Venomous Woman: Fear of the Female in Literature

By Margaret Hallissy | Go to book overview

4
Woman and the Serpent

In this book I propose, with God's help, to consider diseases peculiar to women, and, since women are for the most part poisonous creatures, I shall then proceed to treat of the bites of venomous beasts.

ARNALDUS OF VILLANOVA ( 1235-1312) 1

We and our whole community of canons, recognizing that the wickedness of women is greater than all the other wickedness of the world, and that there is no anger like that of women, and that the poison of asps and dragons is more curable and less dangerous to men than the familiarity of women, have unanimously decreed for the safety of our souls, no less than for that of our bodies and goods, that we will on no account receive any more sisters to the increase of our perdition, but will avoid them like venomous animals.

ABBOT CONRAD OF THE PREMONSTRATENSIAN COMMUNITY AT MARCHTHAL ( 1273) 2

Arnaldus of Villanova's unflattering introduction to the gynecology and venenology section of his medical handbook, Breviarum Practicae, and the Premonstratensians' proclamation of an end to their dual-sex monastery system epitomize an attitude with an impressive pedigree in Scripture, folklore, and literature. The serpent of Eden was often depicted as having a woman's head, to emphasize Eve's and her daughters' unfortunate propensity to sin. The lamia or striga, the snake turned woman, is another manifestation of this motif from the visual arts often seen in the iconography of the Fall. The serpent with a woman's face becomes the serpentine woman, the woman whose special relationship with a venomous animal makes her more fearful than either serpent or woman would be alone. The logical culmination of this identification between women and poison is the woman whose flesh is envenomed, the legendary poisoned maiden, in which the two symbols of evil fuse: the woman is the poison.

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Venomous Woman: Fear of the Female in Literature
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Copyright Acknowledgments v
  • Contents ix
  • Preface: Secret Weapon xi
  • 1 - Introduction: Archetypes and Stereotypes 1
  • 2 - Mother Eve and Other Death-Dealers 15
  • 3 - Venefica: Healer and Witch 59
  • 4 - Woman and the Serpent 89
  • 5 - Conclusion: Beatrice Rappaccini 133
  • Notes 143
  • Selected Bibliography 157
  • Index 161
  • About the Author 169
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