endorse the boycott and bolster support for the gay rights movement. However, this does not mean the gay rights movement should be viewed in positive correlation towards full equality. This is reflected in the origins of the orange juice boycott: it was a retaliation towards homophobic institutions. Though the Coors boycott therefore provided a blueprint to effectively campaign against anti-LGBT establishments through the promotion of LGBT economic agency, it did not provide a broad consensus amongst Americans to change their attitudes towards the gay rights movement.

The Coors boycott did produce some level of national support for the gay rights movement in so much as further boycotts such as the Orange boycott were spearheaded by a labour–gay alliance. However, some of the United States’ more conservative attitudes towards a person’s perceived moral integrity were not as easy to dissipate through social boycotts. Following the Save Our Children campaign in Florida, Proposition 6 was devised by San Franciscan governor John Briggs, which aimed to remove all gay and lesbian teachers from working in California’s public schools. Colloquially coined as the ‘Brigg’s Initiative’, the plan also received overwhelmingly negative responses. Opposition came from figures such as California’s then Governor Ronald Reagan, and President Jimmy Carter; amongst critics included the ALF-CIO and the Coors Boycott Committee. President of the California Federation of Labor, Al Gruhn, suggested it would ‘cause a witch hunt and destroy the basic functions of our education system.’[65] By pledging support towards fighting homophobia within other aspects of LGBT life, suggests that the labour–gay alliance was mutually beneficial: they ostensibly show that they recognized the daily struggles beyond oppressive conditions found in the locus of Coors’s factory floor. The labour–gay alliance showed continuing support for LGBT social mobility on a political dispute that affected the LGBT community’s rights as American citizens.

Despite the budding relationship between striking workers and gay boycotters, they had been unsuccessful at challenging the Christian values of the American status quo. Elizabeth Armstrong suggests this was a consequence of the United States’ federal governance.[66] Although the LGBT community was a pseudo-political organisation, and it could express it attitudes against the status quo, the federal nature of governance often made nationwide change a slow process because it was harder to implement pro-LGBT policies on a national scale.[67] The bureaucracy, in essence, ensured the government’s fundamentally conservative views stunted LGBT acceptance.

Although the Coors boycott was able to provide a systematic method per se to campaign against discriminatory institutions by forging of labour–gay relations and withholding gay economic agency, it could not transform the United States’ psyche into something overwhelmingly pro-LGBT due to the entrenched heterosexual binary in individual and federal politics.[68] Even the assassination of Harvey Milk in 1978 showed little sign of instigating a complete overhaul of the American psyche. His small obituary shared a page with a large Christmas advertisement informing the reader on where to get the best, most cost-effective suit.[69]

Creating a labour link helped increase LGBT visibility. Ultimately this developed a relationship between workers and a gay community who could go on to tackle further discriminatory practices of both the economic giants and of individuals. Indeed, whilst the relationship forged by the Coors boycott allowed for a method to tackle discrimination in the working environment, it was not wholly successful in transforming Americans’ attitudes towards homosexuality. Jeffrey Weeks noted it is important not to examine the history of gay rights in a linear fashion because it was not one long path towards full political, social and economic equality.[70] Moreover, Michel Foucault asserted individual and collective notions of sexual identity were paradoxically built from the oppressive power which denied its existence.[71] What this does highlight, however, is that examining case studies determines how LGBT protested navigated the dichotomies of oppression they faced in that particular incident. Given each campaign focused on a different trigger—be it homophobic alcohol brands, commercial figure heads or homophobic legislature—they had to tackle what sparked that campaign in the first place.

Conclusion

It was not until Robert H. Chanin, the National Education Association’s general counsel—one of the largest union organisations in the United States—and Peter H. Coors—Coors’s brewery division president—met in 1985 that plans for an end to the boycott were discussed.[72] The New York Times made comment about the new-found necessity for labour forces and management to see fit to end the strike and subsequent boycott:

It [is] a classic tale of labour-management [sic] relations—of two enemies slinging arrows at each other for years, until, battered by a changing economy, they need each other badly enough to compromise.[73]

By this point both men were keen to see an end to strife; ‘the ALF-CIO had been caught up in implementing the boycott, not ending it.’[74] It was not until 1987, ten years since the first action was taken, that the boycott was brought to an end. How was it, then, that a boycott that initially captivated small interest—both in terms of its media representation and the strikers themselves—maintained itself as a ten-year ‘political fight over beer’?[75]

This article has examined the 1977 Coors beer boycott as a case study to understand the interplay of labour–gay alliances in the battle for LGBT social mobility and consumer citizenship. The utilisation of LGBT consumer rights and economic agency which developed in gay bars—some of the only open homosexual places for a person during the mid-twentieth century—created useful allies from homosexuals for the strikers. The rise of the gay rights movement at the close of the 1960s, and San Francisco’s unique position as an ostensibly homosexual town, created a receptive audience to the boycott. The LGBT community, like the strikers, were born from a generation who used protests to campaign for full equality. These direct-action protests were utilised with some degree of success. Workers and homosexuals utilised this to campaign for equality for workers overall.[76]

Through an analysis of the boycott and of social networks in 1970s America, this article offers two significant conclusions. Firstly, by examining the language used in newspapers, trade union flyers and cultural iconography, the article has demonstrated that the ensuing labour–gay alliance allowed an economic dispute around employment to transform into a social movement away from the factory floor and onto the streets of San Francisco. The Tavern Guild’s agreement to ban Coors from San Francisco’s gay bars not only presented a rejection of Coors’s ideology for invading workers’ privacy, it also impacted Coors’s sales and profits. Moreover, newspaper interviews by activists such as Harvey Milk and pamphlets written by Local 366 carefully selected the language they used when describing Coors’s employment practises. The language considered was deliberately hyperbolic to stress the indecency of invading workers’ working and human rights, which, therefore, informed those outside the factory walls precisely why the strike was creditworthy. Moving the strike onto the streets through a boycott meant Coors could not ignore the situation and had to respond through philanthropic donations to LGBT organisations. This resulted in Coors having little choice but to rebrand themselves as a pro-worker and pro-LGBT company.

Secondly, the use of the gay bars as an establishment in which a homosexual identity could develop was also significant in building up a gay economic agency.[77] As some of the only open spaces available of homosexuals, gay customers were given the choice to choose what they drank. Crucially, the customer’s choice was not only made on a financial level, but on a political level, too. Therefore, LGBT customers legitimised their American citizenship through this synthesis of economic and political matters within their daily life. The labour–gay alliances, which promoted and utilised the economic agency of the community, formed a blueprint of protest towards other homophobic individuals or organisations. This was repeated when gay bars removed Floridian orange juice to signify their contempt of Bryant’s homophobic ideology. Though the boycott did not produce an immediate national consensus of support, it did, however, provide a method in which the LGBT community could advance its social mobility towards the prospect of equality on case-by-case bases.

As Frank has suggested, labour–gay alliances linked two seemingly different groups into an entity that could become mutually beneficial.[78] While Chasin has commented that boycotts denote a captive gay market, she concludes that boycotts limit homosexual progression as individual choices do not constitute political legislation.[79] This paper has offered an alternative argument, suggesting that LGBT communities withholding their economic agency and consumer rights emphasizes they had the same rights to property as other American citizens. As a social movement, the exercising of economic free-will only enhanced the political agenda and identity nurtured from 1960s protests which highlighted the LGBT community was also excluded from white hegemony.[80] Therefore, withholding their expenditure against a homophobic organisation highlighted their citizenship in American society—especially when Coors’s profit loss became a tangible effect of a labour–gay assault against a homophobic, anti-labour organisation, highlighting that the boycott was a dispute that could not be ignored. The Coors boycott took LGBT consumers out of their bars and onto the streets of San Francisco, so they could openly throw away their beer.

 

Appendices

Appendix 1:

1a: Flyer cover written by Local 366 advertising their strike against Coors beer. For reference, please go to: Digital Public Library of America , (DPLoA), Eduardo Margo, 30 August 1977 [online archive] <https://dp.la/item/de2a73ab99c63e97739456e7c357d117?q=Coors%20Beer>, accessed on 16 November 2018.

1b: The overleaf of appendix 1a, the informative bulletin informing the recipient why they should boycott Coors beer. Please see: Digital Public Library of America , (DPLoA), Eduardo Margo, 30 August 1977 [online archive] <https://dp.la/item/de2a73ab99c63e97739456e7c357d117?q=Coors%20Beer>, accessed on 16 November 2018.

 

Appendix 2:

A compiled list of gay and lesbian bars in San Francisco. Please note, this list accounts for establishments founded from the 1960s up until 1977, only bars with complete dates of open and closure have been included, bars are listed in ascending geographical location. Full credit for this list goes to the Uncle Donald’s Castro Street online archive, without whom I would not have been able to gain such a comprehensive list of gay bars in the city. For the full table, please see: Uncle Donald’s Castro Street (UDCS), Uncle Donald, 12 January 2012, Castro Area Bars, [online archive] <http://thecastro.net/street/barpage/barpage.html>, accessed on 9 November 2018.

Bar Address Approx. date of open and closure
Twin Peaks 401 Castro 1973–open
Twilight 456 Castro 1971–1972
Dirty Dick’s 456 Castro 1973–1975
Le Bistro 456 Castro 1976
Nothing Special 469 Castro 1972–1984
Toad Hall 482 Castro 1971–1979
Elephant Walk 500 Castro 1975–1996
Midnight Sun 506 Castro 1971–1972
City Dump 506 Castro 1973
Midnight Sun (moved to 18th Street in 1981) 506 Castro 1974–1981
Mistake 3988 18th St. 1971–1976
Corner Grocery Bar 4049 18th St. 1973–1978
Village 4086 18th St. 1976–1988
Watergate West 4121 18th St. 1973–1974
BADLANDS 4121 18th St. 1975–1999
I-Do-No 4146 18th St. 1967–1968
Honey Bucket 4146 18th St. 1969–1971
Pendulum 4146 18th St. 1971–2005
Libra 1884 Market St. 1967–1972
Tree House 1884 Market St. 1972–1973
JB’s House 1884 Market St. 1973–1974
The Mint 1942 Market St. 1968–open
Naked Grape 2087 Market St. 1972–1975
Tool Box 2087 Market St. 1976
Hustle Inn 2087 Market St. 1976–1977
Rear End Bar – at Tuck Stop 2100 Market St. 1974–1976
Mind Shaft 2140 Market St. 1973–1977
Alfie’s 2140 Market St. 1977–1983
Cardi’s 2166 Market St. 1977
Bal ony (Balcony) 2166 Market St. 1977–1983
Purple Pickle 2223 Market St. 1972–1977
Shed (after hours) 2275 Market St. 1972–1977
Missouri Mule 2348 Market St. 1963–1973
Hombre 2348 Market St. 1973–1979
Scott’s Pit (Lesbian) 10 Sanchez 1971–1984
Caracole 3600 16th St. 1976–1979

 

Notes

[1] Digital Public Library of America , (DPLoA), Eduardo Margo, 30 August 1977 [online archive] <https://dp.la/item/de2a73ab99c63e97739456e7c357d117?q=Coors%20Beer>, accessed on 16 November 2018.

[2] The flyer’s cover and overleaf can be viewed in the appendices.

[3] M. Frank, Out in the Union: A Labor History of Queer America (Philadelphia, 2015), p. 79; [Anon], ‘Coors Bolsters Boycott’, Santa Ana Register, 22 April 1977, p. 48; R. West, ‘Coors Charges Brewery Union Workers’, The Los Angeles Times, 9 May 1978, p. 46.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] M. Moskowitz, ‘A Political Fight Over Beer’, The San Francisco Examiner, 18 April 1976, p. 104.

[7] J. E. Black and C. E. Morries III, Harvey Milk, An Archive of Hope: Harvey Milk’s Speeches and Writings, (London, 2013), p. 18.

[8] Black and Morries III, Harvey Milk, An Archive of Hope, p. 18; S. Hall, Peace and Freedom: The Civil Rights and Antiwar Movements of the 1960s (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005); J. D. Suran, ‘Coming Out Against the War: Antimilitarism and the Politicization of Homosexuality in the Era of Vietnam’, American Quarterly, 53 (2001), pp. 452–88; P. Lewis, Hardhats, Hippies and Hawks: The Vietnam Antiwar Movement as Myth and Memory, reviewed in P. Joseph, Peace and Change: A Journal of Peace Research, 40 (2015), pp. 272–76; b. hooks, Feminist Theory: from Margin to Center (Oxford, 2015), pp. 18–19.

[9] E. Armstrong, ‘Movements and Memory: The Making of the Stonewall Myth’, American Sociological Review, 71 (2006), p. 725; Frank, Out in the Union, pp. 76–77.

[10] J. D’Emilio, Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities: The Making of a Homosexual Minority in the United States, 1940–1970 (London, 2nd Ed., 1998), p. 4; Armstrong, ‘Movements and Memory’, p. 725.

[11] D’Emilio, Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities, p. 4.

[12] The aftermath of the riots at the Stonewall inn became a turning point in homosexual vernacular; homosexuals began to use the previously pejorative term ‘gay’ as a marker of their identity. See Armstrong, ‘Movements and Memory’, p. 725.

[13] Frank’s insightful study of the relationship between labour forces and gay activists constitute some of the only concrete research into the Coors boycott. Her work has been invaluable to this thesis. For more of the relationship between gay activists and workers see Frank, Out in the Union, p. 8.

[14] D. Meyer, N. Whittier and  B. Robnett, Social Movements: Identity, Culture, and the State (Oxford, 2002), p. 121.

[15] D’Emilio, Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities, p. 4; Armstrong, ‘Movements and Memory’, p. 725.

[16] N. Boyd, Wide-Open Town: A History of Queer San Francisco to 1965 (Berkeley, 2003), p. 160.

[17] Frank, Out in the Union, pp. 76–77.

[18] M. Foucault, The History of Sexuality (London, Vol. 1, 1978), pp. 83–85.

[19] B. Shepard, ‘Bridging the Divide Between Queer Theory and Anarchism’, Sexualities, 13 (2010), p. 516.

[20] A. Chasin, Selling Out: The Gay and Lesbian Movement Goes to Market (New York, 2000), p. 161.

[21] ‘Homosexuality’ was the term used to define someone who had a sexual attraction to a person of the same gender. The binary of what constituted a man and what constituted a woman focused on heavily on gendered expectations. Chauncey offers an insightful examination into this perceived axiom in 1930s America; Canaday tracks this progression of categorizing homosexuality as a political state cemented post-Second World War, and how this helped construct a homosexual–heterosexual binary. Please see, G. Chauncey, Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World 1890–1940 (New York, 1994); M. Canaday, The Straight State: Sexuality and Citizenship in Twentieth-Century America (London, 2009); Foucault, The History of Sexuality, pp. 77–89.

[22] J. Scott, ‘The Evidence of Experience’, in H. Abelove et al. (eds), The Gay and Lesbian Studies Reader, (New York, 1993), pp. 397–415; Foucault, History of Sexuality, p. 79.

[23] M. Stein, City of Sisterly and Brotherly Loves: Lesbian and Gay Philadelphia, 1945–1972 (Chicago, 2000), pp. 277, 279, referenced in S. Hall, ‘Protest Movements in the 1970s: The Long 1960s’, Journal of Contemporary History, 43 (2008), p. 662.

[24] Hall, ‘Protest Movements in the 1970s’, p. 657.

[25] After the Second World War, many of those soldiers who had been expelled from the army due to homosexual activity moved to cities such as San Francisco with the hope of starting a new life. For many, the fear of their community discovering their homosexuality was a risk they did not want to take. For more information, please see Boyd, Wide-open Town, p. 5; D’Emilio, Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities, p. 39; Canaday, The Straight State (New York, 2009).

[26] Boyd, Wide-open Town, p. 5.

[27] Historians of sexuality such as Craig Loftin and Matt Houlbrook suggest that homosexuals during early to mid-twentieth century often had a mask of heterosexuality whilst in the public sphere. This notion was common practice in both Britain and America as a method of ensuring homosexuals appeared to conform to the gendered expectations society required from them. This mask was always worn, except for their homes and upon entry to a gay bar or drag hall. For more, see C. Loftin, Masked Voices: Gay Men and Lesbians in Cold War America (New York, 2012), p. 11; M. Houlbrook, ‘Lady Austin’s Camp Boys: Constituting the Queer Subject in 1930s London’, Gender Studies, 14 (2002), pp. 31–61.

[28] R. Patterson, ‘The Dreary Revels of S.F. “Gay” Clubs’, The San Francisco Examiner, 25 October 1969, p. 5.

[29] Ibid.

[30] C. Agee, ‘Gayola: Police Professionalization and the Politics of San Francisco’s Gay Bars, 1950–1968’, Journal of the History of Sexuality, 15 (2006), pp. 462–465.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Patterson, ‘The Dreary Revels of S.F. “Gay” Clubs’, p. 5.

[33] A compiled list of gay and lesbian bars in San Francisco can be viewed in the appendix. Please note: the list accounts for establishments that opened between 1960–1977, and only contains bars where full dates of approximate open and closure occurred. Bars are recorded in ascending address order. Full credit for the information goes to Uncle Donald’s Castro Street Archive, without whom I would not have such a detailed account of gay bars in the Castro Street area at the time of the boycott. To view all bars in order, please see Uncle Donald’s Castro Street (UDCS), Uncle Donald, 12 January 2012, Castro Area Bars, [online archive] <http://thecastro.net/street/barpage/barpage.html>, accessed on 9 November 2018.

[34] Boyd, Wide-open Town, p. 160.

[35] Patterson, ‘The Dreary Revels of S.F. “Gay” Clubs’, p. 5.

[36] Boyd, Wide-Open Town, p. 160.

[37] H. Gold, ‘A Walk on San Francisco’s Gay Side’, New York Times, 6 November 1977, referenced in Black and Morries III, Harvey Milk, An Archive of Hope, p. 19.

[38] Gold, ‘A Walk on San Francisco’s Gay Side’.

[39] Frank, Out in the Union, p. 78.

[40] Frank, Out in the Union, p. 78.

[41] Uncle Donald’s Castro Street (UDCS), Allan Braid, 19 May 2007, [online resource] <http://thecastro.net/milk/baird.html>, accessed on 9 November 2018.

[42] Sweeney. ‘The Growing Alliance’, p. 32.

[43] Harvey Milk, ‘Reactionary Beer’, Bay Area Reporter, 18 March 1976, referenced in Black and Morries III, Harvey Milk, An Archive of Hope, p. 125.

[44] Black and  Morries III. Harvey Milk, An Archive of Hope, pp. 125–26.

[45] Black and Morries III. Harvey Milk, An Archive of Hope, p. 18.

[46] [Anon], The Billings Gazette, (Montana), 12 Aug 1979, p. 55.

[47] In the introduction to his book, Letters to ONE: Gay and Lesbian Voices from the 1950s and 1960s, Craig Loftin notes the power letter writing to LGBT newspapers had for homosexuals. For those who were not members of a homophile group, letter writing provided an opportunity to express their own understandings towards the treatment of homosexuals, as well as an opportunity to participate in some of the only networking organisations that allowed homosexuals from across the United States to express their attitudes and talk to others who arguably understood the difficulties faced. Also, letters offer a glimpse into the perceptions of homosexuality on a grass roots level. For more information, please read, C. Loftin, Letters to ONE: Gay and Lesbian Voices from the 1950s and 1960s ([London], 2012). LGBT newspapers, such as The Empty Closet, frequently encouraged its readers to write in with their day-to-day concerns, socio-political issues and viewpoints. For examples of this, please see The Empty Closet’s archive through River Campus Libraries (RCL), Empty Closet: Past Issues [online archive] <https://rbscp.lib.rochester.edu/EmptyCloset>, for monthly issues dated 1971–2014.

[48] Loftin, Masked Voices, pp. 4, 6–7.

[49] Frank, Out in the Union, pp. 76–77.

[50] R. West, ‘Coors Charges Brewery Union Workers’, The Los Angeles Times, 9 May 1978, p. 46; Moskowitz, ‘A Political Fight Over Beer’, p. 104.

[51] Moskowitz, ‘A Political Fight Over Beer’, p. 104.

[52] Ibid.

[53] Ibid.

[54] [Anon], ‘Coors to Replace Striking Workers with Permanent Help’, Colorado Springs Gazette-Telegraph, 11 April 1977, p. 2.

[55] M. Gay, ‘Coors Boycotted’, The Empty Closet, September 1980, p. 8.

[56] Ibid.

[57] Frank, Out in the Union, p. 80.

[58] [Anon], ‘Jury Acquits Coors, Cheyenne Firm of Anti-Trust’, Fort Collins Coloradoan, 8 June 1978, p. 28.

[59] Ibid.

[60] R. Smith, ‘Rape—A New Angle on the Same Story’, The San Francisco Examiner, 28 June 1977, p. 22.

[61] Ibid.

[62] Ibid.

[63] Ibid.

[64] Chasin, Selling Out, p. 161.

[65] [Anon], ‘Protect Ours Schools Don’t Legalize Discrimination’, The San Francisco Examiner, 3 November 1978, p. 7.

[66] Armstrong, Forging Gay Identities, p. 161.

[67] Ibid.

[68] Canady, The Straight State.

[69] The obituary that I refer to, is a narrow piece located on the page’s right-hand side. Meanwhile, the gentleman’s cost-effective suit advertisement takes up the rest of the page. See: The Philadelphia Inquirer, 3 December 1978, p. 17.

[70] J. Weeks, Sex, Politics and Society: The Regulation of Sexuality since 1800 (Harlow, 2nd Ed., 1989); Foucault, The History of Sexuality, pp. 83–85.

[71] Foucault, The History of Sexuality, pp. 77; 83–85.

[72] J. Tasini, ‘The Beer and the Boycott’, The New York Times Magazine, 1 January 1988, p. 6019.

[73] Ibid.

[74] Ibid.

[75] Moskowitz, ‘A Political Fight Over Beer’, p. 104.

[76] Hall, ‘Protest Movements in the 1970s’, p. 657.

[77] Boyd, Wide-open Town, p. 160.

[78] Frank, Out in the Union, p. 8.

[79] Chasin, Selling Out, p. 161.

[80] Meyer, Whittier and Robnett, Social Movements, p. 121; J. Scott, ‘The Evidence of Experience’, pp. 397–415.

 

Bibliography

Primary Sources

[Anon], ‘Coors Bolsters Boycott’, Santa Ana Register, 22 April 1977, p. 48.

[Anon], ‘Coors to Replace Striking Workers with Permanent Help’, Colorado Springs Gazette-Telegraph, 11 April 1977.

[Anon], ‘Gimble Gifts’, The Philadelphia Inquirer, 3 December 1978.

[Anon], ‘Jury Acquits Coors, Cheyenne Firm of Anti-Trust’, Fort Collins Coloradoan, 8 June 1978, p.28.

[Anon], ‘Protect Our Children Don’t Legalize Discrimination’, The San Francisco Examiner, 3 November 1978.

Black, J. E and Morries III, C. E, Harvey Milk, An Archive of Hope: Harvey Milk’s Speeches and Writings, (London, 2013).

Digital Public Library of America, (DPLoA), Eduardo Morga, 30 August 1977, [online archive] <https://dp.la/item/de2a73ab99c63e97739456e7c357d117?q=Coors%20Beer>, accessed on 16 November 2018.

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Ledwell, T., ‘S.F. Gays Mourn Loss of Leader’, The Philadelphia Inquirer, 3 December 1978.

Moskowitz, M., ‘A Political Fight Over Beer’, The San Francisco Examiner, 18 April 1976.

Oklahoma State University Library, item oksa_phelps_11-07-0035, 1977, Edna Mae Phelps Collection, [online resource] <https://dc.library.okstate.edu/digital/collection/p17279coll7/id/1801>, accessed on 16 January 2019, and at the Digital Public Library of America, [online archive] <https://dp.la/item/786761a6c1c5a8b059539b62bcdb84c2?q=Coors%20Beer>, accessed 18 November 2018.

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Patterson, R., ‘The Dreary Revels of S.F. “Gay” Clubs’, The San Francisco Examiner, 25 October 1969.

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Tasini, J., ‘The Beer and the Boycott’, The New York Times Magazine, 31 January 1988.

The Billings Gazette, 12 August 1979.

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West, R., ‘Coors Charges Brewery Union Workers’, The Los Angeles Times, 9 May 1978.

 

Secondary Sources

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Agee, C., ‘Gayola: Police Professionalization and the Politics of San Francisco’s Gay Bars, 1950–1968’, Journal of the History of Sexuality, 15/3 (2006), pp. 462–89.

Armstrong, E., ‘Movements and Memory: The Making of the Stonewall Myth’, American Sociological Review, 71/5 (2006), pp. 724–51.

Armstrong, E., Forging Gay Identities: Organizing Sexuality in San Francisco, 1950–1994 (London, 2002).

Boyd, N., Wide-Open Town: A History of Queer San Francisco to 1965 (Berkeley, 2003).

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Canaday, M., The Straight State: Sexuality and Citizenship in Twentieth-Century America (London, 2009).

Chasin, A., Selling Out: The Gay and Lesbian Movement Goes to Market (New York, 2000).

Chauncy, G., Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World 1890–1940 (New York, 1994).

D’Emilio, J., Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities (London, 2nd Ed., 1998).

Engle, S. M., The Unfinished Revolution: Social Movement Theory and the Gay and Lesbian Movement (Cambridge, 2001).

Esterberg, K. G., ‘From Illness to Action: Conceptions of Homosexuality in The Ladder: 1956–1965’, The Journal of Sex Research, 27/1 (1990), pp. 65–79.

Foucault, M., The History of Sexuality (London, Vol. 1, 1978).

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Hall, S., Peace and Freedom: The Civil Rights and Antiwar Movements of the 1960s (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005).

hooks, b., Feminist Theory: from Margin to Center (Oxon, 2015), pp. 18–19.

Houlbrook, M., ‘Lady Austin’s Camp Boys: Constituting the Queer Subject in 1930s London’, Gender Studies, 14 (2002), pp. 31–61.

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Close To Goodness, Close to Sin: Cultural Meanings of Milk in England between 1500 and 1650

Link to PDF

Featured image courtesy of Brooklyn Museum, object 34.493

Author Biography

Ilya Maude is a recent graduate of the University of Nottingham. This article formed part of Ilya’s undergraduate dissertation supervised within the Department of History.

Abstract

In early modern England, milk was a culturally potent substance, laden with meanings and symbolism. These meanings were varied among individuals and groups, and subject to change over time. The cultural changes that took place in England between 1500 and 1650 can be found reflected in the changing cultural conceptions of milk and breastfeeding. Historical study of the meanings of milk in this time can serve as a case study for the ways wider cultural changes played out in ordinary life. By examining representations of milk in different spheres, this paper draws together apparently disparate cultural associations, and suggests at ways the major religious changes of this period could have affected them.

Close To Goodness, Close to Sin: Cultural Meanings of Milk in England between 1500 and 1650

 

When a baby is born leaking milk from its breast, midwives are unconcerned.  Roughly one in twenty infants lactate soon after birth, and odd as it seems, it is not associated with negative health outcomes.[1] The only really remarkable thing is its quaint, old-fashioned name – ‘witch’s milk’. More than simply old-fashioned, in fact, the name dates back to the seventeenth century.[2] It is an echo of a time both like and unlike our own, a time when ‘witch’s milk’ was a deadly serious affliction, and milk held a potent set of cultural meanings. It is also the tip of an iceberg, the tiny visible part of a mostly hidden cultural inheritance. Milk and breastfeeding were much debated in early modern England, and although these debates took place in a completely different cultural landscape, they bear an eerie resemblance to present-day conversations. This is not an artefact of milk having some kind of universal Freudian significance; between 1500 and 1650 the cultural meanings of milk in England fundamentally changed. Rather, it is part of the first emergence of a set of broader cultural beliefs about the proper function of the body and what it means when bodies fall outside that, beliefs that still run through parts of English language and culture. Milk sat at an uneasy intersection in early modern England: both a vital foodstuff and, inescapably, a bodily fluid.[3] Although human milk and animal milks shared many of their cultural and medical significances, they were related to the body in different ways – this article focuses primarily on the former.[4] By its very nature, milk ran between categories, and overlapped boundaries. It was at once intimate, and commonplace, nutritious, and vulnerable to spoilage. It is the very in-betweenness of milk, its ambiguities and liminalities, which make it a powerful tool through which to approach wider cultural knowledge.

Milk has been the subject of a number of attempts at ‘global’ cultural history.[5] The best of these, like Deborah Valenze’s 2011 work Milk: A Local and Global History, are really a series of narrow historical case studies, and emphasise the heterogeneity of cultural meaning.[6] Attempts to fashion a global, pan-historical narrative for the cultural meaning of milk are problematised by the wealth of excellent, more narrowly focused, histories of milk in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.[7] There is no reason to believe that the early modern world was any less imbued with complex and changing cultural associations than the modern one, and in homogenising the cultural significances of milk into one pan-European narrative, historians risk achieving simplicity at the expense of accuracy. For this reason, this article is focused on the cultural meanings of milk in a single country, between 1500 and 1650. By examining representations of milk in different cultural spheres, it is possible to draw together apparently disparate associations, and suggest the ways in which the major religious change of this period could have affected them.

 

Religious Context

In early modern Europe, culture and religion were interwoven.[8] Never simple or unequivocal, the religious significances of milk were thrown into contradiction and conflict by the English Reformation. This had a real impact on diet and practise. It is also a key piece of cultural context, central to understanding and reconciling the conflicted cultural significances of milk in the seventeenth century.

In England in 1500, the Catholic Church provided a set of religiously prescribed, albeit contradictory, meanings for milk. In culinary terms, it was a kind of white meat, subject to the strictures of fasting and abstinence.[9] Symbolically, it was strongly linked with nurture and purity, and was particularly associated with the Virgin Mary.[10] Although their influence had waned over the centuries, St. Bernard of Clairvaux’s interpretive sermons on the Song of Songs had done their work in establishing milk as a symbol of divine grace, prayerful communion and Christian nurture.[11] St. Bernard argued for Mary as Mediatrix, and emphasised her maternal capacity in an unsettlingly literal, and powerful, reflection on rebirth.[12] St. Bernard’s Marian sensibility had its impact, as did his focus on lactation and milk – although the way suckling was presented in Christian imagery shifted from the eleventh century to the thirteenth, it remained a core piece of religious imagery.[13] By the start of the thirteenth century, the cultural centrality of ‘milk and honey’ and of the Song of Songs had given way to a softened boundary between Christ’s blood and Mary’s milk which, perhaps because of its congruence with scholarly understandings of the origin of milk, persisted well into the sixteenth century.[14] More a sensibility than a strict piece of theological meaning, the symbolism of ‘giving suck’ persisted in Catholic religious iconography, most frequently in images of the nursing Madonna, but also in some depictions of the wound in Christ’s side.[15]

To the extent that milk was contaminated in Catholic imaginings, it was by its inseparability from female sexual anatomy. It was academic consensus that women ceased to menstruate when pregnant because their menstrual blood instead fed the growing baby. When the child was born, the blood travelled upwards, and was transformed by the heat of the breast into milk.[16] This presented quite a problem to theologians; in addition to being implicitly tied to original sin, menstruation should also have been physically impossible for Mary, based on the physical specifications of the Doctrine of Perpetual Virginity.[17] It was a microcosm of a greater contradiction between the milk and honey of Deuteronomy and the sin assigned to the lactating body. Although there were some attempts to suggest that Mary’s milk came directly from heaven, the conflict was for the most part resolved simply through avoidance.[18] Depictions of the Nursing Madonna positioned her breast unnaturally close to her neck, and although milk frequently appeared in religious iconography, it was abstracted from physical realities.[19] In Catholic religious symbolism, milk was at its purest and holiest when it appeared in abnormal places, flowing from the neck of the beheaded St. Catherine, or arcing from a statue of the Madonna to the mouth of St. Bernard.[20] Its Biblical significance and association with Marian devotions could then be enjoyed, unsullied by its base origin.

By 1650, however, this imagery had started to go off. Mary had fallen from her pedestal, and belief in minor miracles had become a Catholic shibboleth, invoked by Jesuits and seminary priests.[21] Protestants increasingly saw God as communicating his message through the ‘natural’ order and anything perceived to be outside that order became spiritually suspect.[22] Whether milk was to be permitted when fasting fell into insignificance next to the question of whether fasting was required, or even permissible.[23] The English Civil War was ongoing, religious tension and suspicion was rife, and the old cultural rules, rites, and protections had been largely discredited or condemned. Milk-imagery was still invoked regularly in religious writing, but through the imagery of the nursing mother, rather than the miraculous fluid. Phrases like ‘as milk to children’ were used to evoke nurture and sustenance, in spiritual form, but also to chastise. In 1619, for example, Thomas Adams (a Church of England clergyman and prolific writer of Calvinist theology) warned against seeking spiritual sustenance outside the true Christian Church by comparing it to a ‘strange’ nurse, as opposed to the ‘pure milke of your owne mother’.[24] These trends were not absolute – English-language Catholic treatises published abroad still referred to the Lactatio Bernardi and the Virgin’s holy milk – but they were broadly representative.[25] In Protestant England, milk was holy, but only in its proper, ‘natural’, place.

 

Breastfeeding

Words and categories can be manipulated in a way that bodies cannot, and no amount of cultural censure could make lactation and breastfeeding entirely the preserve of respectable married mothers, before or after the English Reformations. As well as a symbolic component of the ‘natural’ family order, woman’s milk was a vital physical commodity, both for the nourishment of infants and its purported curative powers. The contraceptive powers of breastfeeding were well-known in early modern England, and placed new mothers and wet-nurses under suspicion of immorality, regardless of what they did.[26] Breastfeeding one’s own child may have been the epitome of female virtue, but many women would or could not do so. As breastfeeding was a divinely assigned duty, women unable to breastfeed were spiritually suspect, and were offered such unhelpful advice as ‘fast and pray’.[27] The women who sent their babies to wet-nurses had always been the subject of scholarly critique, but as the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries wore on, wet-nurses themselves became the targets of religious ire.[28] The construction of motherhood as the ideal state of womanhood was nothing new – it was almost inherent in the paradoxical Virgin Mother, who embodied motherhood without sexuality. Nor was the spiritually suspect nature of women who could not or would not fill this role.[29] Rather, the shift that can be observed is in the framework through which this was understood, justified, and enforced. Where wet-nursing had been understood as so ideally noble that the Virgin Mary was often represented in the role and garb of a wet-nurse, it was now the subject of a peculiarly Protestant genre of attack.[30] Women’s virtue, ability to breastfeed, and the quality of their milk was subject to scrutiny from Catholic and Protestant writers. In broadly Protestant countries, however, this scrutiny took on the language of the ‘natural order’, and the imagery of the saintly wet-nurse, the lactating Madonna and Christ giving suck to his followers gave way to a stricter idealisation of ‘natural’ maternal relations.[31] Woman’s milk was close to goodness, but also to sin. This dual proximity is clearest in the two figures most closely linked to it: the mother and the wet-nurse.

Valerie Fildes’ extensive analysis of breastfeeding and infant care in England in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries demonstrates that, in elite and educated circles, a woman choosing to breastfeed her own child was exceptional.[32] Elite medical advice was for the most part reflected in elite practice; the age of weaning advised in medical texts was very similar to the age in practice, and there was a large volume of medical writing advising on how to select a wet-nurse.[33] Practically speaking, wet-nurses were one of the facts of life, perfectly ordinary and widely employed. Despite this, wet-nurses and the mothers who employed them were the subject of a disproportionately large volume of writing by learned Protestant moralists, mostly in the form of instructions, admonitions and warnings.[34] These admonitions did not just come from theologians, or even male writers – Elizabeth Clinton, Countess of Lincoln published a pamphlet in 1622 advising women to nurse their own children.[35] The change that took place over the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was not a shift from a culture in which women were granted relative freedom over their bodies to one in which they were not, but rather a shift in the theoretical and cultural underpinnings of misogynistic critique and control.

Newly-Protestant England did see a profusion of publications warning against the practice of wet-nursing but this was perhaps as much the result of an increase in published material as an increase in paranoia about the risks posed by wet nursing.[36] Anti-wet-nursing arguments in sixteenth and seventeenth century English published material can be usefully divided into two overlapping categories. The first is broadly medical, and included authors from a variety of denominations, including translations of the writings of physicians from Catholic countries, such as the work of the French physician Jacques Guillemeau (published in England in 1612).[37] Medical warnings against wet-nursing were often premised on the role of woman’s milk as a primary agent of heredity, as at least in elite medical writing, it was through breastfeeding that humoral balance could be shared.[38] The humoral balance of the mother or wet-nurse was, therefore, of utmost importance to the health, appearance, and character of the baby.[39] Some writers advised that nurses be selected based on the physical traits that indicated their humoral balance, whereas some, like Guillemeau, believed that the milk itself was sufficient to determine the humoral qualities; a blueish tinge indicating melancholy, yellow suggesting choler, and a reddish tinge either showing an excess of the sanguine humour or a failure of the heat of the breasts to fully transform uterine blood into milk.[40] Humoral balance was also understood as a sexed characteristic carried in milk, albeit one on a spectrum. A prospective wet-nurse needed to have a child of the right sex or risk making a male baby grow into effeminacy, or a female baby ‘a man-like Virago’ – the latter of these was sometimes treated as a potentially desirable outcome, whereas the former was despised.[41] Guillimeau, for example, advises choosing a nurse who has had a male child as the milk will be ‘hotter, better concocted; and not so excrementitious’.[42] The potential problems of an improper wet-nurse were not, however, merely physical, and it was the behavioural criteria for wet-nurses that drew the most hysterical, and telling, commentary.

The second category can be described as arguments grounded in medicine and morality. The character and behaviour of the nurse were understood as intimately connected to the material quality of the milk, but were dangerously hidden – from the wrong nurse, even the sweetest, richest milk could be riddled with corruption.[43] Protestant moral polemicists gave the impression that a wet-nurse of good character and speech was a rare find among the ‘drowsie drunkards’, ‘sawsie sluttes’ and ‘gawde gossips’.[44] Good milk was, of course, good, but it was also rare, and milk concealed sin as easily as it did disease. The risks of a morally dubious wet-nurse were twofold; as Presbyterian non-conformist Robert Cleaver stated in his 1598 publication on household government, ‘the temperature of the minde followes the constitution of the bodie, needes must it be, that if the nurse be of a naughty nature, the child must take thereafter’.[45] Not only might the child become morally degraded by the humoral content of the milk, but they also were placed at risk of neglect or even deliberate injury. Where Catholic Guillemeau described wet-nurses who ‘deserve to be whipt’, for secretly feeding their charge water instead of milk, Protestant writers drew a more direct connection between the immorality of the nurse and the quality of the milk – Barthélemy Batt warned against not only the ‘corrupt maners’, ‘unseemly words’ and ‘fained & dissembled love’ of a wet-nurse, but also ‘pernicious contagion’, ‘odious errours’, and ‘detestable diseases’.[46] Milk could aspire to only one kind of goodness, but was at risk from all kinds of sin.

The major difference was not the extent of the suspicion and ire directed towards wet-nurses and women who did not breastfeed their children, but the way it was framed. In Protestant literature, mothers who chose to employ the services of wet-nurses were subject to the most vitriolic tirades because they had committed the ultimate betrayal of their natural role.[47] This is clearest in Elizabeth Clinton’s writing. Clinton described women choosing not to breastfeed as an ‘vnnaturall practise’, and asserted that the urge to breastfeed was ‘the worke that God worketh in the very nature of mother’.[48] The mother’s first duty was understood to be to her child, and a woman who was capable of nourishing an infant but chose not to flouted the first principles of Christian womanhood – to Clinton, these women were literally going ‘against nature’.[49] These women, memorably derided by Robert Cleaver as ‘daintie halfe-mothers’, were rejecting God’s intended use for their ‘two breasts’, and relegating them to the distinctly un-Godly purpose of ‘ostentation’.[50] It was not only milk that found itself precariously close to sin and virtue – the maternal body was caught in the same impossible position. For women, simply having breasts was potentially sinful, unless their bodies were sanctified by their ‘proper’ function of the nurturing of infants.

The demonisation of wet-nurses and women who did not breastfeed resists a simple narrative. It was not, for example, just men writing against the practice of wet-nursing. Similarly, although there is a clear change over time in the framing of fears about wet-nursing that coincides with the English Reformations and appears to be thematically linked to the cultural changes they wrought, by the seventeenth century Catholic and Protestant English writers were using the language of the ‘natural order’ to assert the importance of women nursing their own babies.[51] Attitudes to breastfeeding bore a relation to theological change, but it was not always linear or predictable. The same can, in fact, be said of the critiques’ relation to material reality. The same two centuries that saw an explosion of anti-wet nursing tracts saw an increase in the uptake of the services of wet-nurses by the aristocracy.[52] This did not necessarily mean that these ideas were not widely shared – the way sex workers have been related to culturally suggests that it is perfectly possible for someone to pay a woman for labour, and also believe that she is inherently immoral for performing that labour, especially when misogyny and unequal wealth informs the relationship. This does, however, raise the greatest contradiction in this body of writing – men, for the most part, had the power to choose whether or not to hire a wet-nurse, and yet the admonitions are primarily directed towards women.[53]

The position of breastfeeding in sixteenth and seventeenth century England is therefore best understood as part of a continuity of misogynistic control of women’s bodies, newly framed by a developing religious and cultural idea of ‘natural order’. Wider fears about the behaviour of mothers coalesced around the ways they did or did not use their milk, and the privacy and uncontrollability of breastfeeding made it a focus for misogynistic anxiety and censure. Woman’s milk was potent, and impossible to truly regulate. It was intimately connected to an unpredictable, and emotionally dangerous endeavour – the raising of infants. Tied by the logics of humoral medicine to menstruation, the original sin of the female body, milk straddled the holy and the sinful. Where it had once stood between the ideal of motherhood and the sin of female sexuality, it was now caught between the natural and the unnatural. How it was understood seems to have been powerfully situational; breastfeeding may have sanctified a mother’s body, but the private milky communion between a wet-nurse and her charge was deeply suspect. Valuable as a commodity, it was nonetheless troubling as a phenomenon. In a humoral understanding of the body, breastfeeding was a moment of vulnerability, where the boundary between two bodies briefly became permeable. In a formal wet-nursing relationship, one of those bodies was necessarily that of a poor woman. This was milk out of place. The abstract good of late-medieval milk had given way to a precarious virtue, no less powerful, but possibly more dangerous to the women touched by it.

 

Witchcraft

Although the historiography of the witch-trials themselves is remarkably well populated, the sources have been surprisingly underused by food historians.[54] Though limited in many respects, these records have great potential; many of them contain transcriptions of illiterate people’s accounts of the events, being one of the only situations in which the narrated experiences of labourers were deemed worthy of recording. They are, of course, profoundly distorted – due to the nature of English court recording, depositions being neither detailed nor routinely preserved, most of the detailed sources available are publications after the fact, by individuals who had no legal obligation to record accurately, and may have filtered what they heard through their own, usually learned, gaze.[55] A further problem is that some of the testimonies they contain were extracted under torture, or threat of it, and are often so fantastical that they clearly cannot be taken as literal truth.[56]

That said, there are few discernible reasons for writers to consistently alter the references to food in recording the events of witch-trials, or for individuals giving testimonies to thoroughly misrepresent their own attitudes to food. Furthermore, the more fantastical references to milk and breastfeeding, understood within the context of the types of imagery which occur repeatedly in the English witch-trials, can be useful in their own right, as a window into the symbolic and folkloric meanings of the substance. References to milk and other dairy products, and breastfeeding-type imagery, occurred disproportionately frequently in published records of English witch-trials. Historians of milk have generally considered it to be culturally and culinarily in decline in this period, losing its associations with piety and its status as healthy and nourishing, and yet to acquire its implications of purity and modernity.[57] The evidence of the witch-trials suggests that not only was milk central to the diets of rural families, but that it held a cultural significance that reflected that centrality.

Even if early modern milk was nourishing, it was also deeply culturally dangerous. Animal milks were vulnerable to all kinds of magical manipulation, and feature disproportionately frequently in the accounts of the English witch trials. Human milk was even more risky. While breastfeeding mothers might be fulfilling their role in a divinely ordained natural order, other instances of lactation in humans could be assigned no such purpose. In the uneasy religious climate of the seventeenth century, there were only two potential explanations for ‘unnatural’ happenings; divine or satanic. Across Europe, neonatal lactation was feared, called ‘witch’s milk’, ‘hexenmilch’ and ‘lait de sorcière’, and implicated in accusations of witchcraft.[58] The connection between witchcraft and milk was shared between a number of countries and regions. Michael Ostling argued that the importance of milk-magic to many of the Polish witch-trials was due to centrality of milk-yields in what Lyndal Roper described as ‘the economy of bodily fluids’.[59] The yield of a cow was at once a physical and symbolic indicator of a family’s prosperity, and the witch drained that prosperity.[60] Although the English witch-trials shared much with those of Poland, the abundance of milk-magic and milk-imagery in them seems to have had a slightly different symbolic significance, one as much connected to woman’s milk as it was to cow’s milk.

A feature common to many of the European witch-trials is the imagery of inversion. This is exemplified by the witches’ sabbath, an unholy gathering which perverted and inverted the rituals of the Christian sabbath. English witch-trials generally lacked the imagery of the witches’ sabbath, but were not lacking in inversion imagery. One of the key sites on which this imagery was focused was the lactating body. While breastfeeding mothers were fulfilling their role in a divinely ordained natural order, other instances of lactation in humans could be assigned no such purpose, and were highly suspect.

Although the English witch trials lacked much of the sexual imagery common to many of the European witchcraft traditions, they were still highly linked to the physicality of the sexed body, through the way the demonic familiars who fed on the blood of witches were described.[61] The descriptions of these familiars feeding use the same language as descriptions of breastfeeding; familiars ‘suck’ from witches, and witches ‘give suck’ to familiars, the same language used to describe babies feeding from nurses or mothers.[62] How exactly this took place varied quite significantly between witch trials. In some cases, such as the accounts of the testimonies of Anne Whittle in the Pendle Witch trials in 1612, and Elizabeth Francis at Chelmsford in 1566, the familiar merely sucked blood from an inconspicuous body part of an accused witch, leaving a mark like a mole, which could then be used to determine their guilt.[63] Many descriptions, however, verge much closer to the image of the nursing mother. In some cases, where the familiar sucked, a raised teat developed.[64] In others, an entirely new ‘dugge’ or ‘pappe’ (breast) was formed where the familiar was ‘given suck’.[65] The positioning on the body was also not always simply neutrally hidden. Some familiars sucked from the breasts as true babes, or from the flank or just under the breast. Many, however, took their nourishment from much more intimate places, such as inside the mouth, behind the ear, the buttocks, and the ‘secrets’.[66]

Belief in familiars, historically linked with popular belief in fairies, has been used as evidence of a reciprocal relationship between elite and popular culture in early modern England, a relationship this thesis advocates for in food history.[67] Intellectual belief in demonic familiars was contested and fraught, but they nonetheless occur in the vast majority of English witch-pamphlets from the period and became codified in Matthew Hopkins’s instructions for the determining of guilt of an accused witch, making them an ideal focal point through which to explore the relationship between popular and elite attitudes to breastfeeding, milk, and the maternal body.[68] One particularly interesting facet of the familiar beliefs is the way they seem to reflect and interact with humoral understandings of milk and breastfeeding. Whereas milk was blood, transformed through the heat of the breast into a digestible and nourishing state, witches fed their familiars with blood, and one of the identifying characteristics of the witches’ teat was that it was cold to the touch. This was one among many maternal inversions.[69] Women killed their children, struck their husbands lame and had them killed, and with the assistance of the devil aborted their foetuses with herbs and potions. The image of the woman suckling a demon in the form of an animal, with blood instead of milk, makes sense within the context of such inversion. The popular origin of belief in familiar spirits suggests that there may have been a popular association between milk and blood, that did not directly come from elite medical theory.

It was not only women suspected of witchcraft who were accused of suckling their familiars, however. There are several instances of men, accused of witchcraft, being described as doing similarly. The octogenarian vicar John Lowes, accused of witchcraft in the Matthew Hopkins-led witch trials in Suffolk in 1645, was described as having ‘a teat on the crown of his head and two under his tongue’.[70] Thomas Evered, a cooper, who was accused of witchcraft alongside his wife Mary Evered in the same 1645 set of trials, was described as giving suck to imps.[71] This is a particularly interesting example, despite meriting only two sentences in the account of the largest witch-hunt in English history, because the particular crime Evered was accused of was so distinctly gendered; in addition to having imp familiars, the couple were accused of having bewitched beer to smell so ‘odious’ that the stink and taste of it killed many people.[72] As Lara Apps and Andrew Gow observed in their book Male witches in early modern Europe, male witches were implicitly feminised, both through being accused of witchcraft, itself a profoundly gendered accusation, and through being associated with sensory domains typed as female in early modern constructions of gender, specifically smell and taste.[73] Evered was therefore doubly feminised, through the nature of his crime, and the sexed nature of the standard elements of an accusation of witchcraft.[74] This was not milk out of place, so much as everything out of place – milk inverted as blood, and woman as man.

The use of breastfeeding-type imagery in the English witch trials is further evidence of the fraught cultural meaning of the maternal body. Breastfeeding’s precarious holiness lent any kind of distortion of it a profound cultural potency. The sucking familiars resembled an unholy communion, a taking of blood meaning damnation, rather than a receiving of blood as salvation. It inverted religious and natural order, intertwined as they were. It demonstrates just how precarious, and how potent, milk really was.

One aspect of the witch-trial evidence which seriously challenges the historical consensus on early modern dairy consumption is simply the centrality and prevalence of milk, cheese, and butter, in so many of the depositions. In elite circles there was a decline in the unique cultural position milk had previously possessed as a culinary ingredient going into the early modern period.[75] The Pendle witch trials, in particular, provide a potential insight into the cultural significance of milk to people with very little immediate contact to the medical theorising that knocked milk off its medieval pedestal. Milk and dairy products were the subjects of many of the magical acts apparently witnessed. In the Examination of Edmund Robinson in 1633, an act of magic is described where ropes attached to the roof of a house are pulled, rather like church bells, and butter, milk, and smoking meat shower down into buckets.[76] Butter was made from milk without ever depleting the quantity of milk, the spilling of milk caused familiar spirits to disappear, and when a man kicked over a can of milk he had given in charity, his cow died the next day.[77] Boiling a can of milk brought forth a toad-like spirit (toads were themselves associated with the female body in medical writing due to their apparent resemblance to the shape of a uterus).[78] Milk begged and denied brought fear and sickness to the denier – the sheer prevalence of milk in the imagery of the English witch-trials is enough to suggest at its huge cultural power and danger.

As Michael Ostling argued about the Polish witch-trials, milk’s status as an indispensable yet vulnerable commodity may have contributed to its particular centrality to accusations of spell-casting. Milk spoils suddenly and repulsively, cows die without warning or explanation, and when cheese-making goes awry, it is often for reasons invisible to the naked eye. Milk-magic was not, however, solely responsible for the prevalence of milk in the English witch-trials. Witch’s milk, the witch’s teat, and the suckling demon all suggest at another dimension to the cultural significance of milk. Layered into narratives of the inverted ideals of Christian motherhood, they call to a substance which was uniquely close to virtue and vulnerable to sin. Milk in its proper place was a blessing, sanctifying and justifying the body of the mother, but outside of that was deeply spiritually troubling. When animal milks and woman’s milk are treated as culturally linked, their significance to the witch-trials can be understood multidimensionally. Milk was both physically and spiritually vulnerable, inhabiting a tenuous place of virtue but unable to escape its connections to menstruation, and consequently original sin. It is no surprise that it flowed through the language of the witch-trials – it was the body out of order, unruly, uncontrollable, and potentially unholy.

 

Conclusion

Milk has been the subject of a number of attempts at ‘global’ cultural history.[79] The best of these, like Deborah Valenze’s 2011 work Milk: A Local and Global History, are really a series of narrow historical case studies, and emphasise the heterogeneity of cultural meaning.[80] Attempts to fashion a global, pan-historical narrative for the cultural meaning of milk are problematised by the wealth of excellent, more narrowly focused, histories of milk in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.[81] There is no reason to believe that the early modern world was any less imbued with complex and changing cultural associations than the modern one, and in homogenising the cultural significances of milk into one pan-European narrative, historians risk achieving simplicity at the expense of accuracy. For this reason, this article is focused on the cultural meanings of milk in a single country, between 1500 and 1650. By examining representations of milk in different cultural spheres, it is possible to draw together apparently disparate associations, and suggest the ways in which the major religious change of this period could have affected them.

Milk did not have one simple set of cultural associations in sixteenth and early seventeenth-century England, but rather had an array of meanings, governed by subculture, but also by situation. It invoked associations of nurture, purity, barbarity, charity, poverty, and motherhood. Although it was undoubtedly gendered as feminine, through the realities of average human biology and traditional gendered divisions of labour, it was not exclusively associated with women, and association with it was used to situate some men closer to womanhood. It was heavily used in Christian religious language and imagery, but in very different ways by writers in Catholic and Protestant regions. As the religious landscape of England shifted, the religious significance of milk also changed, as close as ever to goodness, but perilously close to sin. The religious meanings of milk became ever more contested and fraught during the later sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, and its significance became less about it as a substance, and more about whether it occurred without the bounds of the ‘natural’ function of a body.

The conflicted cultural meanings of milk were not merely an artefact of the variety of cultural, social, and material factors affecting individuals’ perspectives on it. Milk was a profoundly liminal fluid, and this liminality is reflected in certain major conflicts in its meaning. Straddling the intersection of the virtuous and the sinful, and the body and that which lay outside it, milk was steeped in contradiction and conflict. The well-populated genre of vitriolic Protestant tracts against mothers choosing not to breastfeed and the widespread presence of distorted breastfeeding-type imagery in the English witch-trials both highlight how crucial milk and breastfeeding was to the virtuous female body. Like milk, the maternal body was unpredictable, vulnerable to spiritual spoilage and hidden corruption. Milk, and the act of breastfeeding, had huge spiritual and cultural potency, and no exact prescribed religious meaning. Set at the table of blood and meat, and their eucharistic counterparts, wine and bread, milk was uniquely ambiguous, and therefore uniquely dangerous.

 

Notes

[1] D. J. Madlon-Kay, ‘Witch’s Milk: Galactorrhea in the Newborn’, American Journal of Diseases of Children, 140/3 (1986), p. 252.

[2] M. Potts and R. Short, Ever Since Adam and Eve: The Evolution of Human Sexuality (Cambridge, 1999), p. 145.

[3] Human breastmilk was consumed by adults for its curative properties. Although the modern distinction between the culinary and the medical had started to emerge in 16th and 17th century England, it was still less clearly defined than it is now. Milk, and particularly human milk, straddled the two, moving from food to medicine as one aged out of infancy, and then sometimes back to the former in old age.
D. Valenze, Milk: A Local and Global History (New Haven, 2011), p. 70; W. Wall, Recipes for Thought: Knowledge and Taste in the Early Modern Kitchen (Philadelphia, 2016), p. 4.

[4] K. Albala, ‘Milk: Nutritious and Dangerous’, in H. Walker (ed.), Milk: Beyond the Dairy – Proceedings of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery 1999 (London, 2000), p. 26.

[5] Including Valenze’s Milk: A Local and Global History, there are five, although one – R. Schmid’s book – is an historically dubious argument for the consumption of raw milk.
M. Kurlansky, Milk!: A 10,000 Year Food Fracas (New York, 2018); A. Mendelson, Milk: The Surprising Story of Milk Through the Ages (New York, 2008); R. Schmid, The Untold Story of Milk – Revised and Updated (Washington DC, 2009); H. Velten, Milk: A Global History (London, 2010).

[6] Valenze, Milk: A Local and Global History, p. 5.

[7] P. Atkins, Liquid Materialities: a history of milk, science, and the law (Farnham, 2010); K. Smith-Howard, Pure and Modern Milk: An Environmental History Since 1900 (Oxford, 2014).

[8] K. Von Greyerz, Religion and Culture in Early Modern Europe, 1500-1800 (Oxford, 2008), p. 2.

[9] C. Yeldham, ‘Use of Almonds in Late-medieval English Cookery’, in H. Walker (ed.), Milk: Beyond the Dairy, Proceedings of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery 1999 (London, 2000), p. 352.

[10] Valenze, Milk, p. 18.

[11] St. Bernard of Clairvaux, Commentary on ‘The Song of Songs’, ed. D. Wright, Sermon 9.

[12] St. Bernard of Clairvaux, Sermons of St. Bernard on Advent and Christmas, (Chicago 1909), Sermon 39.

[13] C. Walker Bynum, Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women (London, 1987), p. 269.

[14] Walker Bynum, Holy Feast and Holy Fast, p. 269.

[15] Quirizio da Murano’s late fifteenth century depiction of Christ showing his chest wound to a nun applied the stylistic conventions of the Madonna Lactans to the adult Christ, showing him tenderly proffering a wound where his nipple would be with two fingers, surrounded by inscriptions of the most cannibalistic passages of the Song of Songs.
Walker Bynum, Holy Feast and Holy Fast, p. 271.

[16] Albala, ‘Milk: Nutritious and Dangerous’, p. 82.

[17] Valenze, Milk, p. 47.

[18] M. Fissell, ‘The Politics of Reproduction in the English Reformation’, Representations, 87 (2004), p. 56.

[19] Valenze, Milk, p. 47.

[20] Valenze, Milk, pp. 43, 48.

[21] A. Walsham, ‘Miracles and the Counter-Reformation Mission to England’, The Historical Journal, 46/4 (2003), p. 781.

[22] A. Walsham, ‘The Reformation and “the Disenchantment of the World” Reassessed’, The Historical Journal, 51/2 (2008), p. 509.

[23] George Abbot, The reasons which Doctour Hill hath brought, for the upholding of papistry, which is falselie termed the Catholike religion: unmasked and shewed to be very weake, and upon examination most insufficient for that purpose (Oxford, 1604), p. 380.
P. Kaufman, ‘Fasting in England in the 1560s: “A Thinge of Nought”?’, Archiv für Reformationsgeschichte. Ergänzungsband, 32 (2003), p. 178.

[24] Thomas Adams, The happines of the church (London, 1619), p. 56; J. S. McGee, ‘Adams, Thomas (1583-1652), <https://www.oxforddnb.com/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-131>, accessed 12.05.2019.

[25] Thomas Vincent and Arthur Anselm Crowther, Jesus, Maria, Joseph (Amsterdam, 1657), p. 31.

[26] V. Fildes, Breasts, Bottles and Babies (Edinburgh, 1986), p. 109.

[27] Robert Cleaver, A godlie forme of householde gouernment for the ordering of priuate families, according to the direction of Gods word. Whereunto is adioyned in a more particular manner, the seuerall duties of the husband towards his wife: and the wifes dutie towards her husband. The parents dutie towards their children: and the childrens towards their parents. The masters dutie towards his seruants: and also the seruants dutie towards their masters. Gathered by R.C (London, 1598), p. 238.

[28] St. Bernard of Clairvaux, for example, greatly chastised women who employed the services of wet-nurses, using the example of his mother who bore seven children and nursed them all.
B. Åström, ‘Sucking the Corrupte Mylke of an Infected Nurse: regulating the dangerous maternal body’, Journal of Gender Studies, 24/5 (2005), p. 576.

[29] Valenze, Milk: A Local and Global History, p. 49.

[30] B. Williamson, The Madonna of Humility: Development, Dissemination & Reception (Suffolk, 2009), p. 132;  Åström, ‘Sucking the Corrupte Mylke of an Infected Nurse’, p. 576.

[31] Walsham, ‘The Reformation and “the Disenchantment of the World” Reassessed’, p. 509; Walker Bynum, Holy Feast and Holy Fast, pp. 270-272; Åström, ‘Sucking the Corrupte Mylke of an Infected Nurse: regulating the dangerous maternal body’, p. 576.

[32] V. Fildes, ‘The age of weaning in Britain 1500-1800’, Journal of Biosocial Science, 14/2 (1982), p. 235.

[33] Although whether that is because the medical advice was followed or because it simply reflected established practise is not possible to determine from the information given.
Fildes, ‘The age of weaning’, p. 223.

[34] P. Crawford, ‘‘The sucking child’: Adult attitudes to child care in the first year of life in seventeenth-century England’, Continuity and Change, 1/1 (1986), p. 31.

[35] Clinton was no less stern in her admonitions than her contemporaries, but perhaps a little kinder – she herself had not breastfed her own children (a choice, the text suggests, that was taken from her) and regretted it.
Elizabeth Clinton, The Countesse of Lincolnes nurserie (Oxford, 1622), p. 16.

[36] Crawford, ‘‘The sucking child’, p. 31.

[37] Jacques Guillemeau, Child-birth or, The happy deliuerie of vvomen VVherein is set downe the gouernment of women (London, 1612), p.7.

[38] Åström, ‘Sucking the Corrupte Mylke of an Infected Nurse’, p. 577.

[39] S. Prühlen, ‘What was Best for an Infant from the Middle Ages to Early Modern Times in Europe? The Discussion Concerning Wet Nurses’, Hygiea Internationalis: an Interdisciplinary Journal for the History of Public Health, 6/2 (2007), p. 205.

[40] Guillemeau, Child-birth or, The happy deliuerie of vvomen, p.7.

[41] Virago was a culturally complex term- positive, for its associations with virtues constructed as male, but also always implying a subtle gendered transgression.
J. A. Schroeder, Deborah’s Daughters: Gender Politics and Biblical Interpretation (Oxford, 2014), p. 107; Prühlen, ‘What was best for an Infant’, p. 205; Åström, ‘Sucking the Corrupte Mylke of an Infected Nurse’, p. 578.

[42] Guillimeau, Child-birth, p. 8.

[43] Valenze, Milk, p. 156.

[44] Barthélemy Batt can be presumed to have belonged to some Protestant denomination, as his work contains references to ‘Papists’ alongside ‘Iewes, Turkes, Infidels’.
Barthélemy Batt, The Christian man’s closet Wherein is conteined a large discourse of the godly training up of children: as also of those duties that children owe unto their parents, made dialogue wise, very pleasant to reade, and most profitable to practise, collected in Latin by Bartholomew Batty of Alostensis, And now Englished by William Lowth, (London, 1591), pp. 16, 54.

[45] Robert Cleaver, A godlie forme of householde gouernment, p. 238.

[46] Batt, The Christian man’s closet, pp. 54 -55.

[47] Åström, ‘Sucking the Corrupte Mylke of an Infected Nurse’, pp. 576, 578.

[48] Clinton’s pamphlet contained a foreword by a Catholic doctor (Thomas Lodge), but was steeped in the distinctly post-Reformation language of natural law pp. 1, 8.

[49] Clinton, The Countesse of Lincolnes nurserie, p. 8.

[50] Cleaver, A godlie forme of householde gouernment, p. 240.

[51] Thomas Lodge ended his foreword to Clinton’s pamphlet with a verse about ‘Gods and Natures lawes’, for example.

[52] Fildes, ‘The age of weaning in Britain 1500-1800’, p. 235.

[53] Valenze, Milk: A Local and Global History, p. 279.

[54] With the significant exception of Christopher Kissane, who has not only produced a focused study of food in the early modern witch trials, but has also argued that such analysis is necessary to understand early modern perception and experience of witchcraft.

Kissane, Food, Religion and Communities in Early Modern Europe (London, 2018), p. 130.

[55] M. Gaskill, ‘Witches and Witnesses in Old and New England’, in S. Clark (ed.), Languages of Witchcraft: Narrative, Ideology and Meaning in Early Modern Culture (London, 2001), p. 55.

[56] Torture was generally prohibited in English law, allowed only extrajudicially against traitors in order to get information about their accomplices. Between 1645 and 1647, however, local authorities did torture witchcraft suspects; B. Levack, ‘Witchcraft Trials in England, Scotland, and New England’, in B. Levack (ed.), The Witchcraft Sourcebook (2nd ed.) (Abingdon, 2015), p. 241.

[57] M. Kurlansky, Milk!: A 10,000 Year Food Fracas (New York, 2018), p. 28.

[58] M. Potts and R. Short, Ever Since Adam and Eve: The Evolution of Human Sexuality (Cambridge, 1999), p. 145.

[59] M. Ostling, ‘Witchcraft in Poland: Milk and Malefice’ in B. P. Levack (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe and Colonial America (Oxford, 2013), p. 3.

[60] Ostling, ‘Witchcraft in Poland’, p. 3.

[61] J. M. Garrett, ‘Witchcraft and Sexual Knowledge in Early Modern England’, Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies, 13/1 (2013), p. 36.

[62] The Wonderful Discouerie of the Witchcrafts of Margaret and Phillip Flower, daughters of Joan Flower, near Beaver Castle, Executed at Lincoln, March 11, 1618, in B. Levack (ed.), The Witchcraft Sourcebook (2nd ed.) (Oxford, 2015), p. 258;
A True Relation of eighteene Witches that were arraigned, tried, and convicted at a Sessions holden at St. Edmunds-bury in Suffolk, 1645, in B. Levack (ed.), The Witchcraft Sourcebook (2nd ed.) (Oxford, 2015), p. 274;
A. M., Queen Elizabeths closset of physical secrets, with certain approved medicines taken out of a manuscript found at the dessolution of one of our English abbies and supplied with the child-bearers cabinet, and preservative against the plague and small pox. Collected by the elaborate paines of four famons [sic] physitians, and presented to Queen Elizabeths own hands. (London, 1656), p. 19.

[63] The Examination and Confession of Certain Witches at Chelmsford in the County of Essex before the Queen’s Majesty’s Judges, the XXVI Day of July Anno 1566, in B. Levack (ed.), The Witchcraft Sourcebook (2nd ed.) (Oxford, 2015), p. 244;
Thomas Potts, The vvonderfull discouerie of witches in the countie of Lancaster VVith the arraignement and triall of nineteene notorious witches, at the assizes and general gaole deliuerie, holden at the castle of Lancaster, vpon Munday, the seuenteenth of August last, 1612. (London, 1613), p. C.

[64] A True Relation of eighteene Witches that were arraigned, tried, and convicted at a Sessions holden at St. Edmunds-bury in Suffolk, p. 276.

[65] The Confession of Margaret Johnson, in J. Crossley (ed.), Pott’s Discovery of Witches in the County of Lancaster, Volume 6 (Manchester, 1845), p. lxxv.

[66] A True Relation of eighteene Witches that were arraigned, tried, and convicted at a Sessions holden at St. Edmunds-bury in Suffolk, p. 276.
The Wonderful Discouerie of the Witchcrafts of Margaret and Phillip Flower, p. 259.

[67] 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. 96.

[68] A True Relation of eighteene Witches that were arraigned, tried, and convicted at a Sessions holden at St. Edmunds-bury in Suffolk, p. 277.

[69] S. Clarke, ‘Inversion, Misrule and the Meaning of Witchcraft’, Past & Present, 87 (1980), p. 86.

[70] A True Relation of eighteene Witches that were arraigned, tried, and convicted at a Sessions holden at St. Edmunds-bury in Suffolk, p. 274.

[71] A True Relation of eighteene Witches that were arraigned, tried, and convicted at a Sessions holden at St. Edmunds-bury in Suffolk, p. 274.

[72] A True Relation of eighteene Witches that were arraigned, tried, and convicted at a Sessions holden at St. Edmunds-bury in Suffolk, p. 274.

[73] L. Apps and A. Gow, Male witches in early modern Europe (Manchester, 2003), pp. 128-9.

[74] This particular account bears a sad resemblance to Quirizio da Murano’s bleeding messiah – set against an ideal of natural order, the once-holy image became damning.

[75] Valenze, Milk: A Local and Global History¸ p. 4, p. 59.

[76] Thomas Potts, The vvonderfull discouerie of witches in the countie of Lancaster, p. lxiii.

[77] Thomas Potts, The vvonderfull discouerie of witches in the countie of Lancaster, ‘The Examination of Allizon Device’, para. 4.

[78] Thomas Potts, The vvonderfull discouerie of witches in the countie of Lancaster, ‘The Examination of Iennet Booth’, para. 1; E. Gradvohl, ‘The Toad and the Uterus: the symbolics of inscribed frogs’, Sylloge epigraphica Barcinonensis, 10 (2012), p. 440.

[79] Including Valenze’s Milk: A Local and Global History, there are five, although one – R. Schmid’s book – is an historically dubious argument for the consumption of raw milk.
M. Kurlansky, Milk!: A 10,000 Year Food Fracas (New York, 2018); A. Mendelson, Milk: The Surprising Story of Milk Through the Ages (New York, 2008); R. Schmid, The Untold Story of Milk – Revised and Updated (Washington DC, 2009); H. Velten, Milk: A Global History (London, 2010).

[80] Valenze, Milk: A Local and Global History, p. 5.

[81] P. Atkins, Liquid Materialities: a history of milk, science, and the law (Farnham, 2010); K. Smith-Howard, Pure and Modern Milk: An Environmental History Since 1900 (Oxford, 2014).

 

Bibliography

Primary Sources

Abbot, George, The reasons which Doctour Hill hath brought, for the upholding of papistry, which is falselie termed the Catholike religion: unmasked and shewed to be very weake, and upon examination most insufficient for that purpose (Oxford, 1604).

Adams, Thomas, The Happiness of the Church; or a description of those Spiritual Prerogatives wherewith Christ hath endowed her considered in contemplations upon part of the twelfth chapter to the Hebrews; being the sum of divers sermons preached in St. Gregorie’s, London, by Thomas Adams, preacher there. (London, 1619).

Batt, Barthélemy, The Christian man’s closet Wherein is conteined a large discourse of the godly training up of children: as also of those duties that children owe unto their parents, made dialogue wise, very pleasant to reade, and most profitable to practise, collected in Latin by Bartholomew Batty of Alostensis, And now Englished by William Lowth, (London, 1591).

Bernard of Clairvaux, Commentary on ‘The Song of Songs’, ed. D. Wright (2008), Sermon 9.

Bernard of Clairvaux, Sermons of St. Bernard on Advent and Christmas, ed. J. C. Hedley (Chicago 1909), Sermon 39.

Cleaver, Robert, A godlie forme of householde gouernment for the ordering of priuate families, according to the direction of Gods word. Whereunto is adioyned in a more particular manner, the seuerall duties of the husband towards his wife: and the wifes dutie towards her husband. The parents dutie towards their children: and the childrens towards their parents. The masters dutie towards his seruants: and also the seruants dutie towards their masters. Gathered by R.C (London, 1598)
Clinton, Elizabeth, The Countesse of Lincolnes nurserie (Oxford, 1622).

Guillemeau, Jacques, Child-birth or, The happy deliuerie of vvomen (London, 1612).

M., A., Queen Elizabeths closset of physical secrets, with certain approved medicines taken out of a manuscript found at the dessolution of one of our English abbies and supplied with the child-bearers cabinet, and preservative against the plague and small pox. Collected by the elaborate paines of four famons [sic] physitians, and presented to Queen Elizabeths own hands. (London, 1656).

Potts, Thomas, The wonderfull discoverie of witches in the countie of Lancaster With the arraignement and triall of nineteene notorious witches, at the assizes and general gaole deliuerie, holden at the castle of Lancaster, upon Munday, the seventeenth of August last, 1612. (London, 1613).

Vincent, Thomas and Anselm Crowther, Arthur, Jesus, Maria, Joseph (Amsterdam, 1657), p. 31.

The Confession of Margaret Johnson, in J. Crossley (ed.), Pott’s Discovery of Witches in the County of Lancaster, Volume 6 (Manchester, 1845).

A True Relation of eighteene Witches that were arraigned, tried, and convicted at a Sessions holden at St. Edmunds-bury in Suffolk, 1645, in B. Levack (ed.), The Witchcraft Sourcebook (2nd ed.) (Oxford, 2015), pp. 273-278.

The Examination and Confession of Certain Witches at Chelmsford in the County of Essex before the Queen’s Majesty’s Judges, the XXVI Day of July Anno 1566, in B. Levack (ed.), The Witchcraft Sourcebook (2nd ed.) (Oxford, 2015), pp. 243-250.

The Wonderful Discouerie of the Witchcrafts of Margaret and Phillip Flower, daughters of Joan Flower, near Beaver Castle, Executed at Lincoln, March 11, 1618, in B. Levack (ed.), The Witchcraft Sourcebook (2nd ed.) (Oxford, 2015), pp. 254-261.

 

Secondary Sources

Albala, K., ‘Milk: Nutritious and Dangerous’, in H. Walker (ed.), Milk: Beyond the Dairy – Proceedings of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery 1999 (London, 2000), pp. 19-31.

Apps, L., and Gow, A., Male witches in early modern Europe (Manchester, 2003).

Åström, B., ‘‘Sucking the Corrupte Mylke of an Infected Nurse’: regulating the dangerous maternal body’, Journal of Gender Studies, 24/5 (2005), pp. 574-586.

Atkins, P., Liquid Materialities: a history of milk, science, and the law (Farnham, 2010).

Bynum, W., Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women (London, 1987).

Clarke, S. ‘Inversion, Misrule and the Meaning of Witchcraft’, Past & Present, 87 (1980), pp. 98-127.

Crawford, P., ‘‘The sucking child’: Adult attitudes to child care in the first year of life in seventeenth-century England’, Continuity and Change, 1/1 (1986), pp. 23-51.

Fildes, V., Breasts, Bottles and Babies (Edinburgh, 1986).

Fildes, V., ‘The age of weaning in Britain 1500-1800’, Journal of Biosocial Science, 14/2 (1982), pp. 223-240.

Fissell, M., ‘The Politics of Reproduction in the English Reformation’, Representations, 87 (2004), pp. 43-81.

Garrett, J. M., ‘Witchcraft and Sexual Knowledge in Early Modern England’, Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies, 13/1 (2013), pp. 32-72.

Gaskill, M., ‘Witches and Witnesses in Old and New England’, in S. Clark (ed.), Languages of Witchcraft: Narrative, Ideology and Meaning in Early Modern Culture (London, 2001), pp. 55-81.

Gradvohl, E., ‘The Toad and the Uterus: the symbolics of inscribed frogs’, Sylloge epigraphica Barcinonensis, 10 (2012), pp. 439-447.

Kaufman, P., ‘Fasting in England in the 1560s: “A Thinge of Nought”?’, Archiv für Reformationsgeschichte Ergänzungsband, 32 (2003), pp. 176-193.

Kissane, C., Food, Religion and Communities in Early Modern Europe (London, 2018).

Kurlansky, M., Milk!: A 10,000 Year Food Fracas (New York, 2018).

Levack, B., ‘Witchcraft Trials in England, Scotland, and New England’, in B. Levack (ed.), The Witchcraft Sourcebook (2nd ed.) (Abingdon, 2015), pp. 241-243.

Madlon-Kay, D. J., ‘Witch’s Milk: Galactorrhea in the Newborn’, American Journal of Diseases of Children, 140/3 (1986), pp. 252-253.

Mendelson, A., Milk: The Surprising Story of Milk Through the Ages (New York, 2008).

Potts, M., and Short, R., Ever Since Adam and Eve: The Evolution of Human Sexuality (Cambridge, 1999).

Prühlen, S. ‘What was Best for an Infant from the Middle Ages to Early Modern Times in Europe? The Discussion Concerning Wet Nurses’, Hygiea Internationalis: an Interdisciplinary Journal for the History of Public Health, 6/2 (2007), pp. 195-210.

Schmid, R., The Untold Story of Milk – Revised and Updated (Washington DC, 2009).

Schroeder, J. A., Deborah’s Daughters: Gender Politics and Biblical Interpretation (Oxford, 2014).

Smith-Howard, K., Pure and Modern Milk: An Environmental History Since 1900 (Oxford, 2014).

Valenze, D., Milk: A Local and Global History (New Haven, 2011).

Velten, H., Milk: A Global History (London, 2010).

Von Greyerz, K., Religion and Culture in Early Modern Europe, 1500-1800 (Oxford, 2008).

Wall, W., Recipes for Thought: Knowledge and Taste in the Early Modern Kitchen (Philadelphia, 2016).

Walsham, A., ‘The Reformation and ‘the Disenchantment of the World’ Reassessed’, The Historical Journal, 51/2 (2008), pp. 497-528.

Walsham, A. ‘Miracles and the Counter-Reformation Mission to England’, The Historical Journal, 46/4 (2003), pp. 779-815.

Warburton, G., ‘Gender, Supernatural Power, Agency and the Metamorphoses of the Familiar in Early Modern Pamphlet Accounts of English Witchcraft’, Parergon, 20/2 (2003), pp. 95-118.

Yeldham, C., ‘Use of Almonds in Late-medieval English Cookery’, in H. Walker (ed.), Milk: Beyond the Dairy, Proceedings of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery 1999 (London, 2000), pp. 352-361.

The Brave New World of Investment

Link to PDF

Featured image courtesy of Aviva Archives

Author Biography

Joshua Thorpe graduates this year from the University of Leicester with a History BA. He will now complete an MSc at the London School of Economics, exploring empires, colonialism and globalisation.

Abstract

The 1890s saw the yields on the Norwich Union’s traditional domestic investments begin to decline, forcing the firm’s capital abroad, in pursuit of the security and high yields required. The purpose of this paper is to consider how the firm’s perception of risk was shaped during this period. The study considers two factors: the information available to the firm and the influence of colonial status on investment decisions. By the end of the period, the firm was embedded in an expansive network of overseas branches. The senior officials within these branches were increasingly providing the directors in the head office with investment-related information. This study breaks new ground as it focuses on an aspect of the firm not covered previously in published work.

The Brave New World of Investment

Introduction

In December 1904, the life clerks at the Norwich Union crossed Surrey Street to their new head office. The interior of the building was fitted with a large quantity of marble that had been mined from Italian quarries and was initially intended for Westminster Cathedral.[1] The level of opulence was not abnormal for the life assurance industry. In the most basic terms, companies within this industry invested their accumulated funds at interest while they waited for their clients to die. By gaining a healthy rate of interest the companies could indulge in lavish offices. Indeed, the District Inspector for the Norwich, after a stroll in London, remarked that in terms of ‘imposing and magnificent establishments, insurance ranks an easy first’.[2] However, the new head office was a marked change for the firm which just a decade earlier had been managing a fund of £1,872,270, which had been decreasing year-on-year.

The manner in which the firm invested its capital had significantly changed during the preceding decade providing an unmatched opportunity to understand what influenced investment decisions within the life assurance industry. The close of the century saw opportunities for domestic investments diminish substantially; the network of British railway lines was all but complete and other infrastructure and industrial development in Britain was more advanced than elsewhere in the world.[3] The yields on other domestic investments such as land and mortgages, which had been so favoured by the firm, had also declined having been saturated by foreign capital, especially from the US.[4] Falling rates of interest in Britain forced the directors to look further afield to gain the security and returns which they required. Indeed, as early as 1891, it was openly acknowledged within the assurance industry that part of the proverbial ‘mine has [sic] been worked out’.[5] Thus, with the difficulty of finding suitable investments in Britain increasing, almost half of all British life assurance companies extended their limits of investment between 1880 and 1896, allowing them to invest in the relatively higher-yielding colonial and foreign securities.[6]

This raises the question: what influenced the Norwich’s perception of risk? Two factors are fundamental in exploring the investments of the firm as their capital flowed overseas. The first barrier is informational and the second can be grouped as ethnic, cultural, and linguistic. The development of information technology during this period was dismantling the first barrier to investment. The British Empire provided a field in which the perceived differences in ethnicity and culture were minimised, consequently stimulating a more substantial flow of information.

The research in this paper will explore how the firm perceived risk as it ventured into investments abroad. The first section will focus on the increasing flow of information during the period under analysis, how it allowed the firm to engage in investments unavailable to other investors, and the effect that this had on the flow of capital. The second section will focus on empirical data relating to the investments, how the perception of safe investments within the empire provided an opportunity for more broad investments. It will also explore how professionalisation and the view of investments as a portfolio as opposed to an individual basis allowed the firm to adopt diversification.

The importance of this research is its contribution to an ongoing historical debate over whether insurance companies conducted their investments in a manner which did not best benefit the British productive sector. The central allegation is that British financial institutions invested an undue portion of their funds abroad, forsaking the domestic business sector. Insurance companies had ever-increasing importance as institutional investors and as such the development of insurance companies’ investment policies is significant within a broad set of issues concerning British economic development. Furthermore, this research will be able to provide details regarding the evolution of institutional investors’ investment policies and address the importance of information and empire to their decisions and perceptions of risk. The narrow focus of this research will add to the limited existing literature focusing on the Norwich and more broadly the assurance industry, therefore enabling a richer understanding of the influences on investment decisions.

The archives of the Norwich Union, although filled with sources, have been relatively neglected by scholars. There are two exceptions, both of which, rather than being historically analytical, had a more commemorative purpose. Robert Blake’s Esto Perpetua provides an account of the firm’s management hierarchy and explores how mortality rates were calculated.[7] Although these details are important, Blake does not focus on how the firm chose investments or what influenced its decisions. Jonathan Mantle’s Norwich Union: The First 200 Years, on the other hand, provides a narrative of the directors appointed at the firm. It is an illustrative book with numerous photographs and details of the changes introduced by each director, for example, holidays, new business, and bonuses.[8] Taken together, these contributions provide useful background information about the Norwich, from its daily running to the appointment of directors. However, absent from these contributions is a rigorous analysis of the firm’s investments.

The assurance industry more generally has also suffered relative scholarly neglect. This neglect does not arise from the lack of primary source material as Cockrell and Green have produced an extensive guide to the archives of British insurance companies, listing the types of sources available.[9] Published material on the companies generally focuses on how mortality rates were calculated and the management practices.[10] In 2003, Mae Baker and Michael Collins emphasised the need for widespread archival research to further our understanding of the insurance industry.[11]

Information: Cables, Connections, and Capital

By the close of the nineteenth century, there was a global network of cables that connected all of the world’s major financial centres. These reduced the past delays in communication from days, weeks, or months to just minutes. The London Stock Exchange (LSE), where brokers bought and sold securities on the Norwich’s behalf, was the pre-eminent financial centre in the world. Indeed, governments, municipalities, and private enterprises across the globe turned to London for capital. The result was that by the eve of the First World War (WWI) 5000 securities were listed on the LSE, the vast majority of which were for overseas locations, either colonies or foreign states.[12] During the period under review, the firm steadily increased its holdings of securities, particularly foreign bonds. This trend mirrored that of the insurance industry as a whole, with holdings of this type of asset increasing from 7 percent in 1870 to over 40 percent by 1914.[13]

With each company possessing a unique set of connections and indeed, each financial centre being part of a particular network, the information available to different firms and locations was intrinsically unique. The access to information fundamentally influenced the Norwich’s perception of risk and thus the geographical locations in which it invested. The inequality of information, or informational asymmetries, meant that each company possessed a different assessment and management of risk. This section will track the transformation of the flow of information accessible to the Norwich, assessing the extent to which this influenced its investment decisions.

Although a number of  contemporaries such as Keynes recognised that there was an inclination among many companies to invest in countries with colonial status, the cause of this tendency is debated.[14] Magee and Thompson deny that imperial patriotism determined the destination of capital, remarking that British capital was not influenced by ‘imperial piety’; instead, at the heart of their concept is the notion that investors were rational and entirely self-interested.[15] They argue that capital was directed to these particular regions as a result of the information which flowed through networks across the ‘British world’. Similarly, deep interpersonal connections existed with Americans, which helped to promote the dissemination of knowledge and a feeling of trust.[16] In this sense, knowledge of the location, which was naturally increased by the empire, reduced the perception of risk. In other words, the British investor was better informed about developments within imperial territories and thus more likely to view investments within these regions as relatively low risk.

The information available to the Norwich as it initially ventured into the stock market came primarily from brokers. The finance committee received lists of securities from multiple brokers, frequently as many as five, arranged by the amount of interest that they yielded. Many of the brokerage companies would be used throughout the period by the Norwich, including Messrs Buchanan & Fergusson, Basil Montgomery, and Gurney. The investments needed to provide an interest rate of more than 3 percent to allow the Norwich to generate sufficient capital to pay upon the death of a customer, but the capital also needed to be secure. The lists of securities were first received in 1891 following the extension of the rules of investment, which allowed the firm to broaden its holdings from domestic to overseas.[17] A method used to decrease the risk of investing abroad was to limit the amount of capital invested in any one security to no more than £10,000. This amount would steadily increase during the period and eventually double, demonstrating increased investing confidence.

At the finance committee meetings, the firm’s senior officials would decide which stocks would be selected as well as the amount of capital to be invested in each of these securities. If required, further information from the City of London was requested and obtained via telegraph, and after 1896 using the trunk telephone line. The information received from the City became part of the director’s input to the board of directors, which had the final say on all investments, and the finance committee.[18] The firm developed more confidence with its investing during this period and, as demonstrated later in this section, gathered information from its growing network of overseas branches, especially those within the ‘British World’.

The Institute of Actuaries occupied an essential role throughout the period by distributing information about investment practices via their journal. The Institute was also a place in which the leading figures of the insurance industry debated the best manner in which to calculate mortality rates, bonuses, and investment practices. A director of the Norwich, J. J. W. Deuchar, had been elected as a fellow of the Institute in 1883.[19] Damning testimonies about countries, and in some cases whole continents, provide an insight into the attitudes of individuals in the industry. For instance, A. G. Mackenzie, manager and actuary at the Credit Assurance and Guarantee Corporation, provided an assessment imbued with the language of a medical examiner of the situation of central and south American countries: their ‘family history is unsatisfactory, their constitutions uncertain’ he stated, ‘and their assurances are not to be accepted’.[20] From this, it is understood that uncertainty about this region was not only based on its history of civil unrest and revolutions, but also the fact that the region’s legal systems were considered insufficient to protect the firm’s capital. In addition, their guarantees were met with uncertainty as a result of past defaults. Following the Baring Crisis, a reassessment of the region was occurring en masse.[21] This assessment reveals a number of salient points: firstly, that those within the insurance industry could generalise countries, secondly, that the history of the country could influence them, and finally, that political events were particularly important in shaping investment decisions.

Information in terms of both quantity and quality was of crucial importance in the decision-making process. The nineteenth-century investor still lacked important information required to discriminate between rival investments.[22] Reports of political crises were a decisive factor in investment attitudes. On 26 November 1910, The Economist announced alarming dispatches about Mexico. The paper depicted it as ‘plunged into civil war’, referring to the political turmoil that engulfed the country which had been reported during the previous year.[23] A civil war was inevitably bad for investment, and as a result the Norwich was highly dismissive of Mexican stocks during and after this period, consistently rejecting various securities offering relatively high rates of interest.[24] In this sense the reputation of countries was not a fixed value; instead, investments within certain countries could become perceived as presenting more risk due to political events.[25]

Articles in the journal provide further insight into how an image of reputation about a country was formed. Speaking at the institute in 1912, G. E. May suggested that in situations where an office is not large enough to send out a senior official, external experts on the spot must be used in order to form an opinion on the safety of the investment.[26] Hayek has shown that due to the highly decentralised nature of information, practically every individual has some advantage over all others because they possess unique information due to their location.[27] Therefore, the ability to utilise so-called ‘men on the spot’ provided a distinct advantage with regard to the level of information to which a firm can have access.

These individuals were often expatriates residing in a particular locale. However, in some cases, particularly within the ‘British World’, a native English-speaking population with comparable cultural values offered up native partners who had intimate knowledge of their immediate surroundings. The method of using external on the spot experts was adopted by the Norwich due to its overseas contacts, for instance, A. S. Preston, a British expatriate based in Alexandria, who offered advice about taking up investments in Egypt.[28] The knowledge that these experts could provide would stimulate investment in these regions. However, G. E. May was also quick to insist that these opinions were only to be used for the purpose of confirmation.[29] The concern was that these external advisors could direct firms towards investments in which they were themselves involved; consequently, the safest method of obtaining information was through an internal expert.

The Norwich was also in an excellent position to be able to send out senior representatives to inspect investments on the spot; this became likely when the firm was offered significant stakes in the underwriting of building works. Only a certain level of information and thus a particular ability to calculate risk was available to the officials in Norwich, and therefore staff members were sometimes dispatched to gain further information on the spot. The dispatching of senior officials to investigate potential investments was a marked feature of the pre-1900 period when the Norwich had less than twenty overseas branches and agencies; as such, no global representatives were available for the firm to investigate investments overseas. For instance, when offered an opportunity to invest in mortgages of high-class properties in Minnesota, the firm sent out a delegation to examine the business. The investment was organised by the Minnesota Loan and Trust company, whose President, A. Merrill, had been interviewed in relation to the scheme. The risk of the investment would be mitigated by taking equal stakes with the Law Union and Hand in Hand companies.[30]

By 1906, the Norwich’s involvement in Canada, another part of the ‘British World’, was becoming more pronounced. The country had been transformed during the late nineteenth century from a relatively small and dispersed population into an industrialised nation. In the 1890s the rate of settlement in the west of Canada had significantly increased as technological changes had allowed wheat to be grown at more northern latitudes.[31] The period 1901-1911 was to become known as the ‘Wheat Boom’, during which per capita income increased by 20 percent.[32] The industrialisation and thus urbanisation of Europe provided a large market, and the decreasing transport costs from the wheat fields on the Canadian Pacific made produce more competitive. Consequently, farming on the prairies became more profitable.[33] The growing affluent population located in the new urban centres required utilities and to accommodate these requirements municipal and provincial governments borrowed capital to pay for waterworks and electricity grids. The opportunities for investors had thus significantly increased during this period.

Having operated its branch in Toronto since 1899, the Norwich was in a favourable position to be able to take advantage of these opportunities. In 1906, the firm directed a native Canadian senior official within the branch, W. Kirby, to take on the role of granting loans to farms. Kirby granted a significant number of loans throughout the period with relatively high interest rates of up to 8 percent.[34] The firm was willing to offer loans from $1,000 to $5,000, and by limiting the amount of capital it could ensure that the risks involved were kept relatively low.[35] Kirby was given the authority to accept loans of up to $2,500; for loans above this amount he would have to seek approval from the board in Norwich. He was paid a commission of 1 percent.[36] His role was crucial as he had access to much more information than the directors who were thousands of miles away in the boardroom. The native senior officials that the firm utilised for investments had a greater familiarity with and knowledge of the developments taking place within the country in question. The Norwich’s network of branches allowed it to participate in opportunities that would be unattainable for other British investors.

By this point the stock exchange in Toronto had risen to become one of the world’s principal exchanges, offering an assortment of domestic securities such as utilities and tramways. The popularity of Canadian municipal investments was likely influenced by a belief that the imperial government would not allow a public entity within a colony to default.[37] Canadian investors would inevitably have been in a better position to participate in investments compared to outsiders, due to their familiarity and knowledge regarding the developments taking place within the country.[38] By 1911, the Norwich held almost £100,000 worth of stock that had been purchased on the Toronto stock exchange.[39] The significant level of investment was made possible by the director of the Canadian branch at Toronto, J. B. Laidlaw. The firm began to purchase relatively significant amounts of Canadian bonds in February 1910, which were initially purchased on the LSE with advice via cable from Laidlaw.[40] Despite requesting a larger commission for his role relative to his counterpart in the US, Laidlaw received the same commission of 1/8 percent; his investing powers were kept to $10,000 per security, but he was given autonomy to select the investments.[41] This allowed the Norwich to gain safe stocks yielding relatively high interest of 4 and in some cases 5 percent.

By the eve of WWI, the Norwich was embedded in a network of men on the spot. These men actively advised the directors and in some cases purchased stocks on behalf of the firm. The information available to the firm during the period fundamentally altered and helped to shape the firm’s investments as well as its perception of risk. Information could flow quickly and with relative ease throughout the British world via sophisticated communications technology. The Norwich was significantly better informed about developments occurring in regions in which it had branches, but this was not the only important factor; while having men on the spot was vital to the Norwich’s ability to discriminate between investments, it is clear that the additional insight provided by native individuals was essential. The collaboration with native employees and men on the spot was only possible with the same language. English as the Lingua Franca allowed the firm to engage in extensive investments in Canada and South Africa, the nature of which would be impossible in countries where English was not the native language. The following section will explore to what extent the British Empire influenced the investment locations. It will seek to answer the following questions: What were the imagined benefits of investing within the colonies? What were the actual benefits? Was the ‘empire effect’ an enduring influence or did the outlook of the Norwich change during the period?

‘Empire Effect’: Enduring Influence or Passing Phase?

The British Empire, assembled over more than three hundred years, encompassed no less than one-quarter of today’s sovereign states.[42] By the close of the nineteenth century, it remained the largest of the European empires. The colonies within the empire absorbed a vast amount of British capital, with as many as 71.4 percent of all railway securities listed on the LSE for construction of lines in these regions.[43] There was, however, much more to the empire than the red-painted areas that appeared on the map, as Britain also had a so-called ‘informal empire’ with influence in Latin America, Asia, and Africa. [44] With such an extensive world-system as the background to the period under review, the extent to which the empire influenced the Norwich’s investment decisions is an issue which requires further exploration.

Empirical research by Ferguson and Schularick suggests that borrowing costs for the colonies were lower in London than for those countries outside of the empire.[45] This has led to them coining the phrase ‘empire effect’ to explain why British investors preferred investing within the empire. According to Ferguson, control from the metropole encouraged the investors to view these investments as more secure. Investments of this type were likely to be considered akin to domestic investments rather than foreign ones. However, some historians have questioned this conclusion, for example, Chavez and Flandreau argue that a so-called ‘empire effect’ is easily misidentified. If factors such as the colonies having a younger population were not controlled for in the data, then what would be called an empire effect may have had little to do with the institutions of empire.[46] Much of the existing material on the export of British capital does not consider imperial patriotism as a significant factor in influencing the location of investment. This section will argue that imperial patriotism influenced the firm in the initial phase of internationalisation, providing a channel for investment with similar cultural and ethnic elements to the domestic sphere. It will also argue that this influence lasted for just under a decade as the assurance industry in general gradually shifted towards professionalisation, calculated risks and diversification.

As early as 1885, the potential of the colonies as locations for investment was recognised within the assurance industry. Thomas Bond Sprague, in his opening address to the Institute of Actuaries, foresaw an extensive period when the vast ‘unoccupied’ land in the colonies would require a significant amount of British capital for infrastructure and utilities to make it profitable.[47] These areas were prosperous regions with growing populations under the same crown and with the same laws as in Britain; capital could thus be invested there without the ‘feeling of doubt that must always attach to investments in foreign countries’.[48] The vast European empires did make it possible for capital to flow abroad as easily as domestically because the same currency and laws often prevailed.

A crucial element within Ferguson’s argument is the belief that the British government would intervene to protect against default in the colonies. Ferguson argues that close supervision from Whitehall converted investments in distant lands from ‘foreign’ into safer investments in the eyes of the investors. The British governors did, at times, try to intervene to protect the interests of British capitalists in the empire.[49] However, as Andrew Dilley has shown, while the areas within the empire were subject to some theoretical controls, the powers were rarely used in practice, and then only for diplomatic or ‘imperial’ interests.[50] It is problematic to attribute the empire effect to British control over the colonies, which were largely autonomous after the grant of Responsible Government. Indeed, in 1901 The Economist remarked that ‘for internal affairs’ the colonies were ‘almost independent republics.’[51] The British government had very little control over the capital invested in the colonies and investors were aware of this fact. Therefore, it cannot easily be argued that the firm was influenced by an impression that the British government would intervene to protect its capital.

Another possible explanation for the preference relates to the British government because its policies provided a tangible benefit for investing within the empire. Its policies may have encouraged the Norwich to favour investments in the colonies. The Colonial Stock Act of 1877 allowed colonies to issue inscribed stock, which was a type of security listed on a register; this would protect against loss, destruction, or theft.[52] This ensured a much more secure form of investment than had previously been available in the form of the ‘bonds to bearer.’[53] The colonies wanted their obligations treated at a level comparable to the British Consolidated Stock (consols). The subsequent 1900 Act allowed trustees who were not explicitly empowered by their deeds to invest in stocks of this kind, to invest in inscribed stock. As demonstrated by Bernard Attard, the confidence of the investor would be further increased by the Bank of England, the registrar of British national debt, and London and Westminster acting as the registrars of the inscribed stocks.[54]

Some borrowers clearly hoped to improve the marketability of their debt by associating themselves with the Bank of England.[55] The Canadian finance minister W. S. Fielding, for instance, thought that admission of Canadian stocks to the trustee list would be a ‘great advantage to Canada’ as it would enhance ‘the value of, its securities’.[56] The Act involved the colonial governments accepting that they could be superseded in legal terms by the imperial government if any legal provisions were altered in a manner that would be injurious to British stockholders.[57] Although the 1900 Act did open up more fields of capital for the self-governing colonies to utilise, the resulting flow of investment depressed the relevant interest rates even lower.[58] The Norwich held a significant amount of inscribed stock during the Victorian period but shifted away from this approach after 1900.

As Table 1 shows, overseas investments constituted a significant proportion of the firm’s portfolio towards the end of the period. The general trends are: a decline in domestic investments due to declining yields; rising investments in the colonies during this period due to the perceived security and higher yields; and increased foreign investments to a level on par with the colonies in 1905 and notably higher in the years subsequent. The firm responded to the declining returns for colonial government securities, which by the early 1890s were offering 3.5 percent or less.[59] The firm’s holdings of colonial government securities in 1891 was 12.1 percent, decreasing to 4.4 percent by 1901, while the Norwich increased its holding of municipal securities which it did not hold at all in 1891 to 19.7 percent by 1901.[60] The firm seems to have mitigated the decreased rate by taking on more municipal holdings in imperial territories.

 

Table 1: Norwich Union Investment Distribution by Type, 1891-1916, percent[61]

1891 1896 1901 1905 1911 1916
Domestic 66.9 21 1.4 1.5 1.6 21.1
Colonial 12.1 21.2 24.1 14 11.2 14.2
Foreign 5.2 11.6 15.6 14 30.4 21.6
Railway 15.8 42.6 38 24.9 56.7 43.2
Waterworks 0 3.5 20.8 45.6 0 0

 

The table also demonstrates that a sizeable amount of the firm’s capital was invested in railways. Railways were being built throughout the colonies as well as in the US, Latin America, and elsewhere. Indeed, together North and South America absorbed 80 percent of British overseas railway capital.[62] The US, for instance, was exploiting its interior and as a result expanding its domestic and foreign markets; furthermore, it was experiencing years of large-scale net immigration. While investments in infrastructural developments in the colonies may appear not to make sense, more understanding can be gained when the erroneous contemporary belief that the population of Great Britain would equal that of the US by the mid-twentieth century is taken into account.[63] The flow of capital allowed for the development of the colonies, which would be able to support the predicted overflow of Britain’s population.

The degrees of perceived foreignness and cultural distance may help to explain the firm’s initial preference for investments in the colonies after it reduced its holdings of domestic securities. In the 1970s, academics at the University of Uppsala proposed that the internationalisation of companies’ investments progressed in stages. The first countries which companies invested in outside of their own were countries which were the most similar to its own as they are perceived to offer more safety, companies then moved onto other more exotic markets. Uppsala theorists identified ‘psychic distance’ as a critical factor influencing investment locations.[64] Importantly, this concept may not correspond to an actual measurable difference in values, culture or institutions. Instead, it is the perception of the economic actor or actors and thus may have led to exaggerating or underestimating the degree of cultural distance involved. The investments of the Norwich flowed initially to the colonies which presented low psychic distance before it progressed towards higher-yielding foreign investments.

The psychic distance may have been lower for countries within the empire for a range of factors. The money invested in the colonies, whether a de jure British colony such as India or a colony all but in name like Egypt, was arguably more secure than capital invested in sovereign states. The gold standard was insufficient to decrease the psychic distance; members of the gold standard could suspend gold convertibility and could also default on their debts. To varying degrees and at different times, Argentina, Mexico, and Japan all did precisely that.[65]

The colonies did indeed offer promising fields of investment with the need for utilities and infrastructure to support their growing populations. To a large extent, the increase in the flow of British capital to the white settler colonies was related to their inherent development potential; these societies had few sources of capital of their own, meaning that they turned to Britain for investment. There were also racial notions that informed the trust in settler colonies. Indeed, in 1901 The Times informed its readers that the colonists had inherited the best traditions from Britain and they may be trusted to work out their own destiny in a ‘manly spirit’ and with the ‘practical sagacity that marks the British race’.[66] The authors of investment prospectuses often played on this sense of imperial solidarity and notions of race when trying to encourage investment.[67] The notion of shared identity minimised the perceived distance towards the colonies.

Towards the close of the nineteenth century, the assurance industry became much more professionalised. During the examination to become a fellow at the Institute of Actuaries, the applicant had to expound their views on the merits and demerits of a list of investments including colonial municipal securities, railway ordinary stock, and freehold ground rents.[68] The trend continued into the Edwardian period with the applicants being asked about British and American railway stocks and which country they would advise investment in at the present time and the reason for this.[69] Given this level of professionalisation, the notion of a significant patriotic bias becomes somewhat untenable.

Figure 1: Geographic Distribution of the Norwich Union’s Investments, 1911, percent[70]

 

 

 

 

 

In the Edwardian period the investment decisions of the directors within the life assurance industry, in general, were being imbued with actuarial thinking; with investments increasingly being viewed together rather than individually. As Graph 1 suggests, by 1900 the new watchword for most directors was ‘diversification’.[71] This was a marked change from the preceding period. G. E. May, addressing the Institute of Actuaries, acknowledged that ‘the last fourteen years had completely changed actuaries’ views concerning the investment of funds’.[72] He recognised that the investments of British assurance companies were diverse in their geographical distribution, a trend which he commended, and insisted that they should ensure that they did not overload ‘any particular country’.[73] Furthermore, he stated:

Since all of our assurance business is based on the law of averages, one would naturally have thought that this principle would have been given full weight when considering the question of the investment of funds. I am afraid, however, that in the past very little attention was paid to this point; the ruling consideration appears to have been to endeavour to satisfy oneself as to the safety of the capital in each investment considered by itself.[74]

This indicates that investments were viewed on an individual basis, suggesting that from the early twentieth century there was a gradual shift away from this tactic and towards viewing the spread of investments as mitigating risk. The old approach would have kept the Norwich out of risky markets and in the colonies where investment was considered to be safer. The foreign market offered relatively higher yields, but was inherently riskier. Thus, the Norwich and many other life assurance companies had to use strategies to try to mitigate the risk.[75] The main strategy that the Norwich used was to diversify its portfolio; by investing different amounts in disparate locations, it could be sure that should one default on payments, it would have little bearing on the firm’s investments as a whole. The method was reliant on the low correlation between different states, markets, and types of security and was a reaction to declining domestic yields, rather than a long-term plan.

As Graph 1 shows, by 1911 the Norwich’s capital had reached every continent of the globe. Argentina consumed a significant proportion of the Norwich’s capital (4.6 percent). Argentina was a distant country, without colonial status and without a shared language. However, as Philip Newman acknowledged while addressing the Institute of Actuaries in 1908, when attempting to categorise the investments into home, colonial, and foreign, Argentina should be substituted from the ‘foreign railways’ column as they are ‘largely financed from Great Britain’.[76] Indeed, the Anglo-Argentine relationship was tightly bound.

Developments in transportation in the nineteenth century had seen the fertile Argentine wilderness transformed into profitable agricultural areas.[77] It was British capital that helped to fund the expansive railway network in Argentina, and it was British-owned railways that contributed to the prosperity of the country.[78] This would have reduced the perceived risk as the people engaged in the building and running of the Argentinian system were British. It would have side-stepped the issue of cultural or perceived differences between the countries. Furthermore, British-owned companies ran these railway lines in Argentina. Even the features of the train lines were distinctly English, with stations designed to look like English cottages and signals to stop and go all written in English. Visitors to Argentina could therefore be forgiven for thinking that they had arrived at a British colony.[79] British-owned companies also augmented the level of investment in different regions. The British-owned China Clay Corporation, for instance, would have allowed the firm to invest £60,000 in debentures.[80] The debentures were offered to the firm through C. E. Cottier.[81] This was important because it was not dealing with natives directly; its investment was with fellow Britons.

During the Edwardian period, the Norwich held a far more comprehensive range of securities compared to the preceding decades. Rather than the traditional outlets of colonial securities, the directors had turned to those offering higher yields and mitigated the risk by scattering their capital far and wide. The period was marked by a gradual shift, first from domestic to colonial investments as yields on traditional investments declined, and then towards foreign investments as companies adopted diversification. The empire was a crucial first step into a world of opportunities. The cultural and perceived distance was small enough to mitigate the risk while the returns offered were better than those in domestic investments. However, the Norwich may be an anomaly with much broader research needed to discover if its pattern was unique or if it reflected the assurance industry in general. The firm’s pattern was by no means the only route a company could take: the Liverpool, London and Globe, for instance, had a relatively conservative outlook and kept its investments in low-yielding domestic railway securities.[82]

Conclusion

As Hayek suggested in 1945, information was fundamentally decentralised; thus, the Norwich’s network of branches served to ensure the directors were better informed.[83] Each financial centre possessed its own network of information but so too it seems did multinational companies like the Norwich, which had established a network of branches in order to gather information. The flow of information to the Norwich fundamentally changed during the period with new branches opening up in distant places around the world. The firm was able to gather information more quickly and with better quality than other investors in Britain. The rhythm and pace of the Norwich’s internationalisation was guided by the number of branches the firm opened during the period. Each branch was added to an expanding network in which the firm was embedded. These nodes took a more active role in the Edwardian period due to the possibility of entering into opportunities in the West of Canada or on the Transvaal, with the nodes functioning as lenders on the spot or utilising the New York or Toronto stock exchanges. The risk of investing in these opportunities was mitigated by the flow of information gained by the firm through internal employees such as Laidlaw and Kirby in Canada or external collaborators such as Preston in Egypt. The defining feature affecting the efficiency of the network was whether these nodes were natives, which was possible in countries with shared language such as the US, Canada or South Africa.

The internationalisation of the Norwich’s investment funds appears to follow that proposed by the Uppsala theorists, who suggest that internationalisation progressed with companies first investing in countries that they perceived to be similar to their own before progressing to more distant locations. Less tangible effects such as crown loyalty, the willingness of the British government to intervene, and cultural similarities, combined with more concrete benefits of investing in the empire such as inscribed stock, encouraged the firm to perceive these investments as significantly safer. The growing professionalisation of the industry and the high yields on foreign investments forced the firm to adopt a more actuarial outlook, using diversification to access high yields while keeping the risks relatively low. Anglo-Argentine railways and British-owned companies in foreign countries such as China also served to ease the flow of investment to these regions.

This paper has provided new research and brought this together with long-standing debates about the economics of imperialism, drawing links between the ways in which the Norwich received information and how this stimulated investment in the colonies. It has utilised numerous quinquennial reports in order to demonstrate how the firm mirrored the Uppsala internationalisation model, venturing first into countries which were perceived as most similar to the firm’s home nation. Records of over 400 securities have also been employed to demonstrate the geographic distribution reached in 1911, thus providing a clearer understanding of how life assurance companies functioned during this time of significant change and why their capital flowed overseas instead of being invested domestically. The study has also unveiled rich details about how assurance companies weighed up investments during this period of immense change. Finally, this paper has established the ways in which the firm and the industry in general responded to a period of fundamental change in which the yields on traditional domestic investments fell and information technology significantly changed.

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[2] F. A. McKeand, The Palatial Halls of Insurance (Norwich, 1897), p. 21.

[3] E. Hutson, ‘The Early Managed Fund Industry: Investment Trusts in 19th Century Britain’, International Review of Financial Analysis, 14 (2005), p. 442.

[4] H. Cockburn, ‘Opening Address by the President’, Journal of the Institute of Actuaries, 39 (1905), p. 5.

[5] A. G. Mackenzie, ‘On the Practice and Powers of Assurance Companies in regard to the Investment of their Life Assurance Funds’, Journal of the Institute of Actuaries, 29 (1891), p. 213.

[6] Finance Committee Minute Book, No. 1, NU3938, Aviva Archives, Norwich (AA), No. 28/10/1890; D. Paulin, ‘Life Office Investments Retrospect and Outlook’, Transactions of the Actuarial Society of Edinburgh, 3 (1896), p. 239.

[7] R. Blake, Esto Perpetua: Norwich Union Life Insurance Society, 1808-1958 (London, 1958), p. 62.

[8] J. Mantle, Norwich Union: The First 200 Years (London, 1997), pp. 44-45.

[9] H. A. L. Cockrell and E. Green, The British Insurance Business, 1547-1970 (London, 1976).

[10] G. Clayton, British Insurance (London, 1971); P. J. Franklin and C. Woodhead, The UK Life Assurance Industry (London, 1980); H. E. Raynes, A History of British Insurance (London, 1964); O. Westall, The Historian and the Business of Insurance (Manchester, 1984).

[11] M. Baker and M. Collins, ‘The Asset Portfolio Composition of British Insurance Firms, 1900-1965’, Financial History Review, 10 (2003), p. 138.

[12] J. Rutterford, M. Upton, and D. Kodwani (eds), Financial Strategy: Adding Stakeholder Value (Chichester, 2006), p. 8.

[13] P. Scott, The Property Masters: A History of the British Commercial Property Sector (Oxford, 1996), p. 27.

[14] N. Ferguson and M. Schularick, ‘The Empire Effect: The Determinants of Country Risk in the First Age of Globalisation, 1880-1913’, The Journal of Economic History, 66 (2006), p. 283.

[15] G. B. Magee and A. S. Thompson, Empire and Globalisation: Networks of People, Goods and Capital in the British World, c. 1850-1914 (Cambridge, 2010), p.170.

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[17] Finance Committee Minute Book, No. 1, NU3938, Aviva Archives, Norwich (AA), No. 18/02/1891; Finance Committee Minute Book, No. 2, NU3939, Aviva Archives, Norwich (AA), No. 02/09/1896.

[18] Finance Committee Minute Book, No. 6, NU3943, Aviva Archives, Norwich (AA), No. 03/07/1908, No. 11/06/1909, No. 09/07/1909.

[19]Journal of the Institute of Actuaries, 24, no. 4 (1884), p. i.

[20] Mackenzie, ‘On the Practice and Powers of Assurance Companies’, p. 203.

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[23] The Economist, 14 August 1909, p. 323; 26 November 1910, p. 1072.

[24] Finance Committee Minute Book, No. 7, NU3944, Aviva Archives, Norwich (AA), p. 119, p. 132, p. 218, p. 235.

[25] M. Tomz, Reputation and International Cooperation: Sovereign Debt Across Three Centuries (Princeton, 2007), p. 25.

[26] G. E. May, ‘The Investment of Life Assurance Funds’, Journal of the Institute of Actuaries, 46 (1912), p. 140.

[27] F. A. Hayek, ‘The Use of Knowledge in Society’, The American Economic Review, 35 (1945), p. 521.

[28] L. Mak, The British in Egypt: Community, Crime and Crises, 1882-1922 (London, 2011), p. 131; Finance Committee Minute Book, No. 6, NU3943, Aviva Archives, Norwich (AA), No. 01/05/1908, No. 16/10/1908.

[29] May, ‘Investment of Life Assurance Funds’, p. 141.

[30] Finance Committee Minute Book, No. 2, NU3939, Aviva Archives, Norwich (AA), No. 22/09/1897.

[31] R. Pomfret, The Economic Development of Canada (London, 2006), p. 147.

[32] G. W. Bertram, ‘The Relevance of the Wheat Boom in Canadian Economic Growth’, The Canadian Journal of Economics, 6 (1973), p. 545.

[33] A. G. Green, ‘Twentieth-Century Canadian Economic History’, in S. Engerman and R. Gallman (eds), The Cambridge Economic History of the United States (Cambridge, 2000), p. 202.

[34] Board Minute Book, NU1402, Aviva Archives, Norwich (AA), No. 22/04/1910, No. 17/06/1910; Board Minute Book, NU1403, Aviva Archives, Norwich (AA), No. 30/09/1910, No. 07/10/1910, No. 25/11/1910, No. 09/12/1910, No. 12/05/1911.

[35] Finance Committee Minute Book, No. 5, NU3942, Aviva Archives, Norwich (AA), No. 25/05/1906.

[36] Finance Committee Minute Book, No. 5, NU3942, Aviva Archives, Norwich (AA), No. 25/05/1906.

[37] A. Smith, British Businessmen and Canadian Confederation (Montreal, 2008), p. 34.

[38] R. C. Michie, ‘The Canadian Securities Market, 1850-1914’, The Business History Review, 62 (1988), p. 48.

[39] Stock Exchange Securities: Valuations, NU4298, Aviva Archives, Norwich (AA), p. 7.

[40] Financial Committee Minute Book, No. 7, NU3944, Aviva Archives, Norwich (AA), p. 125.

[41] Financial Committee Minute Book, No. 7, NU3944, Aviva Archives, Norwich (AA), pp. 128, 139, 164, 166, 202.

[42] J. Darwin, Unfinished Empire: The Global Expansion of Britain (London, 2012), p. 1.

[43] I. Stone, The Global Export of Capital from Great Britain, 1865-1914 (London, 1999), p. 414.

[44] J. Darwin, The Empire Project: The Rise and Fall of the British World-System, 1830-1970 (Cambridge, 2009), p. 1.

[45] N. Ferguson and M. Schularick, ‘The Empire Effect’, p. 297.

[46] M. Chavez and M. Flandreau, ‘High and Dry: The Liquidity and Credit of Colonial and Foreign Government Debt in the London Stock Exchange, 1880-1910’, The Journal of Economic History, 77 (2017), p. 9.

[47] T. B. Sprague, ‘Opening Address by the President’, Journal of the Institute of Actuaries, 25 (1885), p. 82.

[48]Sprague, ‘Opening Address by the President’, p. 82; The Insurance Gazette and Provident Societies Chronicle, 1 July 1886, p. 4078.

[49] M. Umerura and R. Fujioka (eds), The Palgrave Macmillan Comparative Responses to Globalisation: Experiences of British and Japanese Enterprises (London, 2013), p. 84.

[50] A. Dilley, Finance, Politics, and Imperialism: Australia, Canada, and the City of London, c.1896-1914 (Basingstoke, 2012), p. 92.

[51] The Economist, 6 July 1901, p. 1007.

[52] A. Dilley, Finance, Politics and Imperialism, p. 95.

[53] B. Attard, ‘Imperial Central Banks? The Bank of England, London & Westminster Bank, and the British Empire before 1914’, in O. Feiertag and M. Margairaz (eds), Les Banques Centrales et L’État-Nation (Paris, 2016), p. 198.

[54] Attard, ‘Imperial Central Banks?’, p. 203.

[55] Attard, ‘Imperial Central Banks?’, p. 193.

[56] The Economist, 30 August 1902, pp. 1351-2.

[57] O. Accominotti, M. Flandreau, R. Rezzik, and F. Zumber, ‘Black Man’s Burden, White Man’s Welfare: Control, Devolution and Development in the British Empire, 1880-1914’, European Review of Economic History, 14 (2010), p. 55.

[58] B. Supple, The Royal Exchange Assurance, p. 335.

[59] J. J. W. Deuchar’s Letter Book, NU657, Aviva Archives, Norwich (AA), p. 171.

[60] Quinquennial Valuation Statements, Vol. 1, NU727, Aviva Archives, Norwich (AA), p. 3, p. 15.

[61] Quinquennial Valuation Statements Volume 1, NU727, Aviva Archives, Norwich (AA), No. 1891, 1896; Quinquennial Valuation Statements Volume 2, NU728, Aviva Archives, Norwich (AA), No. 1901, 1905, 1911, 1916.

[62] Stone, The Global Export of Capital from Great Britain, p. 13.

[63] P. J. Cain and A. G. Hopkins, British Imperialism, 1688-2015 (Oxford, 2016), p. 19.

[64] J. Johanson and J. Vahlne, ‘The Uppsala Internationalisation Process Model Revisited: From Liability of Foreignness to Liability of Outsidership’, Journal of International Business Studies, 40 (2009), p. 1412.

[65] Y. Cassis and É. Bussière (eds), London and Paris as International Financial Centres in the Twentieth Century (Oxford, 2005), p. 73.

[66] The Times, 10 October 1901, p. 7.

[67] Umerura and Fujioka, The Palgrave Macmillan Comparative Responses to Globalisation, p. 74.

[68]Journal of the Institute of Actuaries, 33 (1897), p. 438.

[69]Journal of the Institute of Actuaries, 41 (1907), p. 598.

[70] Valuation of Stock Exchange Securities as on 30 June 1911, NU4298, Aviva Archives, Norwich (AA).

[71] J. H. Treble, ‘The Pattern of Investment of the Standard Life Company, 1875-1914’, Business History, 22 (1980), p. 184; T. Alborn, Regulated Lives: Life Insurance and British Society, 1800-1914 (Toronto, 2009), p. 174.

[72] May, ‘The Investment of Life Assurance Funds’, p. 166.

[73] May, ‘The Investment of Life Assurance Funds’, pp. 159-160.

[74] May, ‘The Investment of Life Assurance Funds’, p. 136.

[75] Y. Cassis, Capitals of Capital: A History of International Finance Centres, 1780-2005 (Cambridge, 2006), p. 96.

[76] P. L. Newman, ‘A Review of the Investments of Offices in Recent Years’, Journal of the Institute of Actuaries, 42 (1908), p. 304.

[77] A. G. Ford, The Gold Standard, 1880-1914: Britain and Argentina (Oxford, 1962), p. 81.

[78] W. R. Wright, British-Owned Railways in Argentina: Their Effect on Economic Nationalism, 1854-1948 (Austin, 1974), p. 5.

[79] D. Rock, The British in Argentina: Commerce, Settlers & Power, 1800-2000 (Cham, 2019), p. 182.

[80] Finance Committee Minute Book, No. 7, NU3944, Aviva Archives, Norwich (AA), p. 63.

[81] Finance Committee Minute Book, No. 7, NU3944, Aviva Archives, Norwich (AA), p. 63.

[82] Investment Ledger, CLC/B/192/MS11677/006, London Metropolitan Archives, London (LMA).

[83] Hayek, ‘The Use of Knowledge in Society’, p. 521.