‘Sorceress’: A Flawed Telling of Women and Worship in the Middle Ages

Sorceress movie

This is a guest post written by Tim Covell.

[Trigger warning: rape and sexual assault]

Sorceress, also known as Le moine et la sorcière, is a 1987 French film featuring Tchéky Karyo, Christine Boisson, and Jean Carmet. It had a limited theatrical release, playing at film festivals and independent theatres, and is available in subtitled and partly dubbed English versions. The story was written by Paméla Berger, Suzanne Schiffman directed, and they co-wrote the screenplay. Berger is a founder of the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective, the folks who gave us the seminal Our Bodies, Ourselves, and a professor of Medieval Art. With her background, one might expect Sorceress to be a powerfully feminist film and a faithful portrayal of the Middle Ages. It disappoints on both counts.

The film begins with a note stating that it is based on the writings of Étienne de Bourbon, a 13th century Dominican monk. A prologue shows his telling of the martyrdom of St. Guinefort. St. Guinefort was a dog, killed for apparently harming a baby. After his death, it is learned that he had protected the baby from a snake. The legend of the faithful animal killed in error is known in many cultures, but it was new to Étienne. In the rural area of France where he learned of it, the villagers not only considered the dog a saint, helpful to sick children, but maintained a grove and conducted healing rituals there, with the help of an old woman from another town. Étienne wrote that he preached against the practice, disinterred the dog, and burned the dog’s bones and the trees.

The film shows Étienne arriving at the village, on an inquisition and eager to see the local priest’s list of suspected heretics. He is told there are none. He soon learns of a woman who lives alone in the forest, and heals people with plants. Étienne suspects that “her practices might be irregular,” but considers her merely superstitious. Then he witnesses the ritual of healing a sick baby at Guinefort’s grove, concludes she is a witch, and arranges for her to be burned at the stake.

Berger takes numerous liberties with the source anecdote, though as a character notes, when Étienne writes of these events, he will change things so no one will know what really happened. The implication is that the film shows the true events. However, the changes introduce anachronistic and unrealistic notes, and simplify the characters. Étienne recorded the ritual as occasionally being fatal to infants. His description is consistent with similar rituals in other cultures, but the film shows that the children are never in danger. In the film, Étienne announces that he is looking for heretics, who “let women preach,” and could “destroy the church.” The comment may amuse modern audiences, who may not realize that he was likely seeking Waldensians, members of an organized movement throughout Europe, which tried to create an alternate church. Once Etienne hears of “suspicious acts of healing,” the film has him morph into a witch hunter. Extensive prosecution of witches came hundreds of years after the time of Étienne, and at his time witchcraft was not heresy.

De Bourbon had been a Dominican, travelling in rural areas for at least a dozen years before he became an inquisitor. However, the film introduces him as a dogmatic bumbler, and eventually reveals him to be a rapist. Clearly, he’s the bad guy. We learn through a flashback that as a teenager, he fled from the sight of a deer being gutted. It is hard to imagine that a rural youth in the 13th century would find this shocking, but the film distracts us from this oddity by trying to shock the viewer, briefly showing the gutting, and in a much closer view than the character’s perspective.

The older woman from the neighboring town is, in the film, a young attractive healer living in the forest. She may have been younger, and she may well have been a healer — women’s healing work was often unrecorded in history. However, it is less likely she lived in the forest, and her modern sensibilities with regard to plants, the natural world, and her appreciation of literacy are out of place. Early on, the film shows her pulling a thorn from a wolf’s paw. She’s the good guy. She became an outsider after her lord exercised “his first night’s rights” (she was raped), and her husband killed the lord. First night’s rights were often claimed to have existed during the middle ages by later writers, but there is no contemporary evidence for them. As with the story of the wrongly killed protective animal, first night’s rights have been written about in many cultures, going back to Gilgamesh.

Sorceress movie

The presentation of legends as fact, the anachronisms, and the one-dimensional characters weaken the story and the representation of life in the Middle Ages. Some of these aspects may have been intended to emphasize the overlooked participation and subordination of women, but they are not always effective. The reference to first night’s rights could have been a symbol for the position of women in society, but the timing and method of the presentation reduce it to a backstory footnote. Étienne’s writings about the ritual make only brief mention of an older woman who assists the ritual, but in the film this woman is young, attractive, and a source of sexual tension. It’s easy to accept that this may have been the reality, and Étienne downplayed this when he wrote about the incident, as a way of erasing her from history. However, it is also possible that the filmmakers thought, in typical Hollywood fashion, that the female lead should be conventionally young and attractive.

The film makes other efforts to celebrate women and the feminine. The first image in the film is a baby at the breast. A strong female character exists in a subplot, and the home of the forest women is lush green woods, while Étienne’s place is the dark and sterile church. Guinefort’s grove is a place to heal babies, and therefore a place for the women of the village. Unfortunately, the efforts to celebrate the feminine are undercut because, despite the title, the film is a story about a man’s growth and redemption.

The plot is structured around Étienne’s visit to the village. The forest woman intrigues him. But it is a man who shows him the error of his ways, another man who tells him how he can learn from this, and the climax is a pissing contest between Étienne and a local lord. Visuals also emphasize that this is Étienne’s story. This is most obvious is when we share his gaze of a revealed ankle. Significantly, we are shown traumatic events in his past, from his perspective, while the past traumas of the forest woman are merely narrated, making her a less sympathetic character. Finally, in a film which claims to reveal much of what may have been silenced, an important female character is mute, with a man to speak for her.

Sorceress shows that Étienne eventually agreed to allow the worship of St. Guinefort to continue, and in a closing note states: “The last woman healer to protect babies at the grove died in 1930.” This statement is both misleading and less interesting than the historical evidence. No information exists about a continuous line of healers, but the legend of St. Guinefort persisted. In the early 1930s, a woman in the area would go on substitute pilgrimages to Guinefort’s grove and other places, on behalf of sick children’s parents, if they paid her a small fee. She would also light candles and go to church for others, cast spells (but not against anyone who gave her meat), offer flowers, weed graves, and beg at a regular circuit of houses. She had been widowed in 1910, had one stillborn child, and lived alone until her death in 1936 at age eighty-eight. This is presumably the woman whose sad but interesting life was both acknowledged and downplayed as “the last woman healer.”

When I first saw the film, decades ago, I was impressed by the foregrounding of women’s experiences. With subsequent viewings, a greater knowledge of film, and a greater knowledge of history, I’ve become more aware of the film’s relatively superficial approach. However, it is entirely possible that in the 1980s the film could not have been financed had truly focused on the forest women, past and present. Even today, that might prove difficult. For all its faults, Sorceress remains much more attentive to women’s experiences than many films, and provides insights into village life during the Middle Ages.

Recommended Reading: The New York Times Review/Film; ‘Sorceress,’ A Medieval Parable

Tim Covell has degrees in English Literature, Film Studies, and Canadian Studies. He studies film censorship and classification systems, which are largely about managing representations of sexuality. More at www.covell.ca.