Uncovering the Secret: Medieval Women, Magic and the Other

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Abstract

For medieval audiences women occupied a specific, designated cultural area which, while they could freely form it according to their will and nature, was in fact imaginary and immaterial. Women in social, legal, and religious contexts were mostly counted among the receptive, inactive, and non-ruling groups. On both levels, there was a group of features universally defining all women: the strong, virtuous and independent model Aquinas lamented was replaced in real life by the sinful, carnal and weak stereotype, and the erotic, emotional, mysterious, and often wild type present predominantly in literature. Indeed, women were a source of scientific, theological, and cultural fascination because of their uncanny and complex nature, producing both fear and desire of the source and nature of the unattainable and inaccessible femininity. In social contexts, however, the enchantress seems to lose that veil of allure and, instead, is forced to re-define her identity by suppressing, denying, or losing her supernatural features. With the example of Saint Agnes from the South English Legendary Life of Saint Agnes, and Melior from Partonope of Blois (ca. 1450), the article will explore how medieval texts dealt with the complex and unruly female supernatural, and how its neutralization and subduing fitted into the moral, scientific, and cultural norms of medieval society.

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