Isabel Davis

Isabel Davis is a specialist in Medieval Literature at Birkbeck, University of London. She is working on the Wellcome/Birkbeck funded project Conceiving Histories, a collaboration between literary history and art practice to consider the ambiguities of pre- and early pregnancy and childlessness in history.


What does it mean to be a dangerous woman? What does the word ‘dangerous’ mean? ‘Dangerous’ didn’t always mean what it does today and, in its early senses, was written into the heart of foundational understandings of human desire.

‘Dangerous’ came into English from Old French via Anglo-Norman. The French word, dangereux, has made a very similar journey to its English counterpart; it also means something very different now than it did in the past. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the earliest known use of the word in an English text, at the time of writing at least, is from the Ancrene Wisse, an instruction manual for anchoresses written in the early thirteenth century probably by a friar. The author tells his female audience not to ask for too much from the ascetic lives they’ve chosen:

And it is still worse if they may say that she is a grumbler (the Middle English word is grucchild), and undisciplined (ful itowen), domineering (dangerus), and difficult to please (erveð). If she were living in the world, she would sometimes have to be content with less and worse. It is very unreasonable to come into a religious house, into God’s prison, willingly and freely, to a place of discomfort, to seek therein ease and mastery […].

~Book II, lines 689-94. This translation of the text is from James Morton ed. and trans., The Ancren Riwle (London: Camden Society, 1853), p. 109 the Middle English text faces on p. 108.

The translator has chosen to translate ‘dangerus’ with the word ‘domineering’ here, although he could have chosen others. Etymological dictionaries find this quotation useful because the other words in the list help to define it: ‘grucchild’ means to complain, ‘ful itowen’ has the sense of being badly brought up and ‘erveð’ is difficult.  Indeed, dangerous might also be translated as difficult, haughty, arrogant or severe. Its sense in ‘difficult’ indicates how it turned, acquiring its modern sense of ‘perilous’ near the end of the fifteenth century. William Caxton’s  ‘Atte this tyme whiche is so daungerouse’ could work with either meaning of ‘difficult’ or ‘perilous’; difficult times are dangerous times.

A dangerous woman in this early English sense, then, was a woman who asked for too much and gave up nothing. An anchoress should accept the walls of God’s prison and ask for nothing more. Indeed, through the fourteenth century the word steadily acquires a sense of being mean, unwilling to spend or to share.

In the landmark thirteenth-century French dream poem the Romance of the Rose, Danger (usually translated into English as Rebuff) is personified, represented as a churl working to prevent the poem’s dreamer-narrator reaching the object of his desire, the Rose. He is part of a posse, along with Wicked Tongue, Shame and Dread, tasked with guarding the Rose and her virtue.  This allegorical work stages the process of desire and sexual reserve spatially, so that Danger inhabits the hedgerows – like the briars and hedges in Sleeping Beauty and other fairy tales – which grow up to physically separate the feminine love object.

The Romance of the Rose has a long influence, although it isn’t much read now (sadly so, because it’s extraordinary and intelligent). It moves this word, dangerous, into more explicitly sexualized territory. So that Chaucer, for example, a reader and translator of the Rose, would use the word ‘dangerous’ as an easy short-hand for someone – a man or a woman – who is unyielding sexually, as he does, for example, in the Wife of Bath’s Prologue in The Canterbury Tales.

We don’t have an exact synonym in modern English. The closest, frigid, isn’t right because it is only about sexual responsiveness, having sloughed its other more general meanings, and is universally negative, regardless of context. Dangerous is dignified: a choice rather than a cramped-up inhibited and involuntary condition. There is pride in being dangerous.

What these texts – the Ancrene Wisse and the Romance of the Rose – show is that the idea of enclosure is intricately related to ‘dangerousness’. Women should renounce dangerousness by accepting enclosure in the Ancrene Wisse, but they are made dangerous by enclosure in the Romance of the Rose. The difference comes from alternative perspectives on sexuality: the first, a guide-book for the avowedly chaste, instructs the dangerousness out of its audience; they should accept their enclosure as a sign of their surrender to God. In this text, enclosure supports the chastity that undoes female dangerousness. In the Romance of the Rose, on the other hand, Danger is part of the poem’s main narrative arc: the dreamer’s quest for the enclosed object of his desire is necessarily frustrating. There would be no story if there were no separation or distance to be crossed and eradicated, no ruffian to push the lover back. But feminine resistance is imagined in order to be countered; women’s dangerousness is desirable even as it must be disarmed.

In spite of their apparent difference, these texts can also be seen working together. Enclosure increases desirability. The chaste woman, like, say, the ideal reader of the Ancrene Wisse, was not removed from the economy of desire, although she is asked to turn her ardency towards spiritual things and God. The lexicon of value – of gemstones and pearls – gave Marian devotion and other paeans to chastity an aesthetic, even erotic charge. Whilst the mussel’s shell, with its underwater remoteness, removes and encloses the pearl, a symbol of purity and perfection, it also makes it an exclusive rarity, amplifying its desirability. The endless postponement of desire idealized in the preference for chastity converged with and borrowed the aesthetics of courtly seduction which also fetishized distance, removal and enclosure and which were similarly enamoured with beautiful, luxury things shining with gemstones.

Detail from Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights, Prado Madrid (c. 1490-1510).
Detail from Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights, Prado Madrid (c. 1490-1510).

This notion of indefinitely deferred desire may look anachronistically Lacanian until we remember that Lacan was a medievalist whose accounts of subjectivity were founded, in part, upon readings of medieval literature. Indeed, he describes the ‘artifices’ of courtly love, as they were developed in medieval poetry, as ‘durable’, ‘thus complicating still the relations between men and the service of women’ (Jacques Lacan, The Ethics of Psychoanalysis 1959-60: The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller trans. Denis Porter, Routledge, 1992, p. 151). What is more the notion of the absent or unreachable – dangerous – object of desire was built into literature at the point when European vernaculars were being renovated as languages which could carry devotional, philosophical and poetic weight. So that modern ways of thinking about desire, gender and sexuality are always vestigially connected to much older formulations than is often imagined.

The Rose, in the Romance of the Rose, is queerer than I have suggested here; the Rose is not always a fully feminine love-object and, what is more, it is protected, and sometimes displaced by a male personification, Bel Accueil or, in English, Fair Welcome. Whilst the Ancrene Wisse is written for women, men also aspired to chastity and holy enclosure in the Middle Ages. Men could be dangerous then, too. Yet, the enclosed medieval woman, rather than an enclosed man, had more symbolic prominence in the Middle Ages and has been much more remembered since. For example, a woman imprisoned in the castle or abbey, is a reoccurring motif of the Gothic fiction of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, which so consciously turned to face medieval romance traditions. Feminine resistance and inaccessibility has dominated our dreams of the Middle Ages.

One of the things which gave women’s dangerousness more purchase than men’s was a significant pseudo-medical discourse emergent in the high Middle Ages, but influential far beyond, about the ‘secrets of women’. The historian Monica H. Green has charted the course of this particular idea which circulated in a group of philosophical/medical texts which were popularised by vernacular translation and, later, by print (Making Women’s Medicine Masculine, Oxford University Press, 2008). The secrets of women were the secrets of reproduction and they were hidden in the female anatomy, principally in the uterus. In some accounts, as historian Katherine Park has noted, these secrets were ‘on matters equally important for men and women was inaccessible to both’ but other accounts implied ‘that women had access to knowledge concerning sexuality and generation that men did not, and that they hoarded this knowledge for their own, often unsavory purposes’ (Secrets of Women: Gender, Generation, and the Origins of Human Dissection, Zone Books p. 27).

This notion of female secrecy cannot only be put down to anatomy. As Green has noted, if the uterus is hidden and inside the body, so are the other bodily organs and no discourse of secrecy had similarly grown up about them (Making Women’s Medicine Masculine, p. 218). She notes the misogynist reflex that singled out the uterus as especially secretive and, in this regard, the ‘secrets of women’ literature was part of a continuum with other anti-feminist writing like perhaps the Romance of the Rose, which is often acknowledged to be a crucial text in relation to the woman question, or querrelle des femmes. The long legacy of the ‘dangerous’ or unreachable medieval woman is, in part then, a response to the inaccessibility of natural facts about the origins and generation of life, purportedly hidden by women, either consciously or unconsciously. The accusation that Women detained the principle of life, imagined her hoarding up knowledge and power over male desire as well as rights of inheritance, of property and title. What could be more dangerous than that? What should you do with a dangerous woman with such powers? Lock her up in a tower! But, in that very act, her dangerousness is created and confirmed.

I have briefly charted here a medieval history of the dangerous woman and suggested that she has a long legacy. We have been asked by the Dangerous Woman Project to think ‘What does it mean to be a dangerous woman?’ In the Middle Ages it meant, being resistant, reserved and unyielding, particularly sexually. The dangerous medieval woman wasn’t coming to get you, she was holding back and that, well, that made her the most frightening thing of all.