2019 - 2020 Modern Volume 10

Musings on the Menopause: Comparative analysis between the 16th century and modern-day perceptions of the female body and ageing

By Eleanor Richardson

As we enter a new decade, women’s bodies continue to be a cultural reference and topic for discussion. They are politicised, used in illustrative comments, yet still remain a taboo. Ben Broadbent, the Deputy Governor of the Bank of England, caused controversy in late 2018 when he described a faltering, stagnant economy as ‘menopausal’. Despite later issuing an apology, his words illustrate a deep-rooted trend in modern society: we continually present women’s aging bodies in a negative light. We can see this trend as far back as the 16th Century. In the spirit of Women’s History Month I felt that I could draw some parallels between our modern day sentiments of the female body and the heightened atmosphere of the 16th century. It was a century characterised by a demographic crisis in the aftermath of the Black Death, so fertility and reproduction were a priority. The 16th century was the peak of the politicisation of women’s bodies. Women who were perceived to be undesirable, such as prostitutes and older women became the victims of a witch-hunt in which over 25,000 women in Germany were executed from 1580-1590. We no longer persecute women in such a cruel manner, yet we perpetrate a discourse in which we perceive women as symbols of fecundity and strip them of their agency once this fertility diminishes, a trend that this article will explore.

When examining the attitude towards women’s bodies in the 16th century, the Witches’ Sabbath is an evocative example to analyse. Produced by Hans Baldung Grien in 1510, the woodcutting depicts four witches gathered round a cauldron to worship the Devil. It has become a cultural reference point for the study of witchcraft, and represents a political statement that women’s bodies are loci for fertility and carnality. In the upper left hand corner there is an attractive young witch riding a goat. Her loose hair and bare breasts are clearly on show for the audience. The unbound hair is an allusion to her unbridled sensuality, with uncovered hair being a symbol of seduction and intimacy in medieval iconography. She is emblematic of youthful temptation and fertility. The most important element of Grien’s woodcutting is the hag in the centre of the piece. She immediately captures the attention of the viewer with her frightening appearance in a devilish landscape. She is what we would all recognise as the archetypal image of a witch, with her sagging breasts and her cackling face covered in wrinkles. Her hair is straggly and lacks lustre in comparison to the beautiful, bountiful young witch. Whilst the younger witch symbolises fertility being sacrificed to the Devil, the older witch represents the inverse of fertility with her withered body. Hans Baldung Grien intentionally nurtures a dichotomy in his work of fertility versus impotence, youth versus age and danger versus innocence. 

The Witches’ Sabbath is an individual man’s attitude towards fertility and youth, yet his perspective is a microcosm of society’s beliefs. The woodcutting is a clear illustration of how the female body was ‘a matter of urgent social and political concern’. This debate on the female body and ageing is familiar one in 2020. We are still subconsciously enamoured with the ideal of youth, imposing it as an expectation on the female body. Helen Garner in her award-winning 2015 essay described how mature women experience society removing their agency. She recounts caustically how ‘Your face is lined and your hair is grey, so they think you are weak, deaf, helpless, ignorant and stupid.’. People are starting to discuss the rhetoric surrounding the female body in all forms of media. The popular podcast, Women’s Hour, recently released an episode looking at the discourse surrounding female appearance, especially menopausal women. The resurgence of feminist literature like The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) and its popular sequel, The Testaments (2019) exposes how the dialogue on women’s bodies is slowly being reclaimed by women. People are starting to destroy and reinvent ancient rhetoric on women and their bodies. The 16th century commentaries on women may seem parodic to many, and we no longer burn women at the stake for witchcraft. Yet we still need to revolutionise the discourse of the female body into a positive, educational discussion in order to combat the institutionalised misogyny evidenced by Broadbent’s blunder. 

Hans Baldung Grien’s, The Witches Sabbath (1510)

References (in order referenced in the above)

‘Deputy Governor sorry for calling economy ‘menopausal’, BBC News,  https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-44138229

L.Roper, Witch Craze: Terror and Fantasy in Baroque Germany (Connecticut, 2004), p.7.

C.Zika, ‘Fears of Flying: Representations of Witchcraft and Sexuality in Sixteenth Century Germany’, Australian Journal of Art Vol 8 (1989), p.19. 

H.Garner, ‘The Insults of Age’, The Monthly (May, 2015), https://www.themonthly.com.au/issue/2015/may/1430402400/helen-garner/insults-age

‘The Week in Radio and Podcasts: Women’s Hour; Atlanta Monster; Today’, The Guardian https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2018/jan/21/week-in-radio-podcasts-womans-hour-atlanta-monster-today