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Crafting the witch: Gendering magic in medieval and early modern England

Heidi Jo Breuer

University of Arizona: Doctor of Philosophy (2003)

This project documents and analyzes the gendered transformation of magical figures occurring in Arthurian romance in England from the twelfth to the sixteenth centuries. In the earlier texts, magic is predominantly a masculine pursuit, garnering its user prestige and power, but in the later texts, magic becomes a primarily feminine activity, one that marks its user as wicked and heretical. The prophet becomes the wicked witch. This dissertation explores both the literary and the social motivations for this transformation. Chapter Two surveys representations of magic in the texts of four authors within the Arthurian canon: Geoffrey of Monmouth, Chretien de Troyes, Marie de France, and Layamon. These writers gender magic similarly (representing prophecy and certain forms of transformative magic as masculine and healing as feminine) and use gendered figures to mitigate the threat of masculine power posed by the feudal patriarchy present in England and France in the twelfth century. Chapter Three explores representations of two magical characters who appear in a group of fourteenth- and fifteenth-century romances associated with Gawain: the churlish knight and the loathly lady. The authors of these romances privilege gender conventions radically different from those in earlier models and conjure a figure neglected by the earlier writers, the wicked witch. In particular, representations of the witch as a wicked step-mother reflect the anxiety created by expanding space for women (especially mothers) in previously exclusively male arenas of English society. In Chapter Four, I follow the romance tradition into early modern England, studying the work of Malory, Spenser, and Shakespeare. For these authors, the wicked witch (alternately represented as temptress or crone) is connected specifically to maternity; the severe anxiety about maternity in these texts is representative of widespread concern about mothers and motherhood in sixteenth-century England. Chapter Five traces the legislative policy governing prosecution of witches in England and offers suggestions about the relationship between legal climates and literary representations of magic. Though prosecution of witchcraft is now extremely rare in the U.S., filmmakers still rely on medieval and Renaissance models to inform their representations of witches. Once she arrived, the witch never left.

Click here to read this thesis from the University of Arizona