Da Vinci's Code

Professor Christopher Witcombe, Art History


The Backlash Against Women



Mary Magdalen the Prostitute

Susan Haskins
Mary Magdalen: Myth and Metaphor, 1993
pages 134-191; 317-365

    During the Renaissance (15th and 16th centuries), Mary Magdalen was central to concerns about prostitution

    Mary Magdalen and Prostitution
    EXCERPT FROM: Witcombe, "The Chapel of the Courtesan and the Quarrel of the Magdalens," Art Bulletin, 2002

    In 1518, Pope Gregory the Great's long-standing composite Magdalen was questioned by the French humanist Jacques Lefèvre d'Étaples

    The "Quarrel of the Magdalens"
    EXCERPT FROM: Witcombe, "The Chapel of the Courtesan and the Quarrel of the Magdalens," Art Bulletin, 2002

    Despite the efforts of humanists to reclaim her original identity (see The "Quarrel of the Magdalens"), Mary Magdalen remained a whore. Indeed, beginning in the 16th century, emphasis was placed on her female sexuality. In art her body was eroticized.

    Mary Magdalen in Renaissance and Later Art

The Power of Women

    H. Diane Russell (in Eva/Ave: Women in Renaissance and Baroque Prints, National Gallery of Art catalogue, Washington, D.C., 1990) explains "The Power of Women topos refers to a group of themes, in literature and the fine arts, that focused on women who used their feminine wiles to triumph over men."

    The "Power of Women"

    Susan L. Smith, The Power of Women: A Topos Medieval Art and Literature SWEET BRIAR LIBRARY: N 7630 .S57 1995

From Heroine to Seductress

    Another feature of the backlash against women is the 'demotion' of former, usually biblical, heroines to the role of seductresses whose accomplishments are re-cast as threats to male hegemony. Women, especially powerful women, are seen as destructive or "fatal" to men (the woman as femme fatale).

    From Heroine to Seductress

    Susan Ackerman, Warrior, Dancer, Seductress, Queen: Women in Judges and Biblical Israel 1998
    SWEET BRIAR LIBRARY: BS 1305.6 .W7 A29 1998

Witches and Witch Hunts

    Witches were thought to be empowered by Satan to act as his agents. Women, usually widows or spinsters, women without male protectors, were by far the majority of people accused and convicted as witches. Margaret King ("The Woman of the Renaissance" in Renaissance Characters, ed. Eugenio Garin. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991, 207-249) reports that "From 1480 to 1700, more women were killed for witchcraft (usually by burning) than for all other crimes put together. Throughout Europe, perhaps 100,000 suspects were brought to trial (the number of the condemned is somewhat below this figure). The kingdom of England, where laws forbade torture, executed fewer than 1,000, but Scotland executed more than 4,000. Twenty-two villages in the territory of Trier burned 368 accused witches in the six years between 1587 and 1593, while in 1577, 400 accused witches were burned in the region of Toulouse. Cardinal Albizzi reported in 1631 from Germany that outside the walls of many towns he had witnessed "numerous" stakes and the binding and burning of many women."


    Anne L. Bartow, Witchcraze: A New History of European Witch Hunts 1994
    SWEET BRIAR LIBRARY: BF 1584 .E9 B27 1994

The Hammer of Witches

    The Malleus Maleficarum ("The Hammer of Witches"), written in 1486 by the Dominican Inquisitors Heinrich Krämer and Jacob Sprenger, became the first "encyclopedia" of witch-beliefs, and was constantly cited in support of those beliefs by Catholics and Protestants down to the eighteenth century. Its form is similar to that of other works in the same genre; it springs from the handbook for investigating heretics, some examples of which were in fact called "Hammers of Heretics." Krämer and Sprenger were the Inquisitors in Upper Germany; their book was prefaced by Pope Innocent Vlll's Bull Summis desiderantes, and contained as an appendix an alleged decision in its favor by the Faculty of Theology of the University of Cologne. With such claims to the sanction of authority, the Malleus Maleficarum exhaustively analyzed the entire problem of witch-beliefs and set out meticulously the ways by which witches could be found, convicted, and executed. The unrelenting thoroughness of Krämer and Sprenger served, in a sense, to sum up the entire history of recent witch-beliefs and to present Christian Europe with a complete, persuasive, massively documented, and duly authorized description of the witches in its midst.

    The Malleus Maleficarum
    EXCERPT FROM: Heinrich Krämer and Jacob Sprenger, Malleus Maleficarum (1486). Edited excerpts from translation by Montague Summers [London, 1928] (1972).

    Heinrich Krämer and Jacob Sprenger, The Malleus Maleficarum, Translated with introductions, bibliography, and notes by Montague Summers (1971)
    SWEET BRIAR LIBRARY: BF 1569 .A2 L5 1971

Further Reading

Barbara G. Walker
The Woman's Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets, 1983
BL 458 .W34 1983