"Malevolent Nurture"

As problematic as women were in general during the Early Modern period, mothers in particular were even more so. Women were beginning to assume new roles in society during this period, sometimes as partners to their husbands in running the household, or if their husbands were merchants, working with them to sell their wares. However, as the family seemed to gain in importance, women were encouraged to concentrate their efforts on raising their children, and not focus so much on household management and economic security. Yet the maternal arena seemed to prove somewhat advantageous to women as well, and the society which had encouraged women toward domestic pursuits soon discovered that motherhood set women apart and perhaps gave them a strange power over men and the whole of society.

Due to this disturbing maternal power, developing perhaps as a result of attempts to create a new domestic sphere in the Renaissance, there was a tendency for society to attempt to curb any amount of power to which women had access. This included challenging the distinct role that mothers were beginning to play in the family. Their ability to raise or even love their children was taken away, as both sons and daughters were clearly taught that the father was the head of the family and should be treated as such. Mothers were expected to live out a good example for their children, but once sons reached a certain age they were removed from their care. The father clearly had control over a daughter’s life as well. These ideas are seen in literary works of the Renaissance, by way of absent mothers who we can presume would have been present in actuality. We also see mothers who are eliminated before the text ends, or mothers who are flawed in some way. The ways in which Renaissance literature displays motherhood clearly reflect a societal concern for, and desire to limit, maternal power.

One way in which to curb this disturbing maternal power, is to present women and mothers in a negative light, to make them something to fear. The most interesting fear that society had relating to motherhood, was the idea that the mother’s bond with her young children was too strong, a worry that the love she bore for them was almost too much, and may in fact corrupt them. Perhaps it was this fear that seemed to evoke a comparison of motherhood and the influence of maternal affection with the powers of evil and witchcraft. The infanticidal tendencies of Lady MacBeth perhaps show the most striking example of the connection between motherhood and evil. Her language here is clearly maternal in its display of cruelty and darkness.

I have given suck, and know
How tender 't is to love the babe
that milks me:
I would, while it was smiling in
my face,
Have pluck'd my nipple from his
boneless gums,
And dash'd the brains out, had I so
sworn as you
Have done to this. (I, vii, 54-59)
Come to my woman’s breasts
And take my milk for gall, you
murdering ministers,
Wherever in your sightless substances
You wait on nature’s mischief! Come
thick night,
And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of
That my keen knife see not the wound it
Nor heaven peep through the blanket of
the dark,
To cry ‘Hold, hold!’ (I, vi, 48-55)


The sinister invocation of evil here reminds us of the weird sisters and their interaction with MacBeth throughout the play. Lady MacBeth is clearly a character who demonstrates the disturbing identification of motherhood with evil and witchcraft. The power she shows here, and the way it is demonized, may also demonstrate a difficulty with women in general.

Witchcraft and the Maternal

To further this connection between motherhood and evil, Deborah Willis gives us the following introduction to her book on witchcraft and the maternal in early modern England:

Witches were—or were believed to be—mothers ‘gone bad,’ women past childbearing years who used their mothering powers against neighbors who had enraged them. To acquire their magic, women fed and cared for demonic imps as if they were children. In exchange, imps would bring sickness and death to other households—often the households of young mothers.1

Willis also relates the connections between witchcraft and the maternal to the stage. Trials for witchcraft in England began at roughly the same time as the establishment of a professional theater, both in the early 1570’s. During these years, the basic ideas surrounding witch-hunting began to develop, and witchcraft came to be seen as a distinctly female crime which was often punished as a "perverse use of maternal power." 2 Another area which reflects the connection between motherhood and witchcraft is that of midwifery. Though some criticize Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English for incomplete scholarship on the subject, their book Witches, Midwives, and Nurses: A History of Women Healers, deals with the claim that witches were midwives who were persecuted because they threatened the new male medical establishment.3 Although witchcraft may not relate exclusively to midwifery, one can see that midwives and other healing women may have been under suspicion for their powers as well, especially for their unique access to the child-bed, which establishes further connections between motherhood with witchcraft. In early modern Hungary the connection between midwives and witches is also evident. The victims of the earliest witch trials in Kolozsvar are nearly all "cunning folk" mutually accusing one another. One way to rise in your field was through eliminating any competition, and a suspicion of witchcraft usually did not help one’s business endeavors. Competing midwives from different locales often ended up in conflicts based on mutual witchcraft accusation, and, as with Shepherds who blamed each other for "magical misdeeds" "their professional rivalry led them both to the stake."4


Witchcraft and Gender in Renaissance Drama

In Shakespeare’s plays, witchcraft is clearly considered to be evil and treasonous; it also seems to be associated with gender transgression. The association of witchcraft and motherhood, a uniquely female identity, is interesting when one thinks about this possibility as well. Do mothers who step beyond the confines of their gender deny their maternal identity? Or do they overstep their gender to call attention to the importance of their motherhood, taking over the typical male role to become more inherently female? Are mothers in fact engendered male in this society, due to the possibility of displaying too much influence in the home and over their children? Other playwrights seem to follow Shakespeare’s witchcraft model, where witches and those women who are associated with them seem to repeatedly stray from their societal or familial position, thus challenging or taking over this typically male role. Though these women may act like men, they are associated with mothers, because they call to mind the time in life when "women dominate the lives of their male children."5 This period of life seems to be the only instance where "the gender hierarchy of the adult world is inverted."6 Shakespeare and others therefore seem to include among the criteria for witch status the ability to "make the adult male feel he has been turned back into a child again, vulnerable to a mother’s malevolent power."7 Perhaps the clearest Shakepearean example of these ideas can be found in I Henry VI where we see Joan la Pucelle, commonly known as Joan of Arc, challenging the confines of femininity by taking up arms and also clearly demonstrating the strength of a male warrior. In the second scene of the first act, we see her overcome the future king of France, saying "while I live, I’ll ne’er fly from a man." Although his presentation of la Pucelle is somewhat suspect later in this act, Shakespeare seems to present her strength in a positive light here. When begging for mercy, Charles calls her an Amazon, and claims she has the sword fighting skills of Deborah, a Hebrew prophetess who led her people from their oppressors. La Pucelle responds to Charles’s comparisons in a significant way—claiming the help of Christ’s mother, offering another reference to maternal power. In scene five of this act, as the English are driven away, we see the connection to witchcraft as well:

A witch by fear, not force, like Hannibal,
Drives back our troops and conquers as she lists:
So bees with smoke and doves with noisome stench
Are from their hives and houses driven away.
They call’d us for our fierceness English dogs,
Now, like to whelps, we crying run away. (I, v., 21-26)

Although she is presented as a heroic, yet problematic, figure in Shakespeare’s text, it is disheartening that Charles, once officially becoming king of France, made no effort to save Joan after she was captured and imprisoned by the English forces. The University of Paris, under the control of the English, provided charges of witchcraft and heresy, which kept Joan of Arc imprisoned, and eventually condemned her to death. This heroic woman, claiming the strength of divine maternity for her own, while displaying typical male strength and power as well, was burned at the stake for her crimes in 1431.8


The Witch and the Early Modern Mother

Witchcraft beliefs in the Early Modern period tended to construct those women labeled as witches as malevolent mothers. This fact was mostly due to a witch’s response to being denied what she wanted. Perhaps a husband would become sick, or a child would die. When neighbors of this supposed witch, often other mothers, would express a concern or fear of the strange woman, they indeed referred to the witch as an unnatural and cruel mother who used her nurturing power to raise a number of "childlike demonic imps" to bring sickness and death to the households of other mothers.9 This maternal representation of witchcraft suggests that anxieties about mothers and the influence of the maternal role were ever increasing during period. There was thought to be a "dangerous potential in women’s care-taking roles"10 that warranted closer surveillance and tighter control. This new effort to control the possibility of important maternal influence, had several effects. Infanticide was newly criminalized at this point, for instance, and as in witchcraft cases most of its trials involved lower-class women. "There appears to be a surprisingly close correlation between infanticide and witchcraft cases, in fact; communities that hunted witches also prosecuted murderous mothers, in roughly similar numbers."11 Regulation of midwifery activities also increased during this period. Midwives were required to swear that they would not use magic to do their jobs, and that they would not harm the infant in any way.12

Another area of motherhood which was increasingly scrutinized and very controversial in terms of its implications was that of breast feeding. The significance of the witch’s teat and the fact that it was an extra one, seems especially important. The image of the witch as malevolent mother suckling her imps could almost be superimposed upon the breast of the "good" mother, and make the mother’s breast in general a target for aggression.13 There was an increasing debate during this time period whether or not a mother ought to nurse her child herself, or give the infant to a wet nurse. Developing medical knowledge as well as religious teaching seemed to suggest that the mother should keep her infant and nurse it herself. Giving the child to a wet-nurse made one a bad mother for denying milk as sustenance. However, especially among the upper levels of society, the practice of wet-nursing was still encouraged and accepted as the standard. This made the choosing of a wet nurse increasingly important, and wet nurses were often suspected of witchcraft, evidenced by a vision of "a wet-nurse cooperative, with witch wet nurses trading their imps back and forth in order to escape detection."14

Another interesting connection between the Early Modern mother and the witch came with the mother’s death. A mother’s passing meant that remarriage was fairly frequent during the Renaissance, and often encouraged a familial split—a lost and idealized mother was replaced by a "wicked stepmother," who quickly filled the role of persecutor for children who remembered their birth mother as warm and caring, whereas this new woman did not seem to be. In many fairy tales, the alter ego of the stepmother is clearly the witch.15



Forcing a frightening identity on mothers seemed to be one of the ways in which society of the Early Modern period attempted to curb their potential power and influence. Even other women and mothers joined in the societal concern about feminine power and witchcraft. However, with accusations of witchcraft, instead of increasing their own importance, these women seemed to demonstrate more cl early the similarities they shared with the women they were accusing.

It is striking how much the witch had in common with her female accuser. Both got angry and sought vengeance when they felt wronged. Both shared many assumptions about maternal identity and a fantasy of maternal omnipotence. Whether these women were ‘blaming the mother’ or exploiting her powers, witchcraft beliefs allowed escape from a patriarchal symbolic that located deficiency in the female. The witch gained magical power through her powers of maternal nurture. The mother of merely human children could use a variety of antiwitchcraft techniques as well as the legal process to reclaim a magic of her own by defeating the witch.16

Witches, wives and mothers have indeed been portrayed to have a similar identity and influence. In Shakespeare’s work, particularly MacBeth, they are each endowed with nightmare powers. "By magical and non-magical means, they manipulate men and make them feel as if they are dependent and powerless children."17 Trial records indicate another significant connection between witchcraft and motherhood as well. The women accused of witchcraft are addressed as "Mother;"—"Mother Grevell, Mother Turner, Mother Dutten, Mother Devell, Mother Stile."18 There seems to be a certain fascination with identifying the witch with the maternal. However, the idea that mothers may have, in a certain sense, been engendered male, creates some sort of paradox. Women who overstepped societal boundaries were potentially entering male territory, but mothers could have a disturbing influence on children and families which put them into this category, even though their maternal identity seems to make them inherently female. Those accused of witchcraft were clearly transgressive, putting themselves into a position to challenge male power, yet they were named maternally, which further demonstrates the idea that the maternal is possibly more male than female. It is clear that Early Modern society was not sure what to do with women or mothers—identifying them with witches and evil seemed to provide an easy way to problematize them. However, it would seem that the fascination with the differences of the maternal body and its influences had already given a certain amount of significance to maternal figures. The idea of malevolent nurture and the relating of motherhood to witchcraft, gives mothers an inordinate amount of attention. In essence it seems that society, through its attempts to problematize mothers, has acknowledged their importance and shown that their power and influence may be somewhat deserved. It is not surprising, therefore, that by the end of the Renaissance we have a domestic sphere in which children begin to be treated as children, and mothers are allowed to participate more fully in family life.


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