Tag Archives: dominance

Silence and the Human Animal

By Dr. Miranda Garno Nesler

In 2008, I wrote a post titled “Silence and the Scold’s Bridle.”  As a graduate student in the throes of dissertating, I had become enthralled by both the ideological and material methods through which early modern culture sought to silence women—and from this interest emerged both my dissertation, and my current book manuscript on women’s disruptive use of silence in drama. 

But it’s no longer 2008.  And in addition to finalizing Disruptive Compliance: Silent Women in Stuart Drama, I’ve also begun realizing that new projects are possible and will likely tackle similar questions from different angles.  Returning to these images in 2012, I’m struck that implements such as the scold’s bridle not only seek violently to silence women—an attempt which highlights their dangerous expressive power—but that these tools also attempt to dehumanize women.  Such dehumanization not only emerges out of the bodily control that bridles offered to oppressive husbands and fathers, who guided women’s movements with the use of the bit.  It also results from the sheer act of silencing itself.  As Erica Fudge has pointed out in her recent work, the early modern legal system struggled to define humanness as either based in an individual’s physical appearance or in his ability to produce rational discourse.  Given that Galenic theory and the single-sex model positioned women’s bodies as imperfect and incomplete—their penises tucked inside a result of improperly cool consummation—the former definition barred women’s fully human status.  Yet cases of male birth defects or congenital hypertrichosis problematized physical judgments of humanness and promoted discourse as the measure.  Herein lay the problem: unless you silenced women and prevented them from practicing discourse, they too could gain legal human status that would overturn laws of coverture and male-primogeniture.  Materials like the scold’s bridle, then, treated women’s bodies like animal bodies and created a circular justification.  For, regardless of whether the women had the capacity for rational discourse, their inability to recognizably “produce” it in speech foreclosed recognition of them as humans.  And a man’s ability to prevent such production proved his mastery.  Or did it?  After all, if a woman was in any form a beast, and a man in any way sexually engaged her, then he committed bestiality.  His morality and his heirs’ humanity were at risk.

This blog has and will continue to explore issues like this one, raising questions about how early modern culture defined animals and humans, how it valued speech and language, and what logical tangles emerged.  Even more than that, it also pushes readers and encourages contributors to contemplate the persistence of these logical infelicities, these slippery vocabularies, in the periods following the “Renaissance”—even in our own time.


Dr. Miranda Garno Nesler is an assistant professor of English at Ball State University and is the editor and founder of “Performing Humanity in the Renaissance.”  


Images:  (1) Ralph Gardiner, England’s Grievance Discovered. London, 1655. (Bodleian Library); (2) W.R. Chambers, “Scold’s Bridle or Brank.” The Book of Days. London, 1870.

Erica Fudge, Perceiving Animals: Humans and Beasts in Early Modern Culture.  Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2002.
Thomas Lacqueur, Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992.

Defining Animals through the Law

By Sarah N.

In order to better understand the significance of animal trials, we must grapple with what it means to be an “animal” versus a “human.” Does the word animal refer to an entity that is controlled by its human owner? Is an animal a creature without a voice or free will? Is an animal merely a pawn in a relentless struggle for power and dominance?


Despite Christian doctrine that suggested animals lack free will and souls, the law would still convict animals under the assumption that they possessed human characteristics. Religious beliefs complicated the motivations behind animal trials. When animals of the Renaissance were convicted of crimes, it was “both in a moral and a juridical sense—thus implying their free will” (Dinzelbacher 405). In addition to suggesting that animals have free will, the conviction of animals supposed that they were capable of understanding human speech; this was a complete contradiction to the typical Renaissance human’s perception of animal capabilities (Dinzelbacher 405).

The people of the Renaissance also conducted animal trials to assert dominance over animals, while using them as a pawn for power and control (Elvin 531). The main purpose of trials during the Renaissance was to condemn “deviance” or “wrong-doing,” while simultaneously giving animals a voice, implying that animals do indeed have the freewill needed to commit a crime, recognize their action as a crime, and understand the punishment for their discretions (Elvin 535).

Even today, humans are still concerned with defining what it means to be an animal. Modern day laws pertaining to animals suggest that humans are still deeply concerned with asserting superiority over animals, while at the same time attempting to define animals via the use of what would typically be considered “human” characteristics. One specific animal rights law even suggests that animals should have the right to own property because “To be living property is also to have the legal capacity to own other property” (Favre 1068). Within this statement, humans are once again asserting their power by defining animals as “owned property” (Favre 1068).

Throughout my research of animal trials of the Renaissance and modern laws, it is clear that a power struggle between humans and animals exists. The need for humans to assert their dominance over animals has resulted in the instigation of trials and laws pertaining to the definition of an “animal” and what this means for their status within the legal system. As humans of the past and present struggle, to define what the word “animal” truly means, they have and continue to inadvertently give a voice and power to the creatures that they wish to control.


Image: Alciato, Andrea. “Bear, and Forbear.”  Alciato’s Book of Emblems: The Memorial Web Edition in Latin and English (1531). Web. 24 April 2012.

Dinzelbacher, Peter. “Animal Trials: A Multidisciplinary Approach.” Journal of Interdisciplinary History 32.3 (2012): 405-421.

Elvin, Jesse. “Responsibility, ‘Bad Luck’, and Delinquent Animals: Law as a Means of Explaining Tragedy.” Journal of Criminal Law 73.6 (2009): 530-558.

Favre, David. “Living Property: A New Status for Animals within the Legal System.” Marquette LawReview 93.3 (2010): 1021-1171.

The Threat of Feminine Power and Madness in Bruegel’s Dulle Griet

By Samantha P.

 In 1568, a book of proverbs  was published in Antwerp, containing the claim that “One woman makes a din, two women a lot of trouble, three an annual market, four a quarrel, five an army, and against six the Devil himself has no weapon” (Roberts). This proverb, especially when considered next to the Bruegel’s Dulle Griet (above), reflects a number of the concerns about women existent within the Renaissance population. Categories of human identification were arbitrarily defined, placing different bodies within a different status depending on by whom and from which angle they were examined. Renaissance art, especially paintings, examined some of these anxieties.

Notably Dulle Griet draws together an army of atypical women and a group of demons pouring from the mouth of hell. The figure of the demon is not only an entity related with an excess of feminine power, but, even more significantly, it is a being that crosses the lines between human and animal. Demons are generally pictured as humanoid figures with animal qualities in physical body, and they are strongly associated with witches–women who exchange sexual intercourse with these demons for otherworldly powers.  Dulle Griet, or “Mad Meg”, is a woman allegedly in possession of “otherworldly” powers. Bruegel’s central figure has been assigned several identities from Flemish folklore: the figure of Fortune, another the “personification of covetousness,” and the “quarrelsome woman”  (Sullivan, 55). She in undeniably masculinized, and is clearly surrounded by an army of demons at the mouth of hell.

In folklore, the figure was called “Gret Sauermal,” and she was a woman who argued with her husband and could visit the gates of hell only to come out unscathed, perhaps due to her shrewish and quarrelsome ways (Hagen, 182). She does not fall within the realm of proper womanhood due to her behavior, but is also masculinized through the wearing of armor traditionally made for men. Meg is not the only figure in the painting that rejects the expected roles for women, however. There are other Flemish phrases personified such as the woman tying the devil to a cushion, which means that the woman is brave, domineering, or both (Hagen, 182).

This becomes an issue of faith because of the use of demonic figures instead of simply using animals to represent a lower symbol of status as well as the use of powerful women. In reality, the men were the domineering ones, leading to powerful women being construed as witches. Craftswomen were ousted by their trades, and with advances of science, healing became a man’s pursuit. The women in this painting seem to be the personification of the anxiety that women might gain too much power and get out of hand. Remember, “No one causes more harm to the Catholic faith than the midwives (Hagen, 183).”

All of the women in this painting are acting outside of the expected realm of women. They exhibit a greater power, an elevation of self, not only above the men that should be controlling them, but above animals and animal-human hybrids as represented by the demons. These are the women that can march up to the mouth of hell and walk away unscathed. These are the women that can fight against the devil and win, giving the women in this painting a frightening power that upsets the already problematic definitions of human and animal, or even the status of different human bodies. There is no status in this image, only chaos at the hands of women with too much power.


Images:  Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Dulle Griet, circa 1562. (Currently exhibited at Museum Mayer van den Bergh in Antwerp.)

Hagen, Rose-Marie, and Rainier.  What Great Paintings Say.  Vol 2. Koln: Taschen, 2003.

Roberts, Keith. Bruegel. London: Phaidon, 1971.

Sullivan, Margaret A. “Madness and Folly: Peter Bruegel the Elder’s Dulle Griet.” The Art Bulletin 59:1 (1977), 55-66.

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.



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.  wondersandmarvels.com. Ed Holly Tucker. Vanderbilt University, 2008. Web. 12 Feb. 2012.

Mastin, Luke. http://witchcraftandwitches.com/trials.html. 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.

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.


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