How can there be malice in literature?

Poetics of stereotypes. The "bad" woman in medieval literature

Table of Contents

1. Introduction to the subject

2. Bad women in "Aristotle and Phyllis" and "Three bad women"
2.1 “Aristotle and Phyllis” - malice at second sight
2.2 "Three cunning women" - the obviously bad ones

3. Approaches to explaining the evil behavior
3.1 Great importance of the Christian faith
3.2 Social framework

4. Conclusion and conclusion


1. Introduction to the subject

Heinrich Kaufringer describes very aptly in his mare "Three Cunning Women":

I believe that nobody will

show the times on earth

spawned and betrayed mer

with lists and with gscheider ler

than one of his wife.[1]

It is a concise motif that one comes across again and again when reading medieval tales: the evil, deceitful, insidious woman. In numerous works by a wide variety of authors, wives cheat on their husbands, lie to them - in order to gain an advantage or simply out of sheer malice - or expose them in public.[2] Usually associated with the image of the bad woman is that of the stupid man who is deceived or persuaded by her. Both are stereotypes that can be found repeatedly in mars.

The very negative image of women has its origins in the Bible: “The first energetic husband was Adam, not only because he had drawn Mrs. Eva so badly that she immediately followed the tempting words of the snake, but he also bit himself without any Objection to the apple when Eva wanted it that way. "[3] Already here the woman who persuades her husband to commit a sin was seen as the origin of all bad and evil. Instead of obeying, women seek to give orders. "[4]

Women live out their malice - due to their physical inferiority compared to men - mostly through cunning and deceit, "Woman cunning is always language cunning, cunning of persuasion."[5] Two different types can be recognized here: On the one hand, the physically weak women who have to assert themselves against stronger men, lovers or power holders with the help of their intellect, and on the other hand those who simply act maliciously to meet their needs for money, power or sexual satisfaction to breastfeed.[6]

The stereotype of the bad woman has already been investigated several times in previous research, but appears no less interesting in times when gender studies and feminist considerations are very popular. In the following work, the different types of bad women, the framework conditions under which they act and the motives for their actions are to be examined more closely using two tales, namely “Aristotle and Phyllis” and Heinrich Kaufringer's “Three Cunning Women”.

2. Bad women in "Aristotle and Phyllis" and "Three bad women"

First of all, we are interested in how the malice of the women described in the literature expresses itself in concrete terms. For this purpose, the behavior of the female characters in "Aristotle and Phyllis" and "Three Cunning Women" are examined in more detail below.

2.1 “Aristotle and Phyllis” - malice at second sight

In “Aristotle and Phyllis”, the figure of Phyllis does not appear at first glance to be the typical, clichéd, evil woman. She is the queen's maid, of noble sex and is described as "pure guote", that is, noble and pure.[7] This does not go unnoticed by the king's son, Alexander, and he falls in love with her. Phyllis reciprocates and the two become lovers.

Up to this point, no bad or bad behavior can be identified in Phyllis. On closer inspection, however, she does harm her lover Alexander very well:

but unfortunately he was caught

jokes and senses;

at the same time you have strict affection.[8]

Because of his love for Phyllis, Alexander, who is otherwise so docile, neglects his school duties, since he only has eyes for his beloved. His teacher Aristotle also recognizes that there are failures of the juncfrouwen minne,[9] so that Alexander's successes are missing because of his love for Phyllis. So already in this part of the story it is described how the charms of the female sex negatively affect the learning and ambition of men. But that's not all.

As the story progresses, Phyllis' angry streak becomes even more evident. After Aristotle has found out the reason for Alexander's dwindling achievements and informs the king of it, the two lovers are forbidden to interact with each other. Both suffer a lot from this. But instead of just moping up like Alexander, Phyllis forges - in keeping with the stereotype of the bad woman - plans for revenge against the scholar Aristotle. She dresses up nicely, puts on her finest clothes and most beautiful jewelry and thus sets out to lure Aristotle, whom she blames for separating from her lover, into a trap. And when his gaze falls on the beautiful young woman, even the wise scholar can no longer be helped.

how does he know, how loses a man,

from wîbes no one can listen

bind your mood,

he wants to find himself lâzen

in our company:

so strong sint minnen created.[10]

Aristotle, too, is subject to the charms of the beautiful woman. When he sees her, he is delighted with her appearance and asks her into his room. Phyllis accepts this invitation, very careful to see how she is shaved.[11] The scholar offers Phyllis to reward her richly for spending the night with him. Then the beautiful reacts at first with anger, but finally agrees, provided that she wants to saddle him beforehand and ride like a horse in the garden. Out of sheer desire, he agrees to do everything possible to share the bed with her. And so the wise scholar is made a gouch by letting Phyllis ride him - in front of the queen and her maid. Aristotle becomes a mockery at court and leaves the country a week later and Phyllis has so successfully taken revenge on him.

Finally, from this episode, a malicious approach by the Phyllis emerges very clearly. Instead of looking for a conversation with the king and / or Aristotle to clarify the problem and to negotiate the ban on contact with Alexander, or to find a way to meet her lover in secret - what Phyllis, as a cunning woman, certainly able to do would - she chooses the way of retribution. Whether her problem of not being able to meet Alexander was eliminated with this deed is not an issue in the story and appears to be quite unlikely. The character Phyllis does not act for rational, sensible reasons, but simply insidious and mean - and can therefore be assigned to the stereotype of the bad woman.

2.2 "Three cunning women" - the obviously bad ones

It looks quite different with Heinrich Kaufringer's mare “Three Cunning Women”. Here the malice, the cunning of women is portrayed quite obviously and unadorned.

Three - of course beautiful - farmer women, Jüt, Hiltgart and Mächilt, split the proceeds of their egg sale on the market in equal parts. A pale is left over. In the dispute over the surplus Heller, they come to the decision that the woman who can trick and deceive her husband the worst should get him. Here you can already see how deeply rooted malice seems to be in the female nature - instead of giving away the Heller, playing it off by means of a normal, rational competition or simply saving it for a later date, women make a competition out of lying and cheating on their men.

The first farmer's wife, Fra Hiltgart, began her ruse as soon as she got home. She claimed she would have to die unless her husband had his rotten tooth pulled, which stank so badly that she would have to die because of the smell. In truth, her husband didn't have a bad tooth at all. After further moaning, gestures of pain and persuasion by Hiltgart, he was actually convinced. He had his servant - who in turn had a relationship with his wife - pulled a completely healthy tooth. The farmer was in terrible pain and bleeding, but the woman couldn't do it.[12] She claimed it was the wrong tooth, the rotten one that caused her such problems, was in the other cheek. And so another tooth was pulled from the farmer. When he passed out, Hiltgart pushed her ruse to extremes and claimed that he was going to die. She played her grief over this so convincingly that her husband himself believed he was dying, made confession with the pastor and allowed himself to be covered with a cloth when she told him he was now dead. After his death was finally mourned by all the neighbors Hiltgart is cheating on her supposedly dead husband with the servant before his eyes, to make sure that their cheating is the worst.

This part of the story shows in a very excessive, almost perverse way how unscrupulous and angry a woman can be. It is not enough for Fraw Hiltgart to cause her husband pain for no reason, not even to declare him dead, no, she is only satisfied when she is shamelessly enjoying herself with the servant in front of his eyes.


[1] Kaufringer, H. (n.b.). Three crafty women. In: Grublmüller, K. (Ed.). Novellistics of the Middle Ages. Fairy poetry. Berlin: German Classic Publishing House. (840).

[2] For example in “The clever servant”, “The buried husband”, “The half pear” or “The woo on the tree”.

[3] Brietzmann, F. (1912). The bad woman in medieval literature. Berlin: Mayer & Müller. (123).

[4] Ibid.

[5] Schnyder, M. (2000). Research on fairy tales and gender relations. In: Hartmann, S. & Müller, U. (2000). Yearbook of the Oswald von Wolkenstein Society. Volume 12. Frankfurt am Main. (126).

[6] See Müller, J. D. (1984). Again: Maere and Novelle. To the versions of Maere from the 'Three Cunning Women'. In: Ebenbauer, A. (Ed.). Philological investigations. Vienna: Wilhelm Braumüller. (289).

[7] See N. N. (n. B.). Aristotle and Phyllis. In: Grublmüller, K. (Ed.). Novellistics of the Middle Ages. Fairy poetry. Berlin: German Classic Publishing House. (498).

[8] Ibid. (496).

[9] Aristotle and Phyllis. (500).

[10] Ibid. (510).

[11] Ibid. (512).

[12] Three crafty women. (848).

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