Witches and «bitches»: genderised laughter in medieval comic tales
By Inês Gonçalves
Actas do Colóquio Internacional «O Riso na Cultura Medieval» (2003)
Introduction: Witches and witchcraft were very real phenomena to the fifteenth-century writers. Their writings tell us much about their humorous misconceptions, built on established accounts of folk beliefs about witches, and conveyed as academic, fact-based theories. In addition to the official documents, some authors, mostly anonymous, undertook the task of recording the many oral appearances of popular literature. Among these, I chose to analyse two medieval comic tales: an English tale entitled Dame Sirith and, a Latin one, entitled The Old Women who made a Pact with the Devil. In doing so, first I intend to briefly describe the medieval cultural setting that supported and promoted popular and learned witch beliefs; and secondly, to illustrate these, by analysing the witchlike protagonists – their conduct, dealings and sufferers – portrayed in the tales of this study. Moreover, bearing in mind that the majority of medieval comic works were framed in antifeminist traditions, I shall illustrate that the female characters in these two tales – the old women or the witch and the unfaithful wife – were, in fact, targets of genderised laughter for male authors, that is, they were laughable medieval female icons.
Between 1100 and 1300, the features that were later to build the witch stereotype emerged in the European thought. But there were no witch trials as such during this period. From 1300 onwards, explicit accusations of witchcraft began to appear. For the following two centuries the image of the witch grew in complexity and in fearful immediacy. By 1500, most features of the established witchcraft theory provided the foundation for the massive craze of the period from about 1560 to 1680. During this period, it is possible to differentiate two kinds of witches, in the geographical context of England and Continental Europe: the English popular archetypal witch; and the Continental demonic witch.
In what refers to the popular English witch, on the turn from the fourteenth century to the fifteenth century, a series of beliefs and practices of ritual and popular magic became common, these being vestiges of the Pagan heritage. It was believed that some people, mostly women, could manipulate the natural and supernatural worlds by means of good and harmful magic deeds. A female witch or cunning woman was believed to have the power to heal sick and injured people, and animals, to bring about love, to exercise divination, to find buried treasures, and to invoke the spirits, by means of incantations or potions. This power could even be used to kill, by the simple use of the evil-eyed curse. The frequent practice of midwifery and the knowledge of ancient herbal medicine were other features that characterised the witch or cunning woman. In other words, since ancient times spells, charms and imitative or deceptive magic were used to overcome the mystifying adversities of life.