Damsels, Dragons, and Death-girls: Married and Unmarried Foreign Women in The Book of John Mandeville

by Ellis Light

Note: Page numbers from the print version are indicated in brackets and should not be considered part of the text of the article.

Abstract: [page 69] This article examines the (re)presentations of foreign women in The Book of John Mandeville, arguing that foreign women’s marital status is central in determining their inclusion in the category of the human. Unmarried foreign women appear as dangerous figures whose bodies transform into monstrous forms such as dragons and human-animal hybrids, while married women are seen as commodities whose value depends on performances of status.

Keywords: abjection, gender studies, Mandeville, marriage, medieval, monstrosity, travel writing

The girls talked about death as if it were a country in Europe.

-Meg Wolitzer, Sleepwalking

In the fourteenth-century travel narrative The Book of John Mandeville, one of the most widely circulated texts of the late Middle Ages, a king named Catholonabeus builds a garden. Sir John, the Book’s English knight-narrator,1 tells us that Catholonabeus’s kingdom is an island near the mythical land of Prester John, and that the king’s beautiful garden is filled with the objects of his pleasure, “bryddes and beestis,” and underground wells that produce milk, honey, and wine at his will (lines 2477-2479, ed. Kohanski and Benson). Catholonabeus also has a collection of young virgins who dwell there with the birds and animals: “And he had in his gardeynes maydens of 15 yer olde, the fairest that he myghte fynde” (2480-2481).

Sir John is impressed by this Paradise on earth, where the young maidens remain forever virgins, even after the “yong bacheler[s] of that cuntré” have “solacy hym and disporte hym” in the garden (2485-2486). Yet this Paradise is a trap set to attract the [page 70] youths to the King’s service, so that they will become his political assassins, and eventually be killed themselves. Thus Catholonabeus lures the young men to their deaths through a promise of Edenic sexual delight. The eternal maidens at the center of this tale serve a deadly purpose, which is connected to their status as inhuman or more-than-human objects of desire. Their status as permanent virgins kept in the King’s garden excludes them both from the category of wifehood (for which, at age 15, these young women would likely have been preparing) and the category of the human (they are a part of the magical and animal properties of the garden). They are also inextricably linked to desire, otherworldliness, and death.

Catholonabeus’s alluring death-girls serve as an example of the ways that the Book of John Mandeville connects women’s marital status with categories of the human. This essay traces similar examples of deathly women and girls in the Book of John Mandeville, arguing that unmarried women in lands distant from Mandeville’s native England appear as potentially dangerous figures whose bodies transform into monstrous forms such as dragons and human-animal hybrids. They express gendered possibilities outside the economies of marriage and western Christianity, wielding sexual and physical powers that threaten male power and patriarchal systems. On the other hand, married women are seen as commodities whose value often depends on specific performances of status, from the ways they dress to the ways they die.

The dichotomy between foreign monster-woman and foreign married-woman reveals apprehensions about women’s desire and agency that permeate the Book of John Mandeville, bringing forth new imaginings of the interstices between race, gender, and embodiment. I critique aspects of this dichotomy (i.e. married/unmarried women, virgins/sexual women) by exploring moments in the Book that might challenge a simplistic binary applied to the treatment of gender and alterity. First, I develop notions of marriage and maidenhood in the narrative and its late medieval contexts, demonstrating the way(s) that married women are represented, exchanged, and circulated through the text. These representations are often contingent upon highly visible performances of wifehood; when these performances are transgressed or resisted, Sir John is sure to denounce or revile the [page 71] woman. From here, I turn my focus to the oppositions to wifehood in the text – women who resist, transgress, or simply fail to participate in the performance of married femininity. This subject occupies the bulk of this essay, as these unmarried women occupy stages of errancy, strangeness, and abjection in complicated, sometimes contradictory ways.

I will discuss four groups of women whose bodies and identities fail, reject, or queer the wife’s role, which proves to be highly contingent and indeed precarious. These women – virgins, faeries, Amazons, and cannibals – deconstruct the category of the human, as their bodies and desires extend beyond the highly policed boundaries of wifehood. But the apparent dichotomy of the foreign married woman and the foreign monster-woman is challenged even further by figures like the ‘adder-wives’ who dwell outside the Vale Perilous, and the dead woman who gives birth to the horrid Head of Satalia. Their connection to abjection and bodily horror puts them into a new category of feminine monstrosity, as they represent the horrible possibility for even demure wifeliness to embody death and devilry. This paper traces the movement from commodity to abjection in Mandeville that is played out through stories about these monstrous female bodies, forcing both medieval and present-day readers of Mandeville’s Book to ask questions about women’s roles and representations within their own communities.

While the Book circulated in many forms and manuscripts throughout the Middle Ages, I focus on the Defective Version, the form of the Book derived from a French Insular copy-text but missing a section of narrative on the wonders of Egypt. While English versions of the Book do sometimes differ substantially from each other, the Defective Version was both the most popular version, and, perhaps, the only version with “any real claims to be the English Mandeville” (Hanna 123). Accordingly, I put to use the recent edition of the Book by Tamarah Kohanski and C. David Benson, which follows the British Library MS Royal 17 C. xxxviii, a “very thorough and inclusive” manuscript that “showcases many of the qualities generally thought of as ‘textbook Mandeville’” yet still maintains a carefully edited text (Kohanski and Benson 14, Seymour xiv). This text derives independently from the Insular [page 72] archetype for the Defective Version, making it a uniquely useful exemplar to conduct the present study. I generally treat this version as a unified text, read as a single piece of literature, although the authorship of any single Mandeville-figure is unclear, and the clues we do have point to a work of diverse sources.2 Nevertheless, the author(s), compiler(s), and translator(s) made editorial decisions in ordering and making this Book; I therefore suggest that it is possible to read it as we would any other literary work – as a text constructed and pored over by creative minds; as a narrative that explores contemporary questions; and as a collection both individually idiosyncratic and culturally meaningful. The “fear, desire, anxiety, and fantasy” that monstrous bodies dredge up is written into the economies of marriage and colonization throughout the text (Cohen, “Monster Culture” 4).

Though late medieval ethnography often does describe other versions of foreign women as monsters in other texts, studies of the various monstrous women in Mandeville’s Book have been conducted somewhat infrequently. The most focused exploration is a chapter in Dana M. Oswald’s Monsters, Gender and Sexuality in Medieval English Literature, in which she argues that transformative females in Mandeville raise questions about marital and reproductive circulation. I reexamine some of these examples and come to different conclusions about the Book’s poison wives and impregnated dead woman, suggesting that these figures introduce death into the very reproductive and sexual acts in which they participate. In comparison, the monstrosity of other foreign women relies on their ability to enter into or refuse marital agreements. The Mandeville-author’s use of his source material suggests patterns that explore marriage in foreign lands as a means to conquer, occupy, and sustain constructions of femininity that he finds otherwise threatening or horrific.

This analysis links various episodes across the book in order to demonstrate that foreign women are categorized according to their participation in marital economies, while unmarried foreign women are represented as monsters in need of subjection or destruction. As Oswald points out, these feminine monsters transform and thus traverse the bounds between human and nonhuman categories, and in so doing they contain the potential to “challenge and disrupt the cultural exchange and circulation of women’s bodies” (131). [page 73] However, her exploration omits a crucial element of the Book: a sustained look at the married women in the text whose presence has been critically overshadowed by the monstrous maidens. While there is a monstrosity to women’s bodies when they are not strictly controlled within the private space of marriage, the ability for female monsters to introduce death into the circulation of marriage and sexuality represents a radical shift in the treatment of monstrosity: rather than simply failing or refusing to properly circulate, these women bring the terrifying reality of destruction into the very reproductive and sexual acts that they are asked to perform. Thus, monstrous specters of death haunt the Book of John Mandeville, taking the transformative, troubling forms of female bodies.

The idea of the monstrous feminine was founded in constructions of biological difference from the naturalized position of anatomical maleness. Aristotle writes that “woman is literally a monster: a failed and botched male who is only born female due to an excess of moisture and of coldness during the process of conception” (qtd. in Ussher 1). While male bodies are associated with completion, warmth, and dryness, women continually must seek out these qualities in order to thrive. These ideas, anatomically centered but carried out culturally, continued in later works as well, including medieval medicine and literature. The medical text De Secretis Mulierum [On the Secrets of Women] defines monstrosity as “those individuals of a certain species which in a certain part of their body are outside the bounds of the common course of the nature of the species,” suggesting that within the Aristotelian framework, female, as digression from the male, is a kind of monstrosity (Lemay 111-112).

The monstrosity of women is well-documented due to the “power and danger perceived to be inherent in woman’s fecund flesh,” her ability to create and support life as well as her bleeding, leaking, hidden womb (Ussher 1). But femininity is also associated with death: both motherhood and death force us to confront the abject in ourselves, that most deeply feared origin and end that we, as living bodies, must continually reject to survive: “There, I am at the border of my condition as a living being. My body extricates itself, as being alive, from that border” (Kristeva 3). Thus, the [page 74] conception of woman as monster leads to a reconsideration of bodily boundaries and possibilities: the prospect, however dangerous, that female bodies incorporate death, horror, and abjection into the very systems of reproduction where they circulate—namely, the institution of marriage and the female role as wife/mother.

Like the monstrous, the woman’s body is “both corporeal and incorporeal: its threat is its propensity to shift” (Cohen, “Monster Culture” 5). The Book of John Mandeville offers multifarious ways of dealing with this possibility, revealing that the female monsters are “essential, fundamentally allied to [its] underlying ideas,” as were the monsters of Beowulf that J.R.R. Tolkien famously brought to the forefront of scholarly thought (Tolkien, “The Monsters and the Critics” 5). Furthermore, the widespread popularity of Mandeville’s Book suggest that its stories encapsulated a mindset, a way of thinking that resonated across many cultures and moved through many minds. Through its female monsters, the Book can perhaps tell us something of the western European formation of the gendered self as well as the doubts and pleasures that constitute such an identity.

Since Tolkien’s essay, and especially in the last fifteen or twenty years, monster theory has come back into vogue for medievalists. Caroline Walker Bynum discusses the role of wonder in the construction of monstrosity, suggesting that it is the ability of monsters to transform and occupy conflicting, hybrid spaces that fascinates the attentions of medieval writers. Timothy Jones and David Sprunger’s Marvels, Monsters, and Miracles addresses the potentially subversive quality of monsters: their marvelous potential to challenge hegemonic interpretations of the other, including the abject other. David Williams approaches the medieval monstrous as a kind of divinity, the epistemological extreme of consciousness that is explained and expressed in the same breath with holy desire and holy fear. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen (in Hybridity, Identity, and Monstrosity) and Bettina Bildhauer examine the ways that monstrosity coalesces with race and religion, including representations of Jewish and Saracen others; this framework has also produced fruitful investigations into the subject and identity formations in medieval Europe. [page 75]

Most useful for my purposes, the intersections of gender and monstrosity have been explored by Margaret Hallissy, Kathleen Coyne Kelly and Marina Leslie, Dana M. Oswald, and Dyan Elliott. Hallissy examines the “venomous woman” through literature and folklore from the medieval period to the present: her book ties together strands of misogyny and monstrosity, thoughtfully drawing a differentiation between women who transform into monsters and animals and women whose “very flesh” is corrupt, monstrous, and poisonous, especially to the men who desire and fear them (xiii). Elliott discusses the “persistence of the pollution beliefs associated with women’s physiology,” and suggests that these frequently draw on imaginings of libidinous females as demonic, arguing that understanding these psychic processes in the minds of medieval people through their literature is indispensable to the historical enterprise (5, 8). And Oswald, as I have begun to explore above, has examined the monstrous women in Mandeville in the context of the Black Death, suggesting that the capability of monsters to “enter and endanger communities” without detection is analogous to problems of female sexual circulation in the Book (118-121). Kelly and Leslie’s edited volume draws on the cultural ambivalence surrounding virginity, including its equation with capital and its annihilating menace to male sexuality, the “‘deep male fear of untouched female sexuality’” (“Introduction” 23).3 In Mandeville’s text, marriage is an important antidote to this threat of annihilation – though, as we shall see, it does not entirely assuage its creators’ concerns about foreign women’s desires, or about the potential for horror and death within their bodies.

Wives and Widows: Performances of Marital Status

Marriage is represented throughout Mandeville’s text as a relationship of female obedience and male control, with few exceptions. The elaborate hats worn by the wives of the Great Khan perhaps express the dominance of husbands most vividly of all. Though ornate and beautifully decorated, this headgear symbolizes quite memorably the expected obedience of married women, to be (quite literally) under the heel of their husbands: “And all tho that beth y-wedded haveth a contrefeit of a mannes [page 76] foot upon her hedes, half a foot longe and all y-maked with precious stones wel and rychely, in tocknyng that they ben in subjeccioun to man and under mannes foot. And they that beth noght wedded have no such tocknynge” (1983-1986). Marriage is seen in the Book as a marker of currency and exchange, and as a token of foreign abundance: “And the kyng of that londe hath as many wyves as he wole, and he lyth never by oon of hem but oons. … [he is the] most worthy kynge of the worlde, for he hath so many wyves” (1819-1829). It is also a political tactic, as in the texts’ marriage of Prester John to the Great Khan’s daughter (2415-2416).

The foot-binding and widow-burning observed by Sir John show a deeper and more insidious element of male control over married women’s bodies and lives. For some women, participation in the economy of marriage is even incorporated into their bodies: the Mandarin women’s feet, for example, bound up in order to satisfy a cultural standard of beauty, are understood as useful appendages only insofar as they can carry out a performative function in response to the gaze of would-be husbands. Sir John also records multiple instances of widow-burning in India, Java, and in the islands beyond the Vale Perilous. The Insular text, rather than emphasizing the choice of a widower to die alongside his wife, notes that he can take a second wife. The Defective text differs from the Insular version by adding that, if he wishes, a widower may also be burned with his wife’s corpse:

And if any man dey in that lond they brenne hym … And if hys wyff have none cheldren, they brenne her with hym. And they seyn that hit is good resoun that she make hym companye in the other worlde, as she dede in this worlde. And if she have children, she shal lyve with hem, if that she wole. And if the wyff deye byfore the man, they brenne her and the man, if that he wole. (1618-1622)

Present here is a strong apprehension regarding married women’s independence after their spouse’s death, but also (in both the Insular and Defective versions of the Book) a direct appeal to women’s role as childrearers. In this framework, a wife is defined by her fertility: the purpose of childbearing and -rearing is more important than, and definitive of, a woman’s right to live or die. [page 77]

Unmarried Women: Cannibals and Amazons

In comparison to the economic control and process of exchange embodied by married foreign women, unmarried foreign women in the Book appear as powerful figures who are potentially dangerous because of readily expressed desire, which is uncontrolled because they are unmarried. The Sumatran women who forgo marriage and engage in sexual activity and reproduction “all in comune” are represented in uncannily savage parallel to western or Christianized women whose bodies are under control through sacramental monogamy (1675). Their cannibalism is exaggerated and extended to include the eating of their own children – a reversal that heightens the reader’s revulsion and stresses the unnaturalness of the cannibals’ customs. Monogamous marriage is thereby naturalized and treated as the apex of a civilized culture. Women who disobey naturalized performances of wifehood are reviled by the narrator: the ‘ugly women’ of Chaldea, for example, refuse to wear clothing demarcating them as wives or even as women: instead they are “ryght lothlych and yvel y-clothed,” wearing a baggy garment (an “yvel cote”) that hides their bodies (1473-1474).

This moment of feminine cover-up is followed by a lengthy description of the Amazon women, who enact a similar disregard for monogamy and marriage: in fact, their island’s origins reveal a political and gendered movement towards women’s independence that culminates in violence and bloodshed. The Amazon queen leads a slaughter of all the men on the island after the king’s death in battle, along with his retainers and the “good blood of his lond” (the implication is that, with these warriors out of the way, the women can outnumber and overpower the remaining men) (1480). The women then “gadred hem togedre” and kill them all, founding their famous women’s society of warriors (1482). The strength of the Amazon women is a result of their unmarried status: they take this correlation so seriously that they kill and banish all men from their company. Sir John emphasizes their agency in procreation: rather than venturing forth themselves, they require men to travel to them and stay only as “long as the wymmen liketh” (1486). In other incarnations of the episode, such as in the Letter of Prester [page 78] John, Amazon women’s pleasure and agency are not nearly so central, but are in fact downplayed in deference to their bodily need to procreate. The children from these unions are segregated according to gender: the male children they “sendeth hem to her fadres,” but the female children they “kepe hem well,” raising them as warriors and, according to custom, removing a breast (the right or left, depending on the girl’s military role) after puberty, that they may shoot and fight more effectively (1487, 1488). This bodily mutilation for the sake of military prowess highlights the women’s female bodies through privation, while also placing their bodies in a new category separate from the reproductive role accorded to women in traditional marriages and societies. Rather than body parts relegated to childbearing and -rearing, Amazonian breasts are symbols of military might.

Monstrous Virgins: The Dragon-Lady and the ‘Fayr Mayde’

We see similar alienation of women’s bodies elsewhere in Mandeville’s text. The virgins of the Book, two in particular, highlight the possibilities for women’s bodies to become hybrid, monstrous, or magical: these are the episodes of the dragon-lady, Hippocrates’ daughter, and the “fayr mayde” out of whose righteous suffering the first roses are created (543). These episodes reveal the importance that the Book places on virginity: the dragon and the maid alike are valued precisely because of their virginity, which increases their desirability as future wives. Both women appear to violate the possibilities for human female bodies – Hippocrates’ daughter transforms into a dragon, and the “fayr mayde” causes roses to blossom with no power but her chaste prayer. But the endings to both their stories reassure Mandeville’s reader that these women’s virginity is a temporary condition leading to willing wifehood; only a husband worthy of their extreme chastity will be able to claim it for himself in the landscape of marriage.

Although the dragon-lady has often been read as a threatening monster, I contend that it is her ability to be converted back to human that is most important here – her goal is not to kill or destroy, but to marry a worthy knight.4 This places her squarely within the marital and reproductive economy, if only a suitor can [oage 79] be valiant enough to confront her appearance and tame her through an overtly sexual act: the kiss on the lips. The dragon-lady is transformed (most suggestively) by the goddess Diana into the “maner of a dragon … And men of the iles callen here ladi of the contrees” (304-306). The Metrical Version of the Book makes Diana into a jealous stepmother who effects the transformation, which Tzanaki argues follows a more traditional romance theme (153). But the Defective Version emphasizes the dragon-lady’s virginity by connecting her with Diana, the virgin goddess. She is introduced from an immediately male perspective – the “men of the iles” call her lady – and her feminine availability is emphasized to the point that “hure own kynde” is “womman,” and only a knight who is “hardy” and “doughti” will be able to effect the transformation back into her true self (310-312). She appears with “moche tresour aboute hure,” a visual sign that hints at the wealth and title available to the man who can marry her; her requirement that he be a knight only heightens the connotations of class and caste (321). Two knights come to attempt to kiss the dragon and gain the princess, but her draconic form is simply too fearful for them to stand – they fail to perform, cannot go through with the kiss, and as their punishment, she slays them by casting them into the sea. But Mandeville promises that the knight who is brave enough will “turne that damysel to hure owen shappe, and be lord of the contré aforesaid” (339-340). Both sexual and economic incentives to deflowering this beast of Diana are made explicit here. The brave knight, whose arrival is deferred into the future, will experience real danger if he can only perform this duty and thus domesticate the dragon into a wife.

The dragon-lady’s body exists in a middle-ground between humanity and beastliness: although “hure own shappe,” her essence and identity, is a human woman, her draconic form makes her unrecognizable. If unmarried, she will not only remain a dragon but also retain the wealth and status of Hippocrates for herself, thus not only keeping herself out of sexual circulation, but keeping her capital out of circulation, too. There is no strong benefit to her in reentering these circuits, but the systems of commerce that implicate nobility and wealth are at her door. The dragon-lady’s desire for a brave knight to woo and transform her is not [page 80] commented on explicitly, but there is some suggestion that while her sexual and economic powers lie in draconic-womanly form, her “true” self is human. Gayle Rubin notes that the traffic of women creates them into objects of trade that carry, along with sexual access, “genealogical statuses, lineage names and ancestors, rights and people,” not to mention property (46). Thus, the knights’ attempts to return her to humanity are also attempts to draw her back into systems of trafficking and circulation that will no longer allow such somatic ambivalences; there will be no monsters in the marriage.5

The “fayr mayde” from the city of Flowering Field (Feyld Floryshid) appears in a shorter episode. She is “y-blamed falsly that she hadde y-do fornicacioun, for which cause heo was demed to the deth and to be brende” (543-545). But she is saved from execution through a miracle that affirms her contested virginity and invents the rose: “The branches that were brennyng bycome ride roses, and the branches that were noght brennyng bycome white rosers and ful of roses. And ther were the ferste roses ad rosers that ever y-seyn afore. And thus was the mayde y-saved” (547-551). Like Hippocrates’ daughter, the rose-maiden does not reject marriage, but desires it under more propitious conditions: she insists that her virginity be “y-knowe to alle men,” and her miraculous rescue from burning adds her once again to the marriage market, now even more valuable than before, having been blessed and confirmed beyond question as a virgin (547). But her body, at the moment of burning, takes on magical qualities that exist beyond the closure of enticing virginity – her body is suddenly productive and inventive, but the vegetative abundance that it effects in the flames rising around her is resistant to the interpretive ease and enclosure that maidenhood suggests. As with the monstrous, the maid’s body causes “scientific inquiry and its ordered rationality [to] crumble … [her] very existence is a rebuke to boundary and enclosure” (Cohen, “Monster Culture” 7). Her survival after the miracle attests to her reentry into systems of exchange and marital circulation, not a martyr but an available prospect for wifehood. Her virginal ability to create roses out of licking flames is monstrous, but not dangerously so, because it is used to prove her virtue: she is subsequently able to recover her role as “mayde,” and thereafter signal her eligibility and desirability [page 81] as a potential wife.

The dragon-lady and the fair maid represent the possibility for magical and monstrous female bodies to reenter and participate earnestly in the system of marriage that strongly prizes chastity as a valuable good. But the Book also illustrates lingering concerns about the possibility and threat of unmarried foreign women and virgins to damage or destroy willing husbands. Because of their untamed foreignness, their status brings with it a resistance to the (western, European, white) expectations of marriage. Just as Tertullian wrote that a virgin without masculine supervision is “some monstrosity with a head of its own,” the virgins of the Book of John Mandeville address a similar fear (qtd. in Bildhauer and Mills 13).

‘Decay and Death at the Touch of the Feminine’:

Abjection and Horror via Sexual Access

Unmarried foreign women introduce death into the economy of women’s bodies, not only refusing to properly circulate but also corrupting with the stench of death the wifely roles they are called on to embody. Three stories about women illustrate this idea in the Book: the faery who guards the hawk, the ‘adder-wives’ who dwell beyond the Vale Perilous, and the dead woman who gives birth to the horrific Head of Satalia.

These women occupy not only a projection of fantasy and desire but also of mortality and destruction. “Decay and death at the touch of the feminine” defines these episodes, but specifically in their relationship to marriage and willingness or ability to enter into a marriage relationship (Kristeva 159). With their ability to refuse sexual and marital circulation, these women (despite, in some cases, their willingness to marry) are seen as monstrous and even abject, that category beyond monstrosity that enlists death and waste in an unrelenting process of horror.

The story of the faery who guards the hawk occurs in the Book directly before the description of the Amazon women, highlighting the connection between their rejection of marriage and this supernatural being: for the faery woman promises to grant to any man who will guard her hawk for seven days and nights “the ferst [page 82] thyng that he wole aske of worldly thyng” (1412). But when the king of Armenia, a “doughty man” worthy of noble marriage, asks “nothyng but the lady, to have his will of her,” she refuses him – reminding him of the stipulation that any worldly thing she can grant, so “ye mey have me noght, for Y am a spyritte” (1414-1426). In punishment for his inappropriate request, the faery curses his kingdom and his line with war, poverty, and subjection to its enemies. Notably, the promise of punishment and destruction in exchange for a wrong request was not mentioned at the outset: the faery is not only otherworldly, but she operates on a plane of reward and revenge that is not available to human knowledge. The next knight has no better luck: he asks for riches, which she grants, but she also punishes him for his “greet pruyde,” which causes the destruction of his order and the “undoyng” of himself (1430).

The faery’s refusal to enter into human contracts or obligations, including the sexual contract that the Armenian king would bring her into, plays out one of the monster’s “multifarious cultural functions”: the ability to appear human, to appear to abide by human rules, but to subvert and sabotage these very appearances and agreements, raining down death and destruction where rules and regulations seemed natural and easy to follow (Bildhauer and Mills 21). The faery guarding the hawk refuses marriage and obedience even as she appears to abide by the same systems of obligation.

Conversely, the “adder-wives” who live outside the Vale Perilous are willing to participate in the marriage economy, but their very physicality represents a totalizing threat to its efficacy: the snakes that live inside their vaginas will not only castrate but destroy any man who tries to deflower these virgins on their wedding nights: “For men of that contreé hold hit a gret peryle to have a wommanis maydenhod. … Som of the wyves had eddres in her bodies that touched her hosbandes yard in her bodyes. So were many men slayn” (2536-2543). The ones who dare to do so are called the “gadlybyriens,” the foolish ones, a distinct order of men who seem to exist for this very purpose: they are “y-ordeyned therto … let hem lye by her wyves to have her maydenhode” (2534-2535). Unlike the dragon-lady or the faery, the deadliness of these women is not contingent on the bravery or worthiness of their suitor: their bodies themselves are the threat, but (like [page 83] virginity) their status is not made visible or legible by their appearance in any way. These adder-wives continue Mandeville’s earlier trend of making women’s virginal bodies horrifying, and warning against the desires of women whose sexualities have not been claimed and tamed through the domesticating process of marriage. They also elaborate on the fear that began to be expressed through Diana’s dragon-lady and the maiden of the roses: that virginity and maidenhood are somehow threatening to men, if for no other reason than simply because the economic incentives of marriage remain unsatisfied.

The fear of “venomous virgins” harkens all the way back to the Secretum Secretorum, the collection of advice from Aristotle to Alexander, where he tells the story of a beautiful maiden who, fed poison throughout her childhood, becomes fatal to the touch. Her embrace has the power to kill. The myth is repeated in the Gesta Romanorum and similar tales occur in Marco Polo’s travels; the motif of the vagina dentata occurs here too, allied to the fear that the virgin-witch will steal the male member, requiring that the virgin must be “defanged” (Lynch 88-90). The virgin is gravely threatening because her femininity is untouched: this intact femininity correlates her to a primitive maternal force, unmarred by masculine touch. Indeed, it is the fear of touch that gives the adder-wives their killing power (“eddres in her bodies that touched her hosbandes yard”), a reversal that shows the underlying fear: that the male member, the instrument with which a new wife will be “touched,” penetrated and deflowered, will instead be “touched” by her own internal phallic instrument – the adders lurking inside her. The fear of the unmarried (and therefore uncontrolled, financially independent, and/or sexually ambiguous) woman here becomes conflated with fears about castration, impotence, and mortality.

This is the touch of death, the place where sex and mortality meet; and thus the moment becomes, as Kristeva writes, that “distracting moment when opposites (life/ death, feminine/ masculine) join in order to constitute what is probably more than a defense fantasy against the persecuting power of the mother: a panic hallucination of the inside’s destruction, of an interiorization of death following the abolishment of limits and differences” (159). [page 84] The dead woman who gives birth to the flying Head of Satalia that destroys the city is the ultimate feminine monster, abject and horrifying, who exists completely outside the marital economy: any attempt to reintroduce her body to it through reproductive sexuality is punished – she effects desire and fear but ultimately doles out death. There is no possibility even of hiring a “foolish one” to reconnoiter this frightening female world – rather, the woman’s corpse giving birth to a hideous head embodies precisely the place of feminine abjection and terror to which the Mandeville-author has been building all along.

From this perspective, the tale is a cautionary one: don’t practice necrophilia. It occurs directly after the dragon-lady episode, which could suggest a thematic link between the two. Yet here, rather than the damsel’s desire being left unfulfilled by unworthy knights, her death precludes her desire. Her death and her identity as an object of desire are paralleled in the text’s syntax: “And al that contré was lost thorgh foly of a yong man, for he hadde a fair damysel that he lovede, and she dayde sodenly and was y-do in grave of marble” (350-352, emphasis mine). The young man’s necrophilia, a violation of the “economy of marriage and community,” results in the gestation of a disembodied head, which he is called on to release by a disembodied voice (Oswald 140). When he opens the tomb, “ther fley an heed right parolous to se that fley even aboute the cite. And anoon the cite sank adoun” (356-358). The woman’s supernatural revenge extends beyond the man himself, the offender and defiler, to destroy the entire city, and change forever the landscape around it: “therfore,” Sir John writes, “ther be many parolous passages” around Satalia (358).

If the incident were only a cautionary tale, this wholesale and long-lasting destruction would be unnecessary: the man would simply be humiliated or destroyed. Instead, the Head of Satalia (the hideousness of which is exaggerated in other Mandeville manuscripts) brings together birth and death, the two poles of abjection, as a hellish continuation of the man’s sin – this is the recirculation of evil begotten through unholy crime, not merely a supernatural slap on the wrist. In this moment, the corpse of a would-be wife and mother remains fecund and fertile after death – the womb in the grave – but the “yong” man’s “foly,” his violation of her corpse, results in a living creature of death – the grave [page 85] exuding from the womb, disembodied yet corporeal and all too real.

I have attempted to situate some of the women who appear in the Book of John Mandeville within theories of monstrosity, in regard to their marital and sexual relations. Often, though, the binary categorization of obedient married women versus monstrous unmarried woman/virgin is complicated by the introduction of abjection and monstrosity even into sexual circulations. If monsters are defined in part by their ability to continually escape, recirculate, and transform, then their presence in the everyday or normative must be acknowledged. Throughout the text of Mandeville’s Book, representations of married and unmarried foreign women bring up debates about female sexuality and its connection to women’s agency, desire, and revenge. The destructive power of femininity is proposed to be controlled through marriage, a status figured primarily as involving female obedience to male authority.

As these stories intersect with race and colonialist ideologies of foreignness, otherness, and economy, Mandeville’s monstrous women present new possibilities for feminist scholarship that traverse these disciplines as well. Ultimately, the women of the Book, dispersed across the worlds constructed by the author(s) and reimagined by the redactors, perform on stages of strangeness and sublimity that challenge their audiences to reconsider the contingent and precarious categories of wifehood, virginity, and feminine monstrosity.


1. I follow the convention of referring to the Mandeville-author’s persona–an English knight traveling to foreign lands–as “Sir John.”

2. The “dynamic tension between intentionality and response” (Tzanaki 4) in Mandeville has been robustly studied by many, but for more on this and on Mandeville’s sources see especially Tzanaki. In 1887, John Ashton wrote of the Mandeville-author that there was “nothing more likely to be provocative of a literary war than the question of Sir John Mandeville’s personal identity,” a subject which indeed has claimed a lot of ink and mental space [page 86] from scholars.

3. See especially Kathryn L. Lynch, “Diana’s ‘Bowe Ybroke’: Impotence, Desire, and Virginity in Chaucer’s Parliament of Foules.” Menacing Virgins: Representing Virginity in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, Associated University Press, 1999, pp. 83-96.

4. While the sources of the tale are unclear, Loomis writes that “the tale of Hippocrates’ daughter represents an episode from Arthurian romance, transplanted and localized in the Mediterranean” See R.S. Loomis, “The Fier Baiser in Mandeville’s Travels, Arthurian Romance, and Irish Saga,” Studi Medievali, vol. 17, 1951, pp. 104-113, at 112. Similar stories appear in Felix Fabri and the Arthurian romances Lanzelet and Le Bel Inconnu.

5. See also Oswald 137.

Works Cited

Ashton, John. The Voiage and Travayle of Sir John Mandeville, Knight, Pickering and Chatto, 1887.

The Book of John Mandeville, edited by Tamarah Kohanski and C. David Benson, Medieval Institute Publications, 2007.

Bildhauer, Bettina. “Blood, Jews, and Monsters in Medieval Culture.” The Monstrous Middle Ages, edited by Bettina Bildhauer and Robert Mills, U of Toronto P, 2003, pp. 75-96.

Bildhauer, Bettina, and Robert Mills. Introduction. The Monstrous Middle Ages, edited by Bildhauer and Mills, U of Toronto P, 2003, pp. 1-27.

Bynum, Caroline Walker. Metamorphosis and Identity, Zone Books, 2001.

Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome. Hybridity, Identity, and Monstrosity in Medieval Britain: On Difficult Middles, The New Middle Ages, Palgrave Macmillan, 2006.

---. “Monster Culture (Seven Theses).” Monster Theory: Reading Culture, edited by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, U of Minnesota P, 1996, pp. 3-25.

Elliott, Dyan. Fallen Bodies: Pollution, Sexuality and Demonology in the Middle Ages. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1999.

Hallissy, Margaret. Venomous Woman: Fear of the Female in Literature, Contributions in Women’s Studies, Greenwood Press, 1987. [page 87]

Hanna, Ralph. “Mandeville.” Middle English Prose: A Critical Guide to Major Authors and Genres, edited by A. S. G. Edwards, Rutgers UP, 1984, pp. 121-132.

Jones, Timothy S., and David A. Sprunger. Marvels, Monsters, and Miracles: Studies in the Medieval and Early Modern Imaginations, Medieval Institute Publications, 2002.

Kelly, Kathleen Coyne, and Marina Leslie. “Introduction: The Epistemology of Virginity.” Menacing Virgins: Representing Virginity in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, edited by Kelly and Leslie, Associated University Presses, 1999.

Kohanski, Tamarah, and C. David Benson. Introduction. The Book of John Mandeville, edited by Kohanski and Benson, Medieval Institute Publications, 2007.

Kristeva, Julia. The Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, translated by Leon S. Roudiez, Columbia UP, 1982.

Lemay, Helen Rodnite. Women’s Secrets: A Translation of Pseudo-Albertus Magnus’ De secretis mulierum, SUNY Series in Medieval Studies, SUNY P, 1992.

Oswald, Dana M. Monsters, Gender, and Sexuality in Medieval English Literature. Gender in the Middle Ages, D.S. Brewer, 2010.

Rubin, Gayle. “The Traffic in Women: Notes on the ‘Political Economy’ of Sex.” Toward an Anthropology of Women, edited by Rayne N. Reiter, Monthly Review, 1975, pp. 157-210.

Seymour, M.C. Introduction. The Defective Version of Mandeville’s Travels, edited by Seymour, Oxford UP, 2002.

Tolkien, J.R.R. “Beowulf: the monsters and the critics.” The Monsters and the Critics, and Other Essays, edited by Christopher Tolkien, George Allen and Unwin, 1983, pp. 5-48.

Tzanaki, Rosemary. Mandeville’s Medieval Audiences: A Study of the Reception of the Book of Sir John Mandeville, Ashgate Publishing, 2003.

Ussher, Jane. Managing the Monstrous Feminine: Regulating the Reproductive Body, Routledge, 2006.

Williams, David. Deformed Discourse: The Function of the Monster in Mediaeval Thought and Literature, McGill-Queen’s UP, 1996.

MLA citation (print):

Light, Ellis. "Damsels, Dragons, and Death-girls: Married and Unmarried Foreign Women in The Book of John Mandeville." Supernatural Studies, vol. 4, no. 1, 2017, pp. 69-87.