Abstract

Recent scholarship in witchcraft studies has drawn greater attention to the constitutive role of sexual discourse in witch trials throughout early modern Europe—even in England, whose trials have generally been regarded as less lurid and sensationalist than those that took place in other European countries. This essay complements existing scholarship by proposing that we should likewise recognize that witchcraft discourse occupies a vital place within the history of sexuality. Examining a range of archival materials—witchcraft treatises, demonologies, trial depositions, popular pamphlets, and dramatic literature—reveals that beliefs and practices concerning witchcraft were the site of a complex discourse about sexuality, particularly regarding female erotic pleasure and women’s sexual anatomy. The essay analyzes in detail the distinctively English juridical concern with searching a suspect’s body for a witch’s mark or supernumerary teat, and proposes that standard judicial procedures provided a permissive, even urgent context for investigating women’s bodies and interrogating them about their erotic experiences. More broadly, the article argues that witchcraft discourse promoted the pursuit of sexual knowledge with regard to both sexes, legitimizing such inquiry through its affiliations with legal authority.

Many persons of both sexes, unmindful of their own salvation and straying from the Catholic Faith, have abandoned themselves to devils, incubi and succubi. . . . Such devils hinder men from performing the sexual act and women from conceiving, whence husbands cannot know their wives nor wives receive their husbands; over and above this, they blasphemously renounce that Faith which is theirs by the Sacrament of Baptism, and at the instigation of the Enemy of Mankind they do not shrink from committing and perpetrating the foulest abominations and filthiest excesses to the deadly peril of their own souls.

Pope Innocent VIII, Summis Desiderantes Affectibus (1484)

If it is asked why the Devil is permitted to practice acts of sorcery in and concerning the sexual act rather than concerning other human acts, it is said that . . . the power of the demon [lies in the privy parts of men]. For in all contests the harder battles are those in which the fighting is continuous and victory rare.

Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger, Malleus maleficarum (1486)

Knowledge of sexual function and sexual pleasure during the early modern period is generally mediated and ancillary. Sexual behaviors, sensations, and phenomena do not constitute an autonomous category of knowledge that, perhaps like botany or geography, might be investigated in their own terms, for the pleasure and challenge of mapping sex as a recognized domain of knowledge. Scholars who investigate early modern sexuality have thus found that in order to access such information, they must work through an enveloping discourse, one that may serve as a vehicle for sexual discourse but also subordinates such knowledge to its own priorities. One of the most lasting of these has been the law, which claims sex in order to regulate it and to organize specific sexual acts within the framework of criminality. Religious discourses likewise exhibit an overriding interest in drawing boundaries between licit and illicit sexual behaviors, while midwiving and gynecological manuals investigate sexual matters in order to remedy women’s physical ailments and ensure successful reproduction. More comprehensive anatomical or medical treatises may have comparatively greater latitude to describe the sexual body and address questions of pleasure and eroticism without the constraints imposed by moral and disciplinary considerations, although conception is still a controlling concern. In other words, sexual knowledge during the early modern period takes up residence in a variety of discursive domains. It has consequently been one of the primary challenges of writing histories of sexuality to survey the components of sexual discourse present in those various domains in order to piece together an intelligible account of sexual knowledge for a given period or culture. Indeed, an awareness of several discourses that pertain to sexuality, even if they contradict one another, is to be preferred. Taken in isolation, any one of these discourses may be misleading; legal statutes regarding sexual misconduct, for example, may remain on the books long after they have ceased to reflect any kind of social consensus regarding such behaviors.

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Additional Information

ISSN
1553-3786
Print ISSN
1531-0485
Pages
pp. 32-72
Launched on MUSE
2012-12-30
Open Access
No
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