Nancy Caciola: Discerning Spirits: Divine and Demonic Possession in the Middle Ages

16 October 2019


Women also were thought to be the more carnal sex in the Middle Ages. Debilitated by sexual urges, women’s limited moral judgment and rational capabilities were easily overwhelmed by desire. The suggested derivations for another Latin word for woman, femina, underscore this point. According to the same text quoted above, “We get the word femina… from those parts of the thighs (femorum) by which this sex is distinguished from the man" Others think that femina derives by Greek etymology, from the phrase ‘fiery force,’ because a woman lusts fiercely; for females are most lustful than males, among women as animals. Given these associations between women and the sin of lust, it is hardly surprising that later the Malleus maleficarum would derive femina from a compound of fe (faith) and minus (lesser), “since she is ever weaker to hold and preserve the faith.” Although this particular etymology does not appear until the fifteenth century, the sentiment it expresses about female weakness and lack of moral sense is fully in accord with the content of the late medieval tradition.

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