Sorceress: From Dog and Saint to Man and Woman

“Sorceress” notes in the opening credits that it is based on the writings of Etienne de Bourbon, and it quickly becomes obvious that his anecdote about Guinefort, the dog saint, is the subject of the film.  The film begins by presenting the martyrdom of Guinefort, then moves forward in time to Etienne’s arrival in the village and portrays his discovery of the worship of the dog Saint Guinefort, an associated rite for healing infants, and his actions to suppress the worship and the rite.

There are numerous reminders of the truth of the events.  In addition to the note in the opening credits, there is an objective voice-over when the martyrdom is presented, characters refer to Etienne’s future recording of the events, scenes of village life are full of realistic detail, and an end title notes Etienne did record the events, and extends the story to 1930.  However, significant changes and additions were made to Etienne’s anecdote.  The film accounts for these differences when a character comments “and when men read [the anecdote], they’ll never know what really happened,” but objective evidence suggests the film’s version of events is not “what really happened.”

Etienne is portrayed as a naive idealist, with little understanding of human nature, and, as several characters comment, blind to feelings and deeper meanings.  However, the real Etienne studied at what became the University of Paris, likely had extensive theological knowledge and preaching skill, travelled widely in rural areas, and did not become an inquisitor until about 1235, at least dozen years after he became a Dominican (Schmitt 11-12).  When he arrived at the village where Guinefort was worshipped, he must have already seen and learned much of the world.  In a flashback, we see that Etienne is revolted by the sight of a deer being skinned.  It is difficult to accept that a rural teenager in thirteenth century Europe would find this disturbing.  Etienne is referred to as a nobleman’s son, but in fact the name merely indicates where he was from (Schmitt 11).

In the film, Etienne announces he is looking for heretics, who “let women preach,” and could “destroy the church.”  The comment is amusing to modern audiences, who may not realize that Etienne was likely seeking Waldensians, members of an organized movement throughout Europe, who preached without authorization and tried to create an alternate church (Lerner 333-334).  Once he hears of “suspicious acts of healing” he seems to become a witch hunter.  Extensive prosecution of witches came hundreds of years after the time of Etienne, and the church did not consider witchcraft heresy until 1320 (J. N. Cohn, “Europe’s Inner Demons,” London: Chatto, 1975, 155, 176, qtd. in Hester 132, 133). Etienne’s writings suggest he held a common view for his time, that superstitious acts were improper, vain, and useless, but not necessarily the workings of the devil.  He is undeniably sexist, ridiculing women who read omens and cast lots, but he sees the devil as acting through innocent, harmless, women, not in these women (Schmitt 15-17, 33,35).  Etienne’s anecdote makes no reference to rape or a daughter (though the film suggests he will keep this hidden), and he does not record taking any action against the old woman from another town who led the rite at Guinefort’s tomb.

The sorceress of the title is Elda, an attractive young woman who lives in the forest, and serves as the local healer. The first two characteristics are opposite to Etienne’s description of the woman involved, and the healing is an addition, though not unlikely. Women’s healing work was so taken for granted that little of it was recorded (Boston Women’s Health Collective, 1992, 96). Elda’s character was raped by the lord of her village, widowed, gave birth to a stillborn son, and for reasons not fully explained, could not marry or enter a convent.  Elda’s sad past may have helped give her the extraordinary inner strength she displays, but she becomes a character almost too good to believe in, especially when she is shown removing a thorn from a wolf’s paw.

When the rite for healing children is presented, Elda and the mother stay and watch the infant, protecting it from any dangers.  Etienne’s anecdote claims that the infant is not watched, and as a result many babies died when the candles started a fire.  His version is consistent with similar rites found in other folk cultures (Schmitt 72).

A final contradiction between the reality presented by the film and outside sources concerns the last woman involved with Guinefort’s grove.  Around 1930 an old 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. This woman, Francoise Gudin, had been widowed in 1910, had one stillborn child, and lived alone until her death in 1936 at age eighty-eight (Schmitt 124-143).  Presumably this is the woman referred to in the title at the end of the film, “The last woman healer to protect babies at the grove died in 1930,” but this statement is both misleading and less interesting than the truth.

Implicit in Etienne’s anecdote about Guinefort is a conflict between learned/church culture and peasant/folk culture, and issues such as the role of the lord in this conflict and what defines a saint.  Changes made for the film shift the focus of the conflict.  Issues raised in the anecdote become subplots, while centre stage is reserved for conflict between Etienne and Elda.

Etienne is the “bad guy” rapist in black, comfortable in the dark church.  Elda is the “good guy” healer in white, at home in the perpetually sunny lush forest.  Diminishing Etienne and elevating Elda makes them equally strong characters, and several narrative and cinematic elements emphasize their equality and separateness from the others and the issues in the anecdote.

Why is the anecdote presented as a man versus woman conflict?  The answer may be because the story is by a feminist, Pamela Berger, who also co-produced and co-wrote the screenplay. Feminism is not a single set of beliefs, and I have no information on Berger’s beliefs or aims with this film, but in general feminism expresses concerns about the power and role of men in current and previous societies.  For example, “in male culture…systemized murder is the heart of history,” and “rape, as an integral part of heterosexual relations, may also be seen as integral to the dynamics of male domination” (Dworkin 141; Hester 68). It is easy to see how a feminist reading of Etienne’s anecdote can extract a male-female conflict, two rapes, and an eagerness to have the sorceress killed.

A feminist reading of the anecdote is not a bad thing.  Any reading will be coloured by the reader’s expectations and beliefs, and the passage of time means some misinterpretation is inevitable.  (Do some movie critics question Elda’s character because it is unlikely, or because she is not the cowering victim they want or expect to see? {Jhirad, Kissin, Thomas}.)  Although “Sorceress” may not be faithful to the source material, many stories are told from a strong male perspective, so a strong female perspective is refreshing, if not always appreciated.

Using a historical incident and presenting it as such gives authority to the feminist ideas expressed.  Etienne is not presented as an imaginary person: he is a real man who, like other men, rapes and otherwise dominates women.  Elda is a hero, a victim of men’s evil, who has overcome it and can stand up to a dominating man.  Unfortunately, the reliance on authority requires a particular ending, to be true to the source.  Whatever really happened in the village, the woman survived, Etienne continued his work, and people continued to worship Guinefort.  A feminist reading may extract more conflict than Etienne recorded, but the ending is not open to interpretation.  What begins with stark black and white titles and ominous music thus ends with a sunny field, a cheerful tune, and a sense of being misled.

Works Cited

Boston Women’s Health Collective.  The New Our Bodies, Ourselves: A Book by and for Women. New York: Touchstone-Simon, 1992.

Dworkin, Andrea.  “Fathers, Sons, and the Lust for Porn.”  Soho Weekly News 4 Aug. 1977.  Rpt. as “Why So-Called Radical Men Love and Need Pornography.”  Take Back the Night: Women on Pornography.  Ed. Laura Lederer. 1980. New York: Bantam, 1982.141-147.

Hester, Marianne. Lewd Women and Wicked Witches: A Study of the Dynamics of Male Domination.  New York: Routledge, 1992.

Jhirad, Susan. “Rev. of Sorceress“, dir. Suzanne Schiffman. Cineaste 16.4 (1988): 44.  Rpt. in Ozer 1323-25.

Kissin, Eva H.  “Rev. of Sorceress“, dir. Suzanne Schiffman. Films in Review 8-9 (1988): 423.  Rpt. in Ozer 1325.

Lerner, Robert E., Standish Meacham, and Edward McNall Burns. Western Civilizations: Their History and Their Culture.  12th ed.  2 vols.  New York: Norton, 1993.

Thomas, Kevin.  “Rev. of Sorceress”, dir. Suzanne Schiffman. Los Angeles Times 26 Aug. 1988, Calendar 1. Rpt in Ozer 1325-26.

Ozer, Jerome S., ed. Film Review Annual 1989.  Englewood: Ozer, 1989.

Schmitt, Jean-Claude. The Holy Greyhound: Guinefort, Healer of Children since the Thirteenth Century.  Trans. Martin Thom.      London: Cambridge UP, 1983.

Sorceress.  Dir. Suzanne Schiffman.  European Classics, 1988. subt. Anne Brav.

Copyright © by Tim Covell, 1996, All Rights Reserved.

Leave a Reply