Monthly Archives: May 2012

The Darker Side of Women

By Jordan J.

During the Renaissance, the thought of women dominating over their male counterparts was terrifying. These fears can be seen through the witch trials that were being performed at this time as well as through the art depicting women as wild and animalistic forces of nature.

Between the 15th and 16th centuries, art depicting women as witches participating in intercourse with demons grew rather popular in Europe, especially in Germany and the Netherlands. From these countries and such images emerged the term ‘Power of Women.’  This concept defined art portraying women as empowered and dominating their male counterparts.

The idea of witches functioned mainly as a symbol of the darker side of women: “The social and moral upheaval of the Reformation had effectively weakened the foundations of the Christian faith, a situation which gave rise to increased fear of the occult” (Nurse). Communities took more precautions to find witches, given the ever increasing paranoia of what damage they might spiritually or physically cause. Julia Nurse explains that the witch hunt in Europe was “an idea that fed deeply on built-in prejudices and fears about the power of female-sexuality and capacity for evil. The idea of the act of carnal intercourse with the devil led men to believe that women were more prone to seduction by Satan”(Nurse) This explains heavily why there is more art representing women as witches or having intercourse with demons rather than portraying male witches engaged in demonic couplings. This also explains why many pictures that include men with demons depict the men as dismissing them or at least ignoring them, while women give into the desires.

Two examples of art effectively illustrate these points: Hans Baldung Grien’s pieces “Witches Sabbath”(1510) and “Sleeping Groom and A Sorceress (Bewitched Groom)”(1544). The first piece shows women of different ages partaking in lewd acts, looking twisted and demonic as they perform rituals with animals nearby. The second piece is an example of the  ‘Power of Women,” as a woman (sorceress) bewitches a man to death. As  Nancy A. Gutierrez mentions,“the accused woman is normally called some kind of witch […] she is accused of having tempted the man to follow her, leading him to hell” (Gutierrez)s This fear can be seen in the second painting,  as a man is succumbing to the powers of women. His weapons lay beneath him as the woman looks off from the side with pride and exposed breasts, symbolizing her wildness but also power over him through the raised torch. Again an animal is in the piece to show the animalistic side of women, with the horse looking dead ahead with anger or a sense of wildness almost as a symbol of the sorceress being an untamed force. 


Images:  Hans Baldung Grien. “Witches Sabbath.” (1510): British Museum, Art Museum Image Gallery. Tue. 25 Apr. 2012.

and “Sleeping Groom And A Sorceress (Bewitched Groom).” (1544): British Museum, Art Museum Image Gallery. Tue. 25 Apr. 2012.

Nurse, Julia. “She-Devils, Harlots And Harridans In Northern Renaissance Prints.” History Today 48.7 (1998): 41-48.

Gutierrez, Nancy A. “Philomela Strikes Back: Adultery And Mutilation As Female Self-Assertion.” Women’s Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal 16.3-4 (1989): 429-443.


“Performing Humanity” featured at Ball State

On the week of June 4, the Ball State University English Department will be featuring Performing Humanity on its blog page.  In the article, Dr. Miranda Nesler discusses the origins of the project, its future, and the pedagogical benefits of creating blog projects in a Renaissance-centered classroom.

For more, check out

Dude Looks like a Lady: Boy Actors and Gender Anxieties on the Renaissance Stage

By Allison J.

Shakespeare’s plays participate in the Renaissance convention of casting cross-dressed boys in women’s roles — yet they also depict those same female characters cross-dressing as men.  Such figures appear in works including Twelfth Night, The Merchant of Venice, and As You Like It. Although the majority of cross-dressing characters in Shakespeare’s plays are women, the Bard does write examples of boy actors portraying women: Flute (A Midsummer Night’s Dream) and Bartholomew (The Taming of the Shrew). As critics like Juliet Dusinberre note, Shakespeare reached beyond representing merely the physical representations of cross-dressing characters; rather, he often referenced the convention of the boy actor in plays such as Antony and Cleopatra to play up complex gendered emotion as well (5.2.216-21). The considerable presence of Shakespeare’s consciousness of the theatrical convention of cross-dressing, however, reveals Renaissance anxieties about gender identity.

The practice of boys playing women on the Renaissance stage became a focus of social criticism in early modern England. In 1579, Stephen Gosson wrote The School of Abuse, a pamphlet in which he claimed that the theatre “effeminate[s] the minde,” raising questions about theatre’s effect on gender identity (9). Gosson argued that theatre emasculates men and threatens to transform them into women through “effeminate gesture, to rauish the sence; and wanton speache, to whet desire too inordinate lust” (11). Laura Levine states that foundation of Gosson’s attacks lay in “the fear that costume could actually alter the gender of the male body beneath the costume” (3). In the years following the publication of The School of Abuse, a pamphlet war developed in which authors continued to express the fear that clothing can transform an individual’s gender.

Boy actors in the Renaissance complicated the construct of gender identity. According to the King James Bible, “The woman shall not weare that which pertaineth vnto a man, neither shall a man put on a womans garment: for all that doe so, are abomination vnto the Lord thy God” (Deut. 22:5). In a society that adhered strictly to religious codes, boy actors who donned the apparel of the opposite gender posed problems, especially if the actor’s identity could be altered or shaped by his part, as Levine suggests in her book Men in Women’s Clothing (14). The Renaissance understanding of performance and acting maintains that actors may literally become the characters they play and a boy actor, therefore, may transform into a woman through wearing women’s clothing and behaving in a feminine manner (Dusinberre 11). Juliet Dusinberre argues that when boy actors dressed as women, “the sexual identity of the actor was erased in the act of performance, thus mirroring a social truth about gender itself, that it is a fiction which men and women learn and participate in, but which has no innate stability” (11). In essence, boy actors reveal the possibility that gender is not stable or fixed, but rather fluid and alterable.

Boy actors possessed properties of both genders, with their feminine voice and gestures and masculine physical structure. By inhabiting such a border-blurring space between genders, the hermaphroditic actor “becomes the embodiment of all that is frightening about the self” (Dusinberre 19). The role of boy actors in Renaissance drama suggested the instability of gender constructs and called into question the very nature of identity and, therefore, the basis of humanness itself–anxieties that deeply concerned Renaissance society.


Image: “Portrait of Edward Kynaston,” in An Apology for the Life of Mr. Colley Cibber (London, 1889).

Dusinberre, Juliet. “Boys Becoming Women in Shakespeare’s Plays.” Shakespeare Studies 6 (1998).

Gosson, Stephen.  The School of Abuse (London, reprinted for the Shakespeare Society 1841).

King James Bible, 1611.

The Morality of Women During the Renaissance

By Amy B

Venus of Urbino depicts Renaissance concerns about women’s moral transformations in conjunction with their pets. At first glance the painting reads as a seductive work of art, with Venus’s hand gesturing towards her genitalia and her eyes piercing into the viewers. What is intriguing about this picture is the fact that there is also a small dog lying with her at the end of the bed. Her servants are turned away from Venus, as if her lying with the dog is something that should not be observed. During the Renaissance, having a dog or any other toy pet  was deemed as dangerous for women. Pets were only used for pleasure, the company that you got from having it around. Men were afraid of this because they felt like the animals were taking their place sexually.

Renaissance gender dialogues positioned women as sexual and sinful.  Looking further into the sinful nature, and at the same time drawing closer to a transformational conclusion, I sought to learn about how views on women such as Venus might inform the role witches played in the morality of the relationship between women and animals. During the witch trials in the 16th and 17th centuries, it was thought that women who were in the company of cats, dogs, or reptiles were deemed witches. When women “consorted with the devil” they became more animalistic and were treated as such.

Luke Mastin’s work discusses witchcraft, and it goes into great detail as to the torture that communities would perform on these poor women. Mastin’s article says that a “common witch-hunting method was “swimming” or “ducking” (based on the ancient “ordeal by water”) whereby the accused was tied hand and foot and immersed in deep water. If the accused witch floated, the water (God’s creature) had rejected her and she was deemed guilty; if she sank (and drowned), she was deemed innocent.”

We can see that women, though held on a pedestal of perfection, are also easily tipped and thrown into an abyss of hate and provocation. At one moment they are the epitome of perfection and the next they are scorned and thought to consort with the devil. By interacting with animals women were thought to be pleasuring themselves and in extreme cases to be having sinful relations.


Image: Vecelli, Tiziano. Venus of Urbino, 1538.

Brown, David Alan. “Virtue And Beauty: Renaissance Portraits Of Women.” USA Today Magazine 130.2678 (2001): 36.

Mastin, Luke. 13 December 2010. Web. 13 December 2010

Schiesari, Juliana. Beasts and Beauties. Toronto: University of Toronto Incorporated, 2010.

Sacred and Secular: The Society Inhabited within Renaissance Music

By Kathleen C.

Beethoven once wrote, “Music is the mediator between the spiritual and the sensual life.” Looking back to the Renaissance, we can certainly  see (and hear) this mediation; and we can come to understand that Renaissance music’s progression and growth involved a palpable tension between sacred and secular music.  These tensions caused a ‘blurring’ of musical social structures.

An example of such a blurring emerged from what the Church considered ethical. According to clerical practice, women were not allowed to participate musically. However, the use of castrati to supply that feminine tonality for liturgical music, was deemed quite acceptable.  The castrati—men castrated before puberty for the purpose of keeping their voices high-pitched—allowed a temporary solution to women being banned from performative functions. After all, even though women were being trained as madrigal singers, difficulties existed in such tutelage and questions emerged regarding where to board female students given that most male pupils boarded with their male teachers (Roselli, 158). This problem, however, was a socially constructed problem. As John Rosselli points out, “the popular taste for the castrato voice reflected in the singers chosen for opera was largely created by church practice” (158). He furthers reports that the castrati could be viewed as ‘enforced celibate’, as a monk is, thereby turning the moral objections to castration into a ‘religious good’—a positive choice for God within the Church. Paradoxically however, the practice of castration was generally not talked about and even denied in many cases (Derrick, 48). Even more social problems existed in regards to the castrati, for although they fulfilled a role the Church created, they had no other place, thereby creating an unintended sub-class of society. By the late seventeenth century, the castrati were an embarrassment to the Church.

In 1575, the Jesuit general in Rome issued an ordinance regarding music, banning indecent and ‘vain’ music while retaining motets, masses, and hymns. David Crooks notes that “Church authorities justified their involvement in censorship on the basis of their responsibility to protect doctrinal and moral purity” (Crook, 2). Despite the ban, secular music still thrived in aristocratic circles. Madrigal music, a combination of several different, distinct tonalities, not only offered women opportunity to participate, but in fact required it. To combat the growing popularity of ‘vain’ music, many church writers adopted secular songs and changed the lyrics. Crooks discusses an example of one of these adaptations, specifically, “Anna mihi dilecta”. The song has two parts: a declaration of love and a response. The first part roughly translate as, “Anna my beloved, come, my only delight,/from whose mouth honeyed essence drips/nymph, may you deign to give me a little kiss” (Crooks, 27).

In Munich, an anonymous poet adapted the lyrics, redirecting the erotic love for a woman into a spiritual love for Christ. The new lyrics read, “Christ, child of God, my hope and my only delight,/from whose mouth honeyed essence drips, behold!” It seems strange that the poet would choose to keep such highly erotic lyrics in a hymn, but, as Crooks comments, “However great their disdain for the original lyrics, they would not be denied the music’s power to ‘ravish’ the soul and salve its ‘diverse wounds’” (Crooks, 27). We can justify this choice by seeing it as an expression of equating the desire to experience God physically to erotic love, which shows up often enough in Renaissance paintings.

In sacred and secular, the Church established and imposed difficulties on music; in both composition and performance. The attempts to resolve these difficulties resulted in a blending of the sacred and secular or opened an entirely new section.


Image: Ockeghem, Johannes. Kyrie.  Digital image, Wikimedia.

Crook, David. “A Sixteenth-Century Catalog of Prohibited Music.” Journal of the American Musicological Society 62.1 (2009). Print.
Henry, Derrick. The Listener’s Guide to Medieval & Renaissance Music. New York, NY: Facts on File, 1983. Print.
Roselli, John. “The Castrati as a Professional Group and a Social Phenomenon, 1550- 1850.” Acta Musicologica 60.2 (1988): 143-79. Print.

Animal Trials

By Jenn C.

Animal trials are a fascinating, albeit perplexing, part of history. While the idea of putting an animal on trial in a court of law for the crime of murder may seem outrageous today, it was not uncommon during the Renaissance. Why did these trials occur? What does the act of bringing a non-human before a human court tell us about the culture of the Renaissance?

Animal trials took place predominantly between the 14th and 17th century all over Europe, although they were most prevalent in France, Switzerland, Tyrol, Germany, the Netherlands, and the southern Slavonic countries (Dinzelbacher 406). Animals were tried for a range of infractions, mostly for crimes that resulted in death or harm to human beings. When animals were brought to trial, the action was taken just as seriously as bringing a human to trial. Judges, lawyers, and jurists all took part in the trials and received their fees accordingly. Jailers were paid for the housing of the offending animal before and during the trial. Careful legal records were kept of the trials. Executions, often the sentence in instances where animals had killed humans, were conducted in public by the same professionals who performed human executions (Dinzelbacher 406-7).

Why, then, would people who were rational in the following of the law do something as outrageous as put an animal on trial? One theory is that the trials were “nothing more than a manifestation of the primitive lex talionis,” or the law of retaliation (Hyde 721). If animals took the life (or the means of sustaining life in the case of rats and weevils who were often tried for destroying drops) of human beings, then their own lives became forfeit. According to this theory, when people got mad, they had to take revenge no matter who the offender.

Another explanation for animal trials was the desire to rid society of the evil that accompanied an act like murder or the destruction of crops, regardless of the perpetrator of the crime. Italian canonist Gratian believed “that [animals] were killed not on account of their crimes but in order that the hateful act might be forgotten” (Hyde 718). For those who had lost loved ones to a loose pig or a rampaging bull, removing the animal from their society would free them from the constant visual reminder of the horrors of the death. For those who saw animal criminality as a demonic attack, ridding society of the offending animal, and thus the means through which evil had harmed humanity, was a cleansing act.

What can all of these theories tell us about Renaissance culture? As Peter Dinzelbacher explains, “animal trials took place only under extremely unusual circumstances in order to help the local community cope with an otherwise recalcitrant threat—not because they were proven to work but because they created the impression that the authorities were assiduously maintaining law and order in a cooperative and decided manner.” While there are several theories as to why animals were put on trial, the one theme tying them together is the need for the human being to assert their dominance over the animal and to maintain their status as the supreme being in the natural world. These trials represented “a mentality that placed man above animal in the hierarchy of creation” (Cohen 17).


Image: Chambers, R. The Book of Days: A Miscellany of Popular Antiquities. Philadelphia: W & R Chambers, Lippincott, 1862.

Cohen, Esther. “Law, Folklore and Animal Lore.” Past and Present 110 (1986): 6-37.

Dinzelbacher, Peter. “Animal Trials: A Multidisciplinary Approach.” Journal of Interdisciplinary History 32.3 (2012): 405-21.

Hyde, Walter Woodburn. “The Persecution and Punishment of Animals and Lifeless Things in the Middle Ages and Modern Times.” University of Pennsylvania Law Review 64.7 (1916): 696-730.

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