Seasons of the Witch and the Monstrous in the Middle Ages

Alexander Doty

Alexander Doty

If popular magazines circa 2013 are any indication, the figure of the witch remains a “go-to” girl for Modern Horror. The popular cable series, ‘American Horror Story’, focused a recent season on a coven of witches, and the upcoming film adaptation of ‘Into the Woods’ stars Meryl Louise Streep, with gorgeously witchy visuals, in the main role. Gothic signifiers proliferate in these visual texts, usually to a distinctly medievalizing effect. We have seen such associations before.

Nineteenth-century literature gave us the Gothic spaces of Victor Marie Hugo’s ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’. By the early twentieth-century, and with the advent of film, a “medieval” iconography of horror seemed if not ubiquitous at least alive and well — the evil Rotwang from Friedrich Christian Anton Lang’s ‘Metropolis’ (1927) is caught in a twilight world between gothic black magic and futuristic science as is, of course, Benjamin Christensen’s anachronistic meditation on the “medieval” history of witchcraft in ‘Häxan’.

In these and other contexts, the figure of the witch regularly crosses boundaries (temporal and narrative) or confuses categories (epistemological and cognitive). In this regard, one might expect that the witch would figure prominently in the emerging field dedicated to elucidating the problems and pleasures of category confusion: Monster Studies. A cross-historical set of inquiries with an explicit interest in figures of the “in-between,” Monster Studies engages what Asa S. Mittman calls “the oddities of creation,” those “somewhat magical” figures occupying a place “outside of the ordinary.” Dedicated to wide-ranging inclusivity, Monster Studies generally welcomes scholars (and monsters) of an enormous historical, temporal, and geographic range. Yet the witch has been kept apart from its array of strange creatures. Publications in the field silently ignore her. She has seemed, perhaps, a monstrous creature too far, or, alternately, a creature not quite monstrous enough.

Such a problem of definition might instead offer the best case for her inclusion. The monster, as Jeffrey Jerome Cohen put it decades ago, “is harbinger of category crisis,” and questions of definition regularly bedevil its categorical aspect. The field as a whole has made such crises constitutive, and crucial to the monster’s cultural power. As Asa S. Mittman does when, in the introduction to the ‘Ashgate Companion to Monster Studies’, he renders the power of the monster in active terms: the monster “defies the human power to subjugate through categorization.” Monsters are, for this very reason, “cognitively threatening,” even “a revolution in the very logic of meaning.” So, too, is the figure of the witch. This is, in fact, precisely what makes her so interesting to Sigmund Freud, to Johann Weyer, to Benjamin Christensen, and to a history of witch hunters, all of whom relentlessly, if unsuccessfully, try to define, to classify and sub-classify, to “solve” the problem of her testimony, or to pin her down.

Admittedly, on the score of the witch’s ability to “defy” subjugation “through categorization,” the historical record is mixed. If, as Jeffrey Jerome Cohen also once put it, the “monster always escapes,” the same cannot be said for all those particular women accused of being, or of having been, witches themselves, many of whom were tortured or put to death. Historians of witchcraft are rightfully wary of reifying the “witch” as some kind of cross-cultural or essential reality; local studies deftly attend to the particular bodies and particular histories, the specific localities and specific seasons relevant to the “witch craze.” As historical people, witches haunt across time; they are fewer monsters themselves than victims of monstrous treatment, denizens of the bad old days when inquisitors stalked the heretical and the heterodox, the renegade and the unlucky alike. Yet we would emphatically assert that while such historical people show the troubling effect of the witch as the monstrous, they are not identical to that figure. The witch’s monstrosity is more diffuse, a figure and a body produced in cultural transactions across a range of times, places, figures, and disciplines. She represents, in this way, the monster as diffuse “cultural body.” When was she real and when was she not? Who can tell? “The binary of real and unreal,” writes Mittman, “is problematic when applied to monsters.”

The witch seems to us uncannily pertinent to all such claims. Undeniably human, she dangerously tarries with the extra-human; she marks the confusion of fantasy with history, and blurs the borders of victim and victimizer, insides and outsides, pleasures and perversions. The problem of the real and unreal converges in the witch quite precisely. We will venture further: she not only crosses those boundaries, but also, and paradoxically, explicitly contains them, displaying real and unreal as a crucial internal problem. On all these grounds, the figure of the witch might well be Monster, Exhibit A. For what more compelling claim can be made for a figure in whom the real and unreal converge in impossible — and troubling — epistemological conflict?

Yet the problem of where to locate monstrosity within her complex history persists. For Heinrich Kramer and other inquisitors, witches themselves are clearly monstrous. But from the vantage of the historical distance, we can ask whether monstrosity figures in those suffering persecution for being witches or in those doing the persecuting. Precisely on account of such questions, precisely because of the shifts over time as to the answers given, and precisely because the witch stalks the boundary of fantasy and history, we will argue that her figure can shed considerable light on how monsters can confront historical change. We explore the witch as a monster in order to track her altogether ambivalent historical timing, a temporality entwined with lurid pleasures as much as with remedy or punishment. Benjamin Christensen’s ‘Häxan’ sheds light on these features of the witch, offering a view of her uncanny temporality, a “category crisis” rendered in cross-temporal terms. Or, to put it another way, häxan (literally, the witch) “through the ages,” becomes a figure for “progress” that, paradoxically, puts progress on notice. Persecuted by medieval torturers, probed by psychoanalysts, photographed by physicians or documentary filmmakers, the witch persists in the hysteric, repeating “through the ages,” yet with a difference.

This last point marks one more reason why we wish to think the witch alongside the monstrous: her continuous existence over centuries also offers access to an interesting subcategory of medievalism. If, as Asa S. Mittman also compellingly puts it, “the monster is known through its effect, its impact,” then the witch (bedevilling to influential thinkers for centuries) seems emblematic of a certain kind of distributive monstrous effect. Unlike many of the other categories of monster (whose aspect and threat proliferate in particular times and spaces), the figure of the witch confuses repeatedly, at diverse historical moments, although in strangely familiar ways. This monstrous witch stops change — not dead, but living — in its tracks. A monster documented but not realized, photographed but never captured, the witch is named and renamed, but never named securely. Always threatening to reemerge in other times and places, in this aspect the witch “always escapes.”

Conventional accounts of the history of the discourse of monstrosity frequently (if not universally) describe the shift from premodern to modern times as a shift from the religious register to the scientific. What was once a portent of the divine becomes a specimen for medical classification; a creature of sin and disorder to be redeemed by God is recast as a victim of disease or pathology in need of diagnosis and cure. Rosemarie Thomson’s account is emblematic: “The trajectory of historical change,” she writes, “can be characterized simply as a movement from a narrative of the marvellous to a narrative of the deviant. As modernity develops in Western culture […] the prodigious monster transforms into a pathological revelation. […] What was taken as a [religious] portent shifts to a site of [scientific] progress. In brief, wonder becomes error.” Attentive to the specificity of science, such histories offer considerable explanatory power regarding early medical classification of bodily deformity and “strange births.”

Yet if by the nineteenth-century, non-fictional treatments of “monstrous bodies” veered away from religious wonder and toward medical classification, fictional accounts never quite kept to that path. Even during the Age of Science, monstrosity was not easily delimited to the scientific realm. This is yet another verification of Bruno Latour’s insight: we have never been modern. The regulatory regime of the monstrous can, in other words, and as Paul-Michel Foucault has long since taught us, be productive for all manner of alternative orders and powers.

The conventional account, helpful as it is, cannot explain to the witch as a modern figure staged as medieval; it overlooks the commonalities between the discourses of monstrosity during the two eras. For while it is true that medieval monstrosities were not described in the scientific registers popular in later times, they were certainly imagined as signs of error. However wondrous, medieval monsters frequently signified “error” as sin, deformity, or perversion, a fact that reminds us that “error” functions equally easily (though not identically) in the religious as in the scientific registers.

Rosemarie Garland-Thomson’s own language suggests as much: even as scientific code, the monster beckons in religious terms, a site for “revelation.” This also means that we should not necessarily assume that a religious apprehension of the marvellous ushered in a discourse of premodern monstrosity that was kinder or gentler than its modern analogue.

Indeed, both older texts and modern film share a fascination with monstrous embodiments precisely as a fascination with “perverse” error. Analyses of medieval representations of monstrosity suggest that such figures often stand in for the heterodox elements of culture, elements that might simultaneously purvey and work to dislodge hegemonic institutions and ideologies. Such work has opened important questions regarding, for instance, ideologies of masculinity in the Middle Ages and/or how a deft use of psychoanalysis might help us to understand the medieval culture in all its historicity.

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