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Morality tales

From cowardly men to wayward wives, pre-modern superstitions transmitted social norms as well as scares, writes Eleanor Janega

5 to 6 minute read

A painting showing witches performing a ritual surrounded by magical items and creatures

Horror has always been with us. As a genre it serves a particular human need to provide us with a vicarious and safe thrill, but as a cultural artefact it introduces us to ideas that help to secure social values. The phenomenon of the ‘political’ horror story is thus by no means a new one: because we rely on written sources to learn about horror, we tend to see the ideals of the ruling classes – who are historically more likely to be literate replicated within them. However, while such stories were initially shared between other literate individuals, eventually they were absorbed into oral culture; told and retold by traveling actors and musicians, or simply friends in taverns.

Historically, then, horror shows us what European elites considered to be important for maintaining society – for example, to enforce dominant ideals about gender and religion. The ‘horror’ lies in imagining a world where rich powerful men are not in control.

This trend can be traced to the ancient world. In the first-century a stopping point. The ghost then led Athenodorus to his hastily discarded remains wrapped in chains, which were reburied, bringing the haunting to an end.

This is a story of utmost classical masculinity. Where others quaked in fear at the ghost, Athenodorus saw an opportunity and was able to overcome fear with resolve and work. Here, we are meant to understand, is an ideal man who confronts the unknown to his advantage. The real horror is not the ghost but giving in to unmasculine qualities like fear. We also have a handy religious message about the importance of honouring the remains of the dead and what happens when we don’t.

The horror of women’s sexuality

Medieval Europeans, as devoted fans of the classical period, took this framework and ran with it. Their culture was a conscious adaptation of the elements of classical antiquity with a newly added veneer of Christianity, and its horror stories reflect that. One 14th-century English poem, The Awntyrs off Arthure, a sort of updated and rhymed supercut of Arthurian legends, includes a ghost story starring the ghost of Guinevere’s mother.

Guinevere was best known for succumbing to the charms of, and an out-of-wedlock romance with, the handsome knight Lancelot. Guinevere’s mother warns her daughter that in the afterlife she and all the other rich courtiers will be tortured for their sins. If they are beautiful, they will be hideous. If they enjoy feasting now, they will starve. The lovers that Guinevere’s mother once took outside her marriage had become ‘writhing creatures’ that ‘assail’ her and make her ‘blood black’. They had once been ‘the source of [her] earlier delight, but now have brought [her] low and torment [her] as serpents’. Guinevere is asked to alleviate the suffering of her mother’s soul as any good Christian would do, through matins and masses said in her honour to release her from Hell. But this is also a warning for Guinevere to amend her own pampered and sexual life.

This story acts as an admonition to any women thinking of straying outside the patriarchal bonds of their marriages. The unbridled sexuality of women was both a firmly accepted facet of the classical and medieval worldview, and an underpinning of Christian concepts of sin. Who knew when women, especially rich ones who were married for political reasons, might choose to ignore their duties as wives and enjoy sex and romance? Those who related to sex as a form of pleasure, rather than a means of getting heirs, had to be warned to mend their ways. Horror was one of the most effective ways to do that.

Real world responses to imagined horror

By the early modern period the horrors of women’s unbridled sexuality left the allegorical and moved into the real world with the creation of the witch-hunters’ manual The Hammer of Witches, or Malleus Maleficarum. Heinrich Kramer, the book’s author, asked his readers to consider questions such as ‘Concerning Witches who copulate with Devils. Why is it that Women are chiefly addicted to Evil Superstitions?’

The answer was that ‘it is indeed a fact… that [women]… have slippery tongues, and are unable to conceal from their fellow-women those things which by evil arts they know… are intellectually like children… [and are] more carnal than a man, as is clear from her many carnal abominations.’ In other words, women gossip, are stupid and extremely horny, so they become witches. This of course meant that they were willing to have sex with the devil and any other sundry demons to gain magic that, among other worries, would make men think they had been castrated. Here we see that women’s sexuality was no longer a horror that affected their own soul but one that endangered the god-fearing people around them.

Those who related to sex as a form of pleasure, rather than producing heirs, had to be warned to mend their ways

This is, of course, really funny, and in fact was seen as so when it was initially read at the end of the 15th century. By the 16th and 17th centuries, however, it had taken on a veneer of respectability due to its antiquity. It was also then used directly to hunt and kill women, and sometimes men, who were seen to be deviating from social and especially sexual norms. Women’s sexuality being a horror in and of itself had become more than just a trope; it was an actual life and death issue.

Horror stories continue to play on exactly these same tropes and enforce these same ideals. The genre is littered with bold men who overcome fear to save the day. We see countless, usually sexless ‘final girls’ (as the genre trope is popularly known) who live to tell the tale of horror while their sexual counterparts die.

Of course, horror has the possibilities to critique our world as well. However, dominant social norms are more likely to form the backbone of such stories because they are, after all, dominant. From a historical standpoint, then, pre-modern horror allows us an opportunity to understand the most deeply held socio-political ideals about a society. It also gives us an opportunity to ask how far we’ve come – and how we can dismantle them.

This article first appeared in issue #233, Autumn 2021 ‘Democracy on the Wing’. Subscribe today to get your copy and support fearless, independent media

Eleanor Janega is a medieval historian and author of The Once and Future Sex: Going Medieval on Women’s Roles in Society (Blackwells, 2023)

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