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Crafting the Witch: Gendering Magic in Medieval and Early Modern England (review)

From: Parergon
Volume 27, Number 1, 2010
pp. 189-190 | 10.1353/pgn.0.0223

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

The theme of this book is less the gendering of magic in medieval and Early Modern England than the ancestry of the witch of contemporary American imagination. In her preface, Heidi Breuer asserts her feminist intentions and defends her decision to address a wide audience in an accessible style and to venture beyond her own field of medieval and Early Modern literature in order to give her textual analysis a social context. She is largely successful in these admittedly risky endeavours, though a certain amount of patchiness is the inevitable price.

The introductory chapter on good and bad witches sets the scene with some personal anecdotes, a brief theoretical context courtesy of Lacan and Judith Butler and a general explanation of what is meant by magic. Next comes a gender analysis of Chrétien de Troyes, Marie de France, Geoffrey of Monmouth and Layamon. Unsurprisingly, these literary works are revealed as complex plays on gender relations within the context of the problem of excessive male aggression. The binary analysis Breuer employs, however, is somewhat circular. The axiomatic equivalence of masculine/active and feminine/passive renders actual gender irrelevant and the creative work of the author in destabilizing these oppositions is effectively undone.

The portrayal of women's magical powers in these works is positive – no wicked witches, only helpful, healing maidens. Breuer explains the contrast with later negative depictions by a short comparison of the status of women in Anglo-Saxon and Norman societies. The relevance of this is unclear, since the works in question are of Celtic inspiration and produced in either France or Norman England. None are even remotely Anglo-Saxon. As the author anticipates in her preface, the attempt to contextualize individual literary works by inserting them into a general but eclectic account of European socio-economic history is a bold venture open to many objections.

'From Rags to Riches, or The Step-Mother's Revenge' takes the modern concept of the makeover and applies it to the magical transformation of 'churlish knights' and 'loathly ladies' in Chaucer and various Middle English Arthurian romances, notably the Gawain cycle. The wicked stepmother now makes her entrance, replacing the evil giants of the twelfth century. Breuer relates this to the shift from a feudal to a capitalist economy which provided women with more opportunities for economic independence.

How effectively this explains the contrast between twelfth-century French romances and fourteenth-century English poems is debatable. I also have a problem with applying the modern American concept of the makeover to these fourteenth-century tales, or indeed to the twentieth-century tales Breuer uses. The protagonist of the Gawain cycle is Gawain – not the 'churlish knight' or the 'loathly lady'. It is Gawain who overcomes the trials and temptations and obtains the reward, Gawain who is transformed through his own actions. Eliza in My Fair Lady is not the passive object of a makeover but the active initiator of her own transformation and Pretty Woman is not a makeover of the prostitute but rather a fantasy that the utilitarian nexus of sex and money can be transcended. Presumably Breuer feels that the wider point of these tales is irrelevant to her subject but this is indicative of a general tendency to sacrifice nuance to ideology. In this chapter, she states, 'Chrétien's romances create a masculine ethos of aggression that endorses extreme violence for men' (p. 54), yet in the previous chapter she follows the general scholarly consensus in arguing that the major theme of the romances is their critique of unrestrained male aggression.

Moving from the fourteenth to the sixteenth century, Breuer uses Shakespeare, Malory and Spenser to show that women and magic are now indissolubly linked, to the detriment of both. The witch hunt is raging and both faces of Disney's witch – the beautiful, evil temptress and her true self, the hideous hag – are in full flight. Leaping the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Breuer arrives at the point of it all, namely the witch in contemporary America – Disney's numerous contributions, the Wizard of Oz, endless TV shows and Halloween. This raises interesting questions about the relationship of the United States to wider European culture...