The Female Spell-caster in Middle English Romances: Heretical Outsider or Political Insider

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The Female Spell-caster in Middle English Romances: Heretical Outsider or Political Insider

Historically, the relationship between heresy and spell-casting is difficult to define.1 For example, H. A. Kelly points out that sorcery and heresy were not formally linked in England.2 They were regarded as separate crimes, although burning (especially after the 1401 Statute passed by Parliament) could be the punishment for both crimes. Certainly, English romances from the fourteenth to the sixteenth centuries do not explicitly relate sorcery and heresy.

Popular attitudes, though, often would link the two in the late Middle Ages, and this coupling could be accompanied by the issue of gender. As Kramer and Sprenger, two Jesuit inquisitors, wrote in 1486:

since [women] are feebler both in mind and body, it is not surprising that they should come more under the spell of witchcraft. For as regards intellect, or the understanding of spiritual beings, they seem of a different nature from men ....3

Yet, as Malcolm Lambert explains, heresy stems not just from deviation from orthodox religious belief but also from deliberate actions against ecclesiastical authority and refusal to recant when ordered to do so.4 Exploring the links among sorcery, heresy, and gender in popular literature, such as Middle English metrical romances, can demonstrate how the individual and collective perceptions of these issues changed from the fourteenth to the sixteenth century.5 Thus three questions arise about spell-casting women in Middle English romances: have the heretical implications of these women's actions been ignored? Considering no authority intervenes to inform them that they are defying religious doctrines, can these politically powerful women even be viewed as heretics? And finally, how do the political and religious circumstances of the historical community impact these fictional women and their potentially heretical actions?

For the purposes of this paper, discussion will be limited to the female spell-casters found in metrical romances which contain imposed physical transformations and which were composed in England from the fourteenth century to the sixteenth century. Shape-shifting (i.e. voluntarily changing one's own form) and changing into an inanimate object such as a stone or tree are not included. The following romances contain imposed-changed body forms and are listed in general chronological order:


I. Early to mid fourteenth century

Lybeaus Desconus(M) 2 magicians

Cheuelere Assigne(F) hero's grandmother

William of Palerne(F) transformee's stepmother
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