Monthly Archives: June 2012

Ownership & Honor: The Rights and Rape of Women

By Brittany S.

femme fatale

Prior to the 1550s, the term “rape” referred to theft. While sexual assault was included under this title, the concerns surrounding sexual violence dealt with infringement on the rights of property owners, not on the trauma experienced by the victim. Those females categorized as femme covert were the property of their male relatives. As such, these women were legally dead and unable to levy charges against their rapists (Finn 704-705). Men were the only individuals able to file charges and testify in court (Baines 70). As a result of these legal structures, rape cases that were brought to court often resulted in acquittal because of the debate regarding feminine consent. However, the rape of a proven virgin typically had consequences for the rapist because the chaste female body was of such value commercially . Male relatives were more apt to avenge the wrong, not for the female’s sake, but to gain recompense for the ruination of a valuable trade commodity and reproductive vessel. The loss of virginity devalued the female and threatened the power of her male owners.

Regardless of virgin status, having a female become a “victim” of rape brought inescapable shame on the family name for the failure to adequately control her movements. When rape, or unapproved sexual behavior, was acknowledged, punishing the female and finding the perpetrator was a means of affirming male dominance. If the rapist was found, the female could be forced to wed her victimizer in an effort to ward off social stigma. This was especially true if the victim’s claim of rape was called into question. A rapist could answer a charge of sexual assault by vowing his victim had willingly given herself and consented to the act. This further complicated issues surrounding female agency and human status because of the acknowledgement that a woman could make choices without male support or direction.

Today, rape is still a common form of asserting male dominance. In the Bosnian-Herzegovinian conflict, “rape [was…] a policy of men posturing to gain advantage and ground over other men” (MacKinnon 187). In the United States alone, 300,000 women report instances of rape each year, more than half of which occur before the female’s 18th birthday (Parrot & Cummings 103). However, it is estimated that only one in five women actually report rape to law enforcement (Parrot & Cummings 103). This is largely based on an idea perpetuated during the Renaissance and persisting today that women who are raped “ask for it,” consent to the act, or otherwise motivate their victimization. This leads to
stigmatization of the individual, which results in lower instances of actual reporting of crime. In still other cases, becoming the victim of a rape can mean a death sentence. Women and girls are encouraged to commit suicide or are killed by family members to restore the family honor (Parrot & Cummings 174). These violent responses are encouraged because the female is seen as the property of male family members. The ability to control her movements is considered evidence of masculinity. Though the Renaissance has long been over, today’s society still grapples with and perpetuates negative ideas regarding women’s place in the world. Throughout each news story, debate, and statistic, the question still remains, are women human?


Image: Snyder, Brittany. Femme Fatale. 2012.

Baines, Barbara J. “Effacing Rape in Early Modern Representation.” ELH 65.1 (1998): 69-98.

Finn, Margot. “Women, Consumption and Coverture in England, c. 1760-1860.” The Historical Journal 39.3 (1996): 703-722.

MacKinnon, Catharine A. Are women human? and other international dialogues. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2006.

Parrot, Andrea and Nina Cummings. Forsaken Females: Global Brutalization of Women . Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, Inc., 2006.



NY Times Features Academic Trend: Convergence of Science, Humanities Over Animal Studies

This spring, the NY Times reported that an increasing number of university classrooms are taking on the issue of animal-human relations.  The
courses, which traditionally were limited to science and philosophy classrooms, are spreading quickly in disciplines such as literature and sociology.
Such a trend is promising, as it offers the possibility of cross-disciplinary conversation that can lead to a greater understanding of not only how humans and animals relate genetically, but also how they perceive and express perceptions about their identities and relationships. How have these ideas changed over time, and what are their ethical and political implications? 
Recent conferences in early modern studies have participated in this trend, with numerous seminars and panels on non-human animals occurring at the Shakespeare Association of America (notably that designed by Laurie Shannon and Andreas Hoefele) and Sixteenth Century Studies in 2012 and 2013.

The Metaphorical Werewolf

By Alisha L.

Throughout Renaissance folklore, the werewolf was a figure of controversy. Can humans physically transform into werewolves, or is the transformation purely symbolic? Are they in control of their transformations? Once these questions are presented, new questions arise: how is a person’s humanity affected by his transformation, and can the extent of his metamorphosis change the degree of his humanity?

Wayne Shumaker explains that transformation from human to beast was not literal according to the Christian faith. Shumaker states, “The reasoning soul given to man by God cannot enter an animal, and it is impossible to believe that the soul is restored when human shape is resumed” (93). Because God created the soul, the devil must influence the human to do mischief without affecting the soul. According to Shumaker, early modern Christians believed that the devil transformed humans into werewolves by one of two means: either he assumed the persona of a witch and transformed himself, or he possessed the witch and forced them to morph. In both cases, the soul remains intact because the human was not the creature performing the metamorphosis.

S.J. Wiseman supports Shumaker’s claims by saying, “wolves consistently represent those who had fallen so far from God that it was safe to assume that they were damned” (51-52). To clarify this statement, Wiseman presents the myth of Stubbe Peeter. The myth states that, after generating a contract with one another, the devil presented Peeter with a girdle that transformed him into a werewolf; when Peeter removed the girdle, he transformed back into his human form. Like Shumaker’s argument, Wiseman’s relation of the myth shows that the transformation of humans into werewolves is completely controlled by the devil (53).

Alternatively, Kristin Poole argues that the transformation of humans into werewolves is not a true metamorphosis. Although she concurs that European Christians believed in the devil’s ability to transform into other animalistic forms, she claims that when humans appeared to transform, it was simply an illusion used by witches, but especially the devil (196-197). This illusion, in turn, is a metaphor for some deep desire inside the human, and the devil—simply fulfilling the wish of the human—appears to transform him into a creature that represents this desire. If a man were to appear to turn into a werewolf, a creature known for consuming the flesh of humans and being extremely brutal, the werewolf form would be a metaphorical representation of the man’s desire to violate another human or perhaps fulfill a primitive bloodlust.

A person’s humanity becomes complicated when that individual is associated with lycanthropy. If someone transforms into a creature that is a mix between human and animal, has that person completely lost his/her humanity or is it only partially diminished? To answer this, it is important to look at Lucas Cranach’s “The Werewolf or the Cannibal.” In this woodcut, the werewolf first appears to be entirely human. But one notices that, while he is not completely covered in fur, his hair is long and shaggy, and his back is furry, suggesting that he is partially animalistic. Furthermore, he is on all fours like an animal and, without the use of his hands, has his victim clenched in his teeth just as an animal would eat. Despite having the initial appearance and qualities of a human, the humanity of a werewolf—much like Cranach’s subject—is weakened by the animalistic qualities that he displays.

Humanity is further complicated when we remember that the devil is often a contributing factor for transformation. If a person is forced into transformation by the devil, has he lost any of his humanity? If he worships the devil but still is unaware of his transformation, is he somehow less human than those not associated with the devil? Or is the desire to become a werewolf simply enough to diminish the humanity that he believes differentiates him from animals?


Image: Cranach, Lucas. The Werewolf or the Cannibal. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Web. 17 Apr 2012.

Poole, Kristen. “The Devil’s in the Archive: Doctor Faustus and Ovidian Physics.” Renaissance Drama. 35 (2006): 191-219. Print.

Shumaker, Wayne. The Occult Sciences in the Renaissance: A Study in Intellectual Patterns. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1972. Print.

Wiseman, S. J. “Hairy on the Inside: Metamorphosis and Civility in English Werewolf Texts.” Renaissance Beasts: Of Animals, Humans, and Other Wonderful Creatures. Ed. Erica Fudge. Urbana: University of Illinois, 2004. 50-67.

Dr. Miranda Nesler on Using Innovative Instruction and Expanding her Classroom to Larger Communities

Blog Feature

Who Wears the Pants?

By Jordan W.

During the Renaissance, many societal anxieties surrounded women, who were viewed as inherently evil creatures with great powers to seduce and connive. Men feared them and their mysterious ways. Many artists and authors warned men of the power of women through their work. Julia Nurse uses Hans Sachs’ poetry as an example of this:

Go ahead and act like a man!

Otherwise she’ll end up riding you

And before long she’ll

Deprive you of your pants, your purse

And your sword,

Which will make us all ashamed of you

Do not give her too much rein,

But rather take an oak cudgel

And beat her soundly between the ears! (43)

Such fear is acknowledged visually in a depiction of the legend of Aristotle and Phyllis, by Matthaus Zaisinger. In the legend, Phyllis becomes angry at Aristotle when he convinces her true love to leave her. She then seduces Aristotle into loving her, and asks to ride around on his back as proof of his love for her. This was both a comical myth, as it portrayed a great philosopher making a fool of himself, and a myth that exposed a true fear of men: losing power and thereby losing human rank (Nurse 44). Women, especially those with power, could not be trusted. For example, when queens gave birth to their children, there was an audience. This was to insure that the heir was true and not switched out at birth. This shows distrust in women to care for even their own children (Delores).

Another image that conveys the fear of women is “The Angry Wife” by Israel van Meckenham. In this picture, the woman is standing over the man, about to strike him with a distaff. His focus is solely on his pants that lie on the floor beside him , just out of reach. He is wholly consumed by getting his pants back and does not even take notice of the fact that he is soon going to be bludgeoned by his very angry wife. They are fighting for pants, fighting for power. A demon floats beside the wife, encouraging her. It was believed that women possessed evilness or even were demons themselves, placing them somewhere in the inhuman category. Women were even targeted during witch trials around the world because they were “regarded by witch-hunters as especially susceptible to the Devil’s blandishments” (Mastin). Over 50,000 supposed witches executed during the trials in Europe were women. I have to wonder why. Were these the evil women who wanted too much power? Had the anxieties of men driven them to try and squelch out any woman who threatened them?


Image: Israel van Meckenham, “The Angry Wife,” c. 1503.  Art Institute of Chicago.

Delors, Catherine. “Marie-Antoinette’s first laying-in”.  Wonders and Marvels. Ed Holly Tucker. Vanderbilt University, 2008. Web. 12 Feb. 2012.

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

Nurse, Julia. “She-Devils, Harlots And Harridans In Northern Renaissance..” History Today 48.7 (1998): 41. Academic Search Premier. Web. 17 Feb. 2012.

Performing Humanity now on Twitter!

Performing Humanity is now on Twitter!  Follow the site @PerformHumanity for updates and insights.

Bestiality and Sexual Deviance: Crimes which Threaten the Human/Animal Divide

By Marc K.

Sexuality and sexual deviance are integral to understanding how early modern Europe defined what was human and what was animal. In particular, the crime of bestiality and how it was perceived in relation to legal and religious institutions is insightful. During this time period, the definition of bestiality was not limited to having sex with animals, but, as scholar Courtney Thomas points, “[it] was a part of the larger discourse of sodomy in the period and, consequently, the terms ‘sodomy’ and ‘buggery’ are frequently used interchangeably to describe both homosexual contacts and those which crossed the species border” (154). It is interesting that bestiality was a term which referenced a multitude of sexual deviances, for it emphasizes the early modern idea that those who act outside of the prescribed social and legal standards somehow become less human and more bestial, or animal-like.

Critic Christie Davies further explores this idea, noting that “the ways in which these sexual offences are linked together and described make it clear that the enactors of the new laws are obsessed with the urge to preserve boundaries of all kinds” (1046). It is this fear of transgressing the species boundary that made bestiality such a heinous crime. Not only does one perform an unnatural sexual act, which in itself begins to dissemble the definition of humanity by disregarding the established norms, but one performs it with an animal, further erasing the line between human and beast. Bestiality was so feared and considered so detestable that it was a crime punishable by death, whereas other forms of sexual deviance such as masturbation and homosexuality were not treated as harshly (although homosexuality would eventually also be punishable by death) (Thomas 158). Despite homosexuality and bestiality both being punishable by death, there were still differences in how these crimes were portrayed. As Caroline Bingham discusses, “bestiality was condemned as ‘confusion’ (i.e., confusion of the natural order), and homosexuality as ‘abomination’ ” (447). While homosexuality was simply seen as disgusting and wrong, bestiality posed a special threat in that in endangered the established natural hierarchy between man and animal.

It is also interesting to consider that bestiality, a supposedly “victimless crime,” was still punishable by death (Thomas 150). To many, this seems like a rather draconian penalty. In attempting to protect the strict social hierarchy and punishing those who transgress the species divide, we become more animal ourselves. As Christie Davies says, “The sexual behavior of the sodomists which was perceived as transgressing natural boundaries, was savagely suppressed because it was a reminder and a metaphor of the threatened identity and integrity of the group itself” (1043). While the laws and religious customs used to justify these harsh punishments is a vital aspect of what makes us human, they also seem to bring out the worst in our nature, causing us to be cruel and inhumane. We are then forced to wonder what, if anything, truly separates from the world of animals?


Image: Coulthart, John. ” Feuilleton .” Liceti’s Monsters. WordPress, 3 Aug. 2010. Web. 26 Apr. 2012.

Bingham, Caroline. “Seventeenth-Century Attitudes Toward Deviant Sex.” The Journal of Interdisciplinary History 1.3 (1971): 447-68.
Davies, Christie. “Sexual Taboos and Social Boundaries.” American Journal of Sociology 87.5 (1982): 1032-1063.
Thomas, Courtney. “‘Not Having God Before His Eyes’: Bestiality in Early Modern England.” Seventeenth Century 26.1 (2011): 149-73.

%d bloggers like this: